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.”