First published in the April/May 2012 issue of North Simcoe Community News.

We humans are strange animals. We are endowed with active imaginations that we spend a lot of time using to think about the future. And most of us believe the future will be much better than the past, particularly when it comes to ourselves. For most of human history, this optimism served us well. Cautiously optimistic people are healthier and more prosperous. Moreover, human progress was fueled by the imagination of better realities and the belief that we could achieve them. But at this time in human history, our optimism now puts us at great risk.

London-based neuroscientist, Tali Sharot, in her new book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, reports that 80% of us experience an optimism bias – a propensity to think more good will happen to us than bad. She concludes, “We’re more optimistic than realistic, and we’re oblivious about it.”

Maybe we just need to acknowledge that the optimism bias exists. If we can foster a more realistic attitude about what we are doing to our natural capital and the peril it puts us in, we can employ our imagination and optimism to create an actual positive future for ourselves, for our communities, for the human race.

We need to start with the realization that our future depends on finding a way to prosper and thrive without economic growth, without further eroding our natural capital. In his book and 5-part Massey Lectures series, A Short History of Progress, novelist and archeologist Ronald Wright examines conditions that led to the downfall of societies. In every case, it was due to what he calls “progress traps: innovations that create new problems for which the society is unable or unwilling to solve, or inadvertently create conditions that are worse than what existed before the innovation”.

We are now faced with a plethora of potential progress traps: large-scale farming techniques that degrade the soil, enhanced resource extraction that threatens water supplies, technological advancements in bio-engineering, cheap and attractive processed food and toiletries containing harmful ingredients, our dearly beloved cars and airplanes, as well as our garbage dumps, that load the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, nuclear technologies… The list is long. We have been so busy chasing our so-called progress that we haven’t noticed the dark clouds on the horizon.

Yes, the reality of what we have done to our world is bleak, and it may be too much for optimists to process, but facing it is our best hope. Wright says, “Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes…The reform that is needed…is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking, from recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.” We can all start by restoring and protecting natural capital, significantly reducing our consumption and supporting the development and implementation of responsible public policy.

Emily Funnell of the Ministry of Natural Resources recently told the Ladies of the Lake Conservation Association that the best way to help Lake Simcoe is to restore natural heritage along shorelines, streams, rivers and ditches. It just might be the best thing you could do for yourself too!