SCIOPS 01.25: Comprehensive Pessimism

Yesterday’s act of terror in Las Vegas was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Yet again, it was perpetrated by that most dangerous demographic, the white American man. As I pointed out after Charlottesville , the vast majority of terrorism in America has been from white men with legal weapons, not airplane-wielding foreigners or black-masked anarchists. I’ll let the 24/7 news machine give you all the brutal details – after all, they need the “user engagement” and the advertising revenue. Instead, I want to make a prediction.

This will not be the last time an attack like this happens, and it won’t hold the homicide record for long.

I don’t have any particular reason to believe this. It’s not desirable to believe. I honestly hope that I’m wrong. It’s not a happy thought, or a productive one, or even a powerful motivating force for change. I definitely have no insider knowledge about the wacked-out plans of disgruntled Boomer types. I make this prediction because in all likelihood, it will come true. And because I want to make a point about pessimism.

###### That banner says “Permaculture”. Need I say more?

I spent the weekend at a conference full of greenies and hippies and vegans, a three-day event to share visions and skills for making a better future. It was the most depressing event I’ve ever attended.

There we were, talking about fruit trees and neighborhood organizations, in the pre-apocalyptic wasteland of a county fairgrounds, while Puerto Rico was drowning and Vegas was being redecorated with lead. The speakers had lots of nice things to say about the Native tribes whose ancestral land we were supposedly meeting on (the amount of different tribes that were named implies either that the fairgrounds was the most hotly contested spot in Cascadia or that the organizers were doing their research on Yahoo Answers). They had group songs for “bringing us together”, and a buffet of organic home-grown food. It was saccharine and  insipid, the sort of gathering that brings together such vastly different sectors of society as white upwardly-mobile city-dwellers and white back-to-the-land organic farmers.

In short, it was a gathering of optimists. The idea that we can shut down the global extraction machine, become one with our landbases, and bliss out on our garden salads while singing Kumbaya is an incredibly attractive vision. It’s desirable. It’s also false.

We are well on our way to a hellish world-war scenario to put the entire 20th century in the shade. It’s not a nuclear North Korea – although that’s plenty scary – but the reality of water wars and food shortages precipitated by climate catastrophe and pressurized by neoliberal austerity programs. We may be too late to reverse global warming, and if we’re not then we need to spend the next 30 years massively retooling our industrial civilization, and we need to start today. The UN knows it, the megacities know it, and the nation-states are pretending they don’t know it while scrambling to capture oil and water resources as fast as possible. We are not in a good place. No matter what your Instagram feed might tell you, the world is burning and humanity is in for a era of biblical disaster.

If localism and organic food were ever going to solve this problem, it was thirty years ago. Instead, we got globalization and the techno-techno Gilded Age II. At this point, optimism is self-delusion.

Ian Welsh, a blogger who predicted the 2008 financial crash, just reposted his 2011 essay in favor of pessimists as leaders . His point is that Debbie Downers tend to be the best people to follow in a crisis, as they keep their heads and assess the probablities realistically.  Optimists might be nice to be around, but in hard times you want to rally behind hard people.

There’s plenty of evidence to support that. Take the planning fallacy, for instance. This is a basic fact of cognitive psychology: people are terrible at predicting how long a given project will take. When asked to give predictions for “best case”, “worst case”, and “median” timelines on a project, the participants consistently gave the exact same answer . Yes, you read that right: we literally can’t imagine the difference between the best case scenario and the worst one. And in situations where the researchers measured the actual time it took to do the project, it was consistently longer than any prediction. So it’s not that we’re just giving ourselves extra leeway. It’s the opposite. Every plan that humans make assumes that nothing will go wrong at all.

Think of the last time you wanted to paint your house, or called a plumber to come fix a pipe. How long did it take? How long did you expect it to take? Even when we build leeway into our predictions, we’re usually just adjusting our sights to a median scenario. Our minds literally won’t let us imagine the worst case. This is hard-wired optimism. The only way to counteract it – the only way to have a chance at making more accurate predictions of the world – is a discipline of comprehensive pessimism. We must seed ourselves with doubt, with dismay, with despair. This is the fuel for real change.

The world isn’t going to erupt in neighborly good wishes just because we want it to. It will push us, knock us down, sweep our houses away and murder our loved ones. Only when we truly accept this are we prepared to make a real difference. Only when we know the odds against us can we make strategic choices.

Optimism is a backdoor into the brain. It’s an easy target for cognitive hackers, who will exploit our hope to sell us this year’s model of slavery and alienation. It’s not wrong to want a better future – it’s the only way we will ever get one. But wanting it, and thinking that you’ve found the way there, are very different things. Hold tight to your hope, but guard it dearly. Pessimism is the firewall for the mind.

Thanks for reading,


PS: To read more about cognitive fallacies and how to avoid them, check out the resources in SCIOPS 01.10: Optimize Primer .


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