Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage.

Social mobility is harder to measure than income inequality (and more important, methinks), but indications are that it’s more difficult to climb the economic ladder in the U.S. than in other western democracies. The Economic Mobility Project, a  bipartisan effort to study the issue, reported recently on a study of 10 western nations that concluded: “In the United States, there is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational, and socio-emotional outcomes than in any other country investigated.” The sluggish U.S. economy in 2011 didn’t make life easier for those on the bottom who want to work hard and better themselves.

And yet.

As I wrote a year ago (see my blogpost, China, cappuccino and cell phones: reasons to cheer!),  life on this planet is getting better all the time. We humans are richer, healthier and and more peaceful than ever. It’s easiest to forget that, especially if you focus too much on the day-to-day headlines.

Here are several reasons to feel good about the year ahead:

Western economies are slumping, but the rest of the world is growing robustly. The most urgent problem facing mankind isn’t climate change: It’s the human misery that’s caused by poverty. There’s less of that today than there was a year ago, and there will be less on Jan 1, 2013, I’d bet. China’s GDP grew by about 10% in 2010 and by an estimated 9% in 2011. India grew by 6 to 7 percent last year.

A Nairobi street

Then there’s Africa. As Forbes reported last week, in the middle of the 2009 global economic recession, Africa was the only region apart from Asia that grew positively, at about 2%. The continent’s growth has been on an upward trajectory ever since then- 4.5% in 2010 and 5.0% in 2011.

Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but you can be sure that this means that many millions of people are living longer and healthier lives, and that their children have a better shot at an education. This is good  for all of us because the global economy is not a zero-sum game. An expanding pie means a safer world, and more markets for U.S. goods. And there’s even reason to hope believe that the US economy is due for a rebound. See what Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate that Happy Days Are Here Again.

Corporations are taking a more expansive view of their responsibilities: One reason why I write about business is that I believe that corporations can be a powerful force for good. Many are not, but I found reason in 2011 to applaud changes at Walmart (Have I Fallen in Love with Walmart?), McDonald’s (Mainstreaming Sustainability? ), Smithfield Foods (Sustainable pork?), Office Depot (No tree hugging, please), Shaw Carpets (This carpet has moral fiber), Unilever (CEO Paul Polman: Don’t stay on the sidelines), Starbucks (We are indivisible), Marks & Spencer (Sustainability, profits and a carbon-neutral bra),  TD Bank (America’s greenest bank?) and GE (How GE learned to think small and serve the poor). My most popular post of the year, by far, was about Patagonia (Maybe the best retail ad ever).

These companies are responding to rising expectations–from advocacy groups, consumers, a handful of shareholder activists and especially from their own workers. The changes they are making aren’t big enough, and they aren’t happening fast enough, but the forces driving companies to become more sustainable are getting stronger all the time.

Protesters in Egypt

Citizens’ movements are growing here and abroad. Whatever you think of Occupy Wall Street, they got one thing right–the deck is stacked in the US in favor of the well-to-do and the powerful, not just the 1% but the 10 or 20 or 30%, and it’s stacked against those at the bottom of the income ladder. So many laws and cultural practices that we take for granted–from the mortgage interest deduction to the dismal quality of the public education system in our big cities and poorest rural areas–serve the interests of the rich and powerful. Wall Street got bailed out. Main Street got left behind. Thank goodness for people didn’t take that lying down. Thanks, too, to the Tea Party, which is wrong about most things but right about the fact that the federal government can’t keep spending money that it doesn’t have.

Of course, Occupy Wall Street was largely inspired by citizens uprising in Tunisia and Egypt, which in turn seem to inspired people in Russia and even in China to demand more of a voice in their own affairs. This is all to the good, and it should be a reminder to those of us here in the U.S. not to take our freedoms for granted and to exercise our rights as citizens. A big job ahead is to convince Congress to act like adults and treat us that way, understanding that they were elected to solve big problems, even if that requires. We can’t have big government, generous services and low taxes. Or cheap energy without climate risk. Or affordable, unlimited health care for all.

Sure, there’s reason to be gloomy but it always helps to think long term. More people are free today than at any time in human history. More people live comfortably. We’re more tolerant and loving that we used to be. We’ve got an African American president and my daughter, who is gay, will get legally married in June. MLK Jr. had it right: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


  1. andrew savitz says


    This is a great way to start the New Year. Happy and healthy one to you and yours a mazel tov on your daughter’s upcoming nups.

    warm regards


  2. says

    A well-argued and passionate post, and I couldn’t agree more. This point of view is extremely parallel to ours at Techonomy. For an echo of your points, watch the first minutes of last November’s conference (start after the first minute, which is just music): http://www.livestream.com/techonomy/video?clipId=pla_7c350d36-654b-498e-9859-dff55730aa02&utm_source=lslibrary&utm_medium=ui-thumb

    Happy New Year and keep being optimistic-and hope to see you soon!

  3. says

    It’s seeming me that a big part of rising quality of life is achieving security. It’s not the size of the house, or the specifics of healthcare, or the exact menu, or the particular job…. it’s knowing that you have those things: shelter, healthcare, food, job – that help people sleep at night and dream of achieving amazing things. By that score, you can live well on much less, but we make that very hard for people in the US….

  4. says

    Happy New Year Marc and thanks for the helpful perspective. It made me think of two quotes:

    Quote 1: “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster” (I read this in AtKisson’s book credited to Tom Atlee) and thought it captured your message.

    The “faster and faster” bit matters – we’re in a time or remarkable and rapid change so we can’t be complacent. While I agree the arc is tending towards justice, it may not be turning fast enough…

    Thus, Quote 2 (picked up on Twitter but probably from William Arthur Ward):
    “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

    It isn’t enough to be optimistic. In particular, while we are seeing some corporations take positive steps to be more responsible, it isn’t enough corporations and the steps aren’t aggressive enough. We need a societal expectation that businesses must be sustainable to in order to have a license to operate. Leading businesses should take the lead on making this happen – it is their planet too.

    We need to be smarter and faster if we want the better and better to stay ahead of the worse and worse.

  5. Lisa Manley says

    Happy New Year, Marc! Like you, I’m an optimist AND I crave more forward movement on the topics you note in your blog. A toast to more corporate, political and individual momentum in 2012.



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