The best books on an optimistic view of the future

Robert L. Kelly Author Of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future
By Robert L. Kelly

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. 

The books I picked & why

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The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us

By Diane Ackerman,

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

Why 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. 


Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

By Johan Norberg,

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

Why 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. 


Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World

By Rutger Bregman,

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

Why 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. 


The End of War

By John Horgan,

Book cover of The End of War

Why 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…”


The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis

By Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac,

Book cover of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis

Why 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. 


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