‘Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?’
I’ve stumbled upon a few people in various stages of reading this book, and the predominant observation is: ‘It took me a few goes’. I first started it many months ago and gave up, not because the writing wasn’t engaging, but because the content was so bleak and depressing that I wanted to kill myself.
In a genuinely mesmerising journey through the history of mankind, I was amazed at how strong yet fragile our species is, and how much of our culture is based on absolutely nothing. Our currency, politics, religion, geography – it’s all upheld by a shared belief in something that doesn’t exist. And all of us – including myself – participate willingly. That’s not to say it’s a wholly bad thing, but the frames we build around human society are arguably some of the most fascinating structures in natural history.
But how do you reconcile yourself with the cruelty, destruction and psychoticism unleashed on the world by your own species? Harari relays with tragic precision the relationship we have formed with the planet and its inhabitants, and it’s a truth that can’t be ignored. By the end, shrivelled like a prune in the bath with a gin and tonic, I was so appalled with my species that there really didn’t seem any option but to end it all.
Unfortunately I am not capable of this; my love for life is as strong as my love for gin. So instead I set about, as all good environmentalists do on a weekly basis, analysing my lifestyle and seeing if there was any way I could slightly relieve my own pressure on the earth. To start, I decided to commit to something I’d wanted to for years. Thanks to this book, I’m now en route to a plant-based lifestyle. I’m giving up cow’s milk products for the foreseeable future and the rest will follow. Cold turkey – pun intended – will lead to failure. Since talking about this on Twitter, most people have been very responsive and positive, but there will always be the occasional one who claims vegans are annoying, ‘ruining industry’ or just being preachy. To those I would say: I completely understand – nobody likes a militant or a whiner. But please read this book first and form your own conclusions.
Once the depression subsides, though, this book really is unforgettable. Harari’s storytelling is captivating, unravelling the story of man and woman in a compact way that nevertheless sends the imagination into overdrive. Most of the evolutionary jumps we made were by accident, barely noticed until years later, and many of the things we consider ‘progressive’ have actually made us work harder and experience lower levels of happiness. It’s a fascinating tale for the modern human, and although the central tragedy is unavoidable, it is also a manifesto for real change.