Skip to content

Summer Reading List: 16 Books That Will Help You Understand The Next Decade

2021 May 30
by Greg Satell

Ahhhh…Summer! After more than a year of quarantine, we finally seem to be getting a grip on the pandemic. Things look infinitely more bright than they did a year ago and, almost against all odds, we can look forward to taking our masks off as we put our sunblock on. Hopefully, we can move back to some semblance of normalcy.

Still, it all feels like more of an interlude than a conclusion. Clearly, we have no shortage of challenges that face us today. Economic inequality, environmental sustainability, diversity & inclusion, technological disruption and geopolitical instability are all things that we need to deal with and overcome.

Fortunately, there are a number of people who have been thinking deeply about these things and some have written books about them. So I decided to focus this summer’s list on books that can help us understand the challenges we will face over the next decade. My hope is that the accumulated wisdom they contain will inspire us to meet them and, in time, to prevail.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Climate change is clearly the most urgent and severe crisis that we face today. Even other dangers, such as war and terrorism, are often excacerbated, if not directly caused by climate related events such as drought. There is a general consensus among scientists that we need to get to zero emissions by 2050 and that much of the work needs to be done by 2030.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that once we simply shift over to electric cars and solar panels the problem will be solved. Nothing could be further from the truth. In  fact, transportation and electricity generation only make up about 40% of carbon emissions so, even if we completely decarbonize those two sectors, we won’t even solve half the problem.

I’ve been following the climate crisis for a number of years but this book by Bill Gates is by far the most comprehensive, clear-eyed and useful that I’ve read. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Get it now


Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson

For over a generation we’ve put our faith in the idea that the purpose of a business is to provide value for shareholders. Often attributed to Milton Friedman, but actually going back even further than that, this brand of “shareholder capitalism” has led to an engineering approach to management in which everything is reduced to a limited number of variables to be optimized.

We’ve lived with this notion for so long that we’ve lost sight of the fact that these ideas were considered quite radical when they were first proposed in the 1960s and didn’t fully enter the mainstream until the 1980s. I think we can safely say that, at this point, the results are in and they are disastrous: Low growth, low productivity, high inequality and increased volatility.

Rebecca Henderson (along with Colin Mayer’s book Prosperity) points out that Capitalism shouldn’t be so narrowly construed that it is restricted to only financial capital, but should include human, environmental, social and other types of capital as well. When we only manage what we can easily measure, it shouldn’t be surprising that we mismanage everything else.

Get it now


The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

I think when we look back ten years from now, we’ll see the pandemic as the start of a new era of synthetic biology. Much as the past 50 years were dominated by computer technology and bits, the next 50 are most likely to be dominated by technologies directed at atoms, with genetic engineering being one of the most important.

Walter Isaacson’s new book, ostensibly a biography of Jennifer Doudna, who won a Nobel Prize for leading the discovery of CRISPR, a revolutionary gene editing tool, is a great introduction to that age. If you want to understand how these technologies will help to shape the next decade, you can’t really do any better than this.

I would also heartedly recommend Doudna’s own memoir, A Crack in Creation. While Isaacson is truly one of the most gifted nonfiction writers of our age, there is no substitute for getting the story directly from the source. Doudna’s account is well written, engaging and very personal. It is also much shorter than Isaacson’s book, which makes it easier to lug to the beach!

Get it now


Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Clearly, we are having a racial awakening in America. Diversity, equity and inclusion has become not only a moral imperative, but an economic necessity. With the multi-racial Millennials and Gen Z rising, businesses and regions that are seen as racially or gender biased will find it difficult to compete.

The simple truth is that every enterprise today needs to attract talent and, increasingly, younger generations are unwilling to work for an organization that they don’t believe reflects their values. It’s not enough to simply play lip service or to trot out palliative slogans. Real action needs to be taken.

Key to understanding these trends is developing true empathy and understanding for the experience of marginalized groups and Isabel Wilkerson does an incredible job of outlining the issues in a way that is incredibly powerful and engaging. This is one of those books that everyone should read.

Get it now


Blueprint for Revolution by Srđa Popović

We are, for better or worse, entering a new age of activism. Two generations, numbering roughly 140 million people in the US, are coming of age and, after decades of dominance, the reign of the Baby Boomers is ending. Issues ranging from climate change to racial justice are coming to the fore and these rising generations are demanding action.

Still, effective activism takes infinitely more than just running out into the streets and screaming your head off. This book, written by Srdja Popović, who helped lead the Serbian revolution that brought down Slobodan Milošević and has since trained activists in more than 50 countries, will give you a step-by-step guide to bringing real change about.

Srdja, whose writing reflects the same wily sense of humor that makes him so much fun in person, was a key source for my book, Cascades, that covers similar ground but focuses more on organizational change. I recommend that too, of course.

Get it now


The Great Reversal by Thomas Philippon

We tend to think of the United States as the bastion of capitalism, but in this compelling book NYU economist Thomas Philippon explains why that is no longer the case. In fact, he shows how over the past two decades markets have progressively weakened, decreasing competition and increasing prices for consumers.

Philippon has long been at the vanguard of economists that are increasingly finding, across just about every metric imaginable, that markets in the US have weakened. The Myth of Capitalism, which I have not read, but heard great things about, covers much of the same ground and I expect Senator Amy Klobuchar’s new book, Antitrust, which I am planning to read, augments it as well.

Over the next decade, we can expect to see the pendulum begin to swing the other way. Clearly we need to take a broader view of capitalism to include a more robust set of stakeholders. We also need to come to terms with genuine malfeasance, such as rent seeking and regulatory capture. Understanding the scope and depth of the problem is the first step.

Get it now


Sandworm by Andy Greenberg

Cyberwar, cybercrime and cyberterrorism are increasingly a threat to not only national security, but also global stability. The potential for a relatively small number of actors, at sometimes incredibly low cost, to inflict an asymmetrical amount of damage is certainly unprecedented in world history.

To take just one example, if the national power grid was taken down for more than a few days civilization as we know it would cease to exist. Until we could restore the damage, we would essentially be living in pre-industrial times. Surely, in the interim, social and political unrest would be overwhelming.

Sandworm, written by Wired magazine’s Andy Greenberg, reads like a thriller novel and gives a blow-by-blow account of the battle of the “Sandworm” virus that attacked power systems in Ukraine. David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon and Nicole Perlroth’s This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, which I have not yet read, cover similar ground. I hear both are excellent.

Get it now


The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

The Covid-19 pandemic was a traumatic event, but it’s certainly not the only challenge we need to overcome. With technological disruption, historically high income inequality, racial tensions, and climate change putting significant strain on our society, tensions run high and seem always ready to boil over.

This wonderfully written book by Jon Meacham explains that throughout our history we have gone through similarly fraught periods in which the “soul of the nation” was challenged and that each time we were able to find the “angels of our better nature.” In fact, he argues that each time we actually emerged stronger.

To be clear, the story Meacham tells isn’t exactly an optimistic one, we seem to be constantly repeating many of the same mistakes throughout our history, but it is hopeful and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Get it now


The Future of Humanity by Michiu Kaku

Perhaps the most exciting thing that will happen over the next decade is that we will begin to colonize space. Astronauts will return to the moon in 2024 and begin building a permanent base there. Space X has announced its manned mission to Mars could launch as early as the same year. There hasn’t been this much excitement around space exploration since the 60s.

All of this activity naturally leads to a number of questions. Can we really colonize space? Is there any way to terraform Mars to make it habitable? How long would all this take? What is physically possible and what is not? Sometimes its hard to draw the line between actual science and science fiction.

That’s why this book by acclaimed physicist and bestselling author Michiu Kaku is so valuable. He explains step-by-step, in clear, forthright and nontechnical language, what is technically feasible, what is not, what may be someday and what would violate known physical laws. What I found most invigorating is how teams of really smart people are actually doing concrete planning for things that may not be possible for another century.

Get it now


So that’s my list for this summer. If you would like to add a suggestion of your own, please feel free to do that in the comments section.


– Greg



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS