Thomas Suddendorf asks "Should We Be Optimistic About the Future?"

by Thomas Suddendorf, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of Queensland.


  • Foresight has been key to ushering in the modern world.
  • We are now aware of big pictures of our past and future.
  • Humanity is facing dramatic challenges but there are reasons for optimism.

After hundreds of millennia of living in small clans armed with stone tools, in the past 10,000 years, humans have gone from turning silica stone into axes to turning it into computer chips. With better foresight and coordination, we have created more and more machines, artifacts, and gadgets that are all around us, some of which are even speeding into interstellar space. This trend has been accelerating since humans discovered the scientific method: a systematic way to build knowledge with foresight at its core.

 Experiments and observations give rise to theories, which lead to predictions that are then tested with further experiments and observations. If the predictions turn out to be wrong, scientists try to devise a better theory to explain the unexpected observations, which then leads to new predictions and tests. And so on. With this simple cycle—essentially an error-correction mechanism—the collaborative scientific endeavour has resulted in giant strides in our understanding of the world. In turn, it has made people ever more effective at forecasting and shaping the future.

Glimpses across time


Science has given us a new view of our place in the really big picture of time and space. Just consider that the daylight you see left the sun’s surface about eight minutes before it struck your retina. And when we look at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, we see light that left that star more than eight and a half years ago. Light from the centre of the Milky Way must travel more than 25,000 years to reach us, and when you spy through a telescope on the next closest galaxy, Andromeda, you see light that originated about 2.5 million years ago. Now, if there is intelligent life in that galaxy that happens to be looking back at us, it would see the Earth that much time ago, populated by multiple species of our long-gone relatives—Australopithecines, Paranthropus, and Homo habilis—before anyone had ever left Africa.

 Though these bigger pictures may make us feel tiny and insignificant, they have also yielded a clearer sense of our species’ epic journey. We are the last of many upright-walking hominin species that once roamed the Earth, and we have come a long way.

Shaping the future

Partly as a result of farsighted efforts to make the world a better place, many of us now enjoy comforts such as motorized transportation and telecommunication that our great-grandparents, let alone prehistoric hominins, could not have even dreamed up. The ebb and flow of the tides is no longer an unpredictable process but a well-understood pattern that seafarers consider to avoid running their ships into the ground. Even a tsunami is no longer a smite from the gods but a predictable consequence of a geological event that early-warning systems can detect, buying people precious minutes to seek higher ground.

 Humans have created safety where we were hunted, cures where we were sick, and entertainment where we were bored. We also created weapons where we were vengeful, chopped down forests where we needed timber, and drained swamps where we wanted to farm. In the process, and with endless toil, humanity has remade the world.
Many people today consider the Earth gravely ill and see humanity as a shortsighted scourge. But far from being locked in the present, our species has come to deal with the future more than any other creature that has ever existed. And it is possible we are already on the right path forward. Even our biggest ecological challenges may be solved ultimately by farsighted human ingenuity.

Should we be optimistic?

Maybe we can clean up our mess, rapidly replace all the plastics with biodegradable materials, and swap fossil fuels for renewables. Just as advances in information technology revolutionized our world over the past few decades, so may biotechnology advances over the next few decades. Perhaps we can protect diminishing habitats and revitalize endangered animals. We may even bring back species—Tasmanian tigers, moas, and woolly mammoths—that have fallen victim to our successes. It is conceivable that we will be able to sustainably grow what we eat, repair with nanobots what we break, and 3D print whatever else we need without destroying the environment.

 And while artificial intelligence may pose some existential threat, it may also turn out to be extremely helpful in predicting and preventing catastrophes. Perhaps we can innovate technological solutions to all our problems. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think we could even plot our way to world peace.

But then again, perhaps such optimism is misplaced.

Our new solutions may beget still greater problems. We will certainly continue to make mistakes, from minor deviations that linger within a thin margin of error to gross miscalculations that spell disaster. It is possible that positive trajectories will not continue, wish as we might, and no one will invent the critical transformative technologies we need in time.

 Or perhaps we will fail to recognize the future utility of strategies and technologies fast enough even if someone does figure them out—or the lure of short-term profit, let alone the distraction of political conflicts, will stop us from implementing the requisite changes.
What’s more, optimism may harbour the risk of fostering complacency. Why bring an umbrella when you’re sure it won’t rain?
Still, optimism—at least of the kind that involves envisioning positive possibilities even in dark times—may also shield us from fatalism and motivate us to actively create a better future.
So even when we know that optimism is unlikely to be entirely warranted, we may nonetheless benefit from embracing it.
We can encourage collaboration and drive positive change by sharing our knowledge and optimistic predictions.
Just as a placebo effect is worth harnessing, it may pay to keep those rose-tinted glasses nearby.

Foresight makes us human

Thinking ahead permeates most of our actions and is essential to human affairs. This is not a new insight. In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetus, stole fire from heaven to give humans the powers that would distinguish them from other animals. He brought us culture, farming, mathematics, medicine, technology, and writing. Prometheus means “foresight.”

 Adapted from The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight by Thomas Suddendorf, Jonathan Redshaw, and Adam Bulley.


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