Pessimism is the new black

I have been spending a lot of time lately with emergency planners and perhaps it has colored my world view, but it appears that the string of surprises and disasters of the last few years have conspired to make pessimism the new black. It is not just that people are afraid; rather people are grimly focusing on the gritty details of coping in a world serving up one unhappy surprise after another, from earthquakes, to hurricanes and perhaps a terrorist attack. The conversations are less about what might happen than they are about how to prepare, evidence that the happening part is a given and the only uncertainty is about how best to surf the unhappy waves rolling in over the horizon.

What is especially surprising is that these conversations are taking place among people who never thought much about emergency preparedness in the past. Friends who work in large finance companies are talking about home emergency kits with an enthusiasm once reserved for real estate prices or the stock market. And one friend is giving his artist spouse a ham radio for her birthday — she has become active in their neighborhood emergency response program and needs the radios for their drills.

The threads of this trend flow from many sources, the most obvious being the 9/11 bombing and Katrina, not to mention countless wildfires, tornadoes and of course what can only be called the Long War in Iraq. But it has other elements, including the popularity of Jared Diamond’s best-sellerCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and a revival of earlier literature from Nietzsche to Camus’L’Etranger, reputedly read recently by a famously anti-intellectual President Bush. Now, when the can-do, French-detesting, cowboy Leader of the Free World admits to picking up existentialist literature, there is little doubt that pessimism is very much the new fashion.

Pessimism is so “in” that it is now being touted as a positive and logical stance in it’s own right in a new book, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit by Princeton Prof, Joshua Dienstag. An editorial today in the New York Times is certain to lift an otherwise obscure academic text into public consciousness among the chattering class, further reinforcing the collective quelle de mal that is becoming as fashionable as iPods and hybrids.

Fashion does not make a trend, but pessimism as the new black could become a self-fulfillng prophecy if we are not careful. We need to unleash a counter-meme. Tibetan Monk Matthew Ricard’s “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” is one option, but we may need yet stronger medicine. I recommend dusting off Erasmus’ panegyric, Moriae Encomium — or, The Praise of Folly. I re-read it over the weekend, and it cheered me up so much that I have put it into my emergency kit — it’s large type makes it perfect to read by flashlight next time a passing storm causes the power to fail.