In a thought-provoking and eminently readable debut, Venkataraman, an MIT professor who served as senior advisor for the Obama administration on climate change innovation, considers why people—individually and collectively—often undermine their own best interests, opting for short-term rewards over longer-term, perhaps more sustainable benefits. Venkataraman takes a multifaceted approach—surveying research from biology, psychology, and economics, among other fields, and gleaning lessons from diverse groups such as poker players and Montessori students—to determine ways to encourage people to choose more wisely and more consistently consider long-term consequences. Strategies have ranged from a Michigan credit union’s offering depositors chances to win prizes when adding to their savings accounts, to doctors receiving emails praising their record of giving prescriptions only when warranted. In both cases, positive reinforcements proved far more effective than attempts to, respectively, encourage savings for unknown emergencies or micromanage doctors’ medical decisions. In the business world, strategists have suggested giving investors incentives to take a more patient approach to the market. (One banker likens the idea to Odysseus tying himself to the mast in order to resist the sirens’ song.) Venkataraman’s thoughtful and clear-eyed assessment of how to teach oneself to make more carefully considered decisions should prove a valuable tool for anyone wishing to think less in the short term and more toward the future. (Aug.)
A former Obama administration senior climate policy adviser urges that we adjust our sights to take in a longer view.
"A good forecast, it turns out, is not the same as good foresight," writes Venkataraman (Science, Technology, and Society/MIT), who observes that modern humans do not often take the time to look at the ramifications of the decisions we make outside of their immediate effects. So it is that corporations look to the next quarter and not the next century and retirement catches so many people financially unprepared. And so it is, in a pointed lesson that the author offers early on, that we continue to build our homes and cities in hurricane- and flood-prone areas without adequately preparing for the eventuality, underinsured and underprotected. "The choices we make today shape tomorrow's so-called natural disasters," adding that it might drive the point home better if weather forecasters would include images of the effects of past disasters when they're predicting a storm. It's understandable that we have a bias for the present, or what the film director Wim Wenders calls the "monopoly of the visible," but our failure to examine the implications of our actions is having all kinds of effects. One is the near collapse of our fisheries, which is one of Venkataraman's case studies, and the persistent eruptions of the Ebola virus, which the author considers a prime example of what historian Barbara Tuchman called "marches of folly," on a par with the Trojan horse and the American misadventure in Vietnam: "Societies and leaders of each era knew better but acted as if ignorant." Habitat destruction, extinction, continuing climate change leading to an uninhabitable Earth—such are the results of the short term. To counter our patterns of thinking and doing, the author closes with prescriptions including such things as finding "immediate rewards for future goals" and weaning ourselves from the desire for instant gratification in favor of "fighting for greater foresight in society."
A timely reminder that time is not on our side without long-term thinking.
How might we mitigate losses caused by shortsightedness? Bina Venkataraman, a former climate adviser to the Obama administration, brings a storyteller’s eye to this question. . . . She is also deeply informed . . . heed Venkataraman’s impassioned call for making a commitment to future change.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Bina Venkataraman zeroes in on the heart of [the] problem… with vivid anecdotes, Venkataraman musters all the optimism she can manage to suggest how we might be able to overcome something that feels like plain old human nature.” —NPR, Best Books of 2019
“Venkataraman vividly depicts what happens when we don’t plan ahead and what we can do about it, on our own and together.” —The Washington Post
“In pacy prose that’s easy to digest but offers concrete examples of change . . . this book offers hope that we can take back some control of our own destinies and aim for a better future.” —The Financial Times
“Most of us only see the future after it becomes the past. The Optimist's Telescope is here to change that. It's a rare read that's as fascinating as it is important. In it, Bina Venkataraman brings together powerful narrative, cutting-edge behavioral science, and the rich experience of a high-impact career.” —Adam Grant, author of Originals
“The unknown can always be scary. But in this wise, eye-opening, and hopeful book, Bina Venkataraman shows us the ways we can think more clearly and strategically about the future - in our communities, our families, and in our own lives.” —Arianna Huffington
“Bina Venkataraman illuminates how we can make better decisions for ourselves, our communities, and Earth itself. She introduces us to an array of colorful and unexpected characters, from ancient philosophers to tech entrepreneurs, all while distilling the science of foresight into practical advice we can all use. A timely and valuable book.” —Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business
“The Optimist's Telescope is a noble and important book. Through stories of people who have made a difference and an acute awareness of how things can be made better, Bina Venkataraman shows how we can effect change and make the world a better place. She is the good parent this planet so desperately needs.” —Errol Morris, Oscar-winning filmmaker and author of Believing Is Seeing
“[Venkataraman] explores all sorts of ways that businesses, governments, and communities have learned to be better planners-ahead. . . . She also writes beautifully about how we can all ‘be better ancestors.’” —The Grist
“A timely reminder that time is not on our side without long-term thinking.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A thought-provoking and eminently readable debut…Venkataraman’s thoughtful and clear-eyed assessment of how to teach oneself to make more carefully considered decisions should prove a valuable tool for anyone wishing to think less in the short term and more toward the future.” —Publishers Weekly
“An intriguing look at strategies for the long-term with citations from business executives, sociologists, and philosophers; highly recommended.” —Library Journal
“Chinese peasants once got paid by the piece to find dinosaur bones; soon they took to smashing the bones into tiny pieces to boost their income. This book is a sobering compendium of the many ways in which ill-conceived short-term incentives undermine valuable long-term goals. The stakes go way beyond busted fossils: think rising sea waters, treatment-resistant pathogens, collapsing infrastructure, disappearing topsoil . . . A grim list and grounds for pessimism unless, that is, it gets read in the context of this book, for Bina Venkataraman has assembled a remarkable repair kit, full of tested tools for harmonizing the lure of present reward with the foresight we need if we are to build a durable future.” —Lewis Hyde
“The Optimist’s Telescope will help you think about the biggest decisions you face in your life and that humanity faces in this historical moment. Everyone should read this book.” —Gary Knell, chairman of National Geographic Partners
Venkataraman (science, technology, society, MIT), senior adviser for climate change innovation during the Obama administration, writes a thought-provoking study of the implications of decisions in planning for the future, citing unfortunate short-term decisions made by policymakers to seek immediate satisfaction instead of planning for the long-term. Predicting the future is not enough, unless it is "paired with imagination," she states. The author investigates what allows wisdom to prevail over recklessness in our choices. The first part of the book includes analysis of envisioning the future and draws on specific perspectives from sociologist Marshall Ganz and virtual reality expert Jeremy Bailenson. The second part features specific case studies of Sarah Cosgrove, who worked to bring attention to and prevent the overuse of antibiotics, and Marie Montessori's innovative educational theories and school programs. Later chapters focus on lessons for scenario planning, including a discussion of decisions made during the Cuban Missile Crisis and World War II. VERDICT An intriguing look at strategies for the long-term with citations from business executives, sociologists, and philosophers; highly recommended.—Lucy Heckman, St. John's Univ. Lib., Queens Village, NY