50. Yuval Noah Harari on the History of Our Future
HAPPY 1 YEAR!!!
To mark the 1 year anniversary of Outrage + Optimism being a podcast, we have on historian, futurist, philosopher, and best-selling author, Yuval Noah Harari! He is best known for his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. A phenomenal read.
Yuval shares with us the power of the stories we choose to believe about ourselves. How good they can be, and how they can also trap us. We get his thoughts on the narrative of the climate crisis, and what it would take us to believe to survive it.
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Please post on FB, IG, and Twitter and tag us @GlobalOptimism so we can see your submission and possible use it for next week! Entries need to be posted by TUESDAY, MAY 5TH @ 1PM GMT. Have fun! Thanks for posting!
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Tom: Hello and welcome to Outrage and Optimism. I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana: I’m Christiana Figueres.
Paul: And I’m Paul Dickinson.
Tom: This week we celebrate a year on the air and we bring you an interview with very special guest, historian and author, Yuval Noah Harari. Thanks for being here. Okay guys, this is a big milestone for us.
Paul: Happy birthday to all of our listeners and ourselves.
Tom: Who would have thought, 12 months ago, that we would ever make it this far?
Paul: Well indeed. Little acorns that grow into quite small twigs. But each year goes by.
Tom: I naturally assume that you two would humour this idea for a few weeks and then you’d refuse to participate anymore. But it’s held our attention. It’s been wonderful, I think. Hasn’t it?
Christiana: Wait. What kind of trust is that? What do you mean you thought that we would give up?
Paul: It’s true, Tom. It’s delightful to spend time with everyone producing this wonderful programme. And we get to meet some of the most interesting people in the whole world. It’s a kind of, well I just feel very, very lucky and privileged and happy. I have an attitude of gratitude towards this wonderful show. Thank you.
Tom: Absolutely. And we are so grateful to all of our listeners. We couldn’t have predicted when we started this that so many people would get inspired by the podcast, or would listen on a regular basis, would reach out to us. That’s really what has made this such an exciting project. And we actually have a bit of exciting news to celebrate our one-year anniversary, before we get to our very special guest. And that is…
Christiana: Almost as though it were our birthday gift.
Tom: Almost as though.
Paul: A present.
Tom: So those people who don’t spend their lives looking at podcasts, etc., may not know but there is an award called the Webbys. And the Webbys has been described as the Oscars of the internet. The New York Times described it as the internet’s highest honour. And there are multiple different categories. And we are an honouree in the news and politics category of the podcasts of the Webbys. So that’s a big deal for us, right?
That is large numbers of entries that were made. We’re not a nominee. So there’s five nominees that will then potentially go on to win it. And then there’s seven honourees that are supporting them. And if you look at it, it’s these amazing podcasts that I love and that I respect, that are put together by the BBC and NPR. So I felt really overwhelmed and delighted that we had made it that far, to be included as an honouree in the Webbys. It’s exciting, don’t you think?
Paul: Yes. I’m delighted about being honoured. We have an honour system in the United Kingdom. You can be made a sir or a lady. You can become a lord or a baroness or a viscount and…
Tom: This is where your mind goes.
Paul: Well these are things I’ve always wanted for myself actually, to be honest with you. I can’t explain it. It’s silly, really. And people from other countries just laugh at us. But actually, more important is to say it’s like the Oscars. I see an opportunity for tearful speeches, red carpets, at least in my head, and thanking everybody. How are you feeling, Christiana, about our designation?
Christiana: Well I wouldn’t say that what you’ve just shared describes my thoughts or my feelings.
Paul: That’s probably true.
Christiana: That is probably true. Well, first of all, I’m delighted that Clay and Marina sneakily submitted our podcast to this without even telling us. So thank you for thinking about that, Clay and Marina. And yes, I’m actually quite delighted and surprised that we made it all the way up to honourees. And just to balance Paul Dickinson out, I take it with a nice dose of humility.
Paul: No, absolutely. I take it with humility as well. I’m just saying that…
Tom: You are the most humble.
Paul: And there may be opportunities to be more humble in the future even and perhaps I should learn that it’s not all… Anyway, enough said.
Tom: It’s great news and a fantastic birthday present. And another fantastic birthday present is the amazing guest that we have with us today. So I know that we normally spend a good half the episode talking about this and that. But this week we have Yuval Noah Harari here, who is one of the deepest, most profound thinkers on such a broad range of issues. So we wanted to spend the majority of this episode hearing from him. So I’m going to pass over now to Christiana to say a few words…
Paul: Not before I interrupt just to say one thing about him that I think is just fantastic. He has a definition of optimism, which I think is brilliant and very relevant to our show. He says that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order. And I think that’s the perfect logical expression of optimism.
Tom: Love it.
Christiana: There you go. Best put by him. So Yuval Noah Harari is, as Tom has said, one of the deepest thinkers of our time. He’s Israeli. He is both a historian and a futurist, which is a fascinating combination. He is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But I think he is best known for his three large tomes. The first was Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. I’m sure everyone has at least seen the book, if not read it. Highly, I’ll recommend the second.
His other book is Homo Deus, A Brief History of Tomorrow. And then most recently, just a year and a bit ago, he published 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. He is a philosopher. He’s a student of human nature, of human evolution. And there’s barely a topic that has to do with anything to do with us sapiens that he has not thought deeply about. And he’s a good friend. And we are incredibly honoured and grateful to have him with us here today for the conversation.
Tom: And we should say, when we kick off this interview, Christiana gives me the opportunity to ask Yuval about this meditation practice. He’s a very serious meditator, and has been for 20 years. And actually, he and I share a tradition. So we both practise vipassana meditation as taught by Goenka. And as part of the question that I ask him, you’ll hear me reference the names of the meditation teachers, Goenkaji and Mataji. So just to contextualise that for you, that’s the first question. Let’s hear the interview.
Paul: Let’s do it.
Christiana: So Yuval, thank you so much for joining us on Outrage and Optimism. Joining us from what I assume is your home in Israel.
Yuval: Yes, it is.
Christiana: Yes. Wonderful.
Yuval: We’re self-isolating here.
Tom: Lots of books.
Yuval: Lots of books, yes. You’re just seeing part of them.
Christiana: I can imagine. Well Yuval, I would like to introduce my two colleagues who co-host this podcast with me, Paul Dickinson and Tom Rivett-Carnac. We have been friends for many years. And you might recognise at least Tom’s name because he is my co-author for the book that you have so graciously supported us with, and thank you very much for that. But what you don’t know is that Tom actually has a surprise for you because you two share a tradition. And so I’m just going to hand over to Tom to divulge what the surprise is right at the start of the conversation.
Yuval: Okay. So I won’t be impatient.
Tom: Yuval, it’s so good to meet you. I don’t know how much of a surprise this will be. So I have studied vipassana meditation since the mid-1990s. And I actually spent some years with Goenkaji and Mataji in Myanmar. Around 2000, I spent a summer staying with them in their home in Yangon.
And then travelled around the country with Goenkaji and ended up ending up in a monastery in northern Burma, and then staying there for some years. So it’s had a profound impact on my life, the whole vipassana approach to life. And I’ve tried to continue to practise with children and work, and it’s amazing how you seem to balance those things. But I’m curious because I see that history in…
Christiana: So sorry Tom, I have to, because our listeners are going to wonder, why are you telling Yuval all of this? So are we correct in guessing that this is a common tradition to both of you, that this is a tradition in Tom’s past, and this is a tradition in your present, Yuval? Is that correct?
Yuval: Yes. I have been practising vipassana mediation for almost 20 years. Actually exactly 20 years, since April 2000, this was my first course. I still practise two hours every day. I go every year for a long retreat. And it’s been of enormous importance in my life and my work. I don’t think I could have written any of my books, or done what I’m doing today, without the clarity of focus that the prophets of mediation gave me.
Tom: And I see that in your public events and in the way that you speak. And I see some of the history of that lineage of vipassana in how you present yourself, which is what’s so fascinating to me. I can see, or I feel I can see the impact it’s had on you. And so I’m curious to start this conversation, as a student of the relationship between the mind and the body, and what happens to the mind when you try to be quiet and observe the body.
You know to a great degree, observing that phenomena and that dynamic, that’s how you learn about yourself, right, and about your reactions and about the world. And you’re also a student of philosophy and politics and the world and history. And as we look at a world that is so entrenched in reaction, and you have lived a life where you’ve tried to insert some space between phenomena and reaction, and you’ve seen the rewards that that can bring, my question is very broad.
In the sense of, is it possible for a really wise society to emerge without us, at some significant scale, developing that skill of a space between phenomena and reaction, of pause and taking a breath? And how would, what would that look like? What would it look like in politics? What would it look like in leadership? Because, really, so many of our issues that we’re dealing with downstream come from that inability, as humans, to take that space.
Yuval: Well I can comment first on the importance of this kind of practice or skill, and secondly on the feasibility of doing it on a large scale. So importance, yes it’s extremely important. And I would say that our mind is a factory of stories, many of them completely fictional stories that we’ve created. They are not reality. But these stories come between us and reality. And for most of life, what we think we observe in the world is actually the stories that we have created. And we are extremely bad at differentiating between fiction and reality.
And actually, this is our strength as a species. Funny enough, we rule the planet, and not the chimpanzees or the elephants or the dolphins, because we can create fictional stories and believe in them. And then the miracle is that if enough people believe in the same fictional story, they can create networks of cooperation much bigger and more sophisticated than any other animal on the planet. And this is not just about religion, which is the most obvious example.
If you have millions of people all believing in the same completely fictional story, but this enables them to build cathedrals and synagogues, and go on crusades and jihads, and also build hospitals and perform charity. It’s not all bad, of course. But the thing is that it has a price. The price is that we can’t really see reality as it is. And when I meditate I have difficulty just observing my breath, simply my breath as it is, without adding some story to it.
So how can I hope, as a historian or a philosopher or a politician, to really understand the global financial system as it is, if I can’t even observe my breath as it is? And finance and economics, they are built on fictional stories, just like religion. The greatest storytellers in the world are not the people who win the Nobel Prize in literature, and not the pope or the rabbis. They are the finance ministers and the big bankers and the people who win the Nobel Prize in economics. They are the greatest storytellers in the world.
And when I meditate, the practice is simply, are you able to see reality? Just leave reality be what it is, without imposing on it some story that your mind created. This is the practice. And it starts with very simple things, like just observing what you are feeling right now without imposing a story on it. And if you can do that successfully to some extent then I think you have a bit more space, as you say, to also try and understand the economic situation or the political situation without imposing on it some story.
So it’s very important. Now, the big problem is feasibility. Because I practise, I know how difficult it is. And I have very little illusions that you can get 8 billion people to start meditating, or to get the political leaders of the world to start meditating. And even if they start meditating, there are so many pitfalls on this road also.
Even when you pick up a spiritual practice of some kind, and we know it from history, it’s so easy to impose on that too some kind of fantasy, some kind of fiction, and start rolling in that. And so I don’t think that the solution to all the world’s problems will come from 8 billion people starting to meditate. I’m not sure where it will come from, but it’s not easy.
Tom: I want to hand over to Christiana, but just one question in there that you… It’s almost, what you described there is the importance of stories for the point of human evolution, to get to the point where we are. But it’s almost the limit of story at a certain point as well because the stories have both enabled our evolution, they’ve also trapped us. Would you say that’s true?
Yuval: Yes, that’s true. And currently, they’re really in danger, our survival as a species. And yes, it’s often the case that your greatest strength also contains a weakness in it. We are so good at creating these stories and spreading them and convincing everybody to believe them. And we are close to the point when, for the first time in human history, you can really impose a single story on the whole of humankind, the whole of the world. Especially in the economics sphere.
And on the one hand, this is enormous strength because you can really get all 8 billion people to cooperate effectively on the common projects. But it’s also a big danger because there is nobody outside the circle that can say, wait a minute, there is an alternative story, or you’re all believing in one big fiction.
With religion, you always had, there was never a time when all the people believed in the same story. But we are close to the point where, at least in some fields like economics and technology, we might reach a point when everybody believes the same story. And if this story is just a figment of our imagination, that’s a big danger.
Christiana: Well Yuval, can I ask you to unpack that a little bit more? Because I’m actually surprised by your trust that we are on the verge of creating one story for all of us. Actually, from my perspective, we’re actually already dividing the world into two big tribes that believe in two completely different stories. There’s one tribe that continues to believe in multilateral action, in solidarity, in a bigger purpose in life. And there’s another tribe that believes in building walls, and national isolationism.
And it’s a little bit concerning to me that at least the first phase of our reaction to coronavirus is very much supporting the story of isolationism. Because here we are, all of us, behind our little four walls. Now we do know that to get out of this we need to move beyond that into much more of a cooperative spirit. But there does seem to be a conflict here with two very, very different stories going on. And, I would say, a huge battle between those stories.
Yes, I agree. I didn’t mean that in all spheres of life we are moving towards a single universal story. It’s just in a few important fields. And you do see it. Even with the coronavirus crisis, you do see the supremacy of science. And you do see the supremacy of, still, the capitalist system and the way it understands economics and human life. Yes, you have different views about nationalism and about cooperation and so forth.
But almost everybody speaks the same capitalist language when it comes to economics. And almost everybody speaks the same scientific language when it comes to the disease itself. During the Black Death, if you went around Eurasia to different places and asked people what was happening and what are your plans, so they would have completely different ideas about the epidemic, different explanations. In almost every city, you would get a different story. The only thing common was that all of them were wrong.
Nobody, not in China, not in the Middle East, not in Russia, not in Italy, nobody understood what was really causing the Black Death. This was the only common thing among them. And also when it came to how to deal economically with the crisis, because the Black Death also was an economic crisis. If you got the economic advisor, if there was even such a thing of the Emperor of China in one room with the advisor of the pope or of the khalif, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other.
Because there wasn’t a single economic language or economic theory governing the whole world. I do agree, of course, when you come to politics, you still have significant divergence. And I fully agree that, yes, we are now seeing the world unfortunately being divided into one camp which believes more in nationalist isolationism, and one camp which believes more in the importance of global solidarity.
Hopefully this chasm can be bridged. Because the isolationist camp, it’s building its message, I would say, on a wrong, a false dichotomy. You listen to people like the president of the US and they tell us that there is a contradiction, a built-in contradiction between nationalism and globalism, between loyalty to the nation and global solidarity. And of course, they say we have to choose nationalism and reject globalism.
But the whole dichotomy is false because there is no contradiction between nationalism and globalism. Nationalism isn’t about hating foreigners. Nationalism is about loving your compatriots. That’s the real meaning of nationalism, that you care about the people in your nation and you pay your taxes and you do things to provide them with healthcare and education. That’s the good side of nationalism. And that doesn’t contradict cooperating with foreigners at all.
In many cases, like in a pandemic, if you really want to help your compatriots, you have to cooperate with foreigners. If we want to develop a vaccine or medicines to this disease, of course we have to pool data from all over the world. We have to pull insights from all over the world. We need scientists in China and Brazil and Europe and the US to cooperate with each other.
And if somebody in France invents the vaccine, I would like to see the nationalists in the USA or in Brazil coming and saying, well wait this is a French vaccine. It’s a foreign vaccine. We are not willing to take it until there is a patriotic American vaccine. It’s made in the USA. We are waiting for that. I don’t think that will happen.
Because people intuitively understand that in these kinds of situations, we are all human beings. And why not cooperate with foreigners? There is nothing unpatriotic about cooperating with foreigners to create a vaccine. And in the same way, there shouldn’t be anything unpatriotic about cooperating with foreigners to have a global economic plan for how to prevent a global recession.
Christiana: So let’s apply that insight to climate change. Because I do think it’s quite applicable. And we were just on a recent episode of this podcast, we were having this conversation about how actually the Paris Agreement is formed by a two-tier approach. One is the national interest. What can each country do to contribute?
And also, on another level, what is the global need? And to see that these two actually complement each other. And it is only through the complementation of these two that we’re actually going to get to where we need to go, both at a global and national level. Now that is from one perspective of understanding. Not exactly what we’re seeing right now.
Christiana: We are seeing, so let me just leave it at that and let you reflect what you are seeing on climate change. And do you think that there is an avenue to get to this understanding that you actually need both tiers, right? The national interest and the global need. How do we get there?
Yuval: Well I think that over the last few years we have seen less and less cooperation. Maybe the Paris Agreement was actually signed in the very last year that it could’ve been signed. I think that if it was delayed by a year or two, it probably would not have been signed in the first place.
Christiana: We agree.
Yuval: Yes. But I think it’s not too late to reverse course. One of my hopes from the present crisis is that people will realise that there are problems that countries can’t solve on their own. And also, they realise the importance of listening to scientists when they warn us about major dangers that seem at first sight to be outlandish. We had a lot of warning about the danger of pandemics for years now. I’ve heard, I think it was Nassim Taleb, he was asked, well this is your black swan, right? And he said, no way, this is a white swan.
It’s not something unexpected. People have been talking about it again and again and again. It was the most expected thing in the world, was that at some point there would be this pandemic. And the positive thing I’m seeing right now all over the world is that even, not all but many politicians and the public, which in recent years tended to be anti-science. And saying that scientists are these tiny globalist elite disconnected from the real people, and we shouldn’t listen to them. Suddenly in this crisis, you see that all over the world, people are turning to the scientists as the best authority on what to do.
And in my country, in Israel, they closed down the synagogues. In Iran, they shut down the mosques. Churches all over the world are telling people, don’t come to church. Why? Because the scientists said so. And suddenly in this crisis, you see that most people still consider science as the most trustworthy authority. And I hope that this spirit will carry on even after this immediate crisis is over. And when scientists warn us about climate change, we would take it as seriously as we now take what they say about the pandemic.
And it’s a much bigger danger, ecological collapse, than COVID-19. So hopefully maybe this is a necessary wake-up call for humanity. And with regard to the two-tier approach, then yes there are things we need to do on the level of the single nation. There are things that can only be done through global cooperation. But the key message is, again, that dealing with climate change and ecological collapse is not against nationalism. It’s really being a good nationalist.
Yuval: Yes. Please.
Paul: No. Just to say that being a good person doesn’t stop you from being a good neighbour.
Paul: So I think your comment about humility, the virus teaching us humility, is fantastically valuable. It’s a great question. We had religion for thousands of years and then this orthodoxy of economics for hundreds of years preoccupying us, I suppose in contest with science. Perhaps because there’s a numerical truth to economics, that it creates a truth around mathematics that is in a competition with science. Why has economics been so successful as an ideology?
Yuval: That’s a very good question which I don’t have a good answer to, really. I am impressed by the way that economists have managed to garner so much power and influence. And partly it’s because they do have a much better understanding of economics than in previous eras. Yes, there are many things that they don’t predict and there are recurrent economic crises. But to say something in favour of the economists, some of my best friends and so forth, so it’s built…
Christiana: I have to warn you, Yuval. Paul is not a great friend of economists or of the science. So there you are.
Yuval: So I will just say that there is a built-in mechanism into economics, into human economics, which implies that you can never really predict the economic future or the economic consequences of what you are doing. Because economics is what we call a second-order chaotic system. It sounds complicated so I’ll explain it. A chaotic system usually is a system that has so many variables and so much data, like the weather, that it’s extremely, and a small change in one variable can cause a big change. The butterfly effect.
So it’s very difficult to predict a chaotic system. But if you have enough data and computing power, you can do that. And this is why today we can have reasonable models for what will happen not only to the weather in one week but even to the climate in a decade or two, or in a couple of decades. Now economics, it’s much more complicated because this is a second-order chaotic system. It reacts to the predictions about it. When you predict something about the clouds, the clouds don’t hear it on the news and then say, okay let’s do something else.
But with economics, this is exactly what happens. If you predict, let’s say, that now the price of oil is $20 per barrel and you predict that tomorrow it will be $30 per barrel. And let’s say that everybody knows that you are a prophet, what you say always comes true, what will happen is that immediately the price of oil will go up to $30. Because everybody would rush to buy oil and the price will rise until it matches your prediction. So the price of oil will rise to $30 not tomorrow but actually today. What then will happen tomorrow? Nobody knows.
Paul: Okay. But let me ask you a second-order question then. And this is getting really, this is very unfair but I so much want to ask you this question. You’ve spoken so eloquently about the role of religion in society. Then we’ve got the role of economics in society. But in a sense, they’ve both been camouflaging or disguising or distracting humans from perhaps their ultimate proposition.
To what degree, if technology is going to render less jobs for people, as we start to look, as policymakers, as societies, where do you think we can find that better philosophy for our ambitions, our goals, our duties, our responsibilities, our potential? Where does that search lie?
Yuval: I think the key insight, again, about economics and human goals is that we should get as much help as we can from the economists in understanding the economic system, how it works, the different laws that govern it. But they shouldn’t define our goals. The big problem that I see with economics over the last few decades, it’s not that they are a pseudoscience, it’s not that many of their predictions don’t come true. That’s understandable. The big problem is that we expect them, and sometimes they expect themselves, to define our goals for us.
And this shouldn’t be the case. You see it with these magical numbers or terms like GDP, that many countries and many governments and politicians and even voters, they are under the impression that humans have been created in order to increase GDP. That this is the measurement of success in the life of human collectives, if you increase GDP. And this is obviously insane. Now, again, GDP’s a very important concept, and I’m all in favour of using the theories and the models of economists to understand production and to plan our economic future better.
But it should never be the definition of the goal. The definition of the goal should come from elsewhere. And once you define your goal in life, as an individual or as a society, then you can call the economists and tell them, look this is our goal. Now, of course, it’s not easy to reach it. We need to prioritise things. We need to plan things. Please help us. That should be the proper order of things.
Paul: You know I’ve got to ask you, what’s the goal?
Yuval: I don’t know. Well it’s complicated.
Paul: Public safety?
Yuval: It’s not GDP. It’s a conversation. I have my own goals in life, and other people have different goals. And in a society, you need to have a real serious conversation about what is our goal as a society. Instead of taking the easy way out of just outsourcing this discussion to economists. Okay, you define our goal for us.
Now there is a temptation to do it, because of course it’s very difficult and it’s very complicated. It can be very emotional. And the way that economics define goals, it tends to sound very objective and scientific. So it relieves us of this difficult, sometimes dirty job of working out, as a society, what are our goals.
Tom: And do you think that there’s something intrinsic about the nature of how you achieve goals that means you get confused about what those goals are and how you…? Education comes to mind as well. We often have education, it’s a good way of achieving something, but it ends up becoming a goal in itself. It feels like a difficult part of the human condition that we confuse those things so much.
Yuval: Yes. It’s one of the few laws of history that tends to be nevertheless quite accurate, that means have a tendency to become goals. And also measurements have a tendency to become goals. Like we want to teach kids history or whatever, but we want to know whether we are achieving the goal. So we invent a test in history. And then the goal becomes to make sure that students get a high score in the history test. Whether this actually means that they know history better or not, it becomes irrelevant.
Because to build big bureaucratic systems with thousands of teachers in schools and billions of dollars, then you need numbers. And tests provide you with numbers. And even if the tests don’t mean much, you need the numbers. So you settle for what you’ve got. And again, it’s the easy way out. But it’s a problematic way out because you are really not achieving your real goal. You’re just replacing it by a proxy which is very, very far from the actual goal.
Again, I don’t know how to actually measure whether we succeeded in teaching kids history. It’s extremely complicated. It’s not like remembering dates of battles and names of kings, or things like that. My view is that the main purpose of history is not to remember the past and not to learn from the past, it’s to liberate ourselves from the past. For me, that’s the real purpose of studying history. We don’t know it, most of us, but we are born into a particular world which has been shaped by previous events, political movements, ideas, whatever.
And they shape not just the world but our mind also. And they enable us to see just a very small segment of our real horizon of possibilities. There are so many possibilities out there, how to live my life, how to build a society, and I see just a tiny, tiny part of this horizon of possibility because the past controls me. Past religions and politics and whatever, they control me. And my view of what’s the benefit of studying history is to liberate yourself, to some extent, from these past narratives.
And to give an example from my own personal life, so when I grew up in the 1980s, the 1990s in Israel, then it took me quite some time to come to terms with the fact that I am gay. And part of the reason was that I was conditioned by all these stories from the past, from Judaism, from Christianity, also from science, from the science of the 19th and early 20th century, that to be gay is against the laws of God or against the laws of nature. And this really restricted my understanding, and I think of many other people, of the potential of human life, of human romance, of human sexuality.
And learning history enabled me to realise that no, being gay is not against the laws of God. Even if there is a God, I don’t think any God would punish people for love. God may be punishing people for cruelty, for violence. But punishing people for love, this is ridiculous. And also, the laws of nature don’t punish anybody for being gay. Nothing, in reality, can contradict, can go against the laws of nature. Nobody can ever break the laws of nature.
The laws of nature are not like the laws of a government, that you can break the law, like drive 200 kilometres per hour and a traffic police will come and give you a ticket. It’s not like that with nature. If you really break a law of nature, it’s not like, I don’t know, if you drive faster than the speed of light, it’s not that some galactic policeman would come and give you a ticket. No, you just can’t move faster than the speed of light. And if you do it, it means that we didn’t understand the laws of nature properly.
Paul: So please can I ask a tiny question now which just has been on my mind for such a long time? Why is there such a correlation between homophobia, prejudice against lesbian and gay people, and climate change denial? Do you have any insight into that?
Yuval: That’s a good question. Great minds think alike. I don’t know.
Paul: That’s a good answer. That’s a really good answer. Thank you. Explains it perfectly.
Christiana: That is a very good answer. Yuval, as you were speaking there, I kept on having the feeling that you were describing how we sabotage ourselves. And another way in which we sabotage ourselves in reaching whatever goals we have set is by going into the mythology that all of these issues are actually separate from each other. And Tom and I used to work for the United Nations. And the United Nations, in its infinite wisdom, or rather the people who work for the United Nations, in our infinite wisdom, created many different institutional processes to deal with each of the goals that we have set as humanity.
So we have a climate change convention. We have a biodiversity convention. We have a desertification convention. We have processes for women’s rights. We have processes for poverty. On and on and on and on. And so to a certain extent, it’s understandable because all of these are complex issues. And unless you artificially separate them, it’s very difficult for us to get our brains and our hands around them.
On the other hand, we do thereby, by dividing these up into artificial silos, we actually sabotage ourselves from finding the solutions because the fact is that all of this is interrelated. And I’m wondering whether, you said that you have hope that this pandemic is going to open our mind to the role of science, will it also open our mind to the absolute integration and interweaving of all of these issues, in particular with respect to the convergence of the solutions?
That’s the piece that I’m really interested in. Because if we realise that all of these things actually are interwoven, can we as a society develop an approach that says, right we’re actually going to converge the solutions? And that which helps climate change will help inequality will help women’s rights will help biodiversity. Can we actually converge those solutions? Because treating them individually and trying to figure out a solution separately hasn’t brought us very far.
Yuval: I hope so. I don’t know. There is a chance, especially in this emergency. Because the nature of crises like we are going through now is that they, on the one hand, they really open up people’s minds. People are willing to entertain all kinds of ideas that they thought are impossible or crazy before. And you see it. My university have been discussing giving classes online for, I don’t know, almost 20 years and did nothing. And now, within one week, they switched, they moved all the courses online. It was really remarkable.
And you think of things like the current US administration basically experimenting with universal basic income. Who would have thought, half a year ago, that something like that can happen? And also, there is a short window of opportunities, but it’s there. When politicians and parties and people, they came into this crisis, not expecting it of course, so they don’t have a built-in plan. And this is the opportunity…
Christiana: Which is a good thing.
Yuval: Which is a good thing. Because suddenly they are very open to all kinds of ideas. And because the crisis is simultaneously on so many different fronts, it’s a healthcare crisis, it’s an economic crisis, it’s a psychological crisis. So it’s also quite obvious to people that you need to act simultaneously on many fronts. So this is an opportunity to come with a big plan that will integrate all the different fronts or aspects.
The downside or the danger is that in such times of uncertainty, the people who tend to have an advantage are those with a tunnel vision. The people who just, if you are a potential dictator and the only thing you care about is getting more power, or if you are a CEO of a corporation and the only thing that you care about is making another billion dollars. Then you have an advantage in a very confused time, because you don’t need to worry about all the other stuff.
You just focus on your billion dollars. And you don’t care whether there is an epidemic or not, whether people are dying from hunger or not. You just want the billion dollars. So you can be very, very focused when everybody’s losing their minds. And that’s the danger. So I don’t know in which direction it will eventually go.
Maybe in some places it will go in this direction, some places in the other direction. But there is certainly now an opportunity to cause people and governments to change their minds about things that previously were seen to be set in stone. And to adopt big ideas or big plans that tackle many different issues simultaneously. Because you have to do it.
Tom: Yuval, that’s so interesting. I know we’ve taken quite a bit of your time. As you look at that possibility at this moment, to have big ideas, to connect other issues, we call our podcast Outrage and Optimism, do you have more outrage or more optimism as you look at where we are, and what’s going to come in the next few months and years?
Yuval: I don’t know what will happen. My main message to people is that it’s not predetermined. It’s not foretold. It all depends on the decisions that we make in the coming weeks and months. We have a lot of power. We have more power than in any previous epidemic in history. Again, this is not the Black Death. During the Black Death, or even during the Spanish influenza a century ago, the thing was that nobody really understood what was happening.
Even though we know you had quite advanced science in the early 20th century, still, throughout the pandemic, they failed to identify the pathogen that is causing the disease. They thought it was a bacteria, which they actually named Bacillus influenzae, but in fact it was a virus. They did all kinds of things like recommend wearing masks, but the masks were completely ineffective. So we are not in 1918. We have much more knowledge and power and we can do this. We are much stronger than the virus.
My real fear is not from the virus. It’s from the inner demons of humanity itself. And that’s our big choice. One option is that we react to this crisis with hatred and greed and ignorance. We react with hatred, which means that we blame foreigners and minorities for the epidemic, and persecute them and fight against them. We react with greed when big corporations are just thinking, an opportunity to get money from the government, wonderful. And we react with ignorance when people fall victim to all kinds of ridiculous conspiracy theories about where this epidemic came from and whatever.
But we can react to the crisis by developing our compassion, not our hatred, helping other people and not hating them, cooperating with them. Instead of greed, this is the time to develop generosity. And instead of ignorance, this is the time to develop our wisdom and to sharpen our critical thinking and really be able to tell the difference between conspiracy theories and actual scientific facts and evidence.
And if we do that, and I think we have a good chance of doing it, it’s not too late, if we do that, not only will we be able to overcome the present emergency much more easily, but we’ll actually come out of this crisis much stronger than before. And we will be able to face future crises, whether it’s future pandemics or whether it’s climate change, in a much better way.
Christiana: So here is to humanity taking the high road in this emergency and not the low road. And by taking the high road, take one more step in the evolution of humanity, which is probably the most exciting process that we witness every day. Yuval, thank you so, so much. We are truly grateful for your sharing. And I think we told you that we would like to put this episode out, which will be next week, as our anniversary. Because our podcast is coming up for our one-year and this will be our anniversary…
Yuval: Mazel tov.
Christiana: Yes, thank you. Mazel tov. This is our anniversary episode. And we can barely think of a better anniversary episode. So thank you very, very much.
Tom: Thank you.
Yuval: Thank you. Thank you for asking interesting questions.
Paul: Indeed. Thank you for your time. Great to talk to you.
Yuval: Thank you.
Tom: So we’ve had some amazing conversations with people over the course of the last year on this podcast, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a conversation like that. What an amazing tour of so many of the different areas and interests and forces that are shaping our world at the moment. What do you guys leave that discussion with?
Paul: Well I’m overwhelmed by how he’s this holistic, collected thinker. But he has this deliberate naivety, almost like the perspective of a child, but within the context of what David Attenborough said to us a year ago, that children have clear sight. And I think it’s that absolute clarity, that he can see these injustices, the financial inequality, the madness of it all. I think that’s what I take from him. He’s such a teacher, really, a teacher of the human condition and its absurdities.
Tom: Yes. No, I agree with that completely Paul. And I think a couple of things that stood out for me were, I was so struck by the depth of insight that he had around the role of stories in the human journey. And how stories have made humanity what it is. The collective ability to believe in an abstract story enables people to collectively work on projects of great collective endeavour, and also projects of great destruction.
But that that’s what calls humanity together to particular endeavours, which I thought was really instructive and interesting for so much that we work on around climate. I also thought, on a deeper level, his insight that stories enable humanity to be what it is, they are also the thing that ultimately trap us because they prevent us from being seeing reality as it is, was just a comment that demonstrates the depth of his thinking and his experience.
I also thought that the way he was able to differentiate the systems of the world, the economic system, the education system, and the entanglement that we get, the way that those methods of delivering our activity end up defining the goals, was just so insightful and interesting. And it really made me think about just how, collectively of humanity, we have failed to create institutions to define goals. They tend to be so focused on how we deliver stuff and how we get better at doing different things.
But where are the institutions that define what humanity is here for and what we’re trying to do and what the objective is and how we determine that? Rather than just measuring the process measures all the time, like GDP and education testing. It really just seemed like such a massive gap. Because he was so humble about saying, look I can define this but I don’t know what the goals are. I have my own life goals. We need to talk about it. So I just thought it was such a tour de force of the ideas that shape our world. I thought it was amazing.
Christiana: But Tom, just to push back on that, don’t you think that at least, at its origins, that’s what the United Nations was meant to do, to set the goals for humanity? And don’t you think the MDGs and the SDGs are actually that, the goals?
Tom: Yes. I think that’s a good point about the MDGs and the SDGs. I think that the trouble is that you end up with the same issue where the process defines its own outcome. As we know, the goals inside the United Nations tend to be process driven rather than outcome driven. Although people work really hard to ensure that they’re outcome driven.
So I definitely agree. And there are certain things, right? There are the SDGs. There’s the Paris Agreement. There are these different elements. But they don’t play the central role in society that they should play, to have all of the other systems revolve around them. And that’s part of our challenge.
Christiana: Yes. That’s the frustration there, right? That I do think that we have institutions that bring together the collective capacity and the collective responsibility to set goals, i.e., the UN or the climate convention for that matter. The issue is that once those goals are set, then we come down to a different level of process tracking.
And it’s like running around behind our tail constantly, as opposed to moving toward the goal that has actually emerged from that collective wisdom. And that’s the sadness. That as soon as those goals get institutionalised, despite the fact that they are the outcome of an institutional process, but as soon as they get institutionalised, then it’s almost like they lose their mojo.
Tom: Right. They end up getting so worked into the process themselves. It’s very difficult.
Paul: It’s worth remembering that phrase from the early days of the United Nations, that it wasn’t designed to get us into heaven but it was supposed to stop us going to hell. And they were very, with all these atomic bombs and all the rest of it, that was a very laudable goal. I think you’re right, Christiana, to talk about the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals being more aspirational.
But I think that the point he makes so brilliantly, certainly thinking about GDP for example, is that it’s just having that sufficiently compelling idea. And he has been very eloquent before talking about how the current capitalist consumerist ideal is much more effective than previous things like Christianity or Buddhism or Confucianism.
Because essentially people are doing, they’re agreeing with the system. The rich are investing, the majority are just buying like crazy, and everyone’s fitting in. And that’s our real challenge, is to architect the goals into a system with that same degree of wilful compliance amongst everybody.
Tom: No, I agree with you Paul. And I think that that point that he made that we are now at the point, the first time in human history where the vast majority of people in certain areas, like economics and other things, believe the same story. And the potential of that and the risk of that is just such an overwhelming and remarkable part of the human story that we’re in right now.
So this has been our one-year anniversary episode. Thank you so much for being with us this week. This was very special. We’ve wanted to have Yuval on the podcast for a long time. And in the end it happened at just the right moment with the coronavirus and the other different issues that are unfolding right now. But this is not the end of our one-year celebration. And next week we’re going to be continuing the celebration, and we’d like to invite you to celebrate with us. And to give us some context around how that’s going to happen, I’m going to hand over to Clay.
Clay: Yes. Thank you, Tom. So to keep the party going, celebrating our one year of being a podcast, we’d like to invite you, the listener, onto the podcast with us. So here’s how we’re going to do this. We’re asking you to record a video of yourself sharing the following, one, your name, two, where you’re listening from and, three, what you like best about the podcast. It can be a guest you liked from this last year. It can be a topic you found interesting. It can be who you think has the best jokes. Anything. We just want to hear from you.
So once you’ve finished recording the video, post it anywhere on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and be sure to tag @globaloptimism. I’ll be collecting the audio from the videos, and a few will make it on to next week’s episode. So it could be yours. Let me do a quick example to give you an idea on how it should go. Hi, Outrage and Optimism. My name’s Clay. I’m listening from East Detroit. One thing I liked from this last year was when Rainn Wilson explained climate change by comparing it to Dungeons & Dragons. That was amazing.
Okay. So that’s the format. Real simple. Have fun with it. Post your videos on social media, like I said, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. And tag us, @globaloptimism, so that I see it. Your videos need to be posted by this Tuesday, May 5th, at 1 PM GMT. So get on it. I’ll be looking for your videos and I’m excited to pick a few and play them on the podcast next week for everybody. Have fun.
Tom: Great. Thanks, Clay. And thank you all so much for being with us today. Thank you for listening to the podcast. Thank you for coming with us on this journey over the past year. We so appreciate you tuning in each week and going through all of these remarkable changes in the world with you. We hope you take some value from the podcast. We really value you being there. And for all the outreach and all the participation, thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next week.
Clay: So there it is. Another episode of Outrage and Optimism. I’m going to switch up the format here. So here we go. This’ll be fun. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, @globaloptimism. Be sure to post your recordings with your name, where you’re from, and what you loved about this last year with our podcast. Be sure to tag us so that we see it, @globaloptimism. Did I already say that?
So there’s a team that made this episode happen. Thanks to Callum Grieve, Pete Clutton-Brock, Sarah Thomas, Chloe Revel, Danielle Fink, Silvie Snow-Thomas and the team at Elle Communications, Zoe Tcholak-Antitch, Lara Richardson, Sara Law, Katie Bradford, Sharon Johnson, Nigel Topping, and Michael Northrop.
A special thanks, this week, to Hannah Morgan, Michael, Galiete and Itzik for making this week’s interview possible. We love the work you’re doing. And I’ve got to say, you all have the coolest About page on your website I’ve ever seen. And of course, thank you to our guest Yuval Noah Harari. I think we should have you on every year. It’ll be like a little tradition. Outrage and Optimism is a production of Global Optimism, and it’s produced by Clay Carnill, and our executive producer is Marina Mansilla Hermann.
And now for my PSA. We’re still managing the spread of COVID-19 through the power of our individual actions, staying home, wearing masks in public, washing our hands as many times as Bill Nye tells us to. I listen to his podcast and he says it in his intro five times. So jokes aside, I’ve put a link in the show notes to the World Health Organisation guidelines on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. If you haven’t checked it out, what are you waiting for? Okay, that’s the show. We’ll see you back here for the party next week. See you then.