Humanity faces unprecedented global challenges in the 21st century: climate change, the threat of nuclear war, growing inequality, artificial intelligence and automation, job loss and worker irrelevance, and a growing sense of disillusionment with liberalism that is driving humanity to embrace the counter-enlightenment values of nationalism and religion.
Yuval Noah Harari spends much of his latest book outlining these problems, placing them in historical perspective, and providing philosophical insight into their possible solutions. In this sense, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a brilliant primer on current affairs from a wider angle, presented by a historian that can transcend the parochialism of political debate and define the problems from a historically-informed and rational position. As Harari has said elsewhere, he prefers to think in centuries rather than in hours, days, or months.
Harari covers a lot of ground: climate change, immigration, technology, terrorism, war, god, religion, education, truth, meaning, and justice, and it’s worth reading the book in its entirety to get a sweeping perspective on current issues. But the main theme of the book is that the three major global problems of the 21st century (climate change, nuclear war, and technological disruption) cannot be solved locally.
Nationalism and religion in particular have no solutions for global problems. No single nation can, by itself, solve climate change, prevent nuclear war, or regulate technological innovation. Global cooperation among nations is the only chance we have at navigating these issues. The other option, I suppose, is pretending that the issues don’t exist, like when artificial intelligence and automation were never discussed during the 2016 US presidential debates and when Donald Trump called climate change a “Chinese hoax.” But ignoring the problems won’t make them go away.
Religion, Harari claims, is also largely irrelevant in terms of providing solutions, because the religious texts have almost nothing to say about contemporary problems. Additionally, religious people usually form their political conclusions first, using religion only as justification for positions they already hold. This is demonstrated by the fact that the religious occupy almost every conceivable social and political position and can find support for that position somewhere within scripture.
Another prominent theme throughout the book is humanity’s need for comforting stories, for simple and untrue myths that are required to give life meaning. This is pathological and needs to be outgrown. We need to develop intellectual integrity and the courage to admit our ignorance, confront the unknown, and forge our own meaning. The retreat to fairy tales is intellectually dishonest, and believing in something against all evidence to the contrary is, frankly, cowardly. In terms of life’s meaning, is it not enough to enjoy the companionship of others, to love, to engage in meaningful work, to help those in need, and to marvel at our access to all the world’s knowledge and cultural, artistic, and scientific output? Is all of this really meaningless if a middle-eastern carpenter from 2,000 years ago was not born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead?
For humanity to survive the challenges that lie ahead, we must transcend the old dogmas and myths and develop a new, global, cooperative philosophy based on reason, science, humanism, and progress. Whether or not this happens is up to us, but to do so we must confront and defeat the perennial conservative and reactionary forces that are constantly trying to drive us backwards.
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