Whyfores and wherefores of the 21st century (Book Review)

21 Lessons for the 21st CenturyBy Saket Suman,

Book: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century; Author: Yuval Noah Harari; Publisher: Penguin; Price: Rs 799; Pages: 352

Yuval Noah Harari, the million-copy bestselling author of “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus”, has returned with “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”, and the sum total of the arguments that he presents in the new book is that we are living in times when “unpredictability” has become the new norm.

Covering a wide range of issues critical in shaping how the human civilisation survives the 21st century, Harari sets out to answer some basic questions in the book. In fact, as he himself notes, most parts of the book have been composed in response to questions that readers, journalists and colleagues put to the author.

In answering these fundamental questions — like “How can we protect ourselves from nuclear war, ecological cataclysms and technological disruptions”, or “What can we do about the epidemic of fake news or the threat of terrorism” — Harari weaves a common theme of the need to maintain “our collective and individual focus in the face of constant and disorienting change”.

“If you try to hold on to some stable identity, job or world view,” Harari warns his readers, “you risk being left behind as the world flies by you with a whooooosh.”

The just above 300-page book touches on, and discusses in a thought-provoking manner, issues such as religion, nationalism, environment, Artificial Intelligence, social media, data privacy and liberty, among others, that have been subjected to constant changes in the light of recent upheavals. Harari holds that religion can have adverse impact on its followers, but like nationalism, which is threat to globalisation, it too has its uses.

“Does a return to nationalism offer real solutions to the unprecedented problems of our global world, or is it an escapist indulgence that may doom humankind and the entire biosphere to disaster?” he asks, before debunking the challenges of nuclear war, ecological damage, and the technological problems that may surface, or are already surfacing, as a result of rising nationalism.

“Each of these problems — nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption — is enough to threaten the future of human civilisation,” he contends. “But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound each other.”

But the sheer joy of reading Harari lies in the fact that he can impress his readers at the most unexpected junctures with some mind-expanding paragraph sandwiched between his observations and suggestions. And how does he do it?

The author uses literary devices and recent examples to arouse the reader’s curiosity. For example, he notes in the book that the Islamic State murdered thousands of people, toppled archaeological sites and demolished every sign of Western cultural influence after conquering parts of Syria and Iraq. Harari then adds that the same fighters robbed stashes of American dollars which had the faces of American presidents. They did not burn those currencies even though the notes glorified American political and religious ideals.

Harari suggests that religious fundamentalists and bigots too have an agenda at play. Whether it is the Islamic State, North Korean tyrants or Mexican drug lords, all bow before the all-powerful dollar.

Although,= Harari does not seem to be very impressed with the way human civilisation is marching ahead, there is no end of hope for him. As the book itself is titled “21 Lessons for 21st Century” it address the challenges by putting forth some lessons that the author has learnt, and believes can be useful for each of us.

Indian readers will also be pleased to note that the book has ample direct references to India. At one point, Harari notes that while thousands of years ago devout Hindus sacrificed precious horses, today they invest in producing costly flags. He refers to the hoisting of one of the largest flags in the world at Atari on the Indo-Pak border in 2017 and notes that “strong winds kept tearing the flag, and national pride required that it be stitched together again and again, at great cost to Indian taxpayers”.

“Why does the Indian government invest scarce resources in weaving enormous flags, instead of building sewage systems in Delhi’s slums?” he asks. “Because the flag makes India real in a way that sewage systems do not.”

Harari acknowledges that all the solutions he offers in the book may not work for everybody. “I am very aware that the quirks of my genes, neurons, personal history and dharma are not shared by everyone,” he notes, before elaborating on “hues” that “colour the glasses through which I see the world”.

All in all, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” may be an eye-opening book for many. Even if one disagrees with Harari’s assertions or solutions, the merit of the book lies in opening up the issues in their totality, thereby allowing the reader to pause and contemplate on where we, humanity as a whole, are headed and if we can improve the prospects of our future by altering our actions in the present.

(Saket Suman can be contacted at )


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