Unexpected optimism

I remember sitting in an upper level undergraduate philosophy class back in 1982, when we were discussing nihilism. This was a time when the Cold War was frighteningly real to my twenty year old self. In this class discussion, I pointed out that there was a very good chance of a nuclear war wiping out human civilization within a decade. The point I was trying to make, in my inarticulate way, was that nihilism and realism were hard to tell apart at that moment in history.

I suspect quite a few people in my age cohort had similar feelings. Science fiction Charles Stross, who’s four years younger than I, appears to be one of those people. In a recent comment on his own blog, he writes:

“[In the 1980s,] I didn’t expect to live to see 1990, much less 2000.

“[Today] we’re nearly a year into an angry totalitarian Russian invasion of a western(ish) nation and the invasion stalled out badly before it got more than 200km in, and they still haven’t gone nuclear.

“Yes, that is an improvement. I mean, I’ll take dangerously accelerating climate change, rule by mad billionaire oligarchs, and neo-Nazis trying to make a come-back everywhere, over dying in a 50,000-warhead superpower nuke-fest — or worse, being one of the scorched and irradiated and starving survivors — any day of the week.”

I agree with Stross. I’m still somewhat amazed that it’s 2023, and I’m not yet reduced to radioactive ash. We’re still here.

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) was a German philosopher who lived through the First World War, the Nazi regime, the Cold War, and the beginning of the “war on terror.” Not long after the attack on the World Trade Center, someone asked him if he had optimism. Yes, he said — holding his finger and thumb a tiny distance apart — about this much hope.

So like Stross and Gadamer, I find myself optimistic. Yes, we face incredible problems. But we’re still here, which is pretty amazing. We’re still here, there’s still hope.