As many friends of Pomocon have observed, the cult of optimism involves some pretty serious pathologies and distorting effects on individual and social life. But one way of thinking about optimism begins with the suggestion that the optimist’s basic concern is with energy. We will, says the optimist, always wind up finding enough energy to meet the demands of the day. (Bracket for now the question of what exactly these demands might be.) The optimist knows that some days are better than others, and occasionally we’ll have to convalesce; but time is short, and/or money, in the real world, and the optimist isn’t terribly optimistic about our prospects for long, open-ended repose. One needn’t bring up Tocqueville to get here, but Tocqueville’s analysis of restless Americans in motion is consonant with the idea that optimism as we know it is nonsense in an energy-poor world.

It is to be expected, then, that policy-oriented critics of optimism are pessimists about fuel . But a savvy optimist would share in the criticism, so far as it extends to our oil-based economy. The only trouble is that we have yet to clear the hurdle of science that will get us to great new vistas of energy. Typically, this is not something our anti-optimists want to hear. The only thing worse than a gas-guzzling Hummer is a green Hummer that gets a hundred miles to the gallon . This is not news to celebrate for those who think our restlessness tears us harmfully away from the right reason of the orderly city of man; and it happens that optimism looks in this light like a vice only to the extent that it spurs us on to greater and greater rambling.

On the other hand, if there’s one place where optimism would feed quickly into tyranny, it’s the civitas , where optimism’s would-be externalities must be generally internalized as the energy-consuming quest for energy is funneled or channeled vertically — between the one and the many — instead of horizontally — out toward the ever-receding horizon. Alas, it’s impossible nowadays to envision a city that’s such a closed system — even one in the clouds or in speech. It is , to be sure, possible to envision a state like that, whether in Hobbesian or Hegelian or perhaps (you do the math) Oakeshottian style. Still, the European experiment with energetic, optimistic states led for dismayingly environmental reasons to colonialism and conquest. Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, but the ethos of Lebensraum sought to do ‘at home’ what had heretofore (in the wake of the Napoleonic crisis, note) been seriously attempted only abroad, in reaction to the basic problem of size that geographical Europe imposed.

That problem was swiftly identified and resolved in America, where it could be, unleashing theretofore unheard-of quantities of energy and optimism. Our concern today is whether life after the Tab that Ate America will be markedly energy-poorer. The debate about whether that life is likely to be more or less virtuous turns on the question of whether less energetic and optimistic people will tend to cluster together once again in appreciation of their mutual dependency, or simply ramble more dissolutely , a word which apprehends both a certain kind of moral impoverishment and a certain kind of supervenient profligacy. (When I write about our capacity to party like celebrities though mere amateurs we be, it’s this ambiguity I’m alluding to.) The nature of life in the twenty-first century will not be decided on the strict basis of what happens to our cars, but the mass availability in years to come of huge, eco-friendly partymobiles must surely augur a long, strange life for restlessness, rootlessness, and optimism in America — indulging both in its vertical and its horizontal forms .

Articles by James Poulos

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