21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

I found 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by looking through the books that the Rebel Book Club had previously focused on and it was in my local library too, not something that happens often with non-fiction books. The Rebel Book Club is a non-fiction club and offers a real sense of community both online and in-person. (I am not a member but I like the sound of it.)

The book consists of articles written for a newspaper which accounts for a bit of repetition and was often in response to something a reader had asked or suggested. It is a thought-provoking book and I don’t think I have read anything quite like it before.

First of all, I don’t think these are lessons – they are more places to start a conversation because there aren’t many answers in the book. What Harari does do extremely well is move through areas of concern for many of us such as terrorism, migration, nationalism, identity and post-truth, sharing a historical and political overview and then opening up the conversation for us to continue outside the book. He is a master of summarising and sweeping statements.

So, here are my 21 thoughts about 21 lessons for the 21st century. Some are quotes that resonated with me, others are thoughts or opinions on what has been said.

  1. Liberalism is dead or dying.
  2. Artificial Intelligence is here. What we need to do is solve the problem of what we do if we don’t ‘work’.
  3. ‘Truth is defined by the top results of the google search.’ p68
  4. ‘Property is a prerequisite for long term inequality.’ p89 I had never thought about it this way. But the future big inequality will be around those who have control over their data and those who don’t.
  5. Mark Zuckerberg announcing that Facebook is here to create community is like a lion offering you the opportunity to clean its teeth!
  6. ‘We are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation.’ p128
  7. When trying to outline identity it is much better/easier to list common conflicts and dilemmas than it is to say what the identity is. British values creators listen up!
  8. To be European is to argue about immigration, about limits of capitalism and worry about an aging population and global warming. So true!
  9. We can’t look back to our ancestors to define identity. What people were worried about in 1618 or 1940 was very different to what we worry about now. Our current worries are more similar to our Indian and Chinese trade partners.
  10. Nationalists, and here I read Brexiteers, see the world as ‘a network of walled – but friendly – fortresses.’ p135
  11. Fortresses aren’t that friendly.
  12. Our challenges need global not nationalist thinking; the ecological challenge, the technical challenge, the migration challenge and the nuclear challenge. Should we add the virus challenge to this list as well? Nationalist thinking is not going to solve this one. All it will do is prolong the issue with the likelihood of more mutations occurring and that means our current tools may not work.
  13. ‘When things work everybody adopts them.’ p154 Reading this in the midst of a pandemic with vaccines available, I am not sure it is true at an individual or national level in some places.
  14. ‘Terrorism is the weapon of a marginal and weak segment of humanity.’ p184
  15. More people die from road accidents each year than from terrorist attacks but car accidents don’t threaten governments, one of whose aims is to keep us ‘safe’.
  16. ‘Have you seen those zombies who roam the streets with their faces glued to their smartphones?’ p310 Yes I have. And people say they are worried about technology, AI and data loss. It is here now!
  17. I have just listened to someone on the radio talking about the 1921 census release and how all over the world people are online finding out about their ancestors. I had also just read ‘Most people who go on identity quests are like children going on a treasure hunt. They find only what their parents have hidden for them in advance.’ p329 Harari doesn’t talk here about children who have been given up for adoption and their need to find out about a family they don’t know. For these people there is something very real, and possibly missing, which drives the desire to find out about their families and their identity. Would Lemn Sissay agree with this statement?
  18. I love the story of where the magic spell phrase hocus pocus comes from. When church services were heard in Latin, the priest would say ‘Hoc est corpus. . .’as he gave the bread, which means ‘Here is the body.’ Those who didn’t read or speak Latin, which was most of the population, heard ‘Hoc est corpus’ as Hocus pocus and so the spell was born. This happens to me frequently with song lyrics.
  19. So what does Harari do to ensure that he maintains a sense of balance and only worries about the things that are important? He meditates with a meditation that focuses on the breath as experienced in many yoga shalas but without the postures. ‘Yet the real enigma of life is not what happens after you die, but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life.’ This is exactly the same point Alison Bechdale got to in her marvelous graphic novel The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
  20. ‘The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that, notwithstanding all the books that I had read and all the classes I had attended at university, I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it.’ p362
  21. ‘To change the world, you need to act, and even more importantly, you need to organise. Fifty members cooperating in an organisation can achieve far more than 500 people working in isolation. If you really care about something – join a relevant organisation. Do it this week.’ p364

I am off to see if there are any Permaculture groups in Devon.

I think this is a possible book club choice because there is so much in it to discuss and agree and disagree about.

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