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Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century review - a sceptic's optimism? | reviews, news & interviews

Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century review - a sceptic's optimism?

Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century review - a sceptic's optimism?

Towards an ever-new world: essays on the challenge of adapting to constant change

A wary eye: Yuval Noah HarariOlivier Middendorp

The bestseller Sapiens (2011, first published in English in 2014) by the hitherto little-known Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari has sold enormously well, and justly so: recommended by Bill Gates no less, it has become a worldwide publishing phenomenon.

It is a provocative, stimulating and original synthesis of, well, us and our many millennia on this earth, which of course is still only a moment in the planet’s history. Yes, we humans are a blip, and there were many suggestions as to why we are animals, yet so peculiarly and uniquely destructive in a way no animals ever were before us of our habitats – and ourselves.

It was followed by Homo Deus (2015, published in English the following year) and the apocalyptic – or possibly not – possibilities opened up by the expansions of technology. Those first two instalments on the human condition, our past and possible future, how we got here and where we might be going, were huge panoramas. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, however, Harari shines spotlights on specific areas, at times irradiating them with a kind of hope that human skills will solve human problems, and at times quietly apocalyptic about our habits of self-destruction, and indeed destruction generally.

21 LessonsThis is an anthology, a collection of short and vivid essays that comes with a really welcome focus on major areas of interest and concern, problems and potential solutions, for the world of the human beast. It is organised into a very handy 21 chapters, grouped under six headings from the technological challenge to resilience. Has he said it all before? Perhaps some of it, but it doesn’t matter because this is a genuinely useful compilation, a terrific primer on where we are now and where we might be heading. It is both unsettling pessimistic and subtly hopeful, and absolutely up to the minute in contemporary concerns, from Trump to Brexit.

Harari sees the EU as a real achievement, more or less keeping the peace on the European subcontinent for decades, and there is a hint of exasperation at what might be construed as the UK’s wilful fracturing of the experiment. His narrative convincingly describes technological and political challenges, and he is simultaneously both incisive and passionate about globalism, which he takes convincingly as an incontrovertible fact. In spite of nationalism, differing cultures, ideologies and languages there are inescapable similarities in social and economic aspirations and goals. But he is hilarious about differences too, such as opposing ways of getting things done as illustrated in two fictional countries, Coldia and Warmland.

He backs up many of his arguments with a fluent marshalling of facts and statistics. The higher common sense is on full display in his discussion of terrorism. We are adjured not to acknowledge terrorisms’ puny efforts which would fulfil the terrorists’ goals to panic authorities into doing something crazily foolish (Iraq, anyone?). In the 21st century there have been 25,000 direct casualties of terrorism worldwide (the vast majority of them in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria), a number dwarfed globally by traffic accidents (1.25 million), diabetes and attendant ills (3.5 million), and air pollution (7 million).

For everything we invent, we also invent concomitant problems: we have the stupidity of our intelligence

Our own reactions, from governments to social behaviour, has fed the horrendous worldwide fallout from the drama of terrorist incidents, both large and small. Harari’s common sense towards the actions of the Islamic State is more than welcome; he is a writer who clears away the emotional fog surrounding current events that obscures both our vision and our ability to comprehend and analyse. He also throughout never loses sight not only of society and societies, but of the individual. As he says in his introduction, terrorism, by manipulating deep-seated fears for our safety “is both a global political problem and an internal psychological mechanism”.

For everything we invent, we also invent concomitant problems: we have the stupidity of our intelligence. We are faced with new abilities to gather data, as well as our inability to agree how to regulate the ownership of this information, on our economic and social status, our biology, our very selves. With (seemingly) both fascism and communism more or less defeated, we now confront the potential collapse of capitalism, not to mention liberalism.

The big questions are all there, and Harari, as our guide, simplifies our path through the complex global realities of today: technological and political disruption are first off the starting block, while humility is recommended as we are advised never to underestimate how stupid the intelligent human race can be. The biggest questions of all are faced, taking in, inter alia, religion, truth, justice, notions of the divine, and the search for meaning. And even in his introduction he acknowledges the luxury of having the time and space to think about topics from global warming to the crises of liberal democracy.

Harari continually reminds us that there is nothing new in human self-deception: self-reinforcing myths unite human collectives. We invent fictional stories to unite groups of strangers. We can accuse Putin or Trump – or the mechanisms of Facebook – for creating a post-truth world, but historically over the millennia millions of Christians never dared to question the factual veracity of the Bible, beliefs that are still held by significant numbers today.

This utterly fascinating book often puts many sides to the same questions: there is, for example, a procession of arguments both pro and con immigration, assimilation and multi-culturalism, and many of us might agree that each side has valid points. A slightly surprising omission is a lack of discussion about the consequences of a too-tolerant society apparently turning the other way when its own laws are broken. Hariri is a self-declared sceptic about the fictions societies tell themselves, a critic of religions and ideologies. He is scathing about stories of self-sacrifice in the cause of patriotic wars, nations and their concomitant patriotism being simply made-up attitudes.

The reader will need a few pages to calm down from this magisterial survey which raises as many questions as it can possibly answer. His last chapter, titled “Meditation”, is highly personal. He describes his own adolescent searches, ultimately unsatisfactory, for answers and explanations when he looked at what he now habitually calls out as elaborate fictions, those religious, nationalist, romantic and capitalist myths. Academia was hardly enough; what he has found in Vipassana meditation, his own practice in searching for both calm and meaning, is unusually informative and affecting. The brain’s physical properties are under intensive investigation; he suggests, though, that the mind remains the greatest mystery of all. Hariri is a superb global cartographer, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a lucid and essential read.

  • 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Hariri (Jonathan Cape hardback £18.99, e-book £16.99)
Harari shines spotlights on specific areas, at times irradiating them with a kind of hope that human skills will solve human problems, and at times quietly apocalyptic about our habits of self-destruction


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