The best books on an optimistic view of the future

Who am I?

I grew up wandering farmers’ fields looking for arrowheads, and I started working in archaeology at 16 – 50 years ago. I ski, snowshoe, run, and play piano, but I sold my soul to the archaeology devil a long time ago. I specialize in hunter-gatherers, and I’ve done fieldwork across the western US, ethnographic work in Madagascar, and lectured in many countries. I’ve learned that history matters, because going back in time helps find answers to humanity’s problems – warfare, inequality, and hate. I’ve sought to convey this in lectures at the University of Wyoming, where I’ve been a professor of anthropology since 1997. 


I wrote...

The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

By Robert L. Kelly,

Book cover of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

What is my book about?

“I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow.” This inscription in Tutankhamun’s tomb summarizes The Fifth Beginning. In it, we tour human history through four times – beginnings – when the character of human life changed: the emergence of technology, culture, agriculture, and the state. Each is signaled by a radical change in humanity’s archaeological footprint. Using that perspective, I argue that today is a fifth beginning, the result of a 5000-year arms race, capitalism’s ever-expanding reach, and a worldwide communication network. It marks the end of war, capitalism, and maybe the nation-state, and the beginning of global cooperation. It’s the end of life as we know it. But with humanity’s great potential to solve problems, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us

Robert L. Kelly Why did I love this book?

Most books about the future are real bummers. Climate change, war, inequality... the problems seem insurmountable. This book helped me get past those feelings. Yes, we’ve royally screwed things up, but in lyrical prose Ackerman shows us that while it was our ingenuity that led us to screw up the environment, it’s also our ingenuity that can fix it, if we accept the challenge and responsibility. “We can become Earth-restorers,” she claims, “and Earth-guardians.” I like that. 

By Diane Ackerman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Human Age as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With her celebrated blend of scientific insight, clarity, and curiosity, Diane Ackerman explores our human capacity both for destruction and for invention as we shape the future of the planet Earth. Ackerman takes us to the mind-expanding frontiers of science, exploring the fact that the "natural" and the "human" now inescapably depend on one another, drawing from "fields as diverse as evolutionary robotics...nanotechnology, 3-D printing and biomimicry" (New York Times Book Review), with probing intelligence, a clear eye, and an ever-hopeful heart.


Book cover of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

Robert L. Kelly Why did I love this book?

Talking about the future always depresses my students. They think life has become steadily worse over the past century and they see no evidence of a course correction. Norberg presents evidence to show that this is wrong. In terms of poverty, life expectancy, violence, literacy, and freedom, life has become better. He also explores why we think the opposite. Now this all may be the calm before the storm, but to fashion a better world we must know it for what it is today. 

By Johan Norberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Progress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Book of the Year for The Economist and the Observer

Our world seems to be collapsing. The daily news cycle reports the deterioration: divisive politics across the Western world, racism, poverty, war, inequality, hunger. While politicians, journalists and activists from all sides talk about the damage done, Johan Norberg offers an illuminating and heartening analysis of just how far we have come in tackling the greatest problems facing humanity. In the face of fear-mongering, darkness and division, the facts are unequivocal: the golden age is now.


Book cover of Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World

Robert L. Kelly Why did I love this book?

I read this book while on a fellowship in Germany. Needing to lighten my luggage, I left it in the apartment I had rented. When I returned a year later, it was still there. With less to carry that time, I happily took it back. Bregman pulls no punches in how we get to a better world, and he knows that implementing his recommendations will require considerable political courage and persuasion. Eradicate poverty and give people time to achieve their potential – through a universal basic income, a shorter work week, higher taxes on those whose jobs hurt the public good (Elon Musk, he’s talking to you), and reductions in military spending – and many other problems will solve themselves. 

By Rutger Bregman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Utopia for Realists as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Universal basic income. A 15-hour workweek. Open borders. Does it sound too good to be true? One of Europe's leading young thinkers shows how we can build an ideal world today.

"A more politically radical Malcolm Gladwell." -- New York Times

After working all day at jobs we often dislike, we buy things we don't need. Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, reminds us it needn't be this way -- and in some places it isn't. Rutger Bregman's TED Talk about universal basic income seemed impossibly radical when he delivered it in 2014. A quarter of a million views later, the…


Book cover of The End of War

Robert L. Kelly Why did I love this book?

There is little time to read and so I prefer short, pithy books. In this one, Horgan examines the various theories of war, finding most of them wanting. Reducing inequality, improving food production, and providing security all help reduce violence, but there is, he concludes, no single, magic cure. Instead, we have to work, hard, smart, and tirelessly, to create non-violent means to resolve disputes and punish trespassers. “If we want peace badly enough, we can have it…”

By John Horgan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The End of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

War is a fact of human nature. As long as we exist, it exists. That's how the argument goes.

But longtime Scientific American writer John Horgan disagrees. Applying the scientific method to war leads Horgan to a radical conclusion: biologically speaking, we are just as likely to be peaceful as violent. War is not preordained, and furthermore, it should be thought of as a solvable, scientific problem—like curing cancer. But war and cancer differ in at least one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature, war is our creation. It's our choice whether to unmake it or…


Book cover of The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist's Guide to the Climate Crisis

Robert L. Kelly Why did I love this book?

Written by architects of the 2015 Paris Accord, I expected a long, dull, treatise on policy. But I was wrong. Without whitewashing the dangers we face or the short time we have to make the right decision, the authors lay out the devastating consequences of the wrong choice, and the actions we can and must take to stop climate change and make life more enjoyable. 

By Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Future We Choose as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER

'Everyone should read this book' MATT HAIG
'One of the most inspiring books I have ever read' YUVAL NOAH HARARI
'Inspirational, compassionate and clear. The time to read this is NOW' MARK RUFFALO
'Figueres and Rivett-Carnac dare to tell us how our response can create a better, fairer world' NAOMI KLEIN

*****

Discover why there's hope for the planet and how we can each make a difference in the climate crisis, starting today.

Humanity is not doomed, and we can and will survive. The future is ours to create: it will be shaped by who we…


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By Maryka Biaggio,

Book cover of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

Maryka Biaggio Author Of The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

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Who am I?

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What is my book about?

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Largely unknown today, Toto was arguably the first woman to spy for the British Intelligence Service. Operating in the hotbed of Mussolini's Italy, she courted danger every step of the way. As the war entered its final stages, she faced off against the most brutal of forces—Germany's Intelligence Service, the Abwehr.

The Model Spy: Based on the True Story of Toto Koopman’s World War II Ventures

By Maryka Biaggio,

What is this book about?

Celebrated model Toto Koopman had beauty, brains, and fame. Born to a Dutch father and Indonesian mother, she took up the life of a bon vivant in 1920s Paris and modeled for Vogue magazine and Coco Chanel. But modeling didn’t satisfy her. Fluent in six languages, she was adventurous and fascinated by world politics.

In London she attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, the William Randolph Hearst of England. She soon became his confidante, companion, and translator, traversing the Continent and finding herself caught in the winds of impending war. Beaverbrook introduced her to influential people, including a director at…


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