21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Title: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

Thoughts: The start of this book was a little slow and seemed repetitive. I almost set it down (something I very rarely do). Then it got more interesting. The last chapter was a little odd in just how personal it was. The entire book was more personal than Sapiens, but the last chapter seemed intended to convince us to all become Buddhists. Not a bad thing to try to do, but seemed out of place here.


In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2018 we are down to zero. No wonder that the liberal elites, who dominated much of the world in recent decades, have entered a state of shock and disorientation. To have one story is the most reassuring situation of all. Everything is perfectly clear. To be suddenly left without any story is terrifying. Nothing makes any sense. A bit like the Soviet elite in the 1980s, liberals don’t understand how history deviated from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism to interpret reality.

Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people, but against an economic elite that does not need them any more.6 This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.

Through its monopoly over the media, the ruling oligarchy can repeatedly blame all its failures on others, and divert attention to external threats – either real or imaginary. When you live under such an oligarchy, there is always some crisis or other that takes priority over boring stuff such as healthcare and pollution.

We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one. So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading – down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’

in Scandinavia, where governments follow the motto ‘protect workers, not jobs’.)

It is debatable whether it is better to provide people with universal basic income (the capitalist paradise) or universal basic services (the communist paradise). Both options have advantages and drawbacks. But no matter which paradise you choose, the real problem is in defining what ‘universal’ and ‘basic’ actually mean.

Yet most so-called conservatives also embrace the broad liberal world view. Especially in the United States, both Republicans and Democrats should occasionally take a break from their heated quarrels to remind themselves that they all agree on fundamentals such as free elections, an independent judiciary, and human rights.

he held a referendum in which each and every Briton was asked: ‘What do you feel about it?’ You might object that people were asked ‘What do you think?’ rather than ‘What do you feel?’, but this is a common misperception. Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights – or perhaps any voting rights.

ancient hunter-gatherer bands were still more egalitarian than any subsequent human society, because they had very little property. Property is a prerequisite for long-term inequality.

So we had better call upon our lawyers, politicians, philosophers and even poets to turn their attention to this conundrum: how do you regulate the ownership of data? This may well be the most important political question of our era.

People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented. Pundits often blame such feelings of alienation on the decline of religious and national bonds, but losing touch with your body is probably more important.

We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves.

The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.9

all civilisations have their internal disputes. Indeed, they are defined by these disputes. When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas. For example, in 1618 Europe didn’t have a single religious identity – it was defined by religious conflict. To be a European in 1618 meant to obsess about tiny doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants or between Calvinists and Lutherans, and to be willing to kill and be killed because of these differences. If a human being in 1618 did not care about these conflicts, that person was perhaps a Turk or a Hindu, but definitely not a European.

Both these cases may seem to smack of racism. But in fact, they are not racist. They are ‘culturist’. People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against traditional racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted. Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of ‘culturists’.

terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.

What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars. Polytheists found it perfectly acceptable that different people will worship different gods and perform diverse rites and rituals. They rarely if ever fought, persecuted, or killed people just because of their religious beliefs. Monotheists, in contrast, believed that their God was the only god, and that He demanded universal obedience.

The third of the biblical Ten Commandments instructs humans never to make wrongful use of the name of God. Many understand this in a childish way, as a prohibition on uttering the explicit name of God (as in the famous Monty Python sketch ‘If you say Jehovah …’). Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds. People hate somebody and say, ‘God hates him’; people covet a piece of land and say, ‘God wants it’. The world would be a much better place if we followed the third commandment more devotedly. You want to wage war on your neighbours and steal their land? Leave God out of it, and find yourself some other excuse.

modern history has demonstrated that a society of courageous people willing to admit ignorance and raise difficult questions is usually not just more prosperous but also more peaceful than societies in which everyone must unquestioningly accept a single answer. People afraid of losing their truth tend to be more violent than people who are used to looking at the world from several different viewpoints. Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.

A person can follow the most bizarre sectarian dress code and practise the strangest of religious ceremonies, yet act out of a deep commitment to the core secular values. There are plenty of Jewish scientists, Christian environmentalists, Muslim feminists and Hindu human-rights activists. If they are loyal to scientific truth, to compassion, to equality and to freedom, they are full members of the secular world, and there is absolutely no reason to demand that they take off their yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs or tilakas.

secular education does not mean a negative indoctrination that teaches kids not to believe in God and not to take part in any religious ceremonies. Rather, secular education teaches children to distinguish truth from belief; to develop their compassion for all suffering beings; to appreciate the wisdom and experiences of all the earth’s denizens; to think freely without fearing the unknown; and to take responsibility for their actions and for the world as a whole.

individuality too is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict, or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb, or an aircraft.

The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realise just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless propose policies regarding climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate these countries on a map.

The commandment not to steal was formulated in the days when stealing meant physically taking with your own hand something that did not belong to you. Yet today, the really important arguments about theft concern completely different scenarios. Suppose I invest $10,000 in shares of a big petrochemical corporation, which provides me with an annual 5 per cent return on my investment. The corporation is highly profitable because it does not pay for externalities. It dumps toxic waste into a nearby river without caring about the damage to the regional water supply, to the public’s health, or to the local wildlife. It uses its wealth to enlist a legion of lawyers who protect it against any demand for compensation. It also retains lobbyists who block any attempt to legislate stronger environmental regulations.

Truth and power can travel together only so far. Sooner or later they go their separate ways. If you want power, at some point you will have to spread fictions. If you want to know the truth about the world, at some point you will have to renounce power.

Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions.

At present, too many schools focus on cramming information. In the past this made sense, because information was scarce, and even the slow trickle of existing information was repeatedly blocked by censorship.

Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the twenty-first century demands, for they themselves are the product of the old educational system.

the best advice I could give a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama is: don’t rely on the adults too much. Most of them mean well, but they just don’t understand the world. In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults, because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed slowly. But the twenty-first century is going to be different. Due to the growing pace of change you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.

Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings.

If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real. If you fast because God commanded you to do so, the tangible feeling of hunger makes God present more than any statue or icon. If you lose your legs in a patriotic war, your stumps and wheelchair make the nation more real than any poem or anthem. On a less grandiose level, by preferring to buy inferior local pasta to imported high-quality Italian pasta you might make a small daily sacrifice that makes the nation feel real even in the supermarket.

Liberalism has a particularly confused notion of ‘free will’. Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfil their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire – then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire – then no, humans have no free will.

they want to know things like what happens after you die. Yet the real enigma of life is not what happens after you die, but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life.

I had never bothered to observe how anger actually feels. Whenever I had been angry, I focused on the object of my anger – something somebody did or said – rather than on the sensory reality of the anger.