Last night was the inaugural meeting of the League of Pragmatic Optimists (LOPO), founded by my business partner in Flow, Mark Stevenson. I’m really excited by the support for this movement, which is seeing chapters being set up in the UK and several places in the US. Yes, there are many other meet-ups to learn and talk about change and also a lot of activist groups with common cause. But LOPO is between the two. It’s a meet-up group that helps people take action in their own way. The common cause of LOPO is in its principles (which remain open to debate and change), which, in summary, are that you have to be optimistic in order to make the world better, not blindly optimistic but informed by evidence and critical thinking. The rules are simple: at each meeting you pledge to do something and by the time of the next you must have done (or begun) it. As you may know, I’ve struggled a lot with my own despair about the outlook for the planet and I’ve also struggled with Mark’s optimism project, working alongside him over the past few years. I believe that there is value in despair, that it is the necessary foil for optimism, and we’ve disagreed about that. I used to moan a lot as he bubbled with enthusiasm about sustainable innovations, with me saying ‘yes but’ perhaps a bit too often. However, I finally started to feel more positive about his passion for optimism when I took part in a really extraordinary event, led by Teo Greenstreet, Lucy Neale and Hilary Jennings, called The Case for Optimism. This helped me see the importance of capturing people’s passion and helping them get into flow when they are imagining change, or designing and implementing solutions, and not always be putting a dampener on it by voicing your fears.
That said, I do have two quibbles, which I hope can be addressed in future meetings.
The focus of this first event was very much on action to solve problems, but the big problem we face was never directly mentioned. The big problem is the breaching of several planetary boundaries and the fact that we are on course for a mass extinction event. I mentioned this to a participant, and he said that there are, of course, many other problems that need action. I’m not sure, really, that there are. No other problems for residents of this planet are unrelated to how we can live on this planet and to how we cope as it changes. The realm of possible solutions is limitless and embraces every aspect of our ways of living.
Quibble two is related to quibble one. The room was very strongly in favour of the key message – that our society has suffered greatly from deficits of optimism and pragmatism. You could, in fact, make completely the opposite charge: That we are where we are now because of optimistic belief in unsustainable progress and an overly pragmatic empiricism that has denied the realm of ‘negative capability’. The crucial turn that we need is from exploitation to nurturing, levering the turn with both despair and hope, and both ‘unreason’ and pragmatism, together in helpful balance to combat cynicism and apathy.