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“Thinking ad pessimum” – Notes Towards a Productive Pessimism

Even the Flood
Did not last for ever.
There came a time
When the black waters ebbed.
Yes, but how few
Have lasted longer.
– Brecht (“Reading Horace”)


1) The recent international trip by President Trump will likely be remembered for the types of visuals it generated: Trump touching the orb, Trump shoving past the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Trump having his knuckles turn white due to President Macron’s strong handshake, and the awkward group photo wherein Trump smiles while Pope Francis looks miserable.

Of course, pictures do not tell the entire story, but they can certainly capture its essence. Thus, even though there were pictures taken in which Pope Francis and Trump are both smiling, the picture wherein the Pope looked so unhappy easily fit into the existing narrative that has depicted the men as less than friends. After all, during the US presidential campaign, Pope Francis did have some rather harsh comments about those who would rather build walls than build bridgesto which Trump tactfully responded by fantasizing about a terrorist attack on the Vatican.

Nevertheless, a story that focuses primarily upon meme worthy images is likely to miss more significant and nuanced details. The awkward picture of Trump and Pope Francis may be worth somewhere between 999 and 1,001 words, but what a person would not know simply by looking at that image is that Pope Francis gave Trump a slim volume containing roughly 38,000 words. The volume in question was Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality, also known as Laudato Si’, a book that is a fervent and impassioned call to serious action. While it is difficult to know with absolute certainty whether or not Trump took the time to read the Encyclical, his recent decision to pull the US out of the Paris accords suggests rather powerfully that he did not even skim the text. Had he read it and truly wrestled with the heavy call to ethical responsibility that Pope Francis makes in that work, Trump might have concluded that the problem with the Paris accords was that they did not go nearly far enough, but (again) it’s rather unlikely that Trump took the time to read the Encyclical. And now, thanks to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accords, it seems that one particularly discomforting line in the Encyclical deserves to be taken even more seriously. As Pope Francis wrote:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” (Pope Francis, paragraph 161)

Alas, when Pope Francis wrote those words many treated them with both irony and disdain, but there is often something horribly prescient about a measure of pessimism.


2) The discussions around “what to do” regarding climate change have been permeated with unease about terms such as “doomsday.” This is understandable. There is a legitimate worry that a focus on the looming possible catastrophe will make that calamity seem unavoidable and thereby lead to insufficient action. Similarly, as Christian Parenti has recently argued, too much cynicism regarding climate change can hide the already existing solutions that simply need the political will to be acted upon. A green “new deal,” renewable energy, severe carbon taxes – there are no shortage of possible solutions to be found, and many of these are even framed in terms of the ways in which they will help the economy and produce plenty of good jobs. There’s often a banal utopianism to such views, insofar as the promised land that they imagine is pretty much the present world of mass consumption – albeit with solar panels and more recycling. It’s the present world, minus the guilt that some experience when they acknowledge the destruction and injustice that undergirds this world. Granted, there are also many who point to the need to fundamentally transform society and radically alter (if not outright dismantle) capitalism – Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything is a good example of this tendency. And of course there are also the raft of works assembled beneath the heading of the Anthropocene – that academic term du jour – works which, to a greater or lesser extent, suggest that the matter is about readjusting our expectations seeing as humanity has genuinely altered the planet.

Yet one thing that these works, that carefully avoid grim prognosticating, often lack is a sense that individuals must change. The problem is large and thus the solutions must be as well. Taking shorter (colder) showers is not enough! Being a vegetarian is insufficient! Bringing your own bags to the super market doesn’t really make a difference! Such arguments certainly have a point – they are right – and it is worth being wary of solutions that frame large problems merely in terms of consumer choice. And, indeed, modifications in the realm of personal choice will not be sufficient to avert a crisis threatening the entire planet. However, there is a difference between saying “save the planet by buying organic,” arguing that with enough tweaks mass consumption can continue under a highly reigned in and more eco-friendly form of capitalism, and arguing that it is necessary to toss out the whole model of mass consumption and imagine a very different world. Here, once more, the banal utopianism rears its head promising an automated luxurious future that will solve climate change through techno-fixes while ensuring that people can still have closets overflowing with cheap clothes and homes bursting with the latest gadgets.

The relevant thread to detect in all of this is the shiny optimistic one: wherein the next climate march, petition, documentary, or techno-fix saves the day just in the nick of time. And that “nick of time” keeps getting pushed further and further along the timeline, quietly promising that there’s plenty of sand left in the hourglass.

Granted, there are real reasons to worry that grousing about impending doom doesn’t lead to real change, but an honest assessment of the state of the world suggests that focusing on the positive possible solutions hasn’t really produced the needed change either. Sure, there are plenty of wind turbines being setup and fields of solar panels being deployed – but the glaciers are still melting and coal is still being burned. Indeed, one of the questions that pops up here is not strictly about whether raising the threat of catastrophe inures people, but of whether the statement of what it will take to stop the catastrophe is simply further than people are willing to go.

To put it differently: is the problem one of telling people that a catastrophe is imminent unless radical action is taken, or is the problem telling people that a catastrophe is imminent unless radical action is taken and this might require them to fundamentally change their lifestyle? At risk of being crass people will generally respond fairly positively if you ask them to march, call their government officials, attend book clubs, post articles on Facebook, Tweet, and so forth…but are those people willing to give up their iPhones? This isn’t meant on an individual level (as in: “you must give up your phone”) – but in terms of a broader question: if preventing climate catastrophe meant challenging the high-energy and high-consumption lifestyle, how would people react? Banal utopianism is built on the promise that you can have your high-energy/high-consumption lifestyle and a habitable planet too! But what if that isn’t actually possible? After all, the horrors of climate change are not some crisis on the distant horizon for many of the world’s people. And many of those already suffering as a result of climate change are those who have never even partaken of the high-energy/high-consumption lifestyle that many are so desperate to preserve for themselves. This was the verboten topic that Pope Francis dared to wrestle with in his Encyclical, a book that called for a significantly scaling back of mass consumption in high-energy societies.

Of course, even raising this matter gets one labeled a “catastrophist” by some who emphasize that all we need is better recycling programs and more solar panels. And here the old logical fallacy of “attacking the advocate” is often deployed to accuse those who raise these issues of hypocrisy. After all, was Laudato Si’ not posted online? Was this post not written on a computer? Here, perhaps the best retort is to simply recognize that those who want to transform the world must do so from the world that they live in. To get to a different world we must first walk the path through the present one. Granted, such critiques can also simply be batted away as desperate attempts to change the topic. To turn away from uncomfortable possibilities, and feelings that generate guilt, in favor of touting how some new innovation will allow us to survive.

Or, as Erich Fromm commented, decades ago:

“Another explanation of the deadening of our survival instinct is that the changes in living that would be required are so drastic that people prefer the future catastrophe to the sacrifice they would have to make now.” (Fromm, 11)

It is true that the above comments, and the ones that will follow, may be tarred as pessimistic.

But given the political state of the world, and the ever direr projections from climate scientists – what other mode of thought is appropriate?


3) The problem with pessimism is not pessimism itself, but what one does with it.

When pessimism leads to apathy it is no longer truly pessimism, at that point it has become despair.

One can attend protests, one can organize fiercely, one can call government representatives, one can try desperately to raise consciousness…while still thinking deep down that it might all be insufficient. In such cases, pessimism – real and genuine fear for dark prospects – can be a force that galvanizes a person to act. If one is certain that a grim fate lurks at the horizon than this can be a hell of a reason to take action. To put it differently, if one can see that the train on which they are riding is hurtling towards a collapsed bridge than this recognition can drive them to frantically search for the emergency brake, try to shift the track before it is too late, or try to rally the other passengers to act. Pessimism isn’t what leads a person to shrug in this situation – that shrug is the telltale sign of despair. Pessimism, at its best, causes a furious and painful sense of responsibility – there is no confidence that things will naturally work out for the best, so the pessimist must constantly try to sound the alarm. It is the despairing person who remains seated, staring glumly out the window grumbling “it won’t matter anyways.” Pessimism is what leads a person to see the break in the tracks, it is what keeps them from thinking that the break will be magically fixed, and it can be what leads a person to know that they have to act. Realism is what simply notes that there is a break, but pessimism is what sees the break and is able to fully envision the catastrophe that will occur if the train reaches that break.

Even when the prospects grow dim and despair nips at the pessimist’s heels, they can still heed Günther Anders maxim:

“Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.” (Anders, 194)

Pessimism is a belief that the worst may happen – but it isn’t a certainty that the worst will definitely happen. What keeps pessimism from becoming despair, is that pessimism searches desperately for “the right to hope” – and this can, and should, lead to action.

Similarly, the issue of optimism is not optimism itself, but what one does with it.

Optimism, can lead to apathy just as easily if not more easily than pessimism can. If a person sits on their couch with the sunny disposition that “the politicians will fix it” or “a new technology will be invented in time” or “everything will be okay in the end” – than they are liable to remain sitting on their couch. Of course, they may still be jostled into acting, wearing a broad smile as they march, call representatives, bike to work, and bring reusable bags to the grocery store. The problem with optimism is when it treats any of these steps as being sufficient – and when they trade in constant vigilance for constant happiness. Indeed, it seems that too much optimism is likely to largely lead to lethargy – if you really think that Elon Musk is going to save the world than why the heck do you need to do anything? If you really think that the politicians are going to take care of stuff than why do you need to pester them incessantly? If you really think that the arc of history bends naturally towards justice, than you might not realize that it will only bend that way if you get off your couch and work to bend it in that direction. An optimist need not feel the painful grip of personal responsibility, because optimism remains confident that things will work out for the best regardless of what they do. The optimist hears the cries that the train they are on is racing towards a broken bridge and remains seated not because of despair, but because they think that someone will fix it before the train reaches that point. After all, the optimist is not the engine driver, the train steward, or an employee of the railroad – it is not the optimist’s responsibility to fix these things – they just need to sit back and believe that all will turn out well. This is obviously a crude caricature of optimism, but the point is only to argue that optimism can lead to inaction.

Optimism does not tilt into despair, but neither for that matter does it tilt into hope.  Optimism does not find its logical extreme in hope, rather optimism finds its extreme in the Panglossian perspective wherein “this is the best of all possible worlds” despite all evidence to the contrary.  If a person has the optimistic belief that things will turn out for the best they do not need to hope that things will – for they already believe as much. Furthermore, the optimist can easily take any setbacks in stride, here the “right to hope” is not something which one works desperately for, but rather something which the optimist never doubts they have. The danger for the optimist is not that they may tip into pessimism, but that a significant enough shock will shatter the foundation upon which they stand completely and send them tumbling straight into a despair from which they do not know how to escape.

The optimist remains resolute in their faith in progress, they are certain that the train is taking them where they want to go and they are certain that this destination will be fabulous – if not for everyone on the train, than at least for them and their friends. The pessimist, on the other hand, knows that trains don’t only travel to the carnival – some of them go to the charnel house.

In the lead up to the Second World War, Lewis Mumford tried desperately to make it clear to the optimists of his day that action needed to be taken to combat fascism, as he wrote:

“Hoping for the best, we must still prepare for the worst. To face the future in any other spirit is to invite destruction.” (Mumford, 8)

Pessimistic? Perhaps. But as Mumford’s lines – and Anders’s ones quoted earlier – demonstrate, pessimism and hope are not enemies, they are siblings.

There are optimists who try to alter the train’s course.

There are pessimists who try to alter the train’s course.

The issue is not one of optimism or pessimism – either sentiment can lead people to act – the problem is when people simply sit and twiddle their thumbs (or tap on their screens).

And though cynicism may lead many pessimists to heed the funereal dirge of despair, they have plenty of company amongst the legions who contentedly sit while confident that all will be well.

We need not fear pessimism. We need not think that paying attention to it will inevitably lead to despair. Quite the opposite, engaging with pessimism – even being pessimistic – can be very useful. As Ernst Bloch put it, in his masterful The Principle of Hope:

“even a dash of pessimism would be preferable to the banal, automatic belief in progress as such. Because at least pessimism with a realistic perspective is not so helplessly surprised by mistakes and catastrophes, by the horrifying possibilities which have been concealed and will continue to be concealed precisely in capitalist progress. Thinking ad pessimum, for every analysis which does not make it absolute again, is a better traveling companion than cheap credulity.” (Bloch, 199)


4) The above comments may seem glum – and pessimistic – and they certainly do not point to easy action steps or to particular simple solutions. Nor, for that matter, are they intended to do so.

The present moment is a very odd one, there is at once a great and important need to take drastic action soon – and yet it also seems to be a time during which there is something to be said for taking the time to think. To say that one is skeptical of the answers that others have given is not to declare that one has the answers. Rather, it is precisely through renouncing both the “either” and the “or” that new pathways can be opened up. The thinking that shakes us out of complacency is the thinking that is needed – whether that complacency is despair or Panglossian optimism.

Insofar as this piece has attempted to argue for anything, it has tried to argue for a productive pessimism – one that admits that things look grim, but which still works tirelessly to be worthy of “the right to hope.” As Max Horkheimer put it:

“The only thing that goes against my pessimism is the fact that we still carry on thinking today. All hope lies in thought. But it is easy to believe that it could all come to an end.” (Horkheimer, 11)

Alas, it is “easy to believe” that we are doomed – and it is “easy” to give in to despair. But it is also “easy to believe” that we will be saved by technology – and it is “easy” to give in to banal utopianism or Panglossian optimism. Right now, the most difficult thing to do is to think critically, consciously, and conscientiously.

Such thought is not the last step, but it is a step nevertheless.



Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer. Towards a New Manifesto. (Verso, 2011)

Günther Anders “Theses for the Atomic Age.” In The Life and Work of Günther Anders. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2014.

Ernst Bloch. The Principle of Hope (volume 1). (MIT Press, 1995)

Erich Fromm. To Have or To Be. (Harper and Row, 1976)

Lewis Mumford. Men Must Act. (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939)

Pope Francis. Laudato Si’. (2015)


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The Prescience of Pessimism

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

23 comments on ““Thinking ad pessimum” – Notes Towards a Productive Pessimism

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  15. Mary
    April 18, 2020

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been struggling for a while with the concepts of hope and despair (mainly despair), and this gives me a lot to think about in terms of both the political and the personal.

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