Harari: We will have to choose between uniting humanity and nationalisms

Yuval Noah Harari is a 44-year-old historian and philosopher. [EPA/ABIR SULTAN]

“We are rewriting the rules of the game,” Israeli historian and author Yuval Noah Harari told Efe in an interview, warning that “the decisions we make now will have an impact for years and decades and will reconfigure the planet. We will have to choose between uniting humanity or selfishness and nationalisms”.

Yuval Noah Harari is a 44-year-old historian and philosopher whose books – ‘Sapiens: From Animals to Gods’; ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’ and ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’ – have enjoyed global success and turned him into one of the most prominent thinkers of today.

What will be the most important effects of the coronavirus crisis?

I think it is important to understand that we are rewriting the rules of the game: of the economic and political game, everything is at stake. We are witnessing many experiments on millions of people, like in the United States, where the universal basic income is going to be implemented by giving money to all its citizens during the crisis. The idea has been thought of before, but no one has done it on this scale and now, we do not know what the consequences will be. I would emphasise two main elements: firstly, that there is nothing predetermined in the way we deal with this crisis and that there are many options, not just one, and, secondly, that the decisions we take, will have an impact for years and decades and will reconfigure the planet.

My main concern is that, because of short-term considerations, people will make the wrong choices, such as dealing with the crisis by implementing authoritarian or even totalitarian regimes, rather than empowering citizens. Another concern is that countries will opt for isolationism and pursue nationalist interests, something that would have terrible consequences for the world when the crisis ends. What we choose in the next month or two will change the world for years or even decades.

What geopolitical changes may arise?

I think it is important to see if we can deal with this, together, as humanity. For example, by establishing a global system of production and distribution of medical equipment, where countries use resources to produce respirators and medicines and then distribute them fairly, rather than rich countries monopolising resources and leaving nothing for the poor. If we succeed in doing this, it could leave a legacy of solidarity, trust and cooperation that would help us deal with many other crises in the future. However, if a selfish and nationalistic competition between countries, to get as much as possible for themselves, regardless of others, ends up prevailing and thus, damaging the production efficiency and resulting in an inequitable distribution of equipment, this would leave a toxic legacy, something that could affect international relations for many years to come.

What will the distribution of power between countries look like?

A very striking fact is how the United States, since the beginning of the Donald Trump Administration, has completely abandoned its leadership role in the world, compared to previous crises, such as the Ebola epidemic or the financial crisis of 2008, to lead an effort together with other countries and avoid a worse outcome. In this crisis, the United States completely ignored it and did nothing. When it expanded from East Asia to more and more areas, first it denied that there was a problem and even now, when it finally acknowledges it, still does not take a leadership role and continues with its “America First” policy. Only now, America is first in infections.

The United States basically has abandoned its role as a global leader leaving a void that other countries are trying to fill, like Germany, doing an impressive job. Now, after showing doubts in its initial reaction, it is trying to take a responsible leadership position, not only economically, but also by sending help and receiving patients from other countries to help them with the crisis, a very encouraging development. We also see that China is sending aid, teams of experts and medical equipment to countries all over the world. Many people accuse them of exploiting this situation, but I think it is unfair because this is what we really need now, for countries to help each other. If there is a political motivation, what does it matter?

Are institutions like the European Union or the United Nations strong enough to lead
the fight against the pandemic?

In recent years the power of these organisations has been weakened due to the growth of isolationist and populist policies, and many countries that used to be the main pillars of multilateralism and international order, especially the United States and Great Britain, have given up that role. We are now paying the price. At a time of crisis, when we need global cooperation more than ever, since international organisations are relatively weak. I do not know what is going to happen, but I hope that people will finally realise, with the crisis, the mistake we have made in weakening international solidarity and cooperation and that by the end of this crisis, we will come out with stronger international organisations and a strengthening of global solidarity that will help us tackle not only this crisis but other future crisis as well.

What do you think will happen to the labour market once this is over?

I think there are two main possible outcomes. One, the labour market is going to be restructured, as we are having a massive experiment in working from home that will change the economy of the future. Many things that people thought about but never tried, such as internet-based university education, are now being experimented with. When universities realise that they can teach online, once the crisis is over, even if many courses return to normal, others will still continue to teach “online”, which means that they can hire people in other countries to teach, something that could change the academic job market. For example, European universities hiring professors from India, who would be much cheaper and could teach virtually. This is just one example of what could happen in many more industries.

Another possible consequence could be the speeding-up of automation and implementation of robots, artificial intelligence and machine learning in jobs that were previously done by humans. What is happening now in the crisis is that there is a lot of pressure in many industries to replace humans. If a job can be done by a robot, even if the robot is not as good as the human, at this time it is much more convenient because they cannot be infected. So, if there is a factory that has only robots and a factory that has only humans, the human factory, even though it is a little better at production, is now closed because of quarantine and fear of contagion, which could result in an immense encouragement for many companies to test an automated production system.

The point is, that once the crisis is over, it is unlikely that we will return to where we were before. Many industries might undergo a process of rapid automation, much talked about in recent years, which in normal circumstances might have taken 10 or 20 years, but because of this epidemic, it will now take only two or three months.

If this happens so quickly, its consequences could be devastating for workers.

Indeed, the pandemic is currently focused on the world’s richest countries, such as Europe, the United States, formerly China, South Korea and Japan. Yet in the long term, the worst of the crises will be suffered in poor countries. Currently not much is said about what is happening in South America, Africa or South-East Asia, but both the epidemic itself and the economic crisis are likely to strike poor and developing countries much more than rich countries. So, if the health system of a country like Spain is having difficulties to tackle this crisis, then think about what might happen when the epidemic spreads to countries like Peru, Bangladesh or South Africa. The highest number of deaths will probably be in these countries, not in Europe or the United States.

Similarly, with the economic crisis we now see in Europe, East Asia or North America, these areas will eventually manage to survive through economic bailouts, such as the one being implemented by the US and they could even benefit through automation processes in the long term. However, if the poor or developing countries, without these economic capabilities, are also likely to experience these automation processes and many of them might completely collapse economically and politically. The reason why I believe that a global safety net is needed to help them deal with the economic consequences of the epidemic.

What positive elements can be drawn from the current situation?

Besides understanding the need for greater global solidarity, I believe that this crisis could teach us how to deal more effectively with other global problems, such as climate change. In recent years, much has been said about the danger of an epidemic and governments and citizens have not put enough efforts into preparing for it, because it is always easier to focus on immediate concerns than on future dangers. However, we now realise that it was a huge mistake not having prepared ourselves to overcome this eventuality, and I hope that we will learn the lesson about climate change: it is better to invest money today to prevent its worst possible scenario, instead of waiting until the crisis strikes us and it is too late.

Another positive lesson learnt is the importance of science education and confidence in science and its experts. Over recent years, we have witnessed a growth in populism, whereby politicians have undermined people’s confidence in science, painting experts as an elite, disconnected from people, whose voices should be ignored. We now understand the key importance of listening to these experts, of them telling us what is going on and what we should do.

[Edited by Catalina Guerrero/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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