Book Notes: “The Optimist’s Telescope”

The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age
By Bina Venkatamaran
Riverhead Books, 2019

I first heard about this book from Ms. Venkatamaran’s presentation at the Long Now Foundation’s fabulous series of seminars about long-term thinking. Of all the Long Now seminars I’ve heard in the last few years, this was one of the most directly related to long-term thinking. The subject of this book is described as “how we can plan better for the future: our own, our families’ — and our society’s.”

As suggested by this description, the book is organized into three parts, focused on the individual and the family, businesses and organizations, and communities and society. Each includes examples of initiatives that have helped people overcome the pressures of the “here and now” towards decisions that serve them better in the long-term. (Ms. Venkatamaran discusses several of these examples in the seminar linked above, which serves as an excellent primer to the book.)

The final chapter synthesizes these insights into a list of more concrete strategies for acting with the long-term in mind:

  1. Look beyond near-term targets
  2. Stoke the imagination
  3. Create immediate rewards for future goals
  4. Direct attention away from immediate urges
  5. Demand and design better institutions

It’s up to the reader to map these to his or her situation. (It’s just as well — expanding on each would’ve made the book too long.)

One of the ironies of our time is that we’re facing existential threats that require long-term action (e.g., climate change), all the while suffering from ever-shortening attention spans. With its many examples and stories, this book is an engaging antidote to the malaise. (If you’re not up for reading it, but interested in the subject anyway, do listen to Ms. Venkatamaran’s Long Now seminar.)

Buy it on Amazon.com