Yuval Harari’s writings explode many fictions on which modern civilization is based. However, his own unacknowledged fictions perpetuate dangerous myths. In this article, I urge Harari to recognize his own implicit stories, and by doing so, step up to his full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future.
When Yuval Noah Harari speaks, the world listens. Or at least, the world’s reading public. His first two blockbusters, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, have sold 12 million copies globally, and his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, is on bestseller lists everywhere. His fans include Barack Obama, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, he’s admired by opinion shapers as diverse as Sam Harris and Russell Brand, and he’s fêted at the IMF and World Economic Forum.
A galvanizing theme of Harari’s writing is that humans are driven by shared, frequently unacknowledged fictions. Many of these fictions, he rightly points out, underlie the concepts that organize society, such as the value of the US dollar or the authority of nation states. In critiquing the current vogue topic of “fake news,” Harari piercingly observes that this is nothing new, but has been around for millennia in the form of organized religion.
However, apparently unwittingly, Harari himself perpetuates unacknowledged fictions that he relies on as foundations for his own version of reality. Given his enormous sway as a public intellectual, Harari risks causing considerable harm by perpetuating these fictions. Like the traditional religious dogmas that he mocks, his own implicit stories wield great influence over the global power elite as long as they remain unacknowledged. I invite Harari to examine them here. By recognizing them as the myths they actually are, he could potentially transform his own ability to help shape humanity’s future.
Fiction #1: Nature Is a Machine
One of Harari’s most striking prophecies is that artificial intelligence will come to replace even the most creative human endeavors, and ultimately be capable of controlling every aspect of human cognition. The underlying rationale for his prediction is that human consciousness—including emotions, intuitions, and feelings—is nothing more than a series of algorithms, which could all theoretically be deciphered and predicted by a computer program. Our feelings, he tells us, are merely “biochemical mechanisms” resulting from “billions of neurons calculating” based on algorithms honed by evolution.
The idea that humans—and indeed all of nature—can be understood as very complicated machines is in fact a uniquely European cultural myth that arose in the 17th century and has since taken hold of the popular imagination. In the heady days of the Scientific Revolution, Descartes declared he saw no difference “between the machines made by craftsmen and the various bodies that nature alone composes.” The preferred machine metaphor is now the computer, with Richard Dawkins (apparently influencing Harari) writing that “life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information,” but the idea remains the same—everything in nature can ultimately be reduced to its component parts and understood accordingly.
This myth, however attractive it might be to our technology-driven age, is as fictional as the theory that God created the universe in six days. Biologists point out principles intrinsic to life that categorically differentiate it from even the most complicated machine. Living organisms cannot be split, like a computer, between hardware and software. A neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to its behavior: the information it transmits doesn’t exist separately from its material construction. As prominent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio states in The Strange Order of Things, Harari’s assumptions are “not scientifically sound” and his conclusions are “certainly wrong.”
The dangers of this fiction arise when others, along with Harari, base their ideas and plans on this flawed foundation. Believing nature is a machine inspires a hubristic arrogance that technology can solve all humanity’s problems. Molecular biologists promote genetic engineering to enhance food production, while others advocate geo-engineering as a solution to climate breakdown—strategies fraught with the risk of massive unintended consequences. Recognizing that natural processes, from the human mind to the entire global ecosystem, are complex, nonlinear, and inherently unpredictable, is a necessary first step in crafting truly systemic solutions to the existential crises facing our civilization.
Fiction #2: “There Is No Alternative”
When Margaret Thatcher teamed up with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s to impose the free-market, corporate-driven doctrine of neoliberalism on the world, she famously used the slogan “There Is No Alternative” to argue that the other two great ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism and communism—had failed, leaving her brand of unrestrained market capitalism as the only meaningful choice.
Astonishingly, three decades later, Harari echoes her caricatured version of history, declaring how, after the collapse of communism, only “the liberal story remained.” The current crisis, as Harari sees it, is that “liberalism has no obvious answers to the biggest problems we face.” We now need to “craft a completely new story,” he avers, to respond to the turmoil of modern times.
Sadly, Harari seems to have missed the abundant, effervescent broth of inspiring visions for a flourishing future developed over decades by progressive thinkers across the globe. He appears to be entirely ignorant of the new foundations for economics proffered by pioneering thinkers such as Kate Raworth; the exciting new principles for a life-affirming future within the framework of an Ecological Civilization; the stirring moral foundation established by the Earth Charter and endorsed by over 6,000 organizations worldwide; in addition to countless other variations of the “new story” that Harari laments is missing. It’s a story of hope that celebrates our shared humanity and emphasizes our deep connection with a living earth.
The problem is not, as Harari argues, that we are “left without any story.” It is, rather, that the world’s mass media is dominated by the same overpowering transnational corporations that maintain a stranglehold over virtually all other aspects of global activity, and choose not to give a platform to the stories that undermine the Thatcherian myth that neoliberalism is still the only game in town.
Harari, with his twelve million readers and reverential following among the global elite, is well positioned to apprise mainstream thinkers of the hopeful possibilities on offer. In doing so, he would have the opportunity to constructively influence the future that—as he rightly points out—holds terrifying prospects without a change in direction. Is he ready for this challenge? First, perhaps, he would need to investigate the assumptions underlying Fiction #3.
Fiction #3: Life Is Meaningless—It’s Best to Do Nothing
Yuval Harari is a dedicated meditator, sitting for two hours a day to practice vipassana (insight) meditation, which he learned from the celebrated teacher Goenka. Based on Goenka’s tutelage, Harari offers his own version of the Buddha’s original teaching: “Life,” he writes, “has no meaning, and people don’t need to create any meaning.” In answer to the question as to what people should do, Harari summarizes his view of the Buddha’s answer: “Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
As a fellow meditator (though not as steadfast as Harari) and great admirer of Buddhist principles, I share Harari’s conviction that Buddhist insight can help reduce suffering on many levels. However, I am concerned that, in distilling the Buddha’s teaching to these sound bites, Harari gives a philosophical justification to those who choose to do nothing to avert the imminent humanitarian and ecological catastrophes threatening our future.
The statement that “life has no meaning” seems to arise more from the modern reductionist ontology of physicist Steven Weinberg than the mouth of the Buddha. To suggest that “people don’t need to create any meaning” contradicts an evolved instinct of the human species. As I describe in my own book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, human cognition drives us to impose meaning into the universe, a process that’s substantially shaped by the culture a person is born into. However, by recognizing the underlying structures of meaning instilled in us by our own culture, we can become mindful of our own patterns of thought, thus enabling us to reshape them for more beneficial outcomes—a process I call “cultural mindfulness.”
There are, in fact, other interpretations of the Buddha’s core teachings that lead to very different distillations—ones that cry out “Do Something!”, inspiring meaningful engagement in worldly activities. The principle of dependent origination, for example, emphasizes the intrinsic interdependence of all aspects of existence, and forms the basis for the politically engaged Buddhism of prominent monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Another essential Buddhist practice is metta, or compassion meditation, which focuses on identifying with the suffering of others, and resolving to devote one’s own life energies to reducing that suffering. These are sources of meaning in life that are fundamentally consistent with Buddhist principles.
Fiction #4: Humanity’s Future Is a Spectator Sport
A distinguishing characteristic of Harari’s writing, and one that may account for much of his prodigious success, is his ability to transcend the preconceptions of everyday life and offer a panoramic view of human history—as though he’s orbiting the earth from ten thousand miles and transmitting what he sees. Through his meditation practice, Harari confides, he has been able to “actually observe reality as it is,” which gave him the focus and clear-sightedness to write Sapiens and Homo Deus. He differentiates his recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century from his first two books by declaring that, in contrast to their ten thousand-mile Earth orbit, he will now “zoom in on the here and now.”
While the content of his new book is definitely the messy present, Harari continues to view the world as if through a scientist’s objective lens. However, Harari’s understanding of science appears to be limited to the confines of Fiction #1—“Nature Is a Machine”—which requires complete detachment from whatever is being studied. Acknowledging that his forecast for humanity “seems patently unjust,” he justifies his own moral detachment, retorting that “this is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto.”
In recent decades, however, systems thinkers in multiple scientific disciplines have transformed this notion of pristine scientific objectivity. Recognizing nature as a dynamic, self-organized fractal complex of nonlinear systems, which can only be truly understood in terms of how each part relates to each other and the whole, they have shown how these principles apply, not just to the natural world, but also our own human social systems. A crucial implication is that the observer is part of what is being observed, with the result that the observer’s conclusions and ensuing actions feed back into the very system being investigated.
This insight holds important ethical implications for approaching the great problems facing humanity. Once you recognize that you are part of the system you’re analyzing, this raises a moral imperative to act on your findings, and to raise awareness of others regarding their own intrinsic responsibilities. The future is not a spectator sport—in fact, every one of us is on the team and can make a difference in the outcome.
Yuval Harari: please step up
Yuval Harari—I urge you to recognize your own fictions. It’s clear to me that you are a caring, compassionate person of high integrity. You’ve shown your willingness to advocate on behalf of those who suffer, as in Sapiens where you brought attention to the atrocity of factory farming. You must be aware that sixty percent of all wild animals on Earth have been annihilated since the decade when you were born; that UN scientists give us just twelve years to avoid a point of no return in our climate emergency.
The Earth itself now needs your advocacy. Please recognize that nature is alive; that there are alternative stories on offer; that there is a moral imperative at this moment to engage in helping turn around our civilization’s path to destruction. If you’re interested to consider these questions, I offer you scholarly sources here for further inquiry. There are twelve million people, including influential power brokers, who would respond to your intellectual leadership. I implore you to step up and play your full potential role in helping shape humanity’s future.
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.
His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)
In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society. He spoke to the world’s elite this year at the World’s Economic Forum in Davos on the perils of what he calls “political correctness,” and has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Since his work offers an intellectual rationale for many in the elite to continue practices that imperil humanity, it needs to be met with a detailed and rigorous response.
Besides, I agree with much of what Pinker has to say. His book is stocked with seventy-five charts and graphs that provide incontrovertible evidence for centuries of progress on many fronts that should matter to all of us: an inexorable decline in violence of all sorts along with equally impressive increases in health, longevity, education, and human rights. It’s precisely because of the validity of much of Pinker’s narrative that the flaws in his argument are so dangerous. They’re concealed under such a smooth layer of data and eloquence that they need to be carefully unraveled. That’s why my response to Pinker is to meet him on his own turf: in each section, like him, I rest my case on hard data exemplified in a graph.
This discussion is particularly needed because progress is, in my view, one of the most important concepts of our time. I see myself, in common parlance, as a progressive. Progress is what I, and others I’m close to, care about passionately. Rather than ceding this idea to the coterie of neoliberal technocrats who constitute Pinker’s primary audience, I believe we should hold it in our steady gaze, celebrate it where it exists, understand its true causes, and most importantly, ensure that it continues in a form that future generations on this earth can enjoy. I hope this piece helps to do just that.
Graph 1: Overshoot
In November 2017, around the time when Pinker was likely putting the final touches on his manuscript, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”
They included nine sobering charts and a carefully worded, extensively researched analysis showing that, on a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate. Three of those alarming graphs are shown here: the rise in CO2 emissions; the decline in available freshwater; and the increase in the number of ocean dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff.
This was not the first such notice. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1992, 1,700 scientists (including the majority of living Nobel laureates) sent a similarly worded warning to governmental leaders around the world, calling for a recognition of the earth’s fragility and a new ethic arising from the realization that “we all have but one lifeboat.” The current graphs starkly demonstrate how little the world has paid attention to this warning since 1992.
Taken together, these graphs illustrate ecological overshoot: the fact that, in the pursuit of material progress, our civilization is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished. Overshoot is particularly dangerous because of its relatively slow feedback loops: if your checking account balance approaches zero, you know that if you keep writing checks they will bounce. In overshoot, however, it’s as though our civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts to replenish the account, and then we pretend these funds are income and celebrate our continuing “progress.” In the end, of course, the money runs dry and it’s game over.
Pinker claims to respect science, yet he blithely ignores fifteen thousand scientists’ desperate warning to humanity. Instead, he uses the blatant rhetorical technique of ridicule to paint those concerned about overshoot as part of a “quasi-religious ideology… laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.” He then uses a couple of the most extreme examples he can find to create a straw-man to buttress his caricature. There are issues worthy of debate on the topic of civilization and sustainability, but to approach a subject of such seriousness with emotion-laden rhetoric is morally inexcusable and striking evidence of Monbiot’s claim that Pinker “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.”
When Pinker does get serious on the topic, he promotes Ecomodernism as the solution: a neoliberal, technocratic belief that a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes will magically resolve all ecological problems. This approach fails, however, to take into account the structural drivers of overshoot: a growth-based global economy reliant on ever-increasing monetization of natural resources and human activity. Without changing this structure, overshoot is inevitable. Transnational corporations, which currently constitute sixty-nine of the world’s hundred largest economies, are driven only by increasing short-term financial value for their shareholders, regardless of the long-term impact on humanity. As freshwater resources decline, for example, their incentive is to buy up what remains and sell it in plastic throwaway bottles or process it into sugary drinks, propelling billions in developing countries toward obesity through sophisticated marketing. In fact, until an imminent collapse of civilization itself, increasing ecological catastrophes are likely to enhance the GDP of developed countries even while those in less developed regions suffer dire consequences.
Graphs 2 and 3: Progress for Whom?
Which brings us to another fundamental issue in Pinker’s narrative of progress: who actually gets to enjoy it? Much of his book is devoted to graphs showing worldwide progress in quality in life for humanity as a whole. However, some of his omissions and misstatements on this topic are very telling.
At one point, Pinker explains that, “Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” That’s convenient, because any non-human animal might not agree that the past sixty years has been a period of flourishing. In fact, while the world’s GDP has increased 22-fold since 1970, there has been a vast die-off of the creatures with whom we share the earth. As shown in Figure 2, human progress in material consumption has come at the cost of a 58% decline in vertebrates, including a shocking 81% reduction of animal populations in freshwater systems. For every five birds or fish that inhabited a river or lake in 1970, there is now just one.
But we don’t need to look outside the human race for Pinker’s selective view of progress. He is pleased to tell us that “racist violence against African Americans… plummeted in the 20th century, and has fallen further since.” What he declines to report is the drastic increase in incarceration rates for African Americans during that same period (Figure 3). An African American man is now six times more likely to be arrested than a white man, resulting in the dismal statistic that one in every three African American men can currently expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. The grim takeaway from this is that racist violence against African Americans has not declined at all, as Pinker suggests. Instead, it has become institutionalized into U.S. national policy in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Graph 4: A rising tide lifts all boats?
This brings us to one of the crucial errors in Pinker’s overall analysis. By failing to analyze his top-level numbers with discernment, he unquestioningly propagates one of the great neoliberal myths of the past several decades: that “a rising tide lifts all the boats”—a phrase he unashamedly appropriates for himself as he extols the benefits of inequality. This was the argument used by the original instigators of neoliberal laissez-faire economics, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to cut taxes, privatize industries, and slash public services with the goal of increasing economic growth.
Pinker makes two key points here. First, he argues that “income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being,” pointing to recent research that people are comfortable with differential rewards for others depending on their effort and skill. However, as Pinker himself acknowledges, humans do have a powerful predisposition toward fairness. They want to feel that, if they work diligently, they can be as successful as someone else based on what they do, not on what family they’re born into or what their skin color happens to be. More equal societies are also healthier, which is a condition conspicuously missing from the current economic model, where the divide between rich and poor has become so gaping that the six wealthiest men in the world (including Pinker’s good friend, Bill Gates) now own as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the world’s population.
Pinker’s fallback might, then, be his second point: the rising tide argument, which he extends to the global economy. Here, he cheerfully recounts the story of how Branko Milanović, a leading ex-World Bank economist, analyzed income gains by percentile across the world over the twenty-year period 1988–2008, and discovered something that became widely known as the “Elephant Graph,” because its shape resembled the profile of an elephant with a raised trunk. Contrary to popular belief about rising global inequality, it seemed to show that, while the top 1% did in fact gain more than their fair share of income, lower percentiles of the global population had done just as well. It seemed to be only the middle classes in wealthy countries that had missed out.
This graph, however, is virtually meaningless because it calculates growth rates as a percent of widely divergent income levels. Compare a Silicon Valley executive earning $200,000/year with one of the three billion people currently living on $2.50 per day or less. If the executive gets a 10% pay hike, she can use the $20,000 to buy a new compact car for her teenage daughter. Meanwhile, that same 10% increase would add, at most, a measly 25 cents per day to each of those three billion. In Graph 4, Oxfam economist Mujeed Jamaldeen shows the original “Elephant Graph” (blue line) contrasted with changes in absolute income levels (green line). The difference is stark.
The “Elephant Graph” elegantly conceals the fact that the wealthiest 1% experienced nearly 65 times the absolute income growth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality isn’t, in fact, decreasing at all, but going extremely rapidly the other way. Jamaldeen has calculated that, at the current rate, it would take over 250 years for the income of the poorest 10% to merely reach the global average income of $11/day. By that time, at the current rate of consumption by wealthy nations, it’s safe to say there would be nothing left for them to spend their lucrative earnings on. In fact, the “rising tide” for some barely equates to a drop in the bucket for billions of others.
Graph 5: Measuring Genuine Progress
One of the cornerstones of Pinker’s book is the explosive rise in income and wealth that the world has experienced in the past couple of centuries. Referring to the work of economist Angus Deaton, he calls it the “Great Escape” from the historic burdens of human suffering, and shows a chart (Figure 5, left) depicting the rise in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, which seems to say it all. How could anyone in their right mind refute that evidence of progress?
There is no doubt that the world has experienced a transformation in material wellbeing in the past two hundred years, and Pinker documents this in detail, from the increased availability of clothing, food, and transportation, to the seemingly mundane yet enormously important decrease in the cost of artificial light. However, there is a point where the rise in economic activity begins to decouple from wellbeing. In fact, GDP merely measures the rate at which a society is transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP.
This divergence is played out, tragically, across the world every day, and is cruelly hidden in global statistics of rising GDP when powerful corporate and political interests destroy the lives of the vulnerable in the name of economic “progress.” In just one of countless examples, a recent report in The Guardian describes how indigenous people living on the Xingu River in the Amazon rainforest were forced off their land to make way for the Belo Monte hydroelectric complex in Altamira, Brazil. One of them, Raimundo Brago Gomes, tells how “I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.” Now, he and his family live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.
Pinker is aware of the crudeness of GDP as a measure, but uses it repeatedly throughout his book because, he claims, “it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing.” This is not, however, what has been discovered when economists have adjusted GDP to incorporate other major factors that affect human flourishing. One prominent alternative measure, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), reduces GDP for negative environmental factors such as the cost of pollution, loss of primary forest and soil quality, and social factors such as the cost of crime and commuting. It increases the measure for positive factors missing from GDP such as housework, volunteer work, and higher education. Sixty years of historical GPI for many countries around the world have been measured, and the results resoundingly refute Pinker’s claim of GDP’s correlation with wellbeing. In fact, as shown by the purple line in Figure 5 (right), it turns out that the world’s Genuine Progress peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since.
Graph 6: What Has Improved Global Health?
One of Pinker’s most important themes is the undisputed improvement in overall health and longevity that the world has enjoyed in the past century. It’s a powerful and heart-warming story. Life expectancy around the world has more than doubled in the past century. Infant mortality everywhere is a tiny fraction of what it once was. Improvements in medical knowledge and hygiene have saved literally billions of lives. Pinker appropriately quotes economist Steven Radelet that these improvements “rank among the greatest achievements in human history.”
So, what has been the underlying cause of this great achievement? Pinker melds together what he sees as the twin engines of progress: GDP growth and increase in knowledge. Economic growth, for him, is a direct result of global capitalism. “Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism,” he declares with his usual exaggerated rhetoric, “its economic benefits are so obvious that they don’t need to be shown with numbers.” He refers to a figure called the Preston curve, from a paper by Samuel Preston published in 1975 showing a correlation between GDP and life expectancy that become foundational to the field of developmental economics. “Most obviously,” Pinker declares, “GDP per capita correlates with longevity, health, and nutrition.” While he pays lip service to the scientific principle that “correlation is not causation,” he then clearly asserts causation, claiming that “economic development does seem to be a major mover of human welfare.” He closes his chapter with a joke about a university dean offered by a genie the choice between money, fame, or wisdom. The dean chooses wisdom but then regrets it, muttering “I should have taken the money.”
Pinker would have done better to have pondered more deeply on the relation between correlation and causation in this profoundly important topic. In fact, a recent paper by Wolfgang Lutz and Endale Kebede entitled “Education and Health: Redrawing the Preston Curve” does just that. The original Preston curve came with an anomaly: the relationship between GDP and life expectancy doesn’t stay constant. Instead, each period it’s measured, it shifts higher, showing greater life expectancy for any given GDP (Figure 6, left). Preston—and his followers, including Pinker—explained this away by suggesting that advances in medicine and healthcare must have improved things across the board.
Lutz and Kebede, however, used sophisticated multi-level regression models to analyze how closely education correlated with life expectancy compared with GDP. They found that a country’s average level of educational attainment explained rising life expectancy much better than GDP, and eliminated the anomaly in Preston’s Curve (Figure 6, right). The correlation with GDP was spurious. In fact, their model suggests that both GDP and health are ultimately driven by the amount of schooling children receive. This finding has enormous implications for development priorities in national and global policy. For decades, the neoliberal mantra, based on Preston’s Curve, has dominated mainstream thinking—raise a country’s GDP and health benefits will follow. Lutz and Kebede show that a more effective policy would be to invest in schooling for children, with all the ensuing benefits in quality of life that will bring.
Pinker’s joke has come full circle. In reality, for the past few decades, the dean chose the money. Now, he can look at the data and mutter: “I should have taken the wisdom.”
Graph 7: False Equivalencies, False Dichotomies
As we can increasingly see, many of Pinker’s missteps arise from the fact that he conflates two different dynamics of the past few centuries: improvements in many aspects of the human experience, and the rise of neoliberal, laissez-faire capitalism. Whether this is because of faulty reasoning on his part, or a conscious strategy to obfuscate, the result is the same. Most readers will walk away from his book with the indelible impression that free market capitalism is an underlying driver of human progress.
Pinker himself states the importance of avoiding this kind of conflation. “Progress,” he declares, “consists not in accepting every change as part of an indivisible package… Progress consists of unbundling the features of a social process as much as we can to maximize the human benefits while minimizing the harms.” If only he took his own admonition more seriously!
Instead, he laces his book with an unending stream of false equivalencies and false dichotomies that lead a reader inexorably to the conclusion that progress and capitalism are part of the same package. One of his favorite tropes is to create a false equivalency between right-wing extremism and the progressive movement on the left. He tells us that the regressive factions that undergirded Donald Trump’s presidency were “abetted by a narrative shared by many of their fiercest opponents, in which the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis—the two sides in macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions will make the world a better place.” He even goes so far as to implicate Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election debacle: “The left and right ends of the political spectrum,” he opines, “incensed by economic inequality for their different reasons, curled around to meet each other, and their shared cynicism about the modern economy helped elect the most radical American president in recent times.”
Implicit in Pinker’s political model is the belief that progress can only arise from the brand of centrist politics espoused by many in the mainstream Democratic Party. He perpetuates a false dichotomy of “right versus left” based on a twentieth-century version of politics that has been irrelevant for more than a generation. “The left,” he writes, “has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.” He contrasts “industrial capitalism,” on the one hand, which has rescued humanity from universal poverty, with communism, which has “brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea–style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions.”
By painting this black and white, Manichean landscape of capitalist good versus communist evil, Pinker obliterates from view the complex, sophisticated models of a hopeful future that have been diligently constructed over decades by a wide range of progressive thinkers. These fresh perspectives eschew the Pinker-style false dichotomy of traditional left versus right. Instead, they explore the possibilities of replacing a destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for greater fairness, sustainability, and human flourishing. In short, a model for continued progress for the twenty-first century.
While the thought leaders of the progressive movement are too numerous to mention here, an illustration of this kind of thinking is seen in Graph 7. It shows an integrated model of the economy, aptly called “Doughnut Economics,” that has been developed by pioneering economist Kate Raworth. The inner ring, called Social Foundation, represents the minimum level of life’s essentials, such as food, water, and housing, required for the possibility of a healthy and wholesome life. The outer ring, called Ecological Ceiling, represents the boundaries of Earth’s life-giving systems, such as a stable climate and healthy oceans, within which we must remain to achieve sustained wellbeing for this and future generations. The red areas within the ring show the current shortfall in the availability of bare necessities to the world’s population; the red zones outside the ring illustrate the extent to which we have already overshot the safe boundaries in several essential earth systems. Humanity’s goal, within this model, is to develop policies that bring us within the safe and just space of the “doughnut” between the two rings.
Raworth, along with many others who care passionately about humanity’s future progress, focus their efforts, not on the kind of zero-sum, false dichotomies propagated by Pinker, but on developing fresh approaches to building a future that works for all on a sustainable and flourishing earth.
Graph 8: Progress Is Caused By… Progressives!
This brings us to the final graph, which is actually one of Pinker’s own. It shows the decline in recent years of web searches for sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes. Along with other statistics, he uses this as evidence in his argument that, contrary to what we read in the daily headlines, retrograde prejudices based on gender, race, and sexual orientation are actually on the decline. He attributes this in large part to “the benign taboos on racism, sexism, and homophobia that have become second nature to the mainstream.”
How, we might ask, did this happen? As Pinker himself expresses, we can’t assume that this kind of moral progress just happened on its own. “If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down,” he avers, “it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. If a type of violence has gone down, then some change in the social, cultural, or material milieu has caused it to go down… That makes it important to find out what the causes are, so we can try to intensify them and apply them more widely.”
Looking back into history, Pinker recognizes that changes in moral norms came about because progressive minds broke out of their society’s normative frames and applied new ethics based on a higher level of morality, dragging the mainstream reluctantly in their wake, until the next generation grew up adopting a new moral baseline. “Global shaming campaigns,” he explains, “even when they start out as purely aspirational, have in the past led to dramatic reductions in slavery, dueling, whaling, foot-binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.”
It is hard to comprehend how the same person who wrote these words can then turn around and hurl invectives against what he decries as “political correctness police, and social justice warriors” caught up in “identity politics,” not to mention his loathing for an environmental movement that “subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem.” Pinker seems to view all ethical development from prehistory to the present day as “progress,” but any pressure to shift society further along its moral arc as anathema.
This is the great irony of Pinker’s book. In writing a paean to historical progress, he then takes a staunchly conservative stance to those who want to continue it. It’s as though he sees himself at the mountain’s peak, holding up a placard saying “All progress stops here, unless it’s on my terms.”
In reality, many of the great steps made in securing the moral progress Pinker applauds came from brave individuals who had to resist the opprobrium of the Steven Pinkers of their time while they devoted their lives to reducing the suffering of others. When Thomas Paine affirmed the “Rights of Man” back in 1792, he was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. It would be another 150 years before his visionary idea was universally recognized in the United Nations. Emily Pankhurst was arrested seven times in her struggle to obtain women’s suffrage and was constantly berated by “moderates” of the time for her radical approach in striving for something that has now become the unquestioned norm. When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, with the first public exposé of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her solitary stance was denounced as hysterical and unscientific. Just eight years later, twenty million Americans marched to protect the environment in the first Earth Day.
These great strides in moral progress continue to this day. It’s hard to see them in the swirl of daily events, but they’re all around us: in the legalization of same sex marriage, in the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, and most recently in the way the #MeToo movement is beginning to shift norms in the workplace. Not surprisingly, the current steps in social progress are vehemently opposed by Steven Pinker, who has approvingly retweeted articles attacking both Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and who rails at the World Economic Forum against what he terms “political correctness.”
It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses. Personally, I’m proud to be a progressive, and along with many others, to devote my energy to achieve progress for this and future generations. And if and when we do so, it won’t be thanks to Steven Pinker and his specious arguments.
It’s time to build a new worldview around a deeper sense of connectedness.
What do all these ideas have in common—a tax on carbon, big investments in renewable energy, a livable minimum wage, and freely accessible healthcare? The answer is that we need all of them, but even taken together they’re utterly insufficient to redirect humanity away from impending catastrophe and toward a truly flourishing future.
That’s because the problems these ideas are designed to solve, critical as they are, are symptoms of an even more profound problem: the implicit values of a global economic and political system that is driving civilization toward a precipice.
Even with the best of intentions, those actively working to reform the current system are a bit like software engineers valiantly trying to fix multiple bugs in a faulty software program: each fix complicates the code, leading inevitably to a new set of bugs that require even more heroic workarounds. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t just the software: an entirely new operating system is required to get where we need to go.
Searching for a foundation of meaning
This realization dawned on me gradually over the years I spent researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning. My research began as a personal search for meaning. I’d been through a personal crisis when the certainties on which I’d built my early life came crashing down around me. I wanted my life going forward to be truly meaningful—but based on what foundation? I was determined to sort through the received narratives of meaning until I came across a foundation I could really believe in.
My drive to answer these questions led me to explore the patterns of meaning that different cultures throughout history have constructed. Just like peeling an onion, I realized that one layer of meaning frequently covered deeper layers that structure the daily thoughts and values that most people take for granted. It was a journey of nearly ten years, during which I dedicated myself to deep research in disciplines such as neuroscience, history and anthropology.
Finally, I discovered that what makes humans unique is that we—to a greater extent than any other species—have what I call a ‘patterning instinct:’ we are driven to pattern meaning into our world. That drive is what led humans to develop language, myth, and culture. It enabled us to invent tools and develop science, giving us tremendous benefits but also putting us on a collision course with the natural world.
Root metaphors underlie cultural frames of meaning
Each culture tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves. It’s those culturally derived values that have shaped history.
Early hunter-gatherers, for example, understood nature as a ‘giving parent,’ seeing themselves as part of a large extended family, intrinsically connected with the spirits of the natural world around them. When agriculture first emerged about twelve thousand years ago, new values such as property, hierarchy and wealth appeared, leading early civilizations to view the universe as dominated by a hierarchy of gods who required propitiation through worship, ritual and sacrifice.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, a radically new, dualistic way of thinking about the universe emerged, conceiving a split cosmos divided between a heavenly domain of eternal abstraction and a worldly domain polluted with imperfection. This cosmological split was paralleled by the conception of a split human being composed of an eternal soul temporarily imprisoned in a physical body that is destined to die. Christianity, the world’s first systematic dualistic cosmology, built on the Greek model by placing the source of meaning in an external God in the heavens, while the natural world became merely a desacralized theater for the human drama to be enacted.
The Christian cosmos set the stage for the modern worldview that emerged in seventeenth century Europe with the Scientific Revolution. The belief in the divinity of reason, inherited from the ancient Greeks, served as an inspiration for the scientific discoveries of pioneers such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, who all believed that they were glimpsing ‘the mind of God.’
The flawed operating system underlying modern culture
But the worldview that inspired these breakthroughs had a darker side. The Scientific Revolution was built on metaphors such as ‘nature as a machine’ and ‘conquering nature’ which have shaped the values and behaviors of the modern age. The entailments of a dualistic cosmos inherited from the Greeks have defined our received beliefs, many of which we accept implicitly even though they are based on flawed assumptions.
We are told that humans are fundamentally selfish—indeed even our genes are selfish—and that an efficiently functioning society is one where everyone rationally pursues their own self-interest. We accept technocratic fixes to problems that require more integrated, systemic solutions on the premise that nature is just a very complicated machine—one that is entirely separate from humanity.
Continued growth in Gross Domestic Product is seen as the basis for economic and political success, even though GDP measures nothing more than the rate at which we are transforming nature and human activities into the monetary economy, no matter how beneficial or harmful it may be. And the world’s financial markets are based on the belief that the global economy will keep growing indefinitely even though that is impossible on a finite planet. ‘No problem,’ we are told, since technology will always find a new solution.
These underlying flaws in our global operating system stem ultimately from a sense of disconnection. Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature. At the deepest level, it is this sense of separation that is inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster.
Connectedness as a foundation for human flourishing
However, the same human patterning instinct that has brought us to this precipice is also capable of turning us around and onto a path of sustainable flourishing. We have the capacity to build an alternative worldview around a sense of connectedness within the web of life—a sense shared by indigenous cultures around the world from the earliest times.
I’ve seen this idea disparaged as a New Agey, kumbaya-style mentality even by otherwise progressive thinkers. However, modern scientific findings validate the underlying connectedness of all living beings. Insights from complexity theory and systems biology show that the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. Life itself is now understood as a self-organizing, self-regenerating complex that extends like a fractal at ever-increasing scale, from a single cell to the global system of life on Earth.
Human beings, too, are best understood not by their selfish drives for power but by cooperation, group identity, and a sense of fair play. In contrast to chimpanzees, who are obsessed with competing against each other, human beings evolved to become the most cooperative of primates, working collaboratively on complex tasks and creating communities with shared values and practices that became the basis for culture and civilization. In the view of prominent evolutionary psychologists, it was our intrinsic sense of fairness that led to the evolutionary success of our species and created the cognitive foundation for crucial values of the modern world such as freedom, equality and representative government.
Just as the values of previous generations shaped history, so the values we collectively choose to live by today will shape our future. The cognitive patterns instilled in us by the dominant culture are the results of a particular worldview that arose at a specific time and place in human history. This worldview has now passed its expiration date. It is causing enormous unnecessary suffering throughout the globe and driving our civilization toward collapse.
Rather than trying to transcend what we are, our most important task is to peel away this received worldview, reach within ourselves to feel our deepest motivations as living beings embedded in the web of life, and act on them.
First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and 2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.
Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.
As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?
Even when environmental scientists assiduously try to avoid politics and offer science-based solutions to problems, such as Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has done with The Solutions Project, the political pushback from embedded political interests is enormous. The fact is that there are solutions to our climate breakdown, and there are even ways to restructure our society to prevent collapse, but the political will is lacking.
If anyone is interested in looking deeper into this critical issue, here are some books I recommend (other than the final two chapters of my own book, The Patterning Instinct):
Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.Washington, DC: Island Press, 2008.
A deeply insightful book that uses a sophisticated understanding of systems thinking to analyze some of the structural problems of our civilization.
Paul Raskin et al., Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Boston: Stockholm Environment Institute, 2003)
Ashort but deeply thought through assessment of the possible future scenarios facing humanity.
Al Gore, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).
Athorough and discerning evaluation of the major drivers for change in our global society, and their implications for the future.
Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
Ascholarly analysis of societal collapse that has deservedly framed much serious discussion on the topic since its publication.
Jorgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012).
Athoughtful projection into the future by one of the original team members of Limits to Growth.
Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999).
Apenetrating and visionary account of the enormity of the challenge and opportunity facing humanity in the future.
Futurists warning about the threats of AI are looking in the wrong place. Humanity is already facing an existential threat from an artificial intelligence we created hundreds of years ago. It’s called the Corporation.
Some of the leading thinkers of our time are unleashing a stream of warnings about the threat of artificial intelligence taking over from humans. Earlier this month, Stephen Hawking predicted it could be “the worst event in the history of our civilization” unless we find a way to control its development. Billionaire Elon Musk has formed a company to try to keep humans one step ahead of what he sees as an existential AI threat.
The scenario that terrifies them is that, in spite of the best intentions, we might create a force more powerful than all of humanity with a value system that doesn’t necessarily incorporate human welfare. Once it reaches a critical mass, this force could take over the world, control human activity, and essentially suck all life out of the earth while it optimizes for its own ends. Prominent futurist Nick Bostrom gives an example of a superintelligence designed with the goal of manufacturing paperclips that transforms the entire earth into one gigantic paperclip manufacturing facility.
These futurists are right to voice their concerns, but they’re missing the fact that humans have already created a force that is well on its way to devouring both humanity and the earth in just the way they fear. It’s called the Corporation.
“Government by corporations”
When corporations were first formed back in the seventeenth century, their inventors—just like modern software engineers—acted with what they believed were good intentions. The first corporate charters were simply designed to limit an investor’s liability to the amount of their investment, thus encouraging them to finance risky expeditions to India and Southeast Asia. However, an unintended consequence soon emerged, known as moral hazard: with the potential upside greater than the downside, reckless behavior ensued, leading to a series of spectacular frauds and a market crash that resulted in corporations being temporarily banned in England in 1720.
Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the United States, aware of the English experience, were deeply suspicious of corporations, giving them limited charters with tightly constrained powers. However, during the turmoil of the Civil War, industrialists took advantage of the disarray, leveraging widespread political corruption to expand their influence. “This is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations,” lamented Rutherford Hayes who became President in 1877.
Corporations took full advantage of their new-found dominance, influencing state legislatures to issue charters in perpetuity giving them the right to do anything not explicitly prohibited by law. The tipping point in their path to domination came in 1886 when the Supreme Court designated corporations as “persons” entitled to the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been passed to give equal rights to former slaves enfranchised after the Civil War. Since then, corporate dominance has only been further enhanced by law, culminating in the notorious Citizen United case of 2010, which lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations in elections.
Sociopaths with global reach
Corporations, just like a potential runaway AI, have no intrinsic interest in human welfare. They are legal constructions: abstract entities designed with the ultimate goal of maximizing financial returns for their investors above all else. If corporations were in fact real persons, they would be sociopaths, completely lacking the ability for empathy that is a crucial element of normal human behavior. Unlike humans, however, corporations are theoretically immortal, cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country.
With the incalculable advantage of their superhuman powers, corporations have literally taken over the world. They have grown so massive that an astonishing sixty-nine of the largest hundred economies in the world are not nation states but corporate entities.
Corporations have been able to use their transnational powers to dictate their own terms to virtually any country in the world. As a result of decades of globalization, corporations can exploit the free movement of capital to build factories in nations with the weakest labor unions, or locate polluting plants in countries with lax environmental laws, basing their decisions solely on maximizing returns for their shareholders. Governments compete with each other to make their nations the most attractive for corporate investment.
Corporations wield their vast powers to control the minds of consumers, enthralling them into a state of perpetual consumption. In the early twentieth century, Edward Bernays, a mastermind of corporate empowerment, boldly stated his game plan as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” He declared ominously that “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country.” The sinister words of Wayne Chilicki, chief executive of General Mills, show how Bernays’ vision has been perpetuated: “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills… believe in getting them early and having them for life.”
The result of this corporate takeover of humanity is a world careening out of control, where nature is mercilessly ransacked to extract the raw materials required to increase shareholder value in a vortex of perpetual economic growth, without regard to the quality of human life and with no concern for the welfare of future generations.
Corporate takeover of global governance
Instead of being pilloried for their vast destruction, those who dedicate themselves to their corporate overlords are richly rewarded and elevated to positions of even greater power and prestige. ExxonMobil, for example, has been exposed as having lied shamelessly about climate change, knowing for decades about its consequences and yet deliberately concealing the facts, thus condemning present and future generations to havoc. Instead of facing jail time, the CEO during much of this period, Rex Tillerson, is now the U.S. Secretary of State, overseeing the global relationships of the most powerful country in the world.
In fact, the current U.S. cabinet represents the most complete takeover yet of the U.S. government by corporations, with nearly 70% of top administration jobs filled by corporate executives. In the words of Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, “In the Trump administration, auto industry lobbyists are setting transportation policy, Boeing has a top perch at the Department of Defense, Wall Street is in control of financial policy and regulatory agencies, and corporate defense lawyers staff the key positions in the Justice Department.”
Corporations are inserting themselves into international agreements, so they can further their interests even more effectively. At the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, a new Global Redesign Initiative set out an agenda for multinational corporations to engage directly in global governance. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, proudly announced in 2015 as a vision to reduce poverty, adopted their approach by inviting corporations to a seat at its table to impact UN policy, while calling for further globalization. Fossil fuel companies have infiltrated the annual global COP meetings on climate change, ensuring they can compromise any actions that might hurt them, even as the world faces the threat of climate catastrophe.
The takeover of global governance by multinational corporations has permitted them to undermine human welfare everywhere in the pursuit of profit. Nestlé remorselessly buys control of rural communities’ groundwater reservoirs to sell as bottled water, leaving them to foot the bill for environmental cleanup, with the result that in countries such as Columbia sugary bottled drinks are frequently cheaper than plain water. As a result of the chemicals sold by global agribusiness companies such as Cargill and Monsanto, it’s been estimated by UN officials that the world’s topsoil can only support about sixty more years of harvests. In these cases, and countless others like them, humans and the earth alike are mere fodder for the insatiable appetite of an amoral, inhuman intelligence run amok.
There is an alternative
The corporate takeover of humanity is so all-encompassing that it’s difficult to visualize any other possible global system. Alternatives do, however, exist. Around the world, worker-owned cooperatives have demonstrated that they can be as effective as corporations—or more so—without pursuing shareholder wealth as their primary consideration. The Mondragon cooperative in Spain, with revenues exceeding €12 billion, shows how this form of organization can efficiently scale.
There are also structural changes that can be made to corporations to realign their values system with human welfare. Corporate charters can be amended to optimize for a triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial outcomes (the so-called “triple Ps” of people, planet, and profit.) A “beneficial” or B-Corp certification, which holds companies to social and environmental performance standards, is becoming more widely adopted and is now held by over 2,000 corporations in over fifty countries around the world.
Ultimately, if we are stop this force from completely taking over humanity, these alternative approaches need to be codified into our national and international governance. Imagine a world where corporate charters were only granted if they adopted a triple bottom line, and where shareholder lawsuits threatened every time a company broke one of its own social and environmental standards. Until that happens, it may be that the “worst event in the history of our civilization” is not the future development of modern AI, but the decision by a group of 17th century politicians to unleash the power of the Corporation on an unsuspecting humanity.
Our egalitarian hunter-gatherer ancestors developed sophisticated social technologies for keeping upstarts in check. What can the popular resistance movement learn from them in confronting the worst excesses of Donald Trump?
The recent election results in Virginia and elsewhere suggest that the tide may be turning away from the egregious behavior exhibited by Donald Trump, and back toward a sense of decency in American politics. How can we keep that momentum going over the next three years?
In researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, I realized that a greater understanding of hunter-gatherer values and practices offers a valuable perspective on our own social and political interactions, including some hints on how our contemporary industrialized society can rein in the behavior of a rogue leader such as Donald Trump.
Nomadic hunter-gatherers do things very differently from modern societies, yet their way of life was the ubiquitous human experience until approximately the past ten thousand years when agriculture emerged. During that time, humans evolved some of the key characteristics that make us unique among primates: a sense of fair play, shared intentions, and community-based ethics.
Hunter-gatherer communities were invariably egalitarian. There was no “big chief” who lorded it over everyone else. Yet they had to work hard to maintain their egalitarian values in the face of upstarts who demonstrated bullying, arrogance, and narcissism. In doing so, they developed a set of sophisticated and powerful group dynamics. Is there anything we can learn from their playbook that can apply to the popular resistance movement confronting those same characteristics that Donald Trump exudes on a daily basis?
Consider the story of anthropologist Richard Lee, who gave the tribe of !Kung foragers, with whom he’d been living, the best Christmas gift he could procure: a fat, meaty ox for their feast. But instead of gratitude, he received nothing but insults: it was the skinniest “sack of guts and bones,” they told him, that they had ever seen. Even while they spent two days feasting on it, they kept complaining: “It gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing.”
Only later did Lee discover that this was the !Kung’s normal response to a hunter who returns with a big kill. Instead of praising him, the group ridicules his achievements and speaks of his meat as worthless, even while they’re enjoying it. This way, Lee discovered, they prevent a hunter from swelling up with pride and thinking of himself as a “big man” or a chief.
Around the world, hunter-gatherer bands viewed Trump-like attributes as a serious threat to the smooth functioning of their communities, and they worked hard to keep them in check before they got out of control. As a !Kung elder explained to Richard Lee, “When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
Another common practice was for hunters to exchange their uniquely identifiable arrows with each other before a hunt. After a kill, the person who portioned out the meat to the band—thus temporarily holding power in the group—was the one whose arrow killed the prey, not the one who shot it. Through this ingenious method, power remained dispersed and randomized instead of becoming concentrated with the most skillful hunter.
How different from today’s society with its mega-billionaires and celebrity worship! But even among hunter-gatherers, dominant upstarts (almost invariably men) would sometimes get out of hand. Here are five methods they used, in order of increasing severity, to keep them from taking over.
Ridicule. The first response would be for community members to ridicule his behavior among themselves. This was a valuable indirect way of signaling to others that his arrogance wouldn’t be tolerated, without resorting to direct confrontation. It was also a powerful way to build group consensus against him, in case further resistance were needed. We see an updated version of this response to Trump every day, in the late-night comic offerings of shows such as Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Direct criticism. If the upstart didn’t respond to the subtler message of ridicule, the next step would be to confront him directly. This might take courage, and would best be done as a group. It would be most effective if the criticism came from those who were friends rather than those already known to disagree with him. This is why a critique of Trump from prominent Republicans such as John McCain, Bob Corker, or Jeff Flake has far more impact than the daily barrage of criticism from Democrats.
Group disobedience. If the upstart continued his wayward behavior, the group might then resort to disobedience. The arrogant hunter might, for example, set out in one direction, but the other hunters would refuse to follow him. In modern society, with strict rules guiding permissible behavior, group disobedience looks different. The Women’s March, the spontaneous demonstrations at airports in response to Trump’s initial racist rulings, and court injunctions against his directives, are all examples of people stepping up in moral outrage to violations of norms in an attempt to prevent some of the worst excesses.
Ostracism. If all these responses failed to have their desired effect, in rare cases a band might ostracize the miscreant. A milder form of this would be to withhold the norms of social etiquette, with more severe forms such as expulsion from the group applied in extreme cases. In some hunter-gatherer societies, such as Eskimos in the Arctic, this could effectively be a death sentence. We have seen important examples of ostracism occurring in the Beltway, such as when the Golden State Warriors refused to visit the White House, or when the White House Arts Committee resigned en masse to protest Trump’s defense of white nationalists following Charlottesville.
Extreme sanction. As a last resort, when every other attempt to check an upstart has failed, the group may come to a consensus decision to execute him. This would be done very rarely and with heavy hearts, because in spite of common misperceptions, hunter-gatherers generally had great fear and distaste for physical violence. In our modern society, with its strict ethical and legal restrictions, the extreme sanction applicable to Donald Trump would be impeachment—a process that has recently been energized by a multi-million-dollar campaign initiated by billionaire activist Tom Steyer.
Is there anything we can learn from the hunter-gatherer playbook? One takeaway is to reflect on how our 21st-century society is not so different from hunter-gatherer society after all. Each of the tactics employed by our nomadic ancestors is being implemented by those who share the common outrage at someone who so clearly thinks of himself as a “big man” and “the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.” Another lesson may be to recognize that each tactic of resistance is a crucial one: rather than arguing about taking one approach instead of another, it’s important to realize that all flavors of resistance are needed to counter a threat as grave as what Trump represents.
The most important lesson of all, however, may be to recognize what undergirded the hunter-gatherers’ resistance to an upstart in the first place: a shared set of values based in a deep sense of fairness and human dignity. Throughout the world and throughout history, hunter-gatherers showed a strong commitment to what has been called “altruistic punishment”: the willingness to punish those who flagrantly break social norms even at potentially significant cost to themselves.
If we are to be successful in the national resistance to the takeover of our society by authoritarianism, we need to emphasize the core values that the vast majority of us share, such as common decency, respect for human dignity, and caring for our community. When we act on the basis of our shared humanity, and when we’re willing to venture outside our comfort zone—even taking personal risks—to fight for what we know is right, we can rest assured that our struggle is in the great tradition of our hunter-gatherer past, and that our evolved human nature itself is on our side.
There’s probably no more contentious Federal holiday than Columbus Day.
Increasingly, municipalities across the country are renaming it to Indigenous Peoples Day, to honor those who were decimated by the European conquest. Meanwhile, every year, apologists for the dominant neoliberal worldview publish op-ed pieces to defend the status quo. Their arguments, unfortunately, only demonstrate the moral vacuity of their position.
I’ve attempted to raise the level of conversation with this piece published today in Salon, which goes beyond the question of Columbus’s own character flaws, to investigate the mindset of the Europeans who followed him. Most importantly, the same mindset that—half a millennium later—now celebrates Columbus Day as a Federal holiday, is the one that is driving our civilization toward environmental catastrophe. This mindset is what we need to understand, and transform, is we’re to shift humanity’s trajectory toward one of sustainable flourishing.
What do you think? Please share in the Comments below.
What celebrating Columbus Day portends for our civilization
The mindset Columbus and his followers brought with them is the same one that is driving our global civilization toward environmental catastrophe.
What does it tell us about our civilization that Columbus Day is celebrated as a federal holiday, with parades, barbecues, and football games, instead of a somber recognition of genocide, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates the atrocities of the Nazis? The answer might offer a key to a sustainable future for our civilization.
When Christopher Columbus first made landfall with his crew on the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he was taken aback by the generosity and benevolence of the Taino people he encountered. He wrote in his journal how, if the Europeans asked them for something, they would freely share anything they owned “and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts.”
It didn’t take long, though, for his mind to wander off in a different direction. Columbus quickly realized how easily he could take advantage of them, writing to the King and Queen of Spain how the Taino were so naïve that they cut themselves out of ignorance when they held a sword. “Should your Majesties command it,” he wrote, “all the inhabitants could be taken away to Spain or made slaves on the island. With fifty men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus was obsessed with recklessly exploiting whatever he discovered in the New World, regardless of the consequences. He wasn’t alone in this. In fact, the entire European conquest was based on the premise of ruthless exploitation in order to enrich the explorers and those who had financed them.
The result was the greatest genocidal catastrophe that has occurred yet in human history. In every region European explorers discovered, a decimation of the local population ensued of almost unimaginable proportions. The population of central Mexico was twenty million in 1500, four times greater than Britain. Within a century, there were fewer than one million people alive there. Similarly, the population of the Inca empire collapsed from eleven million in 1500 to less than a million in 1600. It’s been estimated that in the 16th century alone, close to one hundred million indigenous people died in the Americas through slaughter, starvation, or disease.
Many historians have pointed the finger to the new diseases the Europeans brought with them that ravaged the local populations, some even going so far as to suggest that this catastrophe was inadvertent: a sad but inevitable consequence of human progress. However, as historians such as David Stannard and Eduardo Galleano have excruciatingly documented, the Europeans approached the new territories with a systematic compulsion to exploit remorselessly every last resource—human and mineral—they could ransack from the land. The havoc caused by European diseases just made their job that much easier.
In fact, as I discovered in researching my book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, this obsession with exploiting resources without regard to consequences was unique to the European mindset—which has now become the predominant global mindset as a result of the European conquest of the rest of the world. Even though the facts of history make its direction seem inevitable, it didn’t have to be that way. Our modern world, and the values on which it’s founded, are the consequence of a particular way of thinking that arose only in Europe.
To understand this better, consider the example of Admiral Zheng, the Chinese commander who set sail in 1405—nearly a century before Columbus—with the greatest armada in history: twenty-seven thousand men in over three hundred ships, each about ten times the size of one of Columbus’s boats. Over nearly three decades, they dominated the Indian Ocean, from Sumatra to Sri Lanka, from Arabia to East Africa. But instead of using their power to enslave the indigenous people and plunder their raw materials, they used it to enhance the prestige of the Chinese emperor, setting up embassies in Nanjing with emissaries from Japan, Malaya, Vietnam, and Egypt.
The reason for this astonishing contrast with Columbus was the value system Admiral Zheng brought with him. It would have been as unthinkable for Zheng to have conquered and enslaved the societies he visited with his armada, as it would have been for Columbus to have set up embassies with the indigenous people he encountered in the New World. In China, the predominant aim of political power was to sustain society’s equilibrium. Military might was seen as a force to use only when necessary to maintain stability.
The same held true for the Chinese view of their natural resources, much to the bemusement of early European missionaries. One of them, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde, mystified why the Chinese failed to mine all the gold and silver in nearby mountains, wrote how their exploitation was hindered by “political views” that “the publick Tranquillity might not be disturbed by the too great abundance of these Metals, which would make the People haughty and negligent of Agriculture.”
Is it any coincidence that Chinese civilization, with its focus on maintaining stability, is the oldest in world history, surviving intact for millennia while every other early civilization collapsed into ruins? Modern China, of course, has taken to extractive global capitalism as avidly as any other nation on the planet, but that was only after a century of humiliation by Western powers caused traditional values to seem impotent by contrast.
At this point in the early twenty-first century, we are beginning to encounter the disastrous consequences of the mindset that Columbus, and those who followed him, brought with their voyages of conquest. The rapacious approach to mineral wealth that caused the Spaniards to extract every last grain from the world’s richest silver mine at Potosí, Bolivia, is the same mindset that drives today’s fossil fuel companies to rape the earth through fracking and tar sands extraction even while carbon emissions threaten the future of civilization. The moral ease with which Europeans drove millions of enslaved Native Americans and Africans to their deaths is the same grotesque mentality that today permits the wealthiest six men in the world to own as much as half the world’s population.
And that’s why how we choose to celebrate Columbus Day is a portent of our civilization’s future. As long as our predominant way of thinking rewards those who exploit others recklessly, and who view the earth as no more than a resource to plunder, we’re headed for environmental catastrophe. Even if we somehow manage to survive the climate breakdown, there are a slew of other existential crises waiting in the wings: topsoil degeneration, freshwater depletion, the Sixth Extinction of species, disappearance of fisheries, deforestation… the list goes on.
There’s a lot we can learn from Admiral Zheng and the traditional Chinese values that launched his expedition. But we don’t have to look that far. The indigenous people who stewarded the Americas for thousands of years before the Columbus cataclysm are themselves manifesting the vision our entire world needs to survive. At Standing Rock, water protectors fought the poisoning of their homeland with prayer and ceremony, declaring their love and respect for the natural world and the overriding importance of its responsible stewardship for future generations.
In South America, indigenous tribes are organizing to prevent the wanton destruction of their habitat by oil and mining corporations. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the buen vivir movement fosters a value system based on community and deep connection with the earth as a counterpoint to the Western drive for exploitation and extraction.
Many municipalities throughout the United States, recognizing the outrage of commemorating Columbus Day, have officially changed its name to Indigenous Peoples Day, using it as an opportunity to honor those who have been decimated and yet continue to offer a vision of hope for humanity’s future. Maybe on some future date, that change will be made at the national level, and we will have a federal Indigenous Peoples Day. Might that day, perhaps, be the very day on which our civilization begins to shift course away from annihilation and toward a flourishing future?
Reprint of my article first published in Berkeleyside, on Thursday, September 21, 2017
Next week, right wing extremists plan another invasion of Berkeley, with some of their most notorious mouthpieces—Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, among others—scheduled to speak in what they speciously call a “Free Speech” week. Their obvious desire is to provoke, in the historic nexus of the real free speech movement, a public display of violence to further polarize this country’s political arena. Based on what occurred at the past two Berkeley protests this year, they’re likely to get just what they want.
On August 27, I was one of several thousand peaceful demonstrators in Berkeley rallying against the hate-filled incitement to violence by the far right. Thousands of posters announcing “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” adorned the city’s streets and shop fronts. The primary feeling was one of community empowerment arising from shared humane values. However, those of us who ventured a few blocks down to the Civic Center Park, where the aborted hate rally had been planned, came face-to-face with a phalanx of black-uniformed antifa followers whose sporadic spurts of violence against a few right-wing stragglers were then emblazoned in national media headlines the next day. The violence of a few had swamped a peaceful demonstration of thousands.
The Berkeley events occurred in the wake of the neo-fascist mayhem and murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville two weeks earlier, which generated many thought-provoking arguments by progressives in defense of antifa’s tactics. Most of them focused on the inadequate response by authorities to the hate-filled threats and acts of violence perpetrated by the far-right. “I never felt safer than when I was near antifa,” wrote parish administrator Logan Rimel of his Charlottesville experience. He goes on to claim that only those willing to enter the fray and risk physical injury should have the right to an opinion: “White Christians, if you aren’t willing to personally take a bat to the head, shut up about antifa.”
Beyond the ruckus of any particular demonstration, others have justified antifa by pointing to the institutional brutality that is endemic to the United States and its shameful history. Police killings of African American men in custody continue unchecked, underscored most recently by the outrageous acquittal of Jason Stockley, the white police officer on trial in St. Louis for the murder of 24-year-old African American Anthony Lamar Smith. We live in a nation founded on a structure of institutional violence that continues to violate the rights of millions. The earlier indigenous genocides and barbarism of slavery have morphed into structural inequities that devastate people everywhere in vulnerable communities. Those who join antifa in outrage are right to feel their fury, and are to be commended for their courage to stand up and risk their own safety in defense of more vulnerable fellow citizens.
However, antifa’s willingness to incorporate in their tactics what they see as legitimate violence undermines the good work they set out to do. Since Charlottesville, there has been an outpouring of articles from many progressive thinkers emphatically condemning their tactics as counter-productive. Noam Chomsky has pointed out that “when confrontation shifts to the arena of violence, it’s the toughest and most brutal who win—and we know who that is.” Chris Hedges starkly accused the antifa protesters of strengthening the very people they’re fighting against through their tactics:
As long as acts of resistance are forms of personal catharsis, the corporate state is secure. Indeed, the corporate state welcomes this violence because violence is a language it can speak with a proficiency and ruthlessness that none of these groups can match…
There is no moral equivalency between antifa and the alt-right. But by brawling in the streets antifa allows the corporate state, which is terrified of a popular anti-capitalist uprising, to use the false argument of moral equivalency to criminalize the work of all anti-capitalists.
German Lopez, writing in Vox, has convincingly demonstrated the far greater effectiveness of peaceful protests over violence in the American struggle for civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as in campaigns for justice worldwide throughout the twentieth century.
While I wholeheartedly support these critiques, I think they understate the most important point of all: the case against violent tactics is not simply one of political strategy. It’s a moral choice—and one that should be enunciated clearly and unequivocally by anyone in the progressive movement who cares about the future flourishing of their fellow human beings.
Why does this distinction matter? Imagine, for a moment, that for some reason the strategic arguments were no longer valid. Suppose—hard as it is to conceive—that a sufficient level of violence enacted by left-wing activists could be successful in intimidating right-wing extremists to stop their campaign of hate. Would this then justify the use of violence? Of course not. The fundamental reason for this—demonstrated only too clearly by the horrors of the twentieth century—is that the end does not justify the means. On the contrary, any successful means inevitably becomes the end—and the beginning of a new system built on that means, whatever it might be. Once a group succeeds in taking power through violence, it will continue to use that violence to maintain power.
We must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
Dr. King’s lesson that “means and ends must cohere” offers a clear lens through which to evaluate the actions we need to take to create a society based on human dignity and compassion: we must act unequivocally with dignity and compassion. In the Berkeley demonstrations on August 27, I heard antifa followers chanting slogans such as “Nazi scum off our streets.” This is the kind of dehumanization of opponents that lies at the root of every genocide ever perpetrated. Fighting hate with hate only creates more hate. The far more powerful weapon against hatred is a recognition of the intrinsic humanity of all those around us—even our most vitriolic opponents.
Embracing non-violence as a strategy doesn’t, however, give a free pass to any of us to simply remain on the sidelines while brutality erupts around us. To be aware of the institutional violence perpetrated daily in our society and to do nothing about it is to be complicit in that violence. When police in St. Louis mace compliant demonstrators and taunt them with the chant “Whose street? Our street,” it’s not surprising that vulnerable members of our community turn away from the authorities and toward antifa for their protection. The egregious situation we’re facing in our divided country right now is a siren call for each of us to participate actively in the movement towards a more harmonious society.
But, to be successful, that participation must embody the very principles we’re advocating. The Women’s March in January 2017, followed by the airport protests against Trump’s proposed travel ban, brought together millions of citizens across the country in peaceful resistance against a hateful regime. As many have pointed out, simply participating in a demonstration is not sufficient, but it does act as a gateway to further active engagement, for which there are countless opportunities. Initiatives are building throughout this country based on our connectedness with each other. The Standing Rock protest showed the power of nonviolent protest based on a noble vision of the sacredness of all life. Van Jones has established a Love Army dedicated to freedom and opportunity for all. ACLU has instituted a People Power grassroots organization for those who want to help defend our communities against the administration’s malevolence. And ideas are being floated for a trained nonviolent, publicly accountable citizen force of “protectors” to defend vulnerable groups when the need arises.
The options for engagement against hate are many. But in all cases, we must recognize that, through our action or inaction, we are making a moral choice. The acts we take now may represent the building blocks for the future we create. Let’s choose that future carefully.
It’s becoming widely accepted that, for the Democrats to regain political leadership, they have to do more than resist the Trump regime. Recognizing this, many are drawn to particular initiatives that draw popular support, such as universal health care or a $15 minimum wage. This, however, misses the fact that in recent decades the right wing has not won on the issues, but by repeatedly telling a grand story of America. It’s a story that is false on many counts and based on a set of values that are driving our civilization to a precipice. But it’s been successful because there has been no coherent counter-narrative to override it.
We need a new story of our civilization based on humane values. This story would incorporate initiatives like universal health care and a higher minimum wage, but it must look beyond those towards a grander scope: a future of sustainable flourishing for all.
Ever since the 17th century, the values of Western civilization—which have since become the predominant global civilization—have been the driving force of history. Many of these values, such as democracy, freedom, and individual rights, have become the bedrock for a more humane global society.
But there is a darker underside to the Western value system that has fueled the modern right-wing narrative. My research revealed certain unique characteristics in the underlying pattern of Western cognition that have been responsible for both its Scientific and Industrial revolutions, as well as its destruction of indigenous cultures around the world and our current global rush toward possible catastrophe in the form of climate change and overexploitation of natural resources.
Beginning with the ancient Greeks, and continuing through the rise of Christianity and the Scientific Revolution, the core characteristic of this uniquely Western mindset, which has since become a global phenomenon, is one of separation.
Seeing themselves as separate from nature, philosophers such as Francis Bacon led the clarion call for humankind to “conquer nature,” while Descartes and Hobbes introduced the view of “nature as a machine” that has dominated Western thought ever since. Europeans, driven by the credo that “knowledge is power,” applied their newfound power to conquering, not just nature, but the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world.
At the core of the European value system was a thirst for power that justified disrupting any equilibrium. As Europeans colonized other lands, they imposed their worldview on those who survived their onslaught, inculcating core values of power and exploitation that have formed the basis of today’s global capitalist ethos.
These values have led to a grand story shaping modern political and moral discourse that is based on flawed assumptions, such as the ideas that humans are fundamentally selfish and that the earth can support limitless growth. These, and other elements of the modern story, reflect the underlying theme of separation: people are separate from each other; humans are separate from nature; and we understand things by viewing them as separate parts like a machine. The value system built on this foundation is the cause of much that threatens to tear our society apart: the world’s gaping inequalities, our roller-coaster global financial system, our failure to respond appropriately to climate change, and our unsustainable frenzy of consumption.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By recognizing that our underlying values are inherited from previous generations, we can become more conscious of them. This, in turn, allows us to choose other values with the potential to lead to a flourishing future for humankind.
Rather than separation, these values tend to be based on the underlying theme of connectedness: seeing people as part of community, humans as an integral part of the natural world, and solutions to global problems as embedded within larger systems rather than independent techno-fixes. In this alternative narrative, the connections between things are frequently more important than the things themselves. It invites a worldview where the very interconnectedness of all life gives both meaning and resonance to our individual and collective behavior.
Three core values emerge from this interconnected worldview. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. Instead of measuring progress by economic output, we could care about progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we could base political, social, and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we could build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.
Values shape history, and the values we choose to live by will shape our future. If we are to truly counter the forces that wrenching our society apart, we must formulate a new story for civilization—one based on values that could create a sustainable future of shared human dignity and natural flourishing.