The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age
By Bina Venkataraman
Riverhead Books, New York, 2019
As I write this in late March 2020 in Seattle, the world is gripped by the coronavirus epidemic. It feels like everything everywhere is shutting down.
I don’t know if it makes any sense to be writing book reviews right now. Maybe it’s pointless and trivial when so many are suffering.
On the other hand, eventually we’ll get back to normal, or we’ll figure out a new normal.
Reading is a big part of my normal. And so is writing about what I read. So I’m going to keep doing it. Partly to preserve some shred of normal, and partly in hope that it might help you preserve some too. But mainly because never mind the virus, there are great books out there!
The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman is one of them. It’s relevant too: it’s about learning how to make smarter, long-term decisions.
Bina Venkataraman is an author, journalist and policy expert who served in the Obama White House as Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation and as an advisor on responding to the 2014 Ebola epidemic. She is currently the Editorial Page Editor at The Boston Globe
Venkataraman thinks we need to get way better at thinking ahead. The decisions we make today will have a huge impact on our future selves, our businesses and our communities. Whether it’s heading off a global pandemic, fighting climate change or preserving forests and fisheries, never before have our decisions been so burdened with consequence.
Decisions, she says, are a combination of information and judgement. Without information we can’t make judgements at all. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed the ancient city of Pompeii. But the inhabitants had no clue about an impending disaster, so they did not flee. That’s not poor judgement, it’s tragedy.
But when we have information and still make poor judgements, that’s recklessness.
Venkataraman defines foresight as the “judgement to make smart choices about the future.” Our lack of foresight today is leading us to “an epidemic of recklessness, a colossal failure to plan ahead.” [p. 3]
Her book, The Optimist’s Telescope, is about why we make reckless decisions and how we can develop the foresight to make better ones. Because, she says, we have a choice, we’re not doomed. We can learn and adapt.
The book is organized into three sections that examine how individuals, businesses and communities make decisions, in particular decisions that have far-reaching consequences.
At every level, we make three common mistakes that interfere with our ability to think and act in our best long-term interests.
First, we measure the wrong things. Whether it’s a CEO focusing on quarterly earnings and neglecting long-term investments, or fishermen trying to maximize this year’s catch while depleting overall fish stocks, the metrics we use are short term. They cause us to direct our energies towards immediate results or immediate benefits to the detriment of our future selves.
Second, we succumb too easily to impulsive decisions. You want to save money, but those new shoes look so great you just have to buy them. After all, they’re on sale! A doctor prescribes antibiotics for a patient without considering how that action might contribute to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. In countless organizations, tired and overworked people make important decisions under the pressure of ridiculous deadlines. And here in America, our 2-year election cycle, with its crushing demands for constant fundraising, virtually guarantees short-term thinking.
We need strategies and tools and incentives to help us interrupt these impulsive behaviors, slow down and make better decisions.
Finally, and most importantly, Venkataraman says poor decision-making comes from a failure of imagination. We fail to imagine the future. Both the good and the bad. We fail to imagine that terrorists would choose to fly fully loaded passenger jets into skyscrapers. We fail to imagine that an outbreak of Ebola in Africa will become an epidemic, or that a coronavirus in China will explode into a worldwide pandemic. We build housing developments on flood plains never imagining the consequences of rising sea levels or increasingly severe tropical storms.
We have difficulty imagining positive outcomes too, like how much healthier we’ll be if we quit smoking, or how much better our careers will be if we persevere and finish that college degree. We seem unable to imagine what it would be like to have a more equitable society, or to live in greater harmony with the natural world.
So even though recent advances in modeling and machine learning have dramatically improved our ability to make accurate predictions, we still lack the imagination to turn those predictions into action.
But we can get better at making decisions, Venkataraman tells us. We can choose a better future.
She describes some approaches that individuals and communities have used to help them focus on the long term. Like the fishing community in Baja, Mexico that allocates a “catch share:” to each family, managing the total catch to preserve the fishery for future generations. Or banks that offer lottery tickets as an incentive for customers to save regularly.
“If/then” techniques can help people plan ahead by imagining temptations that might lead them to stray from important goals, and then working out in advance what they would do if those situations actually arise. If your goal is not to check email in the morning so you can focus on project work, then you could decide to jot down reminders to talk to people in the afternoon instead of impulsively jumping on email. It’s a simple yet powerful tool to help you stick to your goals because you’re not just anticipating future events, you’re envisioning yourself taking a desired action.
But how do we scale this over time when the choices we make “ripple across generations?”
“With the Promethean power to make decisions today that will define future generations – whether it’s creating their future climate or changing the species itself – we have unprecedented obligations. Yet for the most part, we lack the ability to think about and plan across the spans of time in which we are implicated.” [p. 243]
The answer, she suggests, might lie in a dilruba.
The dilruba is a stringed musical instrument from India, played with a bow. It has a haunting, almost forlorn sound as you can hear in this video.
In the most eloquent part of the book, Venkataraman tells the story of how her great-grandfather’s dilruba was handed down to her by her grandmother. It’s a family heirloom. She says,
“While the instrument is in my possession today, I know that it doesn’t actually belong to me – it belongs to the generations of my family that came before, and to the ones that will come after. It belongs to time itself.” [p. 253]
Heirlooms like this position us as both descendants and as ancestors, she says. Caring for a family heirloom becomes a sacred duty.
“The heirloom designates me with a purpose, to usher it along in time.” [p. 254]
What if we were to think of the whole Earth as a shared heirloom?
It’s not such a radical idea, she says. We already keep shared heirlooms like the Taj Mahal and the Mona Lisa, and even our national parks. We treat them with care and reverence. We visit them and use them, but not to the point of depletion because we know it is our duty to preserve them for future generations.
Venkataraman suggests we approach the problem of climate change in this way, looking at the atmosphere, the oceans, and diverse landscapes as heirlooms to be stewarded across generations, used but not destroyed.
To be good and caring ancestors we don’t need to solve problems for all time. But we do need to value the next two or three generations like we value our own children and grandchildren. We’re not dictating their future but preserving for them the resources and the freedom to make their own choices for themselves and for their descendants in turn.
Thinking like heirloom-keepers could help us shift “from recklessness to foresight.”
The Optimist’s Telescope is mainly a collection of stories gathered from encounters and interviews that Bina Venkataraman has had over the years with lobster fishermen, farmers, doctors, fund managers, bankers, scientists and government officials.
The flow is a little jumpy at times, and she has clearly been frustrated by her experiences working on climate change and the Ebola outbreak during the Obama Administration. But her message is clear.
She has written a book that tries to give us both the urgency and the agency we need to act. It’s this combination that makes the book so worthwhile. There are countless books and articles urging us to act on climate change or other threats. But what’s been missing, for me anyway, is how to think about problems of such magnitude on a scale that each of us can imagine, in a way that doesn’t paralyze us with fear and doubt.
That’s why I loved the idea of thinking like heirloom-keepers, of trying to be good ancestors. It’s a compelling and elegant idea that seems designed to encourage foresight. It elevates The Optimist’s Telescope from an interesting collection of stories into a real gem.
The Power to Think Ahead in a Reckless Age
TED Talk by Bina Venkataraman, April 2019
Why Weren’t We Better Prepared for Ebola
Boston Globe opinion essay by Bina Venkataraman, November 2014