“I am not an optimist. That makes me sound naive. I’m a very serious “possibilist”. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”
This is a passage from Factfulness and one of the great ideas the book introduces as it breaks down the dichotomous thinking that frequently plagues our minds. A person is typically either an optimist or a pessimist and there’s not much in-between those poles. The idea of a possibilist offers a much-needed third way for maintaining confidence without naivete, bliss without cluelessness, and skepticism without cynicism.
What’s not to like?
Dystopian Pessimism and Today
We need this mental framework today. With our past decade of technological progress, it’s so easy to glom onto the negative aspects of all the advances we’ve enjoyed. With possibilism, we can temper the negativity with a fuller complement of emotions, the stuff that echoes the zeitgeist of Golden Age science fiction.
Popular science fiction (referring to any fiction of the future) has been mired in a gritty, dystopian rut for far too long. It’s tedious and tiresome to see so many zombies, primitive, post-apocalyptic societies, and the torturous arenas of something like the Hunger Games.
The Golden Age of Science Fiction
Believe it or not, there was once a time when speculative fiction wasn’t so dystopian. Authors such as Asimov, Bradbury, Campbell, or Heinlein contributed stories where technology, even when run amok, could still be a method to rescue society from greater ills. The advance of human progress in social, cultural, and economic themes was a prevailing idea. These attitudes were global, not some mere jingoistic fluff, and built on the understanding that things were actively getting better throughout the real world so why not hold the reasonable and constructive and useful attitude that we, humanity, could continue the trend?
Science had unleashed such progress, such power, such possibility. You didn’t have to be a blind Pollyanna optimist to think that could continue. These and other great writers showcased the bad and good of how it might continue as science leads us further towards a more glorious dawn.
Then came the atom bomb.
Many view the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the pivotal moment when society and literature retreated from the strong, positive beliefs in scientific progress. The Golden Age of science fiction ended soon thereafter, with many questioning the very worth of all our advances. As written J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the Los Alamos Labrotory and among those credited as the “father of the atomic bomb”,
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.”
Was this the thinking of a pessimist? No. When taken into context of his future actions, Oppenheimer’s statements are a precursor to the possibilist view in the finest sense of the term. Being a possibilist doesn’t require one to start with positivity; it simply must ends with it. A crucial component of the framework is the attitude that something can be done about all the potential downsides of our progress. That’s constructive. That’s useful.
So even with his deep concern, Oppenheimer went beyond regret and fear when he later spoke to colleagues at Los Alamos on a path ahead. As chronicled by Paul Ham, Oppenheimer’s speech was a call for “a shared exchange of atomic knowledge, the creation of a world fraternity of nuclear scientists, and the abolition of nuclear weapons [fueled by] a deep moral dependence of mankind during the ‘peril and the hope’ of the nuclear era.”
Peril and hope. A rich combination and a mixture that makes the possibilist attitude.
Yesterday’s Dystopian Pessimism Leads To A Great Possibilism
Returning to science fiction, the popular literature had its share of dystopian, pessimist attitudes in the wake of the atom bomb. Oppenheimer’s thought of peril and hope was not easily reflected. There was a lot more peril, a lot less hope.
Writers envisioned futures of the worst kind. A great article on one of the most popular novels, Nevil Shute’s “On The Beach”, helps us see the pain and fear felt by society. Again, more peril than hope. The work may be fiction but it serves, in hindsight, as a “Silent Spring” of the era, raising a greater awareness to the dangers mankind had wrought through science.
Nine years later, in an entirely new medium, the hope was rediscovered with a return to the old traditions of Golden Age science fiction. Suitably, this came on a new form of entertainment that had been the stuff of dreams just a decade prior: the television.
Gene Roddenberry developed Star Trek as a possibilist’s finest dream of a science fiction. It featured social progress, with a diverse crew of all races, genders, and lineage. It featured political progress with a united, global federation rather than a balkanized political landscape. It featured economic progress with advances through discovery rather than exploitation. And it featured the perpetual struggle of science and human emotion through the beautiful relationship of Captain Kirk and Spock.
Sure, there was some shlock. Goofy action. Bad rubber masks. Tortured hollywood scripts. But when I reflect on Rosling’s passage, I think of this show from 1966 and its embodiment of what Rosling refers to as “a worldview that is constructive and useful” based on “a clear and reasonable idea about how things are.”
Granted, there wasn’t—and still isn’t—a teleporter or warp drive. But the constructive, useful worldview that makes Star Trek so possibilist is found in its claim that the finest human progress awaits us the minute we grow beyond these social, political, and economic constraints. I think that is clear and reasonable. The Walking Dead is what happens when we are trapped by these constraints and the inherent pessimism. The zombies have a rich tradition of being a transmuted metaphor for “Big-C” capitalism going back to George A. Romero. Star Trek is what happens when we “explore the brave new worlds” of all that is possible beyond these current bonds.
You and I, The Possibilists
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, information flows are the delivery mechanism of influence. One of the primary information flows for all of society is its popular culture. It follows wherever the prevailing zeitgeist leads, reinforcing the feelings, fears, impulses, and hopes of the day.
Rosling’s work makes me think that we are poised to begin a slow move, a’la the 1940’s and 1960’s, away from the dystopian gloom and towards a possibilist hope. The facts are there to prove it. The narrative just has to be built on top.
That narrative awaits for those who join the possibilist revolution. It simply requires us to bring a bit of Oppenheimer’s notion of peril and hope. Or Roddenberry’s callback to the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It requires you and I to state, with fact and conviction, that things will be better. For whatever reason, we might hesitate to say that. For now.
But a possibilist knows that happy endings aren’t merely the stuff of fairy tales.
For more on Star Trek’s wonderful point of view, check out the great article by Thaddeus Houwze: https://medium.com/panel-frame/star-trek-challenged-the-dystopian-future-cab6d2fb58d2