Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) reminds us that the meaning of the word optimism has shifted over time:
[The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which up to 60,000 people died in quake, fire and tsunami] also led Voltaire to ridicule the philosophy of optimism, a word coined in 1737 to describe Gottfried Leibniz’s view that God had made this the best of all possible worlds (and, therefore, the future could be no better). In Voltaire’s novel Candide, or the Optimist, Dr. Pangloss remains blissfully confident — despite experiencing syphilis, shipwreck, earthquake, fire, hanging and slavery.
Yet the natural disasters of recent years have strongly vindicated optimism — not of Leibniz’s variety but of the modern, hopeful kind. The difference between Haiti’s death toll of up to 300,000 in January and Chile’s of about 500 a month later can be attributed in large part to the difference in their wealth. Likewise, Category 5 Hurricane Dean struck the well-prepared Yucatán in 2007 and killed no one, but when a similar storm struck impoverished and ill-prepared Burma the next year, it killed 200,000. Pakistan’s floods this year killed 1,800; Poland’s, less than 50. Java’s Mount Merapi has killed more than 200; Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull killed no one.
In short, prosperity buys survival. (The shocking thing about Hurricane Katrina was not that it killed so many people but that it did so in such a prosperous country.)