50 Books for Thinking About the Future Human Condition

The mission of the RAND Frederick S. Pardee Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition is ultimately to improve the human condition in the longer-range future. While there is no sure path to improving the future human condition, there is no shortage of books that address themselves to some aspect of improving that future.

If we were to peer backward from, say, 50 years hence at the books available today, we could probably identify dozens or hundreds that had something useful to say had we only listened. From today’s perspective, however, it is difficult to identify those insightful passages, let alone the books that contain them, from among the thousands that address some aspect of the future.

But suppose we tried for something more modest – a list of 50 books covering broad topics that seem likely to be important in thinking about the future human condition. What might that list of 50 books look like?

The following is a first cut at what that list of books might look like. Why books? Why not articles, or speeches, or university courses, or documentaries, or blogs, or …? The intent of the readings is to be as comprehensive as possible on each of the topics addressed, so book-length treatments seemed like the best approach.

How were these 50 books selected? Many smart people were queried about the books that ought to be on a list of this sort. Recommendations easily numbered in the hundreds, so the same smart people were asked to pick one or two “bests” from their lists. Most of the books below represent “winners” from that process. The remainder were selected idiosyncratically (especially the “wild cards”). Some of the reasoning behind the selections is mentioned below in introducing brief summaries of the books and what they contribute to understanding the future.

The intent of the list is twofold. The first intent is to act as a reading list for someone who wants to understand at a more-than-passing level the factors that we can say seem to be most pertinent today in thinking about the longer-range human condition. I would hope that anyone who had read all 50 of these books would have a good feel for history, for how to think about the future, for the kinds of trends that are likely to have a serious impact on the future, and for the kind of surprises that might befall us as we move into that future.

The second intent is to put a marker on the wall for such a list and to invite many more smart people to think about how we might improve such a list. If there is a book that you think ought to be on this list I would love to hear from you. The only restrictions that you must observe in suggesting a book for inclusion are that you must also suggest the book that it should replace on the list and you must spell out your reasoning. With that in mind, if you have a suggested replacement, please send it to me at lempert@rand.org. I have already begun to compile a list of readers' recommendations and will update it as more suggestions are provided.

One important caveat is worth mentioning. This is a Western-centric look at the future. There is much here that is assumed about Western culture and history. I would be happy to listen to arguments that some specific aspects of Western culture should be included in book-length detail on this list (such as Christianity or democracy). I would also be happy to listen to arguments for books that bring out other perspectives or that compare such perspectives. In the meantime, I mention this recognition without further defending it.

Download the list (PDF)
We welcome your input. Send suggestions for links and other ideas to lempert@rand.org.