Harari’s Future Perspective
Two of the most interesting (and bestselling) books in recent years have come from the keyboard of Yuval Noah Harari. One is about the past, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. It is, in fact, brief, compared to the subject matter.
The other, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, is about the future, which is more up our alley here.
Both are cracking good reads, as they say in reviews of popular British fiction. Homo Deus was released in 2017, so much of its story of the future remains just there, in the future. But some of his opening sketch of the present (including the past century or so) stimulated some reaction from those of us who do strategic foresight for a living.
Harari’s Future Perspective: Adios starvation, disease and war?
In the introductory chapter of Homo Deus, Harari states that what distinguished the past half-century-to-a-century from all previous periods of human history is that three great scourges have been conquered: starvation, disease, and war.
First, he says, mass starvation has been eliminated. Famines occur, to be sure; but they only occur where political leaders or warring factions decide that they would benefit from the starvation. He cites the examples of Syria, Sudan, and Somalia.
His second point is one he might have wanted to have couched a bit differently:
“Every few years we are alarmed by the outbreak of some potential new plague, such as SARS in 2002/3, bird flu in 2005, swine flu in 2009/10 and Ebola in 2014. Yet thanks to efficient counter-measures these incidents have so far resulted in a comparatively small number of victims…No one can guarantee that plagues won’t make a comeback, but there are good reasons to think that in the arms race between doctors and germs, doctors run faster. …With each passing year doctors accumulate more and better knowledge, which they use in order to design more effective medicines and treatments. Consequently, though in 2050 we will undoubtedly face much more resilient germs, medicine in 2050 will likely be able to deal with them more efficiently than today.”
It would be a cheap shot to fault Harari for this. But it does illustrate several reasons why we at the Futures Strategy Group never give one single forecast of the future.
Harari’s Future Perspective: Oh yeah, COVID…
First, as Harari notes, there is no particular reason to believe that “plagues won’t make a comeback,” say, within 3 years of one’s publication date. That is the most direct criticism of his thesis: a plague certainly did make a comeback, and its global effects have dwarfed any event since, possibly, World War II.
But more importantly, Harari saw global society and the global medical establishment as a unified and rational whole, able to respond reasonably to a threat to health. In the event, it has proven to be nothing of the kind. Just take the World Health Organization (WHO). Throughout the Covid-19 crisis the WHO has struggled to get the major nations of the world to not only follow its guidance but to recognize its authority.
And that is because medicine, science, and “big government” (including international institutions) have been successfully portrayed by interested political and media actors as corrupt, error-ridden, and potentially tyrannical elites. This has crippled public health responses across the globe. It has not helped that public health, government, and medical authorities have in fact proven to be error-prone (Dr. Anthony Fauci early on declaring masks to be unnecessary; “experts” saying that schools must be closed, then later that they must be reopened; President Biden prematurely declaring victory as vaccinations became available), as well as occasionally ham-handed.
But the important thing to note here is that Harari’s declaration of victory over disease was a sort of linear extrapolation of previous trends, combined with a faith in the smoothly increasing rationality of humanity and society. As scenario planners, we believe that, beyond the very short term, extrapolation is never safe; your mileage may always vary. And if there is one thing we all can agree on, it is that human rationality has taken a large hit over the past two decades or so. Atavistic nationalism has rendered global solutions to truly global problems well-nigh impossible; and within the United States, e.g., the same sort of distrust of far-away government has prevented any sort of coherent national policy approach to this global plague.
Extrapolation is never safe
Second, it is the intersection of the COVID plague with the rise of hatred of elites that has made response to COVID so problematic, especially, it seems, in the United States. A simple prescription like Harari’s – “Rationality is rising, disease is declining” – may still hold for the long term. But none of us live in the long term. We live in the midst of messy intersections of large-scale trends. A set of scenarios that combined various levels of political division, or rationalism, on the one hand, against various levels of threat, might have brought to the surface the possibility that “the most advanced nation on earth” could be hit far worse by a pandemic than, say, nations in far less developed parts of the world – or even the autocracy within which it seems to have first arisen.
This is not to say we know why the US has suffered so many deaths from COVID. It is our intuition that we will not know why the disease spread the way it did for at least a decade of diligent research. Was it local temperatures, people indoors, mask rules and adherence to them, school closures, treatment regimes, lack of public health infrastructure, political, cultural, or religious attitudes, obesity, age, all of these and more?
More humble fumbles on the future…
The only thing we FSG scenario planners feel confident in saying is that in 2031 researchers and pundits will still be arguing about these things. Which is why multiple scenarios are so very necessary. If the past and present are such minefields, why should the future be any less so? This is why we REALLY hope that Harari was right in his third statement about momentous change in recent human history:
“The third piece of good news is that wars too are disappearing.”
7 thoughts on “Harari’s Stumble on the Future”
Nicely argued, Patrick. Nothing, absolutely nothing, derails progress and unity of effort like politics or religion (or both together). Strategic thinking must include the vagaries and potential foolishness of human actions (or lack thereof). Not to do so assumes a “rational actor” model that you note contains serious flaws.
As you know, one of the things we debate in our scenario planing engagements (aside from which movies were sweatiest: Cool Hand Luke, Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, or any film featuring Victor Mature) is how a new Dark Age might occur. How could all this hard-won, useful scientific knowledge seemingly disappear for long periods? I think since the turn of the millennium we have a better understanding of how such knowledge can only exist and be useful within a historically rare and fragile infrastructure of societal openness, stability, prosperity, cooperation, and agreement on basic reality. Again, the ham-handedness of “rational” leadership, and their (probably inevitably) perceived arrogance and elitism, can be blamed for some of the degradation of this infrastructure. But when partisan players see political profit in the destruction of societal trust, a lot of hitherto unimaginable things suddenly become plausible.
I nodded along as I read, Pat. You make a good argument for the alternative-futures approach to scenario planning.
What strikes me about big-idea books like Homo Deus is their characteristic of treating a single factor in isolation from a world’s other dimensions. The meaning of Covid, for example, is determined by more than the coronavirus. The virus happened in a complex context of broad mistrust in institutions, ubiquitous social media, easy-to-use remote technologies, a healthy global economy and so on. Change any or all of those and the meaning of Covid in our lives changes too.
Our clients navigate a world of what I more and more think of as recombinant risks, risks that interact to create something new that no one could fully imagine in advance. To say “here are three big things to think about” is not enough. That will not prepare organizations to make the most of the volatility likely to mark our lives in the first half of the 21st Century.
Good read, Pat. Thanks.
It’s all about the intersections…
I read Sapiens and liked it a lot. I have not read Homo Deus but after reading this and other reviews of it I am more than ever interested in Harari’s future view — that individuals are no longer masters of their own fate? That, in fact, free will is a myth? That what we know as humankind will ultimately be ruled by a vanguard of superhuman/techno-elites?
Say it ain’t so.
Partly so, partly not. Free will exists, but only for the superhuman/techno-elites.
(This is not entirely non-facetious.)
Nice piece, Pat. Also, “recombinant risks” is a helpful concept, Kevin.