Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
by Yuval Noah Harari
- “Poverty certainly causes many other health problems, and malnutrition shortens life expectancy even in the richest countries on earth. In France, for example, 6 million people (about 10 percent of the population) suffer from nutritional insecurity. They wake up in the morning not knowing whether they will have anything to eat for lunch: they often go to sleep hungry; and the nutrition they do obtain is unbalanced and unhealthy — lots of starches, sugar and salt, and not enough protein and vitamins. Yet nutritional insecurity isn’t famine, and France of the early twenty-first century isn’t France of 1694. Even in the worst slums around Beauvais or Paris, people don’t die because they have not eaten for weeks on end.”
- “Indeed, in most countries today overeating has become a far worse problem than famine. In the eighteenth century Marie Antoinette allegedly advised the starving masses that if they ran out of bread, they should just eat cake instead. Today, the poor are following this advice to the letter. Whereas the rich residents of Beverly Hills eat lettuce salad and steamed tofu with quinoa, in the slums and ghettos the poor gorge on Twinkie cakes, Cheetos, hamburgers and pizza. In 2014 more than 2.1 billion people were overweight compared to 850 million who suffered from malnutrition. Half of humankind is expected to be overweight by 2030. In 2010 famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people, whereas obesity killed 3 million.”
- “During the second half of the twentieth century this Law of the Jungle has finally been broken, if not rescinded. In most areas wars became rarer than ever. Whereas in ancient agricultural societies human violence caused about 15 per cent of all deaths, during the twentieth century violence caused only 5 per cent of deaths, and in the early twenty-first century it is responsible for about 1 per cent of global mortality. In 2012, 620,000 people died in the world due to human violence (war killed 120,000 people, and crime killed another 500,000). In contrast, 800,000 committed suicide, and 1.5 million died of diabetes. Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”
- “What about terrorism, then? Even if central governments and powerful states have learned restraint, terrorists might have no such qualms about using new and destructive weapons. That is certainly a worrying possibility. However, terrorism is a strategy of weakness adopted by those who lack access to real power. At least in the past, terrorism worked by spreading fear rather than by causing significant material damage. Terrorists usually don’t have the strength to defeat an army, occupy a country or destroy entire cities. In 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7697 people across the globe, most of them in developing countries. For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Quaeda.”
Harari’s basic argument is compelling. The kinds of violence and death we experience now is far different. The whole reason I wrote this post is because of a few key points that stood out to me: “Sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.” And: “For the average American or European, Coca-Cola poses a far deadlier threat than al-Quaeda.” As those quotes make clear, our first world problems are of a different magnitude. But I would push back against his argument, as for much of the rest of the world, in his making the same mistake as Steven Pinker by ignoring slow violence (so pervasive and systemic as to go unnoticed and uncounted, unacknowledged and unreported, often intentionally hidden). Parts of the United States also are in third world conditions. So, it isn’t simply a problem of nutritional excess from a wealthy economy. That wealth isn’t spread evenly, much less the nutrient-dense healthy foods or the healthcare. Likewise, the violence oppression falls harder upon some than others. Those like Harari and Pinker can go through their entire lives seeing very little of it.
Since World War Two, there have been thousands of acts of mass violence: wars and proxy wars, invasions and occupations, bombings and drone strikes; covert operations in promoting toppled governments, paramilitaries, and terrorists; civil wars, revolutions, famines, droughts, refugee crises, and genocides; et cetera. Most of these events of mass violence were directly or indirectly caused by the global superpowers, besides through military aggression and such, in their destabilizing regions, exploiting third world countries, stealing wealth and resources, enforcing sanctions on food and medicine, economic manipulations, debt entrapment, artificially creating poverty, and being the main contributors to environmental destruction and climate change. One way or another, these institutionalized and globalized forms of injustice and oppression might be the combined largest cause of death, possibly a larger number than in any society seen before. Yet they are rationalized away as ‘natural’ deaths, just people dying.
Over the past three-quarters of a century, probably billions of people in world have been killed, maimed, imprisoned, tortured, starved, orphaned, and had their lives cut short. Some of this was blatant violent actions and the rest was slow violence. But it was all intentional, as part of the wealthy and powerful seeking to maintain their wealth and power and gain even more. There is little justification for all this violence. Even the War on Terror involved cynical plans for attacking countries like Iraq that had preceded the terrorist attacks themselves. The Bush cronies, long before the 2000 presidential election, had it written down on paper that they were looking for an excuse to take Saddam Hussein out of power. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq killed millions of people, around 5% or so of the population (the equivalent would be if a foreign power killed a bit less than 20 million Americans). The used uranium weapons spread across the landscape will add millions of more deaths over the decades — slow, torturous, and horrific deaths, many of them children. Multiply that by the hundreds of other similar US actions, and then multiply that by the number of other countries that have committed similar crimes against humanity.
Have we really become less violent? Or has violence simply taken new forms? Maybe we should wait until after the coming World War Three before declaring a new era of peace, love, and understanding. Numerous other historical periods had a few generations without war and such. That is not all that impressive. The last two world wars are still in living memory and hence living trauma. Let’s give it some time before we start singing the praises and glory of our wonderful advancement as a civilization guided by our techno-utopian fantasies of Whiggish liberalism. But let’s also not so easily dismiss the tremendous suffering and costs from the diseases of civilization that worsen with each generation; not only obesity, diabetes, heart disease but also autoimmune conditions, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, mood disorders, ADHD, autism, and on and on — besides diet and nutrition, much of it caused by chemical exposure from factory pollution, oil spills, ocean dumping, industrial farming, food additives, packaging, and environmental toxins. And we must not forget the role that governments have played in pushing harmful dietary recommendations of low-fat and high-carb that, in being spread worldwide by the wealth and power and influence of the United States, has surely harmed at least hundreds of millions over the past several generations.
The fact that sugar is more dangerous than gun powder, Coca-Cola more dangerous than al-Queda… This is not a reason to stop worrying about mass violence and direct violence. Rather than as a percentage, the total number of violent deaths is still going up, just as there are more slaves now than at the height of slavery prior to the American Civil War. Talking about percentages of certain deaths while excluding other deaths is sleight of hand rhetoric. That misses an even bigger point. The corporate plutocracy that now rules our neo-fascist society of inverted totalitarianism poses the greatest threat of our age. That is not an exaggeration. It is simply what the data shows us to be true, as Harari unintentionally reveals. Privatized profit comes at a public price, a price we can’t afford. Even ignoring the greater externalized costs of environmental harm from corporations (and the general degradation of society from worsening inequality), the increasing costs of healthcare because of diseases caused by highly-profitable and highly-processed foods that are scientifically-designed to be palatable and addictive (along with the systematic dismantling of traditional food systems) could bankrupt many countries in the near future and cripple their populations in the process. World War Three might turn out to be the least of our worries. Just because most of the costs have been externalized on the poor and delayed to future generations doesn’t mean they aren’t real. It will take a while to get the full death count.