Are we in the best of times? Or the end of times? One of the oddities of the current era is that extreme pessimism about the world coexists with extreme optimism — and both have a plausible case to make. The two views are epitomised by David Attenborough and Bill Gates, two charismatic figures whom I met on the same day, earlier in 2019 at Davos. Sir David, now in his 90s, is using his position as one of the world’s most famous broadcasters to sound the alarm about looming environmental catastrophe. In a recent BBC programme, Climate Change: The Facts, he argues that without dramatic action, humanity “faces a devastating future”. He highlights not just climate change but a whole array of unfolding environmental disasters, such as the pollution of the oceans and the extinction of species. Gates, by contrast, is a determined optimist. In an interview with the MIT Technology Review, he argues that “the big picture is that it’s better to be born today than ever, and it will be better...

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