Compulsory optimism on overshoot in our society is maladaptive

False smiles don’t work when you are otherwise convinced.


Often when groups talk about climate action or lack of it, a sort of despair sets in. Then some Pollyanna pipes up reprimanding people for their negativity and then people go quiet. It’s as though society demands a compulsory optimism. How dare you be pessimistic about the prospects of having a liveable climate?

“It has become a paradox”, write Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens in their book How Everything Can Collapse, “We have to face this deluge of disasters in the media, but we’re unable to talk explicitly about the really big catastrophes without being called alarmists or catastrophists.” The book was originally published in French in 2015 and in English in 2020. These two young Frenchmen were part of a trio who met at a Joanna Macy workshop.

Maybe we thought that our optimism of the 1960s to 1980s of continual progress would just continue. But by the 1990s we wondered. In early 2000s we learnt more about climate change, biodiversity loss and ocean acidification and began to panic a little inside. Or certainly doubt a bit. Things didn’t seem to be getting any better. They were getting worse.

Then in 2018 social scientist Professor Jem Bendell publishes an occasional paper that went viral. He starts off by writing,

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of what I believe to be an inevitable near-term societal collapse due to climate change.

Deep Adaptation by Jem Bendell 2018, revised 2020

He noted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done useful work but has a track record of significantly underestimating the pace of change. Then he reviewed the scientific evidence on abrupt climate change and noted, “Non-linear changes are of central importance to understanding climate change, as they suggest both that impacts will be far more rapid and severe than predictions based on linear projections.”

After summarising the possible tipping points, Bendell concludes that his experience is that “a lot of people are resistant to the conclusions I have just shared”. Then he considers some of the emotional and psychological responses to the information he just summarised.

What happens when compulsory optimism dominates the collective mood?

  • This toxic optimism is driven by the tendency to downplay the severity of the climate crisis. Some individuals and even entire societies may engage in wishful thinking, believing that technological advancements or future innovations will magically solve the problem. This mindset often leads to a delay in taking necessary actions, as people wait for an elusive “perfect” solution instead of implementing available measures. It has been called “hopium”.
  • Moreover, compulsory optimism can foster complacency, as people believe that things will eventually get better without having to make personal sacrifices or lifestyle changes. This can be particularly dangerous when it comes to addressing the urgent need for reduced carbon emissions and transitioning to sustainable practices. Without a collective effort, the window of opportunity to curb the worst effects of climate change continues to narrow.
  • The need for optimism can also silence dissenting voices. When individuals express concerns about the gravity of the climate crisis or advocate for more aggressive action, they may face backlash from those who adhere to the narrative of perpetual positivity. Such resistance can stifle important conversations and hinder the collaboration necessary for finding effective solutions.
  • In the realm of policymaking, toxic optimism can lead to inadequate measures or insufficient funding being allocated to combat climate change. Decision-makers may underestimate the urgency of the situation, assuming that minor adjustments will be enough to tackle the issue, instead of implementing bold and transformative policies.
  • Overcoming toxic optimism requires a shift in mindset and a recognition of the gravity of the climate crisis. It is crucial to acknowledge that the challenges posed by climate change are immense and that no single solution will be a panacea. Instead, a multifaceted approach is necessary, involving individual actions, corporate responsibility, and ambitious government policies.

No, we need realism. It is no coincidence that Nate Hagens called his university course Reality 101. We need to acknowledge the hard work and collective effort required while maintaining hope for a sustainable future. Accepting the severity of the climate crisis empowers individuals and communities to take action, pushing for systemic change and holding policymakers accountable.

In conclusion, while optimism is an essential aspect of human resilience, toxic optimism or compulsory optimism is really detrimental when confronting the challenges of climate change. We must strike a balance between hope and realism, recognising the urgency of the crisis and taking immediate and decisive action.