Boris Starling

Journalist, novelist, screenwriter

I’m writing this on the approach to Galileo Galilei airport in Pisa, and though there are mysteries that even the great man could not solve – why do Italian men wear their sunglasses on their foreheads, for example? – his words are as relevant now as ever. “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

If Galileo’s age was one of renaissance, ours can seem all too often to be one of despair. The most vicious war in Europe since 1945, the aftershocks of a global pandemic, heat emergencies, spiralling living costs, women’s rights being reversed, political turmoil… the list goes on, each item another block in the cosmic Jenga game of doom. To be optimistic in such circumstances seems at first glance to be not just foolish but actively dangerous, a blithe negation of the challenges facing us all.

But optimism is precisely what we need. Like Ian Dury, we must seek reasons to be cheerful, and there are plenty if only we know where to look – that is, beyond the nihilistic clickbait of relentlessly depressing news items, beyond the toxic tribal sniping of social media, and beyond our own instinctive desire to wallow in a modern-day secular version of Bunyan’s slough of despond. Take your pick at what to be astounded and inspired by: the regreening of deserts; phage therapy as a replacement for antibiotics; the expansion of education; nature-based alternatives to plastic; new cancer therapies; the increasing efficiency of electric cars; drought-tolerant seeds and flood-resistant rice; and so on.

Look at all the brainpower involved in such programmes. Dury again: there ain’t half been some clever bastards. And not just clever bastards, but ones using their intellect, drive and ambition to do things rather than just sitting around bemoaning the state of the world. Digitalisation is changing the world faster than at any time in history, and has the potential to transcend borders and reshape the global economic structure like never before. Problems which seem insuperable today may be within reach of solution tomorrow.

Generation Z, the ones who will help drive this change, are in general much more passionate, idealistic and motivated than their parents were at the same age. Our teenage interests as Generation X were largely confined to team sports, Goth music and masturbation; theirs involve social change, political activism and technological innovation. “Born into a more digital, interconnected and diverse reality,” said a Unicef study last year, “young people see a world that is largely a better place for children than the one their parents grew up in: a safer and more abundant world that offers children better education, opportunities and hope for the future. [These young people] have concerns for the future, but see themselves as part of the solution.”

In that, they have much to teach their elders. Every generation likes to think it is living through uniquely turbulent and challenging times, because no generation has the benefit of hindsight until much later: that yes, things may have been bad, but solutions were found and the world kept on turning. This inability to foretell the future makes us prone to perceiving pessimists as more intelligent than optimists. Optimists’ faith in unknowns makes them easy to dismiss as naïve and stupid, whereas pessimists’ starting-point – an assessment of the world’s inadequacy – makes them appear realistic, hard-headed and rational. Fear is a more powerful, immediate, tangible and urgent emotion than hope. As Charles Darwin said, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” But we have the knowledge, if only we dare use it. By any rational yardstick, our lives are immeasurably better and safer than they were a century ago. Life expectancy, living standards, health and literacy are higher than they’ve ever been, and if all these remain imperfectly applied and desperately uneven across nations and classes – which they do – then it is still within our capabilities to improve this.

We won’t do so, however, if we continue to conjure up hysteria about worst-case scenarios, taking on other people’s fear and transmitting our own back to them. Eschatologists one and all, we extrapolate social developments to their apocalyptic endpoint – a world on fire, a Malthusian catastrophe, an extinction event. It’s not just that doomerism luxuriates in the awful: it’s that it disengages those who subscribe to it, because its central message is not just that the world is screwed but also that there’s nothing to be done about it. We let the future haunt the present, because we find it easier to be fatalistic than to roll our sleeves up and try to fix things. Turning away from such interpretations doesn’t mean ignoring or denying the underlying problems: it means engaging with those problems rationally, seeking solutions, and keeping faith in man’s capacity to improve. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie SE7EN is when Brad Pitt’s character calls out Morgan Freeman’s for his cynical apathy. “You want me to agree with you, and you want me to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. It’s all fucked up. It’s a fucking mess. We should all go live in a fucking log cabin.’ But I won’t. I won’t say that. I don’t agree with you. I do not. I can’t.”

Nor does the Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. When I interviewed him last year, he said simply: “it’s not too late to create a very good world.” Galileo’s ghost would agree.

Sarah Hall


I’ve always loved gorse. I grew up near moorland where, in summer, the intoxicating tropical fragrance of the yellow blossom drifted over the valley. It’s an impenetrable plant, reef-like, and prolifically spined, but when flowering it’s also very beautiful. Though it’s been used in the past as cattle fodder, gorse is mostly considered a pest – an invasive species that gets everywhere once established. Great swathes of it cover Cornwall, Cumbria and Scotland, and it’s often burned back or treated with herbicide.

Recently, the indy chocolate manufacturer Chocolarder found a delicious way to capture and transfer the coconutty, jasminey flavour of the blooms into their bars. I’ve often wondered whether some kind of delightful native effervescent spirit could be distilled – gorse champagne, rather like elderflower champagne but headier, earthier, better!

Imagine then my delight on reading that Professor Wendy Russell, at the University of Aberdeen, has been researching the protein content of gorse and has surmised that it could be developed in future to feed huge numbers of the population. All of Scotland, in fact, from the gorse growing on marginal land. Ingenious.

In a rapaciously consuming, over-farmed and ecologically denuded world, there is increasing pressure to find alternatives to meat and dairy proteins – including insect, plant, seasonal and lab-grown produce. We must change our diets if the tide is going to be turned on environmental catastrophe. So the concept of a freely flourishing scrubland crop transferred to the dinner plate is remarkable and timely. Such programmes should be financially backed to the hilt.

Much in the way Japan has developed sea-vegetable dishes from its shoreline, we need to innovate and extend our thinking around national food supplies. Hats off to those, like Prof Wendy, already forging ahead.
And I’ll happily volunteer for

the gorse testing and tasting programme. I’m already planning future meals: gorse stir-fry, gorse milk, roast gorse and gorse chips, followed by gorse ice cream. Meanwhile, I’ll settle for that delicious Cornish wild gorse flower chocolate.

Peace Project faith leaders together, Tbilisi Georgia. Photos: Baptist News

Dr Rowan Williams

Former Archbishop of Canterbury

Not a great discovery or a global initiative, but one of those vignettes that remind you of the generosity still at work in the imagination of people under pressure. Tbilisi in Georgia is the location of a unique new project, the conversion of a disused warehouse into a “Peace Cathedral”, incorporating worship spaces for Jews, Muslims and Christians under the same roof.  It’s the brainchild of one of the leaders of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia, Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, and the stimulus came from two sources. During the Russia-Chechnya war, many Muslim refugees ended up in Georgia, and Bishop Malkhaz’s church found itself heavily involved in work with them. And around the same time, a marked resurgence in anti-semitic rhetoric (including some – unofficial but noisy – voices from the Georgian Orthodox Church) caused deep anxiety in Georgia’s very ancient Jewish communities. Malkhaz had studied with a noted Georgian Jewish teacher and was determined to push back at both the renormalising of ancient bigotry against Jews and the new bigotry against displaced Muslims seeking asylum. The building should be completed next year, and meanwhile a variety of educational and community-based programmes is developing.  One young woman who has become involved has said simply that it feels “kind”. A word that could do with more use and more occasions for use; not rocket science.

Joanna Lumley

Actress and campaigner

So much good is going on, and imaginations are fired. If we could only wriggle free of this carapace of despair we would see that all the small things we can do would make literally a world of difference

Dr Hannah Critchlow

Neuroscientist, author, broadcaster

We’re undergoing a major evolutionary transition that’s towards collective intelligence and away from individuality. According to accumulating evidence we’re creating a socially integrated mega-group where the effect of culture supersedes our genes. This progression is amplified by some of the technologies we’re being compelled to create, including communication and transport developments. In neuroengineering, for example, memory stamps can be copied from a donor brain and electrically imprinted onto a recipient’s brain to boost learning. Or human “BrainNets” can create superbrains of interconnected problem solvers using direct brain-to-brain communication. Looking at consensus building more organically, there’s exciting research looking at how the human brain can synchronise with other people’s brains.

This is linked to enhanced learning, which is aimed at building consensus and cooperation. Simple tricks like direct eye contact, singing and exercise all play a role. But the best way to improve a group’s success is by increasing the ratio of females within it. Women’s enhanced emotional perceptiveness and better ability to take turns, helping others to progress and shine, helps tap into the collective intelligence on offer. These are just some of the many developments in neuroscience that can help to augment our capacity for innovative problem-solving, as well as the general wellbeing of our own and future generations. I firmly believe that increasing knowledge about the brain can help us to make better decisions, so that we can flourish, rather than fail, as a species.

Alex McBride

Criminal barrister

Optimism is best viewed from a distance, as if watching a Pony Express rider, a speck on the prairie, hopeful that he’s bringing good news. I feel optimistic with the latest developments in the use of personalised vaccines to treat the most aggressive and deadly cancers. The idea is that you analyse the DNA of a person’s tumour and then build a vaccine to attack just that tumour and its unique mutations, leaving other cells in the body undisturbed. Immune systems fight cancers naturally, but they need help to beat the tricks cancers use to evade detection. Vaccines work by exposing a patient’s immune system to snippets of the cancer. Our T-cells, which attack rogue cells in the body, learn to recognise the cancer and react. There are other related treatments like MRNA vaccines which get the immune system to recognize the unique markers on the surface of the patient’s tumour cells and kill them. I like to think about the man in one personalised vaccine trial whose tumours were metastasising so fast they had started to poke out of his back. Doctors gave him a fifteen per cent chance of survival: scant hope. Seven years later he remains cancer free

John Lloyd

Comedy producer

Seventy per cent of the Earth is covered in water and 99% of the molecules in your body are made of it. Yet water, believe it or not, is the strangest substance in the universe. Scientists have known for many years that water possesses 41 anomalies that distinguish it from all other liquids, but Dr Gerald Pollack, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, has discovered another one. He has found that shining light on water splits it into two parts, the main bulk of which is positively charged, and a narrow “exclusion zone” (EZ) that is negatively charged. This is made, not of H20 but H302, and it is the Fourth State of water – neither solid, liquid nor gas, but a kind of gel. It’s called the “exclusion zone” because it ejects all particles – such as dirt, bacteria, or salt – from itself. The fluid in the EZ can be harvested, creating an endless source of pure drinking water. Plus, by placing electrodes in each of the two differently charged zones, water becomes a liquid battery, generating an infinite supply of completely free energy. So 42, after all, really may be The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.

Professor Lucy Easthope

UK disaster planner and adviser

I am a disaster planner and I feel immense optimism. Because one thing that disaster planners know is that life has always been like this – that, sense of the rushing from one catastrophe to the next – the permacrisis – has simply come out into the open. Life has always been a risk, a daily battle to survive. Countries like the UK have simply softened the edges of that, for some but not for all. That’s why we tend to find that people who live with poverty, inequality, racism and abuse are actually more prepared for the rollercoaster of life after disaster. If you link your feelings of optimism to world politics or geography or the evil of man you will always be disappointed, but if you look more closely there are daily examples of reasons to cheer. Feeling hopeful is a choice. Hopelessness is linked to a lack of a horizon and a future but also a lack of agency. There is a strength that comes with focussing your vision down onto things you can do something about. I tweet regular examples of ways to do that.  I write a lot about how it’s the little moments that bring me “hope” – I see reasons to be hopeful most when I am with children. So many of them are optimistic – let them show us adults the way.

Dr Ash Ranpura


I’m excited because I think the shit is hitting the fan in neuroscience, and this is allowing creative destruction, which bodes well for the future. The replication crisis (the dilemma that the results of many scientific studies are difficult or impossible to replicate) is no longer a crisis, it’s just the state of play. Most previous assumptions about brain function are up for reinterpretation, so suddenly it’s possible to ask the big questions again. More women and minorities are in big leadership roles, running things differently, asking different questions. The field is way more open-minded than it was two decades ago. There’s now widespread acknowledgment that research using exclusively white Western undergraduates as subjects won’t apply to the general population. That means even established findings need to be re-examined. It means scientists are humbler, and old white guys whose work was once considered gospel are having to take a more chastened position. Younger scientists can push forward, faster. Meanwhile, there’s a shift away from thinking about the brain as a computational device and more like an organic part of an ecosystem – but still no technical capacity to study it in that way. There’s a tiny ember of interest in non-European ideas about mental life and knowledge, but still no concerted effort to understand them (this would be a bridge between neuroscience and anthropology). There is a tinsy-tiny revival of interest in spiritual experiences and moral reasoning which had otherwise died out many decades ago, but this still makes most people extremely nervous and sceptical. In general, I am excited and optimistic.

One dose of psilocybin beats ongoing antidepressant use for treatment-resistant depression

Lucy Walker

Documentary filmmaker

Ever since I first tried psilocybin-containing “magic” mushrooms in high school I referred to them as “nature’s antidepressant”. I’d never read any research and never suffered from depression, but I could distinctly feel them lifting me out of mental ruts and infusing me with vibrant wellbeing. Sometimes I’d giggle, sometimes I’d weep, sometimes I’d gasp, but I always loved my occasional trips and emerged revitalised. I know this is not very scientific and a study sample size N of 1; but observing those effects in myself was part of what got me fascinated by psychedelics. It made me curious about the pioneering scientists doing the formal hard work of inquiring into what is actually going on and might account for what I had observed. After decades of pursuing a career in filmmaking – with my side interest in psychedelics never wavering – I was thrilled when leading researcher Robin Carhart-Harris, of Imperial College London, agreed to film for my documentary team’s series How To Change Your Mind (now screening on Netflix).

Robin’s important studies include the finding that a single dose of psilocybin beats ongoing antidepressant use for treatment-resistant depression. The research overwhelmingly demonstrates that psychedelics are powerful, transformative therapies for conditions for which we currently no longer have no other good options in the medicine cabinet – such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, addictions, and eating disorders. And they are on track to be legalised over the next few years.

Dan Richards


Judith Schalansky’s book, An Inventory of Losses, has a preamble totting up the objects and knowledge lost and found during its composition. The (re)discoveries — archaeologists uncovering a mummification workshop in the necropolis of Saqqara, a previously unknown Walt Whitman novel, a lost album by John Coltrane, fragments of two hitherto unknown poems by Sappho, and the world’s oldest alphabet carved on stone tablets 3,800 years ago, to name but a few – filled me with hope and delight. The world is full of wonder if we keep looking. A nineteen-year-old intern discovered hundreds of Piranesi drawings in Karlsruhe State Museum’s collection of works on paper. A double page of Anne Frank’s Diary which had had brown paper pasted over it was successfully deciphered. Ornithologists recorded several sightings of blue-eyed ground-doves in a Brazilian savanna, presumed extinct since 1941. And the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror from the ill-fated 1845-7 Franklin Expedition were located in the Canadian Arctic. All is not lost. Schalansky writes: “In the Cygnus constellation, 1,400 light years from our sun, a celestial body was found, in a so-called habitable zone, on which the average temperature is similar to that of Earth, meaning there may be or may once have been water there, and hence also life, such as we imagine life to be.”

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock

Creative Consultant/Producer

Mass communications can be used to achieve awful things in a global capitalist system. But they can be used to spread a real sense of joy, too. Eighteen months ago I set out to tell some stories about the British South Asian experience, and the first manifestation of this is a documentary for the Guardian called Dear Bradford. It was created with new filmmakers, with no political agenda, and for no commercial gain. It nourished my soul. The film tells the story of the relationship between a young man and his grandmother as they assess their relationship with Bradford, 21 years after race riots hit the city. As our grandparents’ stories start to disappear, creating work that celebrates them with sensitivity and compassion seems to strike a chord with everyone. The reaction from all parts of British society has been wonderful, beating the internet trolls and cynicism that plagues our feeds. We are all capable of kindness and humanity, when we allow ourselves to let our guards down.

John Mitchinson


Thinking about what might kindle hope, I immediately thought of the local song thrushes that begin singing here in the depths of winter. Thomas Hardy’s “darkling thrush” was probably a song thrush, flinging “his soul upon the growing gloom”. But the UK thrush population has declined by more than 50 per cent since 1970 – and most garden birds show similarly dismal results. I needed an avian success story: I found the common crane. Absent from Britain for 400 years, a single pair began nesting in Norfolk in 1979 and now, thanks to a combination of site protection and a careful breeding programme, cranes are also found in Cambridgeshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire. In 2021, seventy-two breeding pairs were recorded, yielding a total population of over 200 birds. Why does this matter? Aside from the obvious win for conservationists, cranes are magnificent creatures. Their eerie booming call and their elaborate dances have inspired humans since prehistoric times. According to Roman fables, Hermes was inspired to invent writing by the shapes flying cranes made in the sky. In the UK, anywhere with ‘cran’ in its name (Cranfield, Cranwell, Cranbourne) will have once been home to cranes. And now, against all the odds, they’re back.

Julie Myerson


I love that none of our three adult children have ever driven or owned a car, nor do they show any signs of wanting to. It wasn’t always so. Having passed my test on the fifth attempt, when almost nine months pregnant with our eldest – and then enjoyed years of bombing around in our old Passat – I used to dream of a time when our kids would pass theirs. How handy to have a daughter who could pick you up from the airport, a son to drop you at a hospital appointment. But we ditched our car more than a decade ago – just couldn’t justify polluting London any more. And we never looked back. The city has a fantastic transport system, the amount of walking we do keeps us fit and young, and if you’ve got your high heels on, there are always taxis. Unapologetic? Absolutely. The planet is burning and I look at people sitting in their stationary metal boxes with exhaust pumping out of them and the image is a very uneasy one. I don’t know how anyone apart from the disabled can think of driving in London in the current climate, in both senses of the word. And I’m so proud of the new generation, our own kids included, whose eco-minded lifestyle will surely inspire an even more sleek and effective public transport system.

Joanna Grochowicz


I like my steak bloody. I also like it shrink-wrapped. I have no stomach for the slaughter. My hypocrisy extends to the meat industry too. Like most carnivores I know that industrial farming sacrifices animal welfare for efficiency and that my protein fix comes at an enormous environmental cost to the planet. Yet I remain a committed meat-eater who pales at the thought of plant-based alternatives. However, a guilt-free butchery aisle looks set to free me from my existential pain as advances in cellular agriculture and tissue engineering make cultivated meat a reality. All we need is for it to reach consumers on an industrial scale. Generated from cells obtained from living animals in minimally invasive ways, cultivated meat is grown, not in factory farms, but in a nutrient-enriched medium containing amino acids, vitamins and nutrients. Products are ready for harvest not in years but in a matter of months. Stem cells are the magic ingredient. Able to self-renew and differentiate, they can be encouraged to become any combination of muscle, fat, connective tissue and bone. The same process is being used to produce seafood and milk products. Depleted oceans, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and dirty dairying will become a thing of the past. Who doesn’t cheer the prospect of cruelty-free foie gras wrapped it in new-age bacon?

Diana Thomas

Journalist and Author

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 2022
(with apologies to the late, great Ian Dury)

  • Look at all the shining sun! Getting out and having fun
  • Harry Styles at Number 1, in pearls
  • Lionesses winning, supporters all singing
  • Russo’s backheeel, are you kidding? Go, girls!
  • Webb’s telescope in space stares Bing Bang in the face
  • Countless galaxies can trace, new worlds
  • Stones in the park, Macca after dark
  • Oldies on a lark, singing songs
  • Science flowers, fusion power
  • Gets closer by the hour, turn it on
  • Doctors pioneering, genetic engineering
  • All that cancer fearing, gone
  • Top Gun Maverick, Tom Cruise looking slick
  • With his anti-ageing trick. How?
  • COVID vaccinations, enabling vacations,
  • In exotic destinations. Now
  • OK so there are delays, for several hours, even days
  • But soon I’ll swim and tan and laze. Brown cow.
  • Reasons to be cheerful, 2022
  • Reasons to be cheerful, 2022
  • Rishi and Kemi, Liz and Pennie,
  • Well, at least they are diverse
  • Our trains may be static, but we’re free and democratic,
  • Honestly it could be worse
  • Putin sins, Zelensky wins
  • And on that I’ll end my verse.

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