With apologies to the shade of Oscar Hammerstein II*.
Marteen Boudry, writing at Quillette, describes “Four Flavors of Doom: A Taxonomy of Contemporary Pessimism“. In brief:
The Nostalgic Pessimist
In the good old days, everything was better. Where once the world was whole and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favorite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to experience in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time, such as the belle époque before the two World Wars, or the simple agrarian life and closely-knit communities of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the distant past of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived “in harmony with nature.”…
The “Just You Wait” Pessimist
Some are prepared to admit, unlike the nostalgists, that the world has improved considerably over the past two centuries. But, they maintain, this cannot possibly last. The hubris of modern man, with his naïve belief in progress, must be punished sooner or later. I call this the “Just You Wait” school of pessimism. For now, everything seems to be going smoothly, but soon we will cross some critical threshold, after which we’ll plunge inexorably into the abyss….
The Cyclical Pessimist
This kind of pessimist will agree that things are going pretty well at the moment, but he doesn’t think our current run of luck is historically exceptional. Humankind has experienced periods of relative prosperity and peace before, but all have come to an end sooner or later. The course of history, for the cyclical pessimist, comes and goes like the tides or the seasons….
The Treadmill Pessimist
The treadmill pessimist accepts the reality of some objective measures of progress (more wealth, less violence, longer and healthier lives), but maintains that—despite everything—we haven’t really made advances where it truly matters. Like Alice and the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we have been running ourselves ragged only to find, when we take a breath and look around, that we are still in the same place where we started.
I am all four kinds of pessimist, to some degree:
- America, as something of a united nation, fell apart in the 1960s, and the split grows daily. America might have been unique among nations for a long time, in its combination of economic and social progress and relative liberty. But it has become just another European-style regulatory-welfare state, with an unhealthy admixture of third-worldism (i.e., non-assimilating immigrants and never-assimilating blacks).
- Yes, there has been great material progress over the past two centuries, but a man-made cataclysm (e.g., all-out cyberwar) or a natural one (e.g., an asteroid strike) could reverse it and drive mankind back to an earlier stage of economic development. The struggle to survive would be compounded by the unleashing of savage impulses.
- This is just a variation of #2, and just as valid (or not) because there have been eras of improvement and decline in the past.
- The treadmill theory is about “happiness”, which is impossible to measure objectively and interpersonally. Intertemporal assessments can only be personal ones. I would admit that prosperity generally breeds greater happiness for most people — up to the point where the striving for prosperity (e.g., more work, less leisure, hellish commutes) and non-economic factors (e.g., social discord) tend to make them miserable.
Realism is a more apt word than pessimism, it seems to me.
* Hammerstein was a lyricist whose notable composing partners included Jerome Kern, Sigmund Romberg, and Richard Rogers. Rogers and Hammerstein created a string of hit musicals, including South Pacific, the score of which includes “A Cockeyed Optimist“:
When the skies are brighter canary yellow
I forget ev’ry cloud I’ve ever seen,
So they called me a cockeyed optimist
Immature and incurably green.
I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we’re done and we might as well be dead,
But I’m only a cockeyed optimist
And I can’t get it into my head.
I hear the human race
Is fallin’ on its face
And hasn’t very far to go,
But ev’ry whippoorwill
Is sellin’ me a bill,
And tellin’ me it just ain’t so.
I could say life is just a bowl of Jello
And appear more intelligent and smart,
But I’m stuck like a dope
With a thing called hope,
And I can’t get it out of my heart!
Not this heart…