MONTHLY BLOG 107, Reasons for unrepentant (relative) Optimism about the coming of Green Politics

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Greta Thunberg (b. 2003),
Swedish environmental activist;
author of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019)

In response to my October BLOG about Greener Cities, I got many queries about how I could plausibly state that ‘I am an unrepentant optimist’? In fact, I should have said an ‘unrepentant (relative) optimist’, since it’s clear that not all is currently well with Planet Earth. Things would be better without today’s growing number of major fires, heatwaves, droughts, tempests, floods, icemelts, and rising seas. So I am far from taking the ultra-optimist’s view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

But, short of adopting a totally Panglossian outlook, it is possible, indeed necessary, to remain optimistic that actions can be taken in time to control the adverse effects of global warming. Humans are not only problem-creators but also problem- solvers. In this case, the challenge is undeniably great. It will require significant changes from not only big business and big politics (using that term for the networks of national and international institutions) but also from individuals. Global patterns of transport, trade, energy generation; and energy consumption will have to be fundamentally adapted. And at an individual level, people will have to think again about their food and drink; their clothing; their systems for warming houses; their transport; their sports; their holidays; and, indeed, everything. It is asking a lot. Especially as remedial actions will need to be adopted at both macro- and micro-levels simultaneously.

Nonetheless, here are four arguments for (relative) optimism. Governments and big businesses have paid attention to scientific warnings in the past, and then taken successful remedial action. In the 1970s, it was first reported that there was a widening gap in the ozone layer, which shields Planet Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The culprits were chemicals known familiarly as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators, and blowing agents for foams and packaging materials. An international agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol (1987), then launched decisive change. CFCs were banned.

Over time, all nations around the world have signed up to the Protocol. And in May 2018 a new scientific survey confirmed that the ozone hole has diminished significantly.1 Humans still have to remain vigilant, since the workings of the upper atmosphere are volatile and not easy to study.2 Nonetheless, collective action has been undertaken; and is working.

A second example can be taken from individual actions to renounce a social practice, which was once seen as a great source of personal pleasure. Smoking tobacco in cigars and cigarettes is disappearing. Not at the same rate in all countries around the world. Nor at the same rate among all social classes. Yet, globally, humans are entering into what has been well described as the ‘tobacco-endgame’.3 For example, in the case of Britain, it is hoped that the entire country may become smoke-free by 2030, according to a health report in July 2019.4 Progress in curbing smoking has been triggered by many factors. Medical warnings paved the way from the 1950s onwards, at first cautiously, and then, with more definitive research, more emphatically. Supportive government policies eventually helped too. Above all, however, the slow but eventually decisive shift in individual and communal attitudes was crucial.

Up to and including most of the 1960s, it was considered ‘cool’ to smoke and rude to refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette. Over time, those attitudes have been completely reversed. Many older people can still remember their personal struggles to quit. Younger people, if they are lucky, never get caught by the habit in the first place. They have no memories of pubs, cinemas, tube trains and other public places being clogged with tobacco fumes – or of their hair and clothes reeking unpleasantly. Again, the battle against smoking is far from won. There are still skirmishes and diversionary tactics (as from e-cigarettes) along the way.5 Yet the trend is becoming clear. As is the crucial role of individual decision-making and active participation in the process.

The story of Prohibition in the USA in 1919 offers an instructive contrast. There the legislative ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was well intentioned. Drinking as such was never made illegal; but aggregate consumption was indeed reduced. However, the policy was introduced too abruptly and without widespread public support. The outcome was evasion on an epic scale, boosting illicit stills and bootlegging gangsters. Other side-effects included a boom in hypocrisy and contempt for the law. Campaigners for a more rational system managed to repeal the ban in 1933, leaving the different US states to adopt their own policies.6 The contrast between alcohol’s survival, despite Prohibition, and nicotine’s slow demise is instructive. Government policies, health advisors and medical practitioners can and do play significant roles. But on big questions which affect people’s intimate personal behaviour on a day-by-day basis, structural policies have to work with, not against, public opinion. Hence the question of how that state-of-many-collective-minds is formed and sustained becomes crucial.

So here is a third reason for (relative) optimism on global warming. Public opinion, fuelled by young people like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is being everywhere encouraged to turn in favour of urgent action. True, the mechanisms for channelling such attitudes into the political system are indirect and slow-working. However, what is happening now seems like part of a Zeitgeist shift of immense significance. The young are numerous, vocal, and willing to campaign. Furthermore, people of all ages know that the human species has no other domicile than Planet Earth. People of many different political persuasions are showing new interest in green policies. And people in all parts of the world are witnessing the increased incidence of freak weather. The voices of sceptics and deniers are waning.7 Getting collective action to harness this rising tide of opinion will depend upon big politics being able and willing to channel the tide successfully – and upon big business becoming aware and either adjusting its actions, or being made to do so. Big demands, which entail challenging big vested interests. Yet these demands are not impossible ones. Vigorous explorations are already being undertaken to find alternative technologies. Such game-changing innovations may alter the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Politicians need to show the same willingness to respond positively, in the face of an accumulating emergency.

And, lastly, a degree of activism (whether driven by pessimism or optimism) is needed from everyone, to add force to the changing Zeitgeist. The alternative is fatalism, which only makes a bad situation worse. True, being optimistic is easier for those with optimistic temperaments. Yet even those who feel nothing but gloom are called upon, in this climate emergency, to transmute their valid anxieties into pressure for change. Relative pessimism can be as great a goad to call for remedial action, as can relative optimism. ‘Climate change constitutes a global emergency!’ ‘Let’s take countervailing action!’ All can lend their voices to swell the tide of public opinion.


1 S. Pereira, report on Ozone Layer dated 1/5/2018 for Newsweek 27 October 2019:

2 E.A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford, 2003); S.O. Andersen and K.M. Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002).

3 [British Medical Journal], India: The Endgame for Tobacco Conference (2013).

4 S. Barr, report dated 23 July 2019 in The Independent:

5 S. Gabb, Smoking and its Enemies: A Short History of 500 Years of the Use and Prohibition of Tobacco (1990).

6 D. Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010); J.J. Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition (Amherst, 2017);

7 G.T. Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis (Dordrecht, 2013); J. Fessmann (ed.), Strategic Climate Change Communications: Effective Approaches to Fighting Climate Change Denial (Wilmington, 2019); S. Maloney, H. Fuenfgeld and M. Gramberg, Local Action on Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints (2017).

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If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

The Cheshire Cat, famed for its indestructible grin …
from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
as depicted by John Tenniel for the book’s classic 1865 edition.
© image in public domain

 Are you an optimist? This question is one of my favourite opening gambits when launching into longish conversations with strangers. It’s a pleasant enquiry. It’s open-ended. It implies personal interest but it’s not overly intrusive. In response, people can talk about whatever they wish. They don’t have to reveal any secrets. Often, they talk about their health or work or families. In rare cases, frank individuals confide details of their hopes or fears for their love-life. And, increasingly these days, people take the question as an invitation to hold forth about politics, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

I’m also fond of asking questions that can go ‘round the table’, as it were. Those need to be open questions which don’t require a great deal of specialist information to answer. Getting a response from everyone, going round the group, is a great way of fostering a collective dynamic. (I enjoy this process not only in an educational context; but socially too). However, I have learned from experience that asking ‘Are you an optimist?’ really works best in one-to-one conversations. In groups, the cultural pressure to be up-beat in public militates against frank answers.1 Most people will claim, even if evasively, to be cheery – whilst allowing one or two individuals to seize the chance to play the dissident roles of ‘grumpy old men/women’. Their responses quickly lead everyone into debating ‘country going to the dogs’, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

However, such arguments have an increasingly stereotypical quality these days, which the question Are you an optimist? is designed to avoid. So it works best in one-to-one encounters, when there’s time to steer away from the perennial Brexit and to explore new terrain. By the way, when asking others to make whatever limited confidences they wish, it’s important to reciprocate. I have no desire to recount my life-story; but I do have some self-reflective comments about my own attitudes, which I am willing to share. Often, the question prompts an absorbing discussion, even with a newly–met stranger. It certainly is more probing than the standard gambit reportedly used by the Queen: ‘Have you come far? Or the academic’s predictable: ‘What’s your research field?’

Talking about optimism also encourages a quest for further definitions. What exactly is meant by the term? It covers a range of permutations from the mildly hopeful: ‘Well, something will turn up’ to an unshakable Panglossian faith that ‘all is for the best in the best of possible worlds’.2 And then people seek further clarification: optimistic over what sort of timespan: one year? five years? a lifetime? And with reference to what: oneself? one’s profession? one’s country? It’s very common these days for almost all educationalists across the spectrum to be deeply pessimistic about the state of the education system. By contrast, true  believers who have just discovered a great good cause tend to be highly optimistic in the early days of their faith, although over time their hopes of rapid success may become muted as they encounter obstacles and opposition (for example to feminism or to environmentalism).

Generally, however, optimists tend to skate over the complexities. Their glasses are rose-tinted. Their glasses are half full, not half empty. They see the potential in everything. And they believe, if not quite in universal ‘Progress’, at least in the positive chances of progressive betterment.3 And, as they wait in hope for things to develop favourably (even if events don’t always oblige), optimists claim to get more enjoyment out of life than do neutral observers. Milton long ago praised such feelings in L’Allegro, his hymn to mirth, jollity, dancing, nut-brown ale, good fellowship and everything that unchains ‘the hidden soul of harmony’.4

Meanwhile, lurking within every discussion about optimism is the countervailing stance of pessimism. Milton was there too. ‘Hence, vain, deluding joyes …’, he urges in Il Penseroso, his rival hymn to meditative gloom: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy …’ Pessimism in turn embraces many possibilities. Options may range through mild scepticism to world-weary disillusionment to acidic negativism to despairing self-harm.

Many pessimists, however, don’t actually accept that self-description. They prefer to call themselves ‘realists’. Whilst optimists can often be disappointed when their high hopes don’t come true, pessimists can always claim not to be surprised at any outcome, short of ecstatic and universal bliss (which is undeniably rare). It’s true that waiting for disaster to strike can seem depressing. Yet serious pessimists positively enjoy their misery. And they certainly believe that they see life more clearly than do the blinkered optimists.

At its simplest, the optimist/pessimist dichotomy can be interpreted as a function of individual psychology and basic personality traits.5 However, it’s as well to recall that changing circumstances are also liable to affect people’s template attitudes. It’s hard to remain cheerful at all times when suffering from acute pain over a long period of time. And it’s difficult to remain perennially optimistic when suffering from a relentless torrent of externally-inflicted major disasters which are entirely beyond one’s own control. So the optimist/pessimist dichotomy is by no means a rigid one. People may be pessimistic about the state of their profession (for example), whilst remaining personally optimistic about (say) their life and loves.

Crucially, too, mental states are not dictated purely by emotions and personal psychology. Considered reason plays a significant role too. The greatest expression of that truth came from Antonio Gramsci (1893-1937), the Italian Marxist who died in a Fascist prison in Rome under Mussolini. While incarcerated, he continued with stoic fortitude to analyse the state of politics and the prospects for radical change.6 What was needed, he concluded, was: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. It summarised powerfully the conscious yoking of reason and emotion. Gramsci’s formula can be applied to many causes, not just his own. Equally, it can be inverted by those who have optimistic intellects but suffer from pessimistic sapping of the will. Moreover, Gramsci’s formula can be reshuffled to allow room also for super-pessimists of both intellect/will as well as for super-optimists whose smile may outlast reality.

The Cheshire Cat faded
until nothing was left but the smile …

The significant factor, in all these permutations, is that reason is reinstated into human responses to their lives and times. Intellectual attitudes draw upon many sources, rational and emotional alike. For all analysts of the human condition, it’s as well to be aware of one’s own evolving template. A reflex optimism, for example, may lead one astray, unless tempered by rational cogitation and debate with others. I write as a perennial optimist who tries to make analytical adjustments to offset my biases. This process is based upon what I’ve learned from experience – and from many ad hoc conversations with others. So readers, should we be sitting together with a good chance of open-ended discussion, I’m liable to ask my favourite question: are you an optimist?


1 For a polemic against mindless good cheer, see B. Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (New York, 2009), publ. in the UK as Smile of Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009). See also S. Burnett, The Happiness Agenda: A Modern Obsession (New York, 2012).

2 Referencing Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s satirical Candide: ou l’optimisme (Paris, 1759), immediately transl. into Eng. as Candide: Or, the Optimist.

3 See e.g. discussions in K.H.M. Creal, The Idea of Progress: The Origins of Modern Optimism (Toronto, 1970); W. Laqueur, Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History (2017).

4 Compare J. Milton, L’Allegro with Il Penseroso (both written 1631; 1st publ. 1645), in J. Milton, The Poetical Works (Oxford, 1900), pp. 20-8.

5 There is a massive literature on these themes. See e.g. E. Fox, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism (2012); P.B. Warr, The Psychology of Happiness (2019); W.C. Compton, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Los Angeles, 2019); plus countless manuals of self-help.

6 From A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). See also context in P.D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden/Boston, 2009); A. Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (1977; 2016); L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 3: The Breakdown (1971); N. Greaves, Gramsci’s Marxism: Reclaiming a Philosophy of History and Politics (Leicester, 2009).

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