The Optimist's Telescope

Oct 13, 2019

Author Bina Venkataraman understands very well the temptation to keep doing what we’ve always done, even if we’re pretty sure it’s not the best approach. She’s done it herself.

A few years ago, she was hiking in the Hudson Valley in New York just north of New York City, a place she knew was loaded with Lyme disease. She didn’t wear tick repellent. And even when she found a rash on the back of her leg, she didn’t do anything about it.

“It didn't look like the telltale bulls eye you associate with a tick bite,” she said.

Eight months later, her knee swelled up to the size of a grapefruit.

“I had a really bad case of Lyme disease that took months to treat and required me to go on I.V. antibiotics,” Venkataraman said. “I think we're all prone to this kind of thinking. We can see clear warning signs, but sometimes we can't exactly follow them.”

Her new book, The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, has concrete ideas for how we can avoid making this kind of mistake, not only in our own lives, but in our professional lives, for the sake of the planet. Our inclination to think short-term is exactly what is keeping us from acting to stop climate change, she said.

Venkataraman is director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard and a lecturer in MIT's department of science, technology & society. She advised the Obama White House on climate change innovation, and, before that, wrote for The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

One of her examples of how we can combat short-term thinking comes from the United Kingdom, where there was an effort to reduce the number of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions written by doctors.

Researchers found that it was effective to identify doctors who were prescribing antibiotics inappropriately and send letters telling them that they were doing a worse job than their peers. The letters were written by high-profile British leaders.

“It changes the norms and the expectations for their behavior,” she said.

For business leaders and politicians, Venkataraman said it is helpful to play role-playing games to help take on “imaginative empathy.”

Another idea is to write letters to someone 50 years in the future.

“A niece, a nephew, a godchild, yourself,” she said. “And take on the perspective of that imagined person in the future and try to put yourself in that place.”

Virtual reality could also help people understand what it means to swim around a dead coral reef. It is a vivid experience of what is likely to happen if we fail to act on climate change, Venkataraman said.

To change our behavior, we need to think of clean air and water as shared heirlooms, she said.

“The national parks are an example of how you can create institutions—funding, norms, ways to protect them,” she said. “Then each generation uses them so that those heirlooms become part of the cultural identity of a society.”

Venkataraman calls herself an "engaged optimist" because she believes there is still a bright future to invest in.

"And I believe we can make choices to make that future happen," she said.