Notes on Quotes
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Bina Venkataraman. Credit: Bina Venkataraman.

Former Presidential Climate Adviser Bina Venkataraman Shares a Quote

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

January 6, 2020

Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an interview series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quote that’s meaningful to them.

Bina Venkataraman served as senior advisor for climate change innovation in the Obama White House and as director of Global Policy Initiatives at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. She’s the author of The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Restless Age, which describes the strategies and science behind planning for a better future. Bina grew up in a small town in Ohio, and has worked in India, Alaska, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, and Guatemala. Ariana Huffington described her book as “wise, eye-opening, and hopeful.”

This print interview has been edited, condensed, and annotated. The podcast version is available below.

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Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?

Bina Venkataraman: We're going to talk about this quote from James Baldwin, which opens my book, The Optimist’s Telescope. It goes like this: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

How did you come across James Baldwin’s work and this quote in particular?

I have long been a fan of Baldwin’s work. In my mind, he’s one of the greatest literary figures, thinkers, and writers of the 20th century. But this particular quote comes from Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which was his account that he was starting to write—he only wrote 30 pages of it—about the lives and assassinations of three looming figures in the Civil Rights Movement: Medgar Evers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.

Baldwin’s manuscript became the basis of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which Raoul Pack directed a few years ago and was how I came across this quote. The context was pretty specific for Baldwin; it had to do with facing the racial injustice at the core of this country’s history. But I also think that the quote has much broader resonance when it comes to all kinds of really difficult and uncomfortable issues that we might not want to face. It’s a reminder that it’s important to face uncomfortable truths even if we can’t overcome them single-handedly or quickly.

Why do you think Baldwin emphasizes the importance of facing a problem?

I think the force of his quote comes from noting that we can’t let the sense that something is too big keep us from facing the reality of it. For me, that resonates not just for the problems of social injustice or the racial history of this country, but for problems like climate change, which I've worked on. We have this looming problem and it can feel so daunting. But just because it’s a large problem and we're not sure whether we can ultimately prevent all of its effects—that doesn’t mean we shouldn't face up to it.

This quote was a source of galvanization for me as I was writing my book. I got my book contract right after the 2016 election. I had worked on climate change in the Obama White House, and I knew that the United States would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement under this administration. A lot of my work on climate change would be completely blown back. I thought: is anyone going to listen to me? But Baldwin’s message is that we have to face reality. We must expose the truths that we know. And as a writer, I found that very motivating.

What barriers do we experience for facing a problem like climate change?

It can feel so daunting to consider a future where you’re imagining rising seas, a refugee crisis, or more wildfires. For some people, it’s scary and they don’t know how to engage with that.

But I also think that is has been difficult to understand how one can make a difference with climate change as an individual. One of the most important components of that is to use our voices and our ability to make political decisions—specifically, voting, to hold our leaders accountable.

It’s also hard to grapple with a problem like climate change because it lies in the future. Although there is an impact today, it can still feel like these are all distant projections of the future. When it comes to the future, human beings can certainly be impaired in how we imagine it.

You write in your book about a number of strategies for facing problems head-on. One strategy is the pre-mortem. Could you describe that concept?

So, a post-mortem, as we know, is after things have gone wrong or after the body is dead, then you go back to figure out why that happened. A pre-mortem inverts that and gives us a way to think about the future and overcome sources of cognitive dissonance that cause us to shut down and just focus on the present moment.

What you do with a pre-mortem is imagine something as if it’s already failed, and then you ask yourself to consider all the reasons why that could have happened. And you start to generate a list of the reasons why and how this outcome happened. So you'll start to reason through all the different possible failure modes of a project, for example.

But this can also be done for something positive. I tend to talk about this method, which is called prospective hindsight. You can imagine something great happens. For example, you had a fabulous dinner party. Then you walk back from that and list all of the reasons why that could have happened. That helps you to make clear the pivotal decisions you face along the way to the future that you can affect.

Are there other strategies you recommend in order to face problems?

It helps to have a positive, vivid vision of the future. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the United Farm Workers movements in the 60’s and 70’s relied on detailed visions of the future where things looked better. It turns out, holding onto that vision motivates people in the present to continue working towards that future.

It’s really important not to sugar-coat the evolving future, but also to think past those doomsday predictions and to recognize that it’s not inevitable. Because we actually have the ability to shape the future. Our choices matter. That’s the sort of sweet spot, to feel like you have agency over a future that you imagine.

Does technology help with prospective hindsight? Or to refer to the language of the quote, does technology helps us “face” our problems?

There’s an irony here because so much of our technology, especially our consumer technology, is focused on instant gratification. We get caught in these compulsion loops, when we’re deep in sending strings of text messages, or with the way social media drives us to seek likes and retweets.

But I also find it interesting to look at examples of where technology actually aids us to overcome the imagination gaps we have when inhabiting the future. Just to be clear about this: the future is a figment of our imagination. We don’t sense it like the way that we take in what’s around us immediately now. We have no way to smell the future or to touch it.

That’s why virtual reality can be used to help us inhabit futures that we have yet to experience. By nature, virtual reality is about conjuring sensory experiences that are not real. I wrote in my book about an experiment by Hal Hershfield, a UCLA economist, who created these virtual reality avatars of college students to see how it would affect their willingness to save for their own retirement. Hal found that by giving these students an ability to experience themselves in old age and look in the “virtual mirror,” they were better able to empathize with their future selves. Students who were part of the virtual reality simulation were more willing to save more money for their future retirement (at least in an experimental setting).

I had my own experience in the Stanford virtual reality lab where I swam in an underwater environment in a simulated coral reef. First, I swam in that reef as it roughly looks today, which is vibrant with colorful fish and lush with life. Then the simulation flashed forward to the year 2100, simulating what it would be like if the oceans continued to acidify, and the coral reefs died off.

Turns out, people sustain more concern when they swim in these simulations than if they simply watch a documentary about coral reefs. This suggests something about the importance of being able to feel things with our bodies, and to viscerally sense the future. We might be able to design more technologies to help with this.

You mentioned cognitive biases and limitations a few times. I think there’s a prevailing argument right now that humans have all of these natural weaknesses and that there’s very little we can do to act in a different way. But I take it from your book that you would push back strongly on that idea.

I’m so glad you brought this up because I think it’s a dangerous misconception that we’re just programmed to be shortsighted and so we might as well just accept that. For example, the novelist Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker that we should basically accept that we’re doomed and the climate apocalypse is coming.

But whether we’re talking about climate change or just saving more for the future, the truth is that as humans we are capable of thinking ahead. If you look at the cognitive science around this, you’ll find that we can think ahead if we are in groups or environments that encourage us to do so. We can also design schemes that allow us to better think ahead about the future.

Acting like our shortsightedness is a curse of human nature is just a choice that we are making. In reality, we have the possibility to better think ahead, and we have all kinds of tools at our disposal.

There’s a John Maynard Keynes quote: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” How do you counter the argument that we shouldn’t be too concerned about future generations because we won’t be alive?

There’s a certain nihilism that can come from looking at the really long run and thinking, OK, at some point, an asteroid is going to crash with earth, so why does any of this matter anyway? Yes, there are some low-probability, high-impact events possible in our future that could render this all moot. In the long run, are we all dead? Probably. But in the meantime, there’s a whole lot of meaning to be derived from stewarding what we have for future generations.

Even if we think only about our own life spans, we should remember that we’re living much longer on average than future generations. In prior generations, people could say, not my problem, I’ll be long gone. But we can’t say that anymore! In my lifetime, we’re going to see more catastrophic damage from climate change. Unlike the asteroid, these are high-probability events.

There’s a sort of universal value placed on caring for future generations that can be traced across all of the world’s major religions as well as secular principles across a number of societies. Edmond Burke, the Irish political philosopher and godfather of conservatism, wrote about society as a partnership across generations. These ideas of caring for future generations are not new with the environmental movement; rather, they are core to who we are.

We need to create ways to honor these values and aspirations for future generations in our lives. One of the ways I talk about in the book is shared heirlooms—designating certain resources as irreplaceable. Future generations will value these resources because they are invaluable, like clean air and water, forests, or the climate itself. A great example of a shared heirloom that we have in the United States are the National Parks.

Theodore Roosevelt is often credited with establishing the National Parks. Do you think this idea of intergenerational equity should be a more bipartisan idea?

Absolutely. There’s no reason why caring about future generations should be monopolized by any particular party. And I don’t think it has been, actually. For example, the prototypical conservative of 10 or 15 years ago often talked about deficits and the national debt with the argument that it would harm future generations.

I don’t think this inherently has to be a liberal, progressive agenda to care more about future generations. The challenge is making it salient for people so that when they vote they’re thinking not just about what’s happening currently in the stock market or the next tax cut, but about what the consequences of a particular party’s agenda will be over the long term.

I do worry that this is a very bifurcated society. Some people are facing these truths, and some are still very much in denial about what the truths are. How can we change that? I'm not sure that there’s any path other than the one that’s currently being undertaken by truth tellers, writers, and activists to continue to expose the injustices that exist. To communicate that this is a choice and not an inevitability.

You mentioned before this interview that this quote had a connection for you to journalism. You were a journalist before you worked as an adviser to the Obama White House, and now you’re returning to journalism at The Boston Globe as Editorial Page Editor. How does this quote connect to journalism?

I think as a society we really need to think about the value of journalism. And I think this conversation is happening by virtue of the threats that the Trump administration has been making to journalists and the concept of the free press. I think it’s also important for journalists to consistently be showing our value.  

How we pay for journalism is a real open question that so many news organizations are grappling with. The value of a free and independent and well-supported, credible press is often underestimated by economists. Economists often discount the true value of resources, whether you’re talking about a national park or the free press. Sadly, it seems we only understand these things in their absence  

But at least in Western democracies, we have a memory and a knowledge of what it is like to live in a free society. We still have the presence of a credible fourth estate. We don’t want to wait until it’s gone to place an appropriate value on it. My book The Optimist’s Telescope is in some ways a call to look at more than the monetary value of the resources that are irreplaceable in our society and on our planet. And I want to give people the reinforcement that this is in fact the appropriate way to think.


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Audio version available here