21 Lessons for the 21st century
Yuval Noah Harari
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer’s own initiative.
Disclaimer: I have read the book Sapiens by this same author, and I enjoyed the book. I had some issues with his negative take on agriculture, but in general, I found the book to be relevant based on the issues it raises. I did not read the follow-up Homo Deus, but I should!
21 Lessons for the 21st century was such an insightful read that I gained great respect for the author of this book. I tried to keep notes, as I typically do, but the number of quotations that I loved from this book became so many, that I accepted that I would not be able to use them all in one impression. Let us perhaps start on page 138, where Harari notes that "For thousands of years Homo sapiens behaved as an ecological killer; now it is morphing into an ecological mass murderer." We do not typically like to think of ourselves as "mass murderers." Yet few of us will challenge this notion these days, as we are ever-growing in numbers as humans, and our impact on the planet is escalating …
In this book, Harari sketches why the liberal position is so powerful. Let me perhaps settle for another quote from the text: "When things really work, everybody adopts them" (p 154). But for every action, there is also a reaction, and a review of liberalism was due. But liberalism is not on its way out if I understand Harari correctly. It might well be in the long run, but for now, it is merely under review. People are generally reasonable, and they prefer having individual freedoms. Perhaps, as a result, so many people are immigrating to Europe, from countries that do not treasure individual freedom.
He writes about terrorism. According to Harari, the public tends to forget that on 11 September 2001, not only did the World Trade Centre in New York suffer from terrorist attacks, but also did the Pentagon: "It is because the Pentagon is a relatively flat and unassuming building, whereas as the World Trade Centre was a tall phallic totem whose collapse made an immense audio-visual effect" (p 191). But it is not as simple I tend to think. To start with, more people died in the attack on the World Trade Centre than in the attack on the Pentagon. One would kind of associate more deaths with greater significance. I tend to reason this way. Also, the attack on the World Trade Centre made a vaster ideological statement. But let us not get fixated on the Twin Towers, as the media did back in 2001, and ever since (I clearly remember the day, being a grade 10 pupil attending extra math class).
For all the 21 "lessons" Harari engages in political issues, all the while reflecting on history. In doing so, he asks the right questions and goes to lengths to contextualize these questions in a nuanced manner. Much of our misery is the result of our flaws, says Harari: "We should never underestimate human stupidity. Both on the personal and on the collective level, humans are prone to engage in self-destructive activities" (p 209). Time and again, Harari goes on to illustrate that humans are their own worst enemies …
A particularly fascinating part of the book is when Harari reflects on his own native Israel. After the publication of his bestselling Sapiens, he received criticism for the limited space allocated to Judaism. Harari goes on to explain that humans are prone to boasting. Developing an inflated perception of their importance: "The role of Judaism in the story of humankind is a bit like the role of Freud’s mother in modern Western history." We study Freud, but not his mother, Harari says. Freud's mother perhaps had an influence on him, and in turn, Sigmund Freud had an influence on history, but for the purposes of significance, we study Freud, and not his mother.
The book has been criticized as a revamped collection of already published ideas. There is, perhaps, some merit in this observation, but I would argue that it is still worth the read. "When a thousand people believe some made up-story for one month – that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years – that’s a religion …" (p 272). Harari is very critical of religion. Humans, says Harari, are far more interested in power than in truth. We prefer controlling the world instead of understanding it. Another recurring theme is the rise of technology and how it will steal the jobs of the future. I agree, but only to some extent. While technology did revolutionise the world we know, it has also hampered its footstep, in the way that it is overtly capitalist, and fails us based on the budget. While we procure for technological advancements, current technologies are outdated as soon as the budget is approved, resulting in storerooms full of obsolete "technology". So no, I do think we will still have nurses and social workers and teachers in the years to come. We have been threatened with technological revolutions for almost as long as we have been threatened with the end of the world prophesies.
On page 322 and thereabouts, there is an insightful criticism of nationalism, but the book also indicated why the nation-state is here to stay, refuting the ideas of political science of the last 20 years or so. We are all the slaves of the stories we are being sold. We become slaves to the stories we choose to believe. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of all.