Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
All the talk about global warming, and all the conferences, summits and protocols, have so far failed to curb global greenhouse emissions. If you look closely at the graph you see that emissions go down only during periods of economic crises and stagnation. Thus the small downturn in greenhouse emissions in 2008–9 was due not to the signing of the Copenhagen Accord, but to the global financial crisis.
Source: Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), European Commission.
In December 2015 more ambitious targets were set in the Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But many of the painful steps necessary to reach this aim have conveniently been postponed to after 2030, or even to the second half of the twenty-first century, effectively passing the hot potato to the next generation. Current administrations would be able to reap immediate political benefits from looking green, while the heavy political price of reducing emissions (and slowing growth) is bequeathed to future administrations. Even so, at the time of writing (January 2016) it is far from certain that the USA and other leading polluters will ratify the Paris Agreement. Too many politicians and voters believe that as long as the economy grows, scientists and engineers could always save us from doomsday. When it comes to climate change, many growth true-believers do not just hope for miracles – they take it for granted that the miracles will happen.
How rational is it to risk the future of humankind on the assumption that future scientists will make some unknown discoveries? Most of the presidents, ministers and CEOs who run the world are very rational people. Why are they willing to take such a gamble? Maybe because they don’t think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.
And what about the poor? Why aren’t they protesting? If and when the deluge comes, they will bear the full cost of it. However, they will also be the first to bear the cost of economic stagnation. In a capitalist world, the lives of the poor improve only when the economy grows. Hence they are unlikely to support any steps to
reduce future ecological threats that are based on slowing down present-day economic growth. Protecting the environment is a very nice idea, but those who cannot pay their rent are worried about their overdraft far more than about melting ice caps.
The Rat Race
Even if we go on running fast enough and manage to fend off both economic collapse and ecological meltdown, the race itself creates huge problems. On the individual level, it results in high levels of stress and tension. After centuries of economic growth and scientific progress, life should have become calm and peaceful, at least in the most advanced countries. If our ancestors knew what tools and resources stand ready at our command, they would have surmised we must be enjoying celestial tranquillity, free of all cares and worries. The truth is very different. Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.
We blame ourselves, our boss, the mortgage, the government, the school system. But it’s not really their fault. It’s the modern deal, which we have all signed up to on the day we were born. In the premodern world, people were akin to lowly clerks in a socialist bureaucracy. They punched their card, and then waited for somebody else to do something. In the modern world, we humans run the business. So we are under constant pressure day and night.
On the collective level, the race manifests itself in ceaseless upheavals. Whereas previously social and political systems endured for centuries, today every generation destroys the old world and builds a new one in its place. As the
brilliantly put it, the modern world positively requires uncertainty and disturbance. All fixed relations and ancient prejudices are swept away, and new structures become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air. It isn’t easy to live in such a chaotic world, and it is even harder to govern it.
Hence modernity needs to work hard to ensure that neither human individuals nor the human collective will try to retire from the race, despite all the tension and chaos it creates. For that purpose,
modernity upholds growth as a supreme value for whose sake we should make every sacrifice and risk every danger. On the collective level, governments, firms and organisations are encouraged to measure their success in terms of growth, and to fear equilibrium as if it were the Devil. On the individual level, we are inspired to constantly increase our income and our standard of living. Even if you are quite satisfied with your current conditions, you should strive for more. Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities. If once you could live well in a three-bedroom apartment with one car and a single desktop, today you
a five-bedroom house with two cars and a host of iPods, tablets and smartphones.
It wasn’t very hard to convince individuals to want more. Greed comes easily to humans. The big problem was to convince collective institutions such as states and churches to go along with the new ideal. For millennia, societies strove to curb individual desires and bring them into some kind of balance. It was well known that people wanted more and more for themselves, but when the pie was of a fixed size, social harmony depended on restraint. Avarice was bad. Modernity turned the world upside down. It convinced human collectives that equilibrium is far more frightening than chaos, and because avarice fuels growth, it is a force for good. Modernity accordingly inspired people to want more, and dismantled the age-old disciplines that curbed greed.
The resulting anxieties were assuaged to a large extent by free-market capitalism, which is one reason why this particular ideology has become so popular. Capitalist thinkers repeatedly calm us: ‘Don’t worry, it will be okay. Provided the economy grows, the invisible hand of the market will take care of everything else.’ Capitalism has thus sanctified a voracious and chaotic system that grows by leaps and bounds, without anyone understanding what is happening and where we are rushing. (Communism, which also believed in growth, thought it could prevent chaos and orchestrate growth through state planning. After initial successes, it eventually fell far behind the messy free-market cavalcade.)
Bashing free-market capitalism is high on the intellectual agenda nowadays. Since capitalism dominates our world, we should indeed
make every effort to understand its shortcomings, before they cause apocalyptic catastrophes. Yet criticising capitalism should not blind us to its advantages and attainments. So far, it’s been an amazing success – at least if you ignore the potential for future ecological meltdown, and if you measure success by the yardstick of production and growth. In 2016 we may be living in a stressful and chaotic world, but the doomsday prophecies of collapse and violence have not materialised, whereas the scandalous promises of perpetual growth and global cooperation are fulfilled. Although we experience occasional economic crises and international wars, in the long run capitalism has not only managed to prevail, but also to overcome famine, plague and war. For thousands of years priests, rabbis and muftis explained that humans cannot overcome famine, plague and war by their own efforts. Then along came the bankers, investors and industrialists, and within 200 years managed to do exactly that.
So the modern deal promised us unprecedented power – and the promise has been kept. Now what about the price? In exchange for power, the modern deal expects us to give up meaning. How did humans handle this chilling demand? Complying with it could easily have resulted in a dark world, devoid of ethics, aesthetics and compassion. Yet the fact remains that humankind is today not only far more powerful than ever, it is also far more peaceful and cooperative. How did humans manage that? How did morality, beauty and even compassion survive and flourish in a world devoid of gods, of heaven and of hell?
Capitalists are, again, quick to give all the credit to the invisible hand of the market. Yet the market’s hand is blind as well as invisible, and by itself could never have saved human society. Indeed, not even a country fair can maintain itself without the helping hand of some god, king or church. If everything is for sale, including the courts and the police, trust evaporates, credit vanishes and business withers.
What, then, rescued modern society from collapse? Humankind was salvaged not by the law of supply and demand, but rather by the rise of a new revolutionary religion – humanism.
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without deriving it from a great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.
This escape clause has been the salvation of modern society, for it is impossible to sustain order without meaning. The great political, artistic and religious project of modernity has been to find a meaning to life that is not rooted in some great cosmic plan. We are not actors in a divine drama, and nobody cares about us and our deeds, so nobody sets limits to our power – but we are still convinced our lives have meaning.
As of 2016, humankind indeed manages to hold the stick at both ends. Not only do we possess far more power than ever before, but against all expectations, God’s death did not lead to social collapse. Throughout history prophets and philosophers have argued that if humans stopped believing in a great cosmic plan, all law and order would vanish. Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans. God-fearing Syria is a far more violent place than the atheist Netherlands.
If there is no cosmic plan, and we are not committed to any divine or natural laws, what prevents social collapse? How come you can travel for thousands of kilometres, from Amsterdam to Bucharest or from New Orleans to Montreal, without being kidnapped by slave-traders, ambushed by outlaws or killed by feuding tribes?
The antidote to a meaningless and lawless existence was provided by humanism, a revolutionary new creed that conquered the world during the last few centuries. The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles, and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the great cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.
Accordingly, the central religious revolution of modernity was not losing faith in God; rather, it was gaining faith in humanity. It took centuries of hard work. Thinkers wrote pamphlets, artists composed poems and symphonies, politicians struck deals – and together they convinced humanity that it can imbue the universe with meaning. To grasp the depth and implications of the humanist revolution, consider how modern European culture differs from medieval European culture. People in London, Paris or Toledo in 1300 did not believe that humans could determine by themselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, what is beautiful and what is ugly. Only God could create and define goodness, righteousness and beauty.
Although humans were viewed as enjoying unique abilities and opportunities, they were also seen as ignorant and corruptible
beings. Without external supervision and guidance, humans could never understand the eternal truth, and would instead be drawn to fleeting sensual pleasures and worldly delusions. In addition, medieval thinkers pointed out that humans are mortal, and their opinions and feelings are as fickle as the wind. Today I love something with all my heart, tomorrow I am disgusted by it, and next week I am dead and buried. Hence any meaning that depends on human opinion is necessarily fragile and ephemeral. Absolute truths, and the meaning of life and of the universe, must therefore be based on some eternal law emanating from a superhuman source.
This view made God the supreme source not only of meaning, but also of authority. Meaning and authority always go hand in hand. Whoever determines the meaning of our actions – whether they are good or evil, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly – also gains the authority to tell us what to think and how to behave.
God’s role as the source of meaning and authority was not just a philosophical theory. It affected every facet of daily life. Suppose that in 1300, in some small English town, a married woman took a fancy to the next-door neighbour and had sex with him. As she sneaked back home, hiding a smile and straightening her dress, her mind began to race: ‘What was that all about? Why did I do it? Was it good or bad? What does it imply about me? Should I do it again?’ In order to answer such questions, the woman was supposed to go to the local priest, confess and ask the holy father for guidance. The priest was well versed in scriptures, and these sacred texts revealed to him exactly what God thought about adultery. Based on the eternal word of God, the priest could determine beyond all doubt that the woman had committed a mortal sin, that if she doesn’t make amends she will end up in hell, and that she ought to repent immediately, donate ten gold coins to the coming crusade, avoid eating meat for the next six months and make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. And it goes without saying that she must never repeat her awful sin.