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General · 1st November 2009
Ray Grigg
Being positive is in vogue. We live in a culture that is permeated with optimism. Success is just a tomorrow away. Wealth and happiness are owed to each of us. Great accomplishments are always imminent. Science will find them. Ingenuity will invent them. Technology will produce them. Investments will fund them. The creative power of our minds will manifest all that we desire. Civilization is on an ascent that will not be interrupted by doubt or obstacles.

This is why the warnings of environmentalists and climate scientists over the past decades have been heard reluctantly. Their reservations cast doubt on the momentum of growth and progress. The enchanting mood of optimism and promise doesn't want to be disturbed by negativity and uncertainty.

Enter Barbara Ehrenreich. She is an American author who has a knack for exposing our collective pretensions and illusions. Most of her 16 books and her columns in the New York Times and Time magazine penetrate beneath the facade of our behaviour to show us something about ourselves that we didn't want to know. But all honesty brings an element of relief. And this is the overwhelming feeling that comes with Bright Sided, Ehrenreich's book about the negatives of being positive.

Being positive has become the temper of our time. We believe in the power of positive thinking. Instead of grieving about the death of a loved one, we are advised to think about the life-enriching experience that comes from being close to those who have died. Remember that a cancer diagnosis is character building and survivors have earned a depth of insight denied to those who have been merely healthy. Evangelical mega-churches preach that God wants to "prosper" us. Academia teaches courses on "positive psychology" and the "science of happiness". The chaos underlying quantum physics is used to confirm free-will and affirm our capability of manifesting any reality we choose. On a finite planet, we embrace an economic system that believes in endless growth, boundless wealth and prosperity for all – no matter how many.

But the chapters in Ehrenreich's book echo the dark side of this positive posturing. "Smile or Die - The Bright Side of Cancer" hints at the self-blame that comes with both getting cancer and effecting a cure – you got the disease because you thought the wrong thoughts and your cure is dependent on purging yourself of all negative ones. (Recent medical studies, incidentally, have shown no relationship between cures and attitudes.) Another chapter, "God Wants You To Be Rich", compels prayer and obedience – poverty and failure come with the added stigma of being outside God's grace.

Anyone who thinks these are merely personal matters without broader societal implications should note Ehrenreich's chapter called "How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy". She cites instances of fund managers approaching their superiors with warnings about their financial institution's over-exposure to unsecured mortgages, only to be fired for negativity incompatible with the optimistic character of the corporation. The trap of the sub-prime fiasco was invisible to a business community euphoric with confidence. The epidemic of positive thinking was wholly disconnected from the actual economic reality. It infected investors, banks, corporations, home buyers and consumers, all of whom invested and spent without regard for basic caution and restraint. The immutable consequences of debt were wished away by irrational optimism. The pervasive fantasy of this positive attitude nearly collapsed the world's entire capitalist economic system.

In this dreamscape – in these "Years of Magical Thinking", as Ehrenreich calls another of her chapters – we are handicapped by illusion, committed to the denial and evasion that is unable to confront and solve such real problems as poverty, sickness and crime. Wishful thinking and presumed entitlement become substitutes for rational pragmatism and hard work. And looming over all this is the worsening state of the planet's environment.

Ehrenreich ideas are directly applicable to the environmental issues haunting us today. Aside from the contrarian character of some climate change deniers, her thinking explains why many positive-minded people would respond with reflexive opposition to the sobering scope and the enormous implications of an entire planet moving toward environmental crisis. Indeed, affluent societies have been materially successful because they have studiously disregarded the ecological impacts of their actions. Such societies move with a momentum that resists any change of course or shift of consciousness. So their first response is to reject the warnings from scientists, philosophers, environmentalists, or anyone else who challenges the collective illusion that seems to be a successful strategy. History is littered with the wreckage of such societies.

The environmental challenges now facing humanity are unparalleled, urgent and multiple: increasing pollutants, rising population, food shortages, climate change, species loss, and the depletion and acidification of the world's oceans. Each alone is extremely serious; together they constitute compounded crises. More than ever before, we need to assess our situation with a cool and sober objectivity that is grounded in reality. No illusions. Brutal honesty and reasoned pragmatism are mandatory if we are survive this cascading mess. We can be irrationally positive later – when we have no need to be negative.