Practical Optimism

A few weeks ago I had an argument about the future of the human race that baffled me. I won’t say who with, but he’s an environmentalist of note (who is in his 50s I guess). It went something like this:

Him: We have a problem.
Me: Agreed.
Him: It’s really bad.
Me: Yep.
Him: You should be really scared because you’re under 40.
Me: Not really.
Him: But unless we convince people that it’s really, really bad nothing will change.
Me: I’m not so sure — I don’t think scaring people makes them change.
Him: How do you expect governments to regulate the problem unless people are really scared?
Me: I don’t assume that governments will do anything. I think fantastic ordinary people will create sustainable ways of organising themselves and the planet’s resources. I’m sure governments will catch up in the end but there’s no point waiting around.

At that stage we had to agree to disagree. He believes pessimism will save the world and I don’t. I’m an optimist — probably with a little bit of anarchist libertarianism thrown in. The two don’t really mix.

The last couple of months have been the most economically turbulent of my lifetime, the future is the least certain of any I can remember and I’m very aware that it could get worse. I also know the scale of the even bigger problems. I’ve seen poverty, suffering and injustice first hand and I’m fully aware of the numbers when it comes to climate change.

But I’m still an optimist.

A few days after the optimism argument I was with my friend Rob at the spot by the Brooklyn Bridge in New York where you look out over the East River to the downtown Manhattan skyline. The market was collapsing around us but we had a beer and the air was still warm. We’ve both now done some time in start-ups and we were talking about the highs and lows of start-up life. If you want a quiet time, we agreed, don’t try to change the world.

But the other thing we realised was that we were confident about our futures because no matter what happened we knew we could make things happen with almost no resources. Learning how to start something up means that you know you can turn your hand to most things and it gives you a confidence that anything is possible.

Yesterday I met Ali Clabburn who has gradually built up Liftshare over the last ten years. Each day 40,000 car journeys are not made because Ali was an optimist when people told him it would never work. Since the 1960s average car occupany had dropped and dropped. But for the last three years, it has risen. Liftshare, with it’s 300,000 self-organising members has started to turn the tanker.

Then I look at all the young campaigners in Battlefront including the amazing Zuhal who I’m mentoring (really she’s mentoring me). These are kids who are supposed to be thick, apathetic and pure individualists (if you believe the Daily Mail) who are setting out to change the world. None of them lacks ambition. And yes, they are optimists.

And then tomorrow we will choose the finalists for Social Innovation Camp 2. I have no doubt that we’ll find some more optimists there.

So while sometimes I do get a bit uncomfortable being called an entrepreneur (I don’t think I have enough chest hair to fit that particular mould), I’m happy to call myself an optimist. In fact, I’ve come to realise I’m a practical optimist and proud.

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