In the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels make a wrong turn at the Colorado border and, after driving through the night, wind up many hours later in a perfectly flat landscape in central Nebraska. Jim Carrey’s character, Lloyd, who mistakenly thinks they must now be in the fabled Rocky Mountains, looks around and quips, “That John Denver is full of s**t, man.” I’m afraid that’s how I am feeling about the great Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Harari!
Lloyd, a character played by Jim Carrey in the 1994 motion picture Dumb and Dumber, opines on the Rocky Mountains and reliability of John Denver as a source.
We suddenly find ourselves in a time of breathtaking worldwide disruption, and many of the things Harari has assured us were permanently behind us have recently reared their heads in ways that have shocked the world.
In his 2015 blockbuster book, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Harari makes a series of bold assertions that I so wanted to believe. He writes that the three great scourges of human existence — war, famine and plague — have all now been overcome and have apparently ceased to be a challenge to the human project. In fact, he says the food problem of the 21st century will not be scarcity, but obesity and its faithful attendant diabetes.
Now that we no longer have to wrestle with plague, war and famine, Harari declares, we have to decide what we are going to do with all the surplus human energy we historically had to focus on those primal scourges. Liberated from what used to be the human condition, we now can focus our enormous human ingenuity on — wait for it — the search for immortality.
Harari predicts that our grandchildren will live to be 300 — or forever for that matter — and that the day is coming when medical technologies will be able to change out my heart, my lungs, my eyes and even my brain as easily as we now replace a car battery or a fan belt. Artificial intelligence will permit us to offload our consciousness to the cloud, then reinstall it in a younger, more supple brainpan. (Apparently, Harari has not read Jonathan Swift’s description in “Gulliver’s Travels” of the “illustrious Struldbruggs,” those humans who are born seemingly normal, but are in fact immortal, but unfortunately still become decrepit and senile at 90, and spend the rest of eternity as crabby, demented and myopic human vegetables.) Think of the strain on Social Security!
The actuarial facts, however, indicate at least a temporary setback in Harari’s utopia. According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, life expectancy in the United States has dropped two years in a row now to 76.1 years, down from its 2014 peak at 78.9. On the other hand, back in 1900, the average American lifespan was around 48.
What Harari Got Wrong
First, there was the pandemic. More than 6 million people died from COVID-19 worldwide, 1.1 million of them Americans. Some educators and parents believe that the lost classroom time has created a permanent setback for America’s young people — a lost generation — whose educational trajectory was disrupted. The U.S. economy shrank by 19 percent. Johns Hopkins University economists have estimated that the pandemic cost the American economy at least $16 trillion, perhaps as much as $22 trillion. And this was a comparatively mild virus. The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 killed 1 in 10. The black plague of the mid-14th century killed an estimated one in three Europeans. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more than 50 million people worldwide.
The 2020-2022 pandemic also brought on another political setback for the United States. Somehow the prophylactic mask requirements turned out to be the rallying cry for tens of millions of Americans who saw tyranny behind a public safety measure. The founding generation’s “Don’t Tread on Me,” became “you cannot make me wear a mask.” Or get a vaccine. The pandemic for the most part did not bring us together. It widened the gap.
Then came the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion (Feb. 24, 2022) stunned the world. Vladimir Putin initiated the first war of territorial aggrandizement since World War II. It’s not that any rational person trusted Putin in his megalomaniacal desire to knit the Russian Empire back together one former satellite state at a time. But we all thought brutal old-style wars of tanks and artillery were a thing of the past — and now unthinkable. We were wrong. The war for Ukraine feels more like Stalingrad 1942 than a conflict of the 21st century. It’s jarring to watch coverage on the news because we half expect the war to be fought in grainy black and white.
So far, Russia has suffered around 180,000 dead and wounded, and Ukraine has endured more than 100,000 dead or wounded, including 30,000 civilian deaths. The Russians have committed appalling atrocities and war crimes — torture, rape, deliberate targeting of hospitals, massacres of citizens, and executions of prisoners. So much for the Geneva Conventions.
So far, the West has responded with firmness and unity. The U.S. finds itself engaged in an expensive proxy war half a world away. Two further catastrophes cannot be ruled out. America might be drawn more directly into the war in spite of official assurances. In extremity, the Russians may resort to the use of nuclear weapons. At that point, all bets are off.
Nor is famine quite out of the picture. In 2017, 80 million people worldwide were facing the possibility of starvation. The COVID-19 disruptions raised that number to 276 million. And after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the best estimates are that 349 million people now endure food insecurity, conditions of near starvation. Ukraine was one of the breadbaskets of the world, with grain production that can feed 400 million people.
Meanwhile, the catastrophic atmospheric rivers that have descended on California this winter are certain to disrupt the Central Valley’s $17 billion agricultural industry, which provides 25 percent of America’s food supply. Northern Italy’s rice production industry has been fallowed by global climate change. In the past four years, worldwide disruption of the production and distribution of the food that feeds 7.9 billion people has already created more food insecurity than for many decades past.
And Now the Banks
And now the banks are failing. The situation with the Silicon Valley Bank of California and the Signature Bank of New York is so grave that in a joint statement March 12, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg said, “The U.S. banking system remains resilient and on a solid foundation.” The issuance of this statement on a Sunday and the assurance that the U.S. banking industry “remains resilient” signifies that these financial experts are scared, that they fear(ed) a widespread run on America’s banks, and maybe worse.
On Monday (March 13), President Biden delivered public assurances reminiscent of Franklin Roosevelt’s first fireside chat, about that bank crisis, delivered almost 90 years ago to the day. Stay tuned.
So what’s next? Choose your metaphor. Frogs and locusts? The sky is falling, the sky is falling? Every morning now I expect to hear the opening of the sixth or seventh seal. The world seems to be coming apart at the seams. The vaunted liberal world order feels a little threadbare, as the war grinds on in Ukraine, China rattles its sword over Taiwan, North Korea tests a variety of nuclear warhead delivery systems and as one country after the next inches toward autocracy, including, at times, the U.S. All that bland optimism we see in the work of Yuval Harari and Harvard’s Steven Pinker, the author of “Enlightenment Now,” suddenly seems dangerously naïve.
You know what the French say: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The End of History?
When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and Eastern Europe imploded after four decades of Soviet-sponsored dictatorships, Harvard historian Francis Fukuyama published a book, “The End of History and the Last Man” (1992), in which he argued that humanity had now reached “not just … the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the “end of history” as such: That is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Fukuyama’s thesis was challenged then. It seems ludicrous now.
The mistake we seem to have made is the belief that the liberal world order that was constructed after World War II, exemplified by the World Bank (1944), the Marshall Plan (1948), NATO (1949) and the European Union (then the European Coal and Steel Community, 1951) represented a permanent settlement of the human predicament. Peace, cooperation, relatively open borders, capitalism chastened by various safety nets, a common world language (English) and two primary western currencies (the dollar and the euro) appeared to characterize professor Fukayama’s “end of history.”
Unfortunately, it may be that the post-war “settlement” will turn out to have been a golden interlude. It may be that human life on Earth is less secure than we had all come to believe, that war, plague, famine, economic shock, social disruption and violent weather have not been, and perhaps cannot be, permanently retired.
It’s not all bad news, of course. Thanks to pharmaceutical chemistry and intense government incentives, we developed a vaccine for COVID-19 within a single calendar year. The war in Ukraine will probably end, like most wars in history, with the return of the status quo ante bellum, a restoration of the “borders” of 2019 (but at what cost to the lives of the people of Ukraine?).
Agricultural technology is now so impressive that the global food shortages will almost certainly be overcome. The New Deal’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is resetting its insurance caps, and the feds and the president have promised that bank depositors “will be made whole.” The reservoirs of California are refilling after decades of drought. Inflation is diminishing. There is ample gas at the pumps.
Still, it would be wise to regard the events of the last few years as a serious wake-up call. Civilization is perhaps not as secure as we let ourselves believe. History rears its tragic head, and the human condition stubbornly resists reform. At the very least, Harari has some reason to blush, and he has, as they say, some ’splainin’ to do.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing email@example.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.