It seems that gloom is very much in vogue these days.
The details of the coming apocalypse depend on who’s talking:
Perhaps we’re going to suffocate under a cloud of warm carbon dioxide. Maybe we’re going to become oppressed wage-slaves under the thumb of the super-wealthy oligarchs. Could be that Marxist hordes are coming to take our guns and defile our religious texts. Or possibly the next generation is too shiftless/unmotivated/spoiled/silly/drugged-out to carry on our proud American Way.
Whatever it is, it’s clear that our collective goose is cooked.
Even at the local level, gloom is the order of the day. Somehow, the Napa Valley is becoming indistinguishable from Darkest Contra Costa County, a blasted hell-hole of over-development and dysfunction. Our leaders are corrupt/careless/heedless/clueless. The main streets are bumper-to-bumper business-free zones inhabited only by rapacious tourists.
I didn’t realize how gloomy things had gotten until I experienced the absence of gloom. My family went a few weeks ago to see the movie The Martian.
It wasn’t the gorgeous visuals, or great performances, or intriguing premise, or even the rousing, if modestly unlikely, conclusion that made this a great movie. No. What had me hooked was the profound optimism of the movie.
It was optimistic in a John F. Kennedy, New Frontier kind of way – we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard. It was optimistic in a “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we’re-going-to-Jupiter way. It was “Where no man has gone before” stuff.
The future in the movie was that man was going to Mars and everybody seemed to think it was a great idea. The future was that rival Great Powers were cooperating across international lines simply because it was the right thing to do. In this future, the whole world is invested in a great big high-stakes adventure.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
I came out of the theater so wanting that to be the future and so sad that our thinking has become so small and blinkered that we’ve forgotten how to dream big.
Sure, out here in the real world we have real problems, from climate change to nihilistic murderers on the rampage in the Middle East to poverty, violence, and economic dysfunction at home. Locally, we do face growth pressures that have no easy answers, posing problems of housing, traffic, income distribution, and property rights.
But what’s missing in too many people, I fear, is a sense that we can roll up our sleeves and at least try to solve the problems.
I was heartened earlier in the week to attend a forum organized by the Napa Valley Vintners to discuss traffic and transportation issues. The county planning director spoke about a new document the supervisors will consider looking at new data and developing best practices to deal with traffic. The mayor of Calistoga outlined an ambitious project that’s well underway to develop a private transportation network to ease the commute into the city’s burgeoning hospitality industry. A professor from U.C. Davis discussed the latest research on traffic and transportation management, including some real, concrete approaches to the issue in new and better ways.
We didn’t solve everything at the forum, but the event started from the premise that solutions are possible, even if we don’t quite know what they are yet. That is the essence of optimism.
In my own industry, there is plenty of gloom. Ad revenues are down, staffing is ludicrously thin, and we’re all trying to squeeze ever more blood from a stone. But rather than dwell on the well-documented problems, I prefer to look at the future – sleek and lean and digital. I see where we’re going, even if I can’t yet quite see the path that will take us there.
Back in 1980, a lot of people mocked Ronald Reagan for his Morning in America/Shining City on the Hill kind of rhetoric, but the public responded powerfully. I think we could all use a dose of that kind of optimism now.
After all, we’re all going to die eventually; I’d rather die while reaching too high than die sitting in a corner and complaining.