21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Humans are storytellers.  We tell stories to understand our place in the world and to give our lives purpose and meaning.  Shared stories help bind us together into communities, tribes, nations and civilizations.  We understand stories better than facts.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is about humanity’s search for new stories that are meaningful and relevant and effective in the 21st Century.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His 2014 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, became an international bestseller.

Cover of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century21 Lessons for the 21st Century
By Yuval Noah Harari
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2018

20th Century Stories

In the 20th Century, Harari says, humans created three great stories: communism, fascism and liberalism.

The fascist story was all about conflict between nations. It aimed for the violent triumph of one nation over all the others. Fascism was defeated in World War 2. The communist story was about class conflict and the coming victory of the working class led by a centralized authority which promised equality but not necessarily freedom.  It collapsed at the end of the Cold War.

The liberal story was about the fight against tyranny. It envisioned a world of great freedom with minimal centralized authority at the expense of some inequality. At the end of the 20th Century it seemed that liberalism had triumphed.  But the global financial crisis of 2008, rising inequality around the world, rapid technological advancement and climate change have led to disillusionment with liberalism too.

So what is the right story for the 21st Century?  Do we need just one?  Can the liberal story be reformed? Or should we abandon the idea of stories altogether?

Harari explores these questions and more in a set of 21 wide-ranging, thought-provoking essays. They don’t provide clear answers so I wouldn’t call them “lessons” exactly. But the book will give you a broader historical perspective and greater clarity about what the important questions really are.

21st Century Challenges

Harari is very concerned with the problems of technology. When AI can make better decisions than humans, and when it can deliver precisely targeted advertisements and news feeds, do any of us really have free will anymore?  How can we have equality when improvements in biotechnology mean that the rich not only have more money than the rest of us, but also live healthier and longer than us?  And most concerning of all, how many people will be displaced by the automation of both physical and cognitive work?  Will the problem of worker exploitation be replaced by the problem of worker irrelevance and the emergence of a “useless class”?

Failed Stories, Wrong Answers

We don’t seem to be making much progress on addressing these questions, and some of the answers, some of the new stories we’ve come up with, are not helpful at all. Take nationalism for example. Harari does not advocate the end of the nation state. In fact, he thinks national identity is essential for democracy to function. We’re unlikely to accept the results of democratic elections involving millions of strangers without some common identity, he says.

But the rising nationalism we’re seeing in many places around the world (America, Britain, India, Turkey, Hungary) is incapable of responding to the global problems we now face. Nationalism, Harari says, suffers from a failure of imagination. It concerns itself with local questions such as, “will Israelis or Palestinians rule Jerusalem?” or “can women in France wear the hijab?” Nationalism has nothing useful to say about global problems such as nuclear war, climate change or technological disruption.

“… the nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot return the world to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global existential threats that no nation can solve on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has at least three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If despite these common threats humans choose to privilege their particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than 1914 or 1939.” [p. 127]

Harari is even more skeptical of religion. None of the five major world religions escape his critic’s scalpel. Religions have lost a lot of their influence, he states, because they “weren’t very good at farming or healthcare.”  But they still create powerful identities.

“So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are “us” and who are “them,” whom we should cure and whom we should bomb.”  [p. 137]

As a result, Harari explains, the world’s major religions are part of the problem because they create identities that divide us and make it more difficult to work together to solve global problems. It gets even worse when religious and national identities are combined.

Harari dismisses the need for another one of our stories: God.  Humans have created two kinds of gods. First, there’s the mysterious god, the god we know nothing about. When we confront questions we cannot answer, like “what created the fundamental laws of physics?” god is our fallback answer. In other words, “we give our ignorance the grand name of God.” [p. 202] Then there’s the lawgiver god; stern and demanding.  This god is said to be the foundation of all morality.  Harari rejects this. He says, and I agree, that we don’t need gods to act morally. “Morality” isn’t about obeying god; it’s about reducing suffering.  And we can all do that without god.

Better Stories

So what stories will help us in the 21st Century?

21 Lessons for the 21st Century does not offer a prescription, but it does point out some ideas that, while not perfect, are likely to help us address humanity’s problems.

Harari starts with humility. The Universe is 13.5 billion years old.  Humans have existed for a mere 100,000 years. The religions we have created are just a few thousand years old and our nations are at most a few hundred years old.  Yet our stories ignore all this and start with the birth of our nation, or the founding myth of our religion. Each one concerns just a small segment of humanity. Rubbish, says Harari. We are not the center of the Universe. We need to start thinking about humanity and the Earth as a whole, not just our little corner of it.

Harari favors secularism. He quickly and clearly sketches secularism’s core values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility.

On courage, for example, Harari notes that it takes courage to fight oppressive regimes but even greater courage to admit ignorance. Yet that’s exactly what secularism teaches – if we don’t know something we should admit it and look for new evidence. We shouldn’t be afraid of the unknown, and we should certainly not put our faith in a fixed set of absolute answers.

“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”  [p. 214]

But even secularists can become dogmatic and Harari advises us to beware of this shadow.

Side note: Harari’s list of secular values is very similar to the principles that Stuart Kauffman proposes for a new global ethic in Reinventing the Sacred.  Kauffman is a scientist rather than a historian so it’s interesting that both authors arrive at a similar place.

While the book criticizes many of the shortcomings of liberalism and democracy, Harari does so out of a desire to see them both adapt and improve.  He thinks liberal democracy is,

“… the most successful and the most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While it might not be appropriate for every society in every stage of development, it has proven its worth in more societies and in more situations than any of its alternatives. So when we are examining the new challenges that lie ahead of us, it is necessary to understand the limitations of liberal democracy and to explore how we can adapt and improve its current institutions.”  [p. xix]

Better Yet, No Stories

Humans have always created stories to find meaning in life, but Harari concludes the book by telling us that the important question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life,” but rather “how do we stop suffering?”

He says we first need to understand ourselves – our bodies, minds, desires and emotions.  He’s a strong advocate for meditation and mindfulness as a place to start.  From there we can begin to understand suffering.

“So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.

The answer isn’t a story.”  [p. 315]

Unsolicited Feedback

There’s so much in this book I feel like I’ve only touched on a few of its themes in this review.

I really liked Harari’s overarching message that our task in the world is to reduce suffering. That perspective forces us to look critically at our own personal impact on each other and on the world. It motivates both action and humility.

I’m an atheist so I really liked the chapter on secularism and its values. To be clear, I don’t think Harari is saying people should completely abandon their religious beliefs or practices or the community and comfort they provide. But he is saying we need to recognize that all our stories, including religions, are just that, stories, fiction, not true. And if we want to address the global problems facing humanity, we do need to overcome our religious divisions.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century was published in 2018, before the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Incidentally, I think the acronym BC should be redefined to mean “Before Covid.”) But the pandemic proves Harari’s main points. The virus doesn’t care about your religion or your nationality. It will infect communists, fascists, liberals and conservative equally and without mercy. It’s a global problem that requires a global response.

Harari calls attention to urgent global problems but I wouldn’t say he’s a pessimist.  He notes that the world has already knit itself together into a single global civilization.  Despite our differences there are remarkable similarities in how countries are organized and operate, and how people communicate with and relate to each other around the world.

That’s a hopeful foundation to build on.

Related Links

A Guide to Worrying in the 21st Century
Bill Gates’s review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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