Yuval Noah Harari: ‘It takes just one fool to start a war’

The Israeli historian on nostalgia, nationalism and the need for global co-operation

Yuval Noah Harari is the Israeli historian who rose to prominence with his phenomenally bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind when it was published in English in 2014. He likes to look at the big picture. His last book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, forecast humanity's technologically enhanced/depleted future. His newest book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, grapples with contemporary dilemmas under ambitious headings such as "Religion", "Immigration," "Post-truth" and "War". The Irish Times got the opportunity to ask him three questions, and we kept to such issues (so apologies if you wanted to know his views on the new Drake video).

You think liberalism is a flawed ideology but that it's preferable to the other options available. What's wrong with it and why is it nonetheless important?
I have a serious personal dilemma when it comes to liberalism. I believe that the liberal story is flawed, that it does not tell the truth about humanity, and that in order to survive and flourish in the 21st century we need to go beyond it. Liberalism does not have the answers to the questions posed by the advance in AI and bioengineering. Liberalism assumes that humans have free will, that human feelings are the ultimate moral and political authority, and that nobody can understand me better than I understand myself. But AI and bioengineering will soon make it possible to hack human beings, to control human desire, and to re-engineer human feelings. Liberalism does not know how to cope with that. When governments and corporations learn to hack humans, it will be easiest to hack and manipulate those humans that believe in free will and believe that nobody can hack them.

On the other hand, at present the liberal story is still fundamental to the functioning of the global order, and it is currently being attacked by religious and nationalist fanatics. These fanatics believe in nostalgic fantasies that are far more dangerous and harmful than the liberal story. So I find myself spending a lot of my energy on defending the liberal story against the nostalgic fantasies. This is one of the big costs of the current wave of nostalgia – it forces us to refight the old battles of previous centuries, instead of focusing on the far more important challenges of the 21st century.

Why are so many people reverting to nationalist politics and why is this misguided?
Humankind now faces three main challenges: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. These challenges are all global in nature, and cannot be solved by any single nation. The government of Ireland cannot protect Ireland against nuclear war or against global warming, unless it co-operates with the governments of Germany, China, the USA and numerous other countries. Similarly, if you are afraid of the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence and bioengineering, you cannot expect the government of Ireland or even the EU authorities to regulate these technologies singlehandedly.


Suppose the EU bans the production of autonomous weapon systems, and forbids genetically engineering human babies. What good will that do if the USA nevertheless produces killer robots and China engineers genetically enhanced super-humans? Very soon even the EU will be tempted to break its own ban, for fear of being left behind. Given the immense potential of such disruptive technologies, they can be regulated only through global co-operation.

Unfortunately, instead of global co-operation, what we see today in many parts of the world including Europe is a rise in nationalism and isolationism. Consider Brexit, for example. How does Brexit help prevent nuclear war? It doesn't. How does Brexit help prevent climate change? It doesn't. How does Brexit help humanity deal with artificial intelligence and bioengineering? It doesn't. It actually makes it harder to deal with all three problems. In essence, Brexit is a dangerous distraction. Every minute the UK and EU spend on Brexit is one less minute they spent on preventing climate change and on regulating AI.

Nationalism and religion are comforting, because they explain to us in simple terms what is happening in the world

So why do so many people support Brexit and support nationalist and isolationist politicians across the world? Largely because most people are only vaguely aware of the global challenges we face, and because people fear radical change and the unknown. People want more stability, and in particular, they want to have a secure identity that will give meaning to their lives. This is why we see a wave of nostalgic political visions that look more to the past than to the future. Nationalism and religion are comforting, because they explain to us in simple terms what is happening in the world, what is our personal place in the cosmic drama, who we are, and what is the meaning of our lives. Moreover, the nationalist and religious stories claim to be absolute and eternal truths, which cannot be changed even by the technological and economic revolutions of the 21st century. They thus promise to provide an anchor of certainty in a stormy world.

But these are just fantasies. Humans have existed for more than two million years, while all nations and religions we know today are the product of the last 3,000 years. All “ancient traditions” are actually quite new. They are changing social constructs rather than eternal truths. Even more importantly, the nostalgic fantasies of nationalism and religion will not solve the big problems of the 21st century. How do we deal with climate change? What to do when AI pushes billions of people out of the job market? How to use the enormous new powers of genetic engineering? You won’t find the answers to these questions in the Bible, because the people who wrote the Bible knew little about global warming and knew even less about genetics and computers.

Despite all the problems, humankind today is more prosperous, healthy and peaceful than ever before

The reality of the 21st century is frightening, so I understand why people wish to turn away from it. But we don’t have any choice. We have got to co-operate on a global level. Will we actually do it? I don’t know. Human wisdom is very powerful, but we should never underestimate human stupidity.

What makes you optimistic about the world right now?
There is much to be hopeful about. A good starting point is to realise that despite all the problems, humankind today is more prosperous, healthy and peaceful than ever before. For the first time in human history, starvation kills fewer people than obesity; plagues kill fewer people than old age; and violence kills fewer people than accidents.

Indeed, we are living in the most peaceful era in history. There are still wars in some parts of the world – I live in the Middle East, so I know that perfectly well. But large parts of the world are completely free from war, and many states have stopped using war as a standard tool to advance their interests. In ancient agricultural societies, about 15 per cent of all deaths were caused by human violence. Today, in the world as a whole, less than 1.5 per cent of deaths are caused by human violence. In fact, the number of suicides is today greater than the number of violent deaths. You have more chance of killing yourself than being killed by some enemy soldier, terrorist or criminal. Similarly, the number of people who die from obesity and related diseases is far higher than the number of people killed by human violence. Sugar is today more dangerous than gunpowder.

What brought about this era of peace? First and foremost, nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide. So the superpowers had to completely change the international system, and find ways of resolving conflicts without major wars. Secondly, economic changes have turned knowledge into the main economic asset. Previously, wealth was mainly material wealth: wheat fields, gold mines, slaves, cattle. This encouraged war, because it was relatively easy to conquer material wealth through war. Today, wealth is increasingly based on knowledge. And you cannot conquer knowledge through war. You cannot for example conquer the wealth of Silicon Valley through war, because there are no silicon mines in Silicon Valley – the wealth comes from the knowledge of the engineers and technicians. Consequently, today, most wars are restricted to those parts of the world – like the Middle East – where wealth is old-fashioned material wealth (primarily oilfields).

But that should not make us complacent. What we need to realise is that in recent decades war declined not thanks to any miracle or the intervention of some god. War declined because of wise human decisions. And if humans start making unwise decisions, war will return. It takes a lot of wise people to make peace, but it is sometimes enough to have one fool to have a war.