This is Yuval Noah Harari’s sequel to how humans conquered the world, how europeans were lucky to have horses and how society began (Sapiens). Yuval now looks forwards to what we will be, extrapolating from Sapiens. We start with Yuval convincing us that all our problems are starting to disappear.
Famine is over
Consider how poorly reporting will have been in the past — unsurprisingly, data on famine is sparse. Records didn’t really begin until the 1800s and even then the reliability of is easily questioned.
Remember, in the year 1800, the USA just got their second president, Nelson just had his portrait, trains hadn’t been invented yet, most clocks didn’t have a second hand on them, the camera hasn’t been invented but nor is paper and the first hot air ballon has just be invented by putting a bag just above a fire. Data collection isn’t number 1 in priorities.
The best I could find is from Our World in Data who have done their own research:
For this entry we have assembled a new global dataset on famines from the 1860s until 2016. We estimate that in total 128 Million people died in famines over this period.
That’s an average of 1 million people a year, but looking at the data below there are peaks of ~20 million over 10 years — that’s the population of Australia today.
But this was at time where only a billion people lived. That means 2% people died just from famine in a peak . That’s the equivalent population today of Germany and Vietnam, combined, dying because of famine in ten years.
Famines seem to be reducing, and the route causes of them are no longer food production. Yuval Noah Harari states:
“If people in Syria, Sudan or Somalia starve to death, it is because some politician wants them to.”
Whether they explictly want them to or if their non-action is implicit doesn’t matter much to the person suffering.
Disease is over?
This is an odd chapter to read in light of Covid-19 but he still makes a good point. The black death killed between 30–60% of the population of Europe.
Despite the economic cost of the current pandemic, the human cost is much smaller. Despite the challenge upon health professionals and researchers, there is going to be an end, we expect a vaccine and would bet every time that Science will outpace the luck of virus’ mobility — even in a world where we are more mobile than ever.
Disease is not a humanity problem, it is an individual human problem now.
War is over?
Yuval writes that 15% of human mortality was caused by human violence in ancient times, 5% was in the 1900–1999 and 1% in 2000 onwards.
Again going back to Our World in Data, we see a similar pattern:
As we see the rise of health factor problems, Yuval says:
Sugar is more dangerous than gunpowder
In addition, warfare as a way to stay rich or powerful is inefficient now. Invading places for resources made sense when domestic product was simply through aggregation of agriculture or resources. Value has grown from purely being physical items.
Collective human thought is now required to shape, make, mould or build things, not simply human muscle. If you want prosperity, focusing on the population seems to be the way.
The incentives to wage war for land or people have gone.
Yes our technology is more potent and destructive and hence there is potential, but there is less motivation. Conquerors are rare as few will go along, Great Wars seem unlikely in an age of diplomacy and trade where profits are not directly related to the land and people you control.
Terrorism may be a source of war but typically their reach is small. Objectively, they are a smaller risk than Coca-Cola killing you, as Yuval points out. Even with the atrocities it has brought, terrorism will not have an impact on humanity in the same way disease, wars or famine have before. Again it is not a humanity issue it is an individual human issue.
They will still continue to happen and claim many many lives, but they aren’t unavoidable — in fact they will be fully attributable to individuals intents.
So what is next?
When the year comes that a tiny % of the global population are affected by famine, wars or disease, what will they all do? It seems unlikely that advancement will stop. So what direction will we focus?
Yuval thinks 3 directions have already been defined: