Fragments of books: An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

To understand how much I enjoyed Mark Stevenson‘s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, the first thing you need to know is that after I borrowed it from the library and read it, I went out and bought a copy and read it again just four months later. In my life as an unstoppable devourer of literature, this was a first. Usually a couple of years pass before I re-read even the most beloved of books, since my reading lists are so long that they give birth to baby-reading lists who in turn have baby-readings lists of their own in the time that it takes me to get through them.

Cover art for Optimist's Tour of the Future

Of all the cool things described in this book, there is not one word about jetpacks. Why they put one on the cover, I might never know.

However, a few aspects of An Optimist’s Tour proved completely irresistible and demanded an immediate re-read.

First, the number of new scientific ideas and emergent technologies that are described, accessibly and engagingly in this book, is incredible. Did you know there are several different research groups who’ve successfully created genetically engineered bacteria that consume waste CO2 and excrete fuel, such as diesel or ethanol? Or that an AI has learned not only how to derive new scientific laws, given a bunch of raw data, but also how to explain the meaning of the results it found to its creators?

None of the ideas in the book are hypothetical. In the course of writing it, Mark Stevenson visited (a very impressive roster of) research labs and startups that have conducted successful experiments with and built working prototypes of some mind-blowing technologies. From flexible solar film printed quickly and cheaply in big rolls on a former photographic printer, to nano-coating which can protect anything from clothes to monuments from weathering and dirt, the stuff of science fiction is being made manifest  today in laboratories around the world.

The second aspect that makes An Optimist’s Tour of the Future such an enjoyable read, is how damned optimistic it is. In startling contrast to most books dealing with the subject of the near future, this one maintains an unwaveringly positive outlook about the success of and the possibilities offered by these nascent technologies. Lucidly and rationally, (but often excitedly, because it’s going to be so bloody cool when it ramps up and really gets going), Stevenson explains the potential of each technology to transform the lives of individuals, societies, and the planet for the better.

Nowhere is the pragmatism of this optimistic stance more evident than in the “Mother Earth” section of the book, concerned with research targeted to help the environment. A small number of functional CO2 scrubbers – machines that extract carbon dioxide out of the air – have already been built. All that is required to start bringing atmospheric CO2 down at rates that would offset the impact of any current ongoing emissions and maybe even return it to pre-industrial levels is the funding needed to build more of these. On the other end of the spectrum is a staggeringly simple solution to drought, overgrazing, and depleted soil carbon levels in Australian cattle farming that requires no cutting-edge technologies, but only a change of the traditional farm management practices. Anyway, I’ll let you read about that yourself. Or better yet, if you know someone who owns a large number of grazing animals, get them to read it.

The third thing that makes this book very appealing is a generous helping of humour. In addition to being a writer, Mark Stevenson is also a stand-up comedian. Having ignored the author bio on the back of the book when I first started reading it, I would be both delighted and startled when, at the end of a paragraph full of science, there would come a flawless punch line. And then, a couple of paragraphs later, another. I would laugh, and grow more and more confused, until, about a third into the book, Stevenson mentioned fitting in a stand-up gig on one of his research trips. Then I felt much better about the whole abundance-of-punch-lines thing. He is, after all, a practicing professional.

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