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Commencement Addresses

Dare to Be An Optimist

  • Date: 05/06/2012
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Suppose you were able to journey back one hundred years and talk to the graduates of this institution from 1912.  What would you tell them the next century would bring?

    Would you warn them of the coming World Wars? Of an unprecedented economic depression; a pandemic of global proportions; and massive upheavals in the social order.

    Or would you tell them that democracy would become the dominant form of government in much of the world. That Americans now live 60% longer than they did in 1912, and are 700% wealthier.[1] That diseases like polio and small pox would be eradicated, and the greatest threat to Americans’ health comes not from having too little food, but too much. Would you tell them that their countrymen would walk on the moon, and map the red canyons of Mars?

    Both versions of history are true. But which would you chose to tell, and which do you think would garner the greatest attention?

    Our species seems stubbornly programmed for pessimism. There is at least one physiological reason for this: the amygdala, that almond-sized piece of our brain that governs rage, hate and fear.[2] It is the switch for our fight-or-flight reflex, and helped sustain humanity throughout our evolution. Unfortunately, the amygdala remains stuck on “Pleistocene” mode. It reacts in essentially the same way to TV crime stories as it did to the sight of a leopard, or a threatening wolf.

    The amygdala is jumpy at the best of times, and given the slightest provocation, lights up like a pinball machine. Once tripped, it stays alert and seeks additional data on perceived threats.[3]

    And there are plenty of threats in modern life that are more imagined than real…so it helps if we remember that the possibility of many threats is often far less than we come to fear – indeed, it helps to remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    A simple story will illustrate my point.

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 440-thousand Americans each year,[4] and automobiles kill more than 30-thousand people per year.[5] But, no one seems to be afraid of cigarettes or automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    It is estimated that there are about 70 shark attacks worldwide each year.[6] The National Center for Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few. (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not by shark bites.)[7] The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States.

    But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" - everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    In a real sense, “shark!” is shouted at us everyday from our televisions, newspapers and even our computers. Matt Ridley, a wonderful columnist and author[8], explains why.  He recently observed that “There is immense vested interest in pessimism. No charity every raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely.”[9] I would add that no political party ever won an election by saying the future looks rosy.

    But the concrete facts are that our present age is an excellent time to be alive, and that the near future looks even better.

    Earlier I mentioned some of the great successes of our age. Let me add a few more.

    In just the past 60 years – less than a lifetime – the average person now earns three times more money, consumes 30% more calories of food, and lives a third longer.[10] Compared to those living in 1955 – a year then celebrated as a high-water mark for wealth and comfort – we are more educated, have more luxury time, and enjoy more goods and services from more sources around the globe.[11]

    These improvements affect not only the affluent West, but nearly every corner of the world. Of the estimated 196 countries[12] now in existence, only six – let me say that again, only 6 out of 196 – have lower real income per capita than in 1955.[13] In fact, the United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last fifty years than in the previous 500.[14]

    How is this happening? Philip Auerswald, a public policy scholar at George Mason University, recently noted in his book “The Coming Prosperity” that individual entrepreneurs – people you’ve never heard of – are improving living standards and even raising tax revenues in developing countries like Afghanistan and Egypt.[15]

    And indicators are that life is going to get even better.

    Famed physicist and respected futurist Michio Kaku recently estimated that driverless cars will be on the streets before this decade is out.[16] You may think that’s  far-fetched, but just 12 weeks ago, the state of Nevada approved regulations for the operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads.[17]

    Kaku says synthetic organs will be in use by 2030. I think he is wrong: it will be sooner. Two University of Akron researchers, Drs. Joseph Kennedy and Miko Cakmak, are refining the development of an artificial pancreas. They are just one of many teams around the globe pursuing this goal.

    Another great change predicted for this century is “the bottom-up world.”[18] You could easily argue we are already there. Nursing students: how often in your clinical experience have you encounter patients who had already researched their illnesses online? Journalists compete with bloggers to report the news. Audiences now tell broadcasters which entertainers they will feature. In the words of author Clay Shirky, “Here comes everybody.”[19]

    Perhaps most marvelous is a proposition by Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation (and by the way, if you want to have some fun, google “Peter’s Laws”). In a new book titled, “Abundance: The Future Is Brighter Than You Think,” Diamandis and his co-author, Steven Kotler, tells us that we have the potential to achieve greater gains in the quality of life in the next two decades, than in the previous two hundred years.[20] Desalination of ocean water for less than a penny a liter; vertical farms that need no pesticides and little water; a lab-on-a-chip that will make sophisticated medical tests available to people in the poorest, farthest-flung reaches of the globe. All of these, Diamandis says, are real possibilities.

    But they will remain merely possibilities unless we apply our will, creativity and energy to make them realities.

    Ridley points out that there are still a billion people on this planet who do not have enough food to eat, who lack clean water, who are illiterate.[21] He goes on to say, “It is precisely because there is still far more suffering and scarcity in the world than I or anybody else with a heart would wish, that ambitious optimism is morally mandated.”[22]

    The 21st century needs your particular skills, your vigor and your enthusiasm.

    Take up that moral mandate!

    Dare to be optimists!

    [1] Coming Tech Boom, WSJ

    [2] Diamandis, Peter H., Kotler, Steven. (2012) Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. (1st ed.) New York: Simon & Schuster. P.32

    [3] Diamandis, Ibid. p.32

    [4] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: How Tobacco Smoke Causes Disease. A Report of the Surgeon General.  http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/tobaccosmoke/report/full_report.pdf

    [5] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx 

    [6] Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. International Shark Attack File 2007 Worldwide Shark Attack Summary. http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/statistics/2007attacksummary.htm

    [7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics/NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topics: Insects and Scorpions http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/insects/

    [8] Ridley, Matt. (2010) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. (1st ed.) New York: HarperCollins.

    [9] Ridley, Ibid. p.295

    [10] Ridley, Ibid. p.14

    [11] Ridley, Ibid. p.15

    [12] http://geography.about.com/cs/countries/a/numbercountries.htm

    [13] Ridley, Ibid. p.14

    [14] Ridley, Ibid. p.15

    [15] Rees, Matthew. How the World Gets Ahead. Wall Street Journal. April 12, 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303815404577332761839287698.html?KEYWORDS=Matthew+Rees

    [16] Bolduc, Brian. Captain Michio and the World of Tomorrow. Wall Street Journal. March 9, 2012.

    [18] Ridley, Ibid. p.355

    [19] Ridley, Ibid. p.356

    [20] Diamandis, Peter H., Kotler, Steven. (2012) Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think. (1st ed.) New York: Simon & Schuster. Front cover flap.

    [21] Ridley, Ibid. p.353

    [22] Ridley, Ibid. p.353

  • Topic Category: Optimism
  • Tags: optimism, progress
  • Filed in:

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