There are so many ways we tell ourselves that everything is going to be just fine. “We’re America,” we’re told, “there’s nothing we can’t do when we work together.” Or, “We’re the greatest country the world has ever known.” Or “America is the world’s beacon of freedom and democracy.” When is optimism simply denial, however? How deluded are we?
The late brilliant Buckminster Fuller (pictured), who in the 1970s shared his great concerns about the future of what he dubbed “Spaceship Earth,” was accused of being a pessimist. In response he replied that he was neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but a realist. Fuller accurately predicted what would happen if we kept burning fossil fuels and supporting an economy based on warfare and weaponry. Nothing changed.
Not coincidentally, the late and equally brilliant satirist Paul Krasner named his newsletter The Realist, wherein he humorously skewered America’s positivist mythology and leanings towards tyranny. Krasner loved America, not for what it was but what it could be. Nothing changed.
It’s said that the first step in healing is admitting you have problem, but America’s denial continues to rely on platitudes and fantasies instead. The realistic truth is that America and the world are in terrible trouble. Economically, ecologically, socially, and politically, we’re a mess.
Humanity has always been a mess, of course, but today we are a mess of seven billion plus. Keeping that many fed, clothed, housed and healthy is clearly impossible given the beliefs and systems we adhere to. Competition can’t hold a candle to cooperation, but we seem unable to prevent our fears about the future from fueling our greed and aggression. Keeping bellies filled is basic to survival but hoarding and accumulation by a few deprives the many. When the primary forces underlying society are fear and greed, well, “Houston, we have a problem.”
There are those who believe that solving our problems requires passing and enforcing regulations, that a better future for humanity can be legislated into existence. The U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States have put the lie to that fantasy. China, with one-and-a-half billion mouths to feed, is leading with its own regulatory example: a totalitarian, surveillance state. It’s working at the moment, but can you call that survival?
Others believe solving problems requires a change of heart. In an outpouring of evangelical fervor, old-time religion is hawked as the solution. From fundamentalist Christians to the hardline Taliban, salvation through moral regulation is promoted as the solution to humanity’s future. Hate to say it, but humanity’s “been there, done that.” Imposing belief at the tip of a sword doesn’t work well in the long run. Ask the Crusaders. It’s just not realistic.
Realism feels pessimistic to many. Few want to admit how not fine we are; denial feels better. Neither the so-called far right nor the so-called far left are realists, preferring to hector, shame, belittle, and grab headlines rather than working with the complicated muck and mire of reality. In the end, however, denial simply distracts us from hard truth: our fear, greed, and aggression are driving the world into its sixth great extinction, and if we don’t wake up from our delusion that everything is going to be just fine, we’re doomed. That’s not being a pessimist. That’s being a realist.