“Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
Today, pessimism is everywhere. It is celebrated and in a sense idolized. While optimists are labeled as naïve for not understanding the nuances of the modern world, pessimists win accolades for intellectual critiques. While optimists are labeled as insensitive to the problems of today, catastrophe-peddlers cram the airwaves on CNBC and Bloomberg exploiting our psychological predisposition to avoid losses more than we value wins.
Today, pessimism is cool. Optimism is not. However, I remain ardently optimistic about our collective prosperity. And, through a story want to higlight the fatal flaw with the pessimist’s argument.
In the 1890s, London was facing a seemingly unsurmountable problem called the “Great Horse Manure Crisis”. (Ben Johnson, Historic UK). During this time, there were over 11,000 hansom cabs on the streets of London alone. And, several thousand horse-drawn buses requiring 12 horses per day, making a staggering total of over 50,000 horses transporting people around the city each day. On average each horse produced 15-35 pounds of manure each day. The Times newspaper in 1894 proclaimed “In 50 years, every street of London will be buried in 9 feet of manure”. This situation was debated in the first urban planning conference in 1898 and no solution could be found. To the pessimists, urban civilization was doomed!
Of course, as we know, motor transport was then invented. Henry Ford found a way to produce motor transport at affordable costs. By 1912, this seemingly insurmountable problem had been solved. In cities all over the globe, horses were replaced by motorized vehicles.
The story illustrates that the fatal flaw of the pessimism doctrine is extrapolation. Rooted in today’s problems and bound by today’s constraints it assumes that tomorrow is simply larger version of today. In the face of problems, it asks the superficially correct but eventually pointless question, “Can we go on tomorrow as we are today?” In doing so it misses the most innate human trait of ingenuity, self-correction and development. Of course, we cannot go on tomorrow as we are today.
1. The pre-historic hunter-gatherer who was convinced of over-population, end of vegetation and inevitable hunger. Till farming was invented, ushering in a new definition of self-sufficiency
2. The farmer in medieval Europe who could not look beyond infection and disease wiping out humankind. Till vaccines and modern medicine were invented, expanding human longevity
3. The unemployed American in the 1930s who was certain that the depression would last forever. Till FDR’s new deal created some of the most influential social economic institutions (e.g., Securities & Exchange Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Committee) that resuscitated the country
4. The host of technology leaders who assumed computers will be a micro-niche market. (Example, Thomas Watson (IBM founder) – “There is a world market for 5 computers”). Till the internet and mobile phone were invented, putting computer access within the reach of 4.5 billion people.
5. The San Francisco Bay Area vacationers who were certain that hotel room-rates would rise forever. Till Airbnb was founded (in 2008), now creating rich local experiences for more people every night than Hilton Hotels (founded in 1919).
Tomorrow is not a bigger version of today. It is a different version than today.