There will come a day when the consumer way of life dissolves into an embarrassing freak show episode of history. Our descendants will struggle to survive on the devastated planet they inherited. They will resent their crazy ancestors, and repeatedly ask, “What were they thinking?”
History professor Yuval Noah Harari provides answers to this question in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It documents common perceptions of mainstream consumer society, a culture famous for its remarkable advances in irrational exuberance and cognitive dissonance. This culture imagines that humans are gods, our technology is miraculous, and the best is yet to come.
Readers learn how humans soared to the top of creation in three leaps — the Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago. Prior to this, we were “insignificant” animals, much like our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimps, with whom we share more than 98 percent of our genes. They have remained insignificant, living in the same place for two million years without destroying it. What was wrong with them?
I disagree with the “insignificant” tag. Technological innovation artificially catapulted our humble ancestors into the elite club of apex predators. This transition was not the result of genetic evolution gradually providing us with better teeth and claws. It was the result of bypassing the limitations of our genes. We manufactured prosthetic teeth and claws. This opened the gates to a joyride in tool making that has grown to staggering proportions. Thus, our ancestors were significant ecological oddballs even before Homo sapiens appeared.
Harari is not a cheerleader for the Agricultural Revolution, which he refers to as history’s biggest fraud. Farming was backbreaking work, not a brilliant invention. It did not provide a way of life that was more secure. The diet was less nutritious. People were less healthy. Farming spurred population growth and conflict. The costs have exceeded the benefits.
Like the consumer culture in which it was born, the book is primarily humanist in viewpoint. Ecology only gets brief moments on stage. The devastating environmental impacts of agriculture are not mentioned. Readers are not encouraged to contemplate why sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. Here are some words not found in a search of the book’s text: erosion, deforestation, overpopulation, sustainable, materialism, climate change, methane, dioxide, acidification, anthropocentricism.
Agriculture was an unfortunate experiment, but highly addictive. Each generation continued marching in the same dirty rut. By the time the game had become hopelessly miserable, there were way too many people, and nobody remembered the path of simple living. The same is true for consumerism, a fad designed to fan the flames of perpetual economic growth. It has become the lifeblood of our economy, and most consumers have no memory of simple living.
Consumers have been brainwashed into believing that shopping like crazy is the golden path to fulfillment and happiness. They go deeply in debt buying unnecessary status-boosting stuff, and promptly discard it with every shift in trendy styles. Like hamsters racing on a treadmill, they spend their lives chasing impossible expectations, whilst gobbling Prozac by the fistful. There is no socially acceptable alternative. Living in a frugal manner is indisputable evidence of demonic possession.
Harari is not a fan of the consumer lifestyle. It is just the tip of an ancient iceberg that he barely mentions, the skanky duet of stuff and status — a major blunder in the human journey. Hunter-gatherers owned almost nothing, and had zero interest in hoarding belongings. In those days, nobody owned the aurochs, and the aurochs were free to live as they pleased. Eventually, we reduced them into passive, half-bright domesticated cattle. They became personal property, and the more you owned, the higher your status.
Status was more important than the health of the grassland. This led to overgrazing and desertification. The rustling of cattle and horses became a widespread enterprise, and the cause of countless bloody conflicts. The emergence of private property created insanely destructive status cults. The hunger for status turns people into idiots who stampede to the latest bonanza, eager to get rich quick via gold, gems, oil deposits, or smart phones. Status seekers gaze at a forest of ancient redwoods and see a gold mine.
Agricultural civilization provided an unstable foundation for the turbulent centuries that followed. Harari describes how science, empire, capitalism, and intolerant religions have brought us to the brink of both consumer utopia and ecological helter-skelter. The benefits of our great achievements have all come at great cost. Was it worth it? Are consumers happier than the cave painters of 30,000 years ago? “If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science, and industry?” Wow! Super question!
I would add more questions. Are we happier than the bonobos who enjoy abundant food, no jobs, no money, no bosses, no governments, and have sex all the time? What good is a happiness that requires a ridiculously destructive dead-end way of life? Sustainability is far better proof of intelligence, wisdom, and success.
In the last five paragraphs of the book, Harari reveals his concerns about the dark side of the human juggernaut. He concludes that we are lost, discontented eco-terrorists. Looking back over the human journey does not make us glow with pride.
But we’re not merely a clown act. Look at us! We are the wealthiest generation of all! Human genius has enabled us to consume ever-growing amounts of energy. We have discovered “inexhaustible energy resources,” and now enjoy access to “practically limitless energy.” Modern medicine miraculously saves lives (largely by reducing mortality from the diseases of civilization). Humans are far less violent today, international war is nearly extinct, and large-scale famine is now rare. Everyone joyfully celebrates demise of patriarchy.
This review began with the question, “What were they thinking?” The book provides answers, a recognizable portrait of today’s consumer society. This mindset is a whirlwind of human exceptionalism, acute awareness, and magical thinking. We’re smart, and we’ve learned how to do many cool things. Yes, there are also some serious problems, but the overall story here is one of progress, not foolish incompetence. This is exactly what consumer society wants to hear. The book is selling well, and reader comments are primarily praise.
The bedrock fantasy of consumer culture is that technology will solve all challenges, the future will be powered by safe, clean renewable energy, and the consumer way of life can continue on its current path, without any sacrifices, until the sun burns out. Edward Abbey once wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks much.”
I wish that Harari had been raised in a sane society. I wish that his history had documented a clear thinking culture on a far healthier trajectory — well educated, wide awake people who understood the mistakes of their ancestors, and were fully committed to a return to genuine sustainability. We’re long overdue for a fourth revolution, a homecoming, a healing.
Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, New York, 2015.
Here is Harari giving a 15-minute TEDx talk.