The Paranoid Optimist: How to Have Faith in the Future Even Though We're Doomed

I have an absolute total unshakable faith in the future of humanity, and in progress. But I’m also sure that awful, terrible things are going to happen, the environment is going to be screwed, and everything is going to hell. How do you reconcile these wildly opposing viewpoints?


When I was asked to give a TEDx Talk at Harvard recently, I tried to do just that. The result is the talk called “The Paranoid Optimist,” which you can watch above. Among other things, I talk about the need to stop thinking in oppositions: like “optimism” and “pessimism,” but also like “technology” and “nature.” I talk a lot about the themes of my upcoming book, All the Birds in the Sky, and how the meeting between magic and super-science is a way to think about different ways of imagining our future. Check it out!

Contact the author at and follow her on Twitter @CharlieJane

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I’ve been thinking about posterity more than a bit, in the very long game — basically there are two possible outcomes: either we and our exploits are remembered, even as a dusty corner of a digital archive in a virtual library, visited once every few thousand years but still available for any willing to look, far into the future...or we aren’t, and everything we say and do and care about and hope and imagine is just dust swirling into anonymity in a desert that has yet to be born.

Playing the math, it’s hard to argue the odds favor the survival of the species, given our bent for self-destruction and our overwhelming propensity to do very, very stupid things. Even if human civilization does sustain itself, does uncoil and spiral its way into the stars, into something approaching immortality — who’s to say it’s going to be our civilization, or a civilization that remembers us, either able or willing to note the passing days of our kind? Maybe all the meaning we give this moment is fleeting, effervescent, dying on birth.

But maybe immortality is just another horizon — unreachable, illusory, frustratingly visible but intangible. Does us no good to reach for a tomorrow without a firm hold of today, of every today. Maybe it’s a matter of not seeing time as yesterday and tomorrow separated by a sliver of time called “now,” maybe it’s just a matter of acknowledging the ever-emerging today...of the importance of the ephemeral, in the absence of the eternal, that it becomes everything.

(oh god i should not have eaten all those life savers at once what are my hands the room is moving the room is moving peppermint in my brainmeats)