It’s Week 2 of Nonfiction November and the theme is Book Pairings hosted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction.
“This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title (or another nonfiction!). It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story. Or pair a book with a podcast, film or documentary, TV show, etc. on the same topic or stories that pair together. “
I’m going to “pair” one novel with four nonfiction books, all of them about the same weighty theme: the future.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel The Ministry for the Future tells the story of a United Nations agency created to defend and protect future generations of citizens and other living creatures. It starts in 2024 and spans the next thirty years or so. In some ways, I think The Ministry for the Future is less a traditional novel and more a catalog of potential solutions presented in story form.
The novel presents a rich, plausible view into the near future. The overall message of the book is that there is no silver bullet that will solve the climate crisis. Many approaches will be needed. There are stark warnings and horrific scenarios here for sure, but on balance it’s hopeful. In fact, if anything, the book may be a bit too optimistic, but I think we need some of that these days.
20/20 Foresight: Crafting Strategy in an Uncertain World by Hugh Courtney is about how to define business strategy in the face of uncertain predictions about the future.
You might think all predictions about the future are uncertain, but Courtney shows there are actually four different kinds of uncertainty. These range from situations where there’s only one possible outcome and we just don’t know its exact size or timing, such as the expected peak in world population, to situations of radical uncertainty with lots of “unknown unknowns” where both the nature and the range of possible outcomes is unbounded.
20/20 Foresight lays out a set of questions and tools that people can use to help identify what kind of uncertainty they’re dealing with, and then decide what strategy to follow.
The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age by Bina Venkataraman is about learning how to make smarter, long-term decisions. Decisions, she says, are a combination of information and judgement. Without information we can’t make judgements at all. But when we have information and still make poor judgements, that’s recklessness. And right now, we’re facing “an epidemic of recklessness.”
The Optimist’s Telescope is mainly a collection of stories gathered from encounters and interviews that Venkataraman has had over the years with lobster fishermen, farmers, doctors, fund managers, bankers, scientists and government officials.
She says we can get better at making decisions, we can choose a better future. One way to do this, she suggests, is to think and act like ancestors. 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.
While The Optimist’s Telescope takes a journalistic approach, The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking by Roman Krznaric is more prescriptive: it provides a toolkit of six different ways to develop long-term thinking.
For example, he suggests we need to cultivate a legacy mindset to help us think about how we want to be remembered by future generations and what gifts or bequests we would like to pass on to them. Krznaric emphasizes that the most important legacy is a healthy planet on which future generations can thrive and flourish. To improve long-term thinking, we need to extend our concept of justice across time as well as distance by developing norms of intergenerational justice.
Finally, to focus our long-term thinking and to be good ancestors, we need to adopt a transcendent goal for humanity. Krznaric advocates the goal of “one-planet thriving.”
My last selection, What We Owe the Future is about “longtermism.” It looks at humanity’s future in the very long term, like tens or even hundreds of thousands of years from now. Oxford philosopher William MacAskill argues that we have a moral obligation to care for the wellbeing of future generations. And there could be a lot of them. There are 8 billion people alive today. MacAskill estimates that 80 trillion people have yet to be born. He says we can and should make their lives go better and he suggests ways of doing this.
It might seem absurd or arrogant to think that those of us alive today could have any impact at all on the lives of trillions of people living thousands of years from now, but MacAskill says we must think longterm, as far into the future as we possibly can. Our decisions today about climate change, nuclear weapons, pandemics and other issues can have hugely impactful consequences for enormous numbers of people.
All these books encourage us to make better, more thoughtful decisions about our long-term future. Even if you disagree with some of the points in any of these books, they will leave you thinking about the future in a completely different way.
Thanks for thinking long-term.