Unstoppable Us, Volume 2: Why the World Isn't Fair

Image of Unstoppable Us, Volume 2: Why the World Isn't Fair
Release Date: 
March 5, 2024
Bright Matter Books
Reviewed by: 

"an interesting insight into how far 'progressive' thinking can take someone."

Yuval Noah Harari did a wonderful job explaining the early development of humans as a species in his book Sapiens. His experience in prehistory doesn't quite translate, however, into this account of how people organized themselves into villages, cities, and kingdoms. Starting with the premise that "something strange happened 10,000 years ago, and it changed everything," Harari explores why some people have more power, more riches than others. It's an odd lens to use for this kind of history. The book becomes more of a progressive/socialist interpretation than a historical description.

Why is the development of cities, rulers, generals seen as a bad thing? Clearly they fulfill vital functions or so much of humanity would not have gone along with these systems for so long. Harari starts by asking why things "aren't fair." The book quickly becomes a criticism of private property, of people trying to "control" their environment and other beings.

"In the Middle East, only a handful of groups began to farm wheat and sheep full-time. Meanwhile in China, a few other groups started farming millet and pigs. Elsewhere in the world—in India, America, and New Guinea—some humans gradually learned to control other plants and animals, including rice, maize, potatoes, sugarcane, chickens, and llamas.

"Even so, all over the world, most people preferred to go on hunting and gathering.

"But that didn't stop the Agricultural Revolution. Agriculture didn't need everybody to help it spread. If an area was home to a hundred groups of gatherers, maybe ninety-nine said no to agriculture. It was enough for just one group to say yes.

"With all their hard work and their control of plants and animals, the farmers produced more and more grain, meat, and milk, which fed more and more children. . . . The farmers were the new leaders of the world. There was just one tiny problem . . . they weren't all that happy with their new way of life."

How does Harare know that early farmers regretted farming? He calls it "unintended consequences" and explains it like this:

"The farmers had become trapped by their own success. They worked hard to grow more wheat, and their villages kept growing which seemed like a good thing. But it also made it much harder for them to go back to living as gatherers when disaster struck their fields or flocks."

This reads like revisionist history, a modern interpretation to ancient lives. A time traveler might find that farmers were content to manage occasional problems in exchange for a norm of success.

Harari does understand that leadership is necessary and useful, even though it leads to what he considers imbalances in power.

"For example, suppose a group of warriors from another Sumerian city—Lagash—came to steal grain and sheep from the fields around Uruk. What should the Urukians do? Should they stay safely inside the city, defend its walls, and allow the Lagashians to steal what they want? Should they go out to fight the Lagashians? Or should they try to make peace with the Lagashians, offering them some grain and sheep? If each one of the 50,000 Urukians took five minutes to put forward their view, just listening to all these ideas would take 250,000 minutes which adds up to 173 days! By the time everybody finished explaining and discussing their ideas, the Lagashians would have taken every grain of wheat and every last lamb in Uruk.

So when an important decision like this had to be made, the Urukians . . . chose a few wise people to lead them."

Couldn't the Urukians have seen who was for hiding, who for fighting, who for negotiating and offer the majority's view? This option doesn't seem to have occurred to Harari. This is just one of many examples where Harari offers up a narrative that conveniently aligns with his viewpoint rather than looking for actual historical evidence. No matter what, he favors a "primitive" hunter-gather life over one that necessitates leadership.

"So living in a big kingdom had its advantages. But it was still a difficult life, and probably much harder than the life of gatherers . . . before the Agricultural Revolution."

But was it harder? How? Why? Simply because it wasn't "fair"?

The most problematic part of the book come toward the end when Harari paints storytelling as a bad thing, used as propaganda to keep people in power by creating national myths.

"Small tribes could manage with small stories, but to create a big kingdom, you needed a big story."

Harari grants there are some positive aspects to this, providing a social cohesiveness, but mostly he sees storytelling as promoting xenophobic tribalism. His final example of how destructive such stories are is that they caused a "terrible war, which was called the Crusades."

It is an odd example to use and is not described with any historical accuracy:

"Christian priests in Europe told quite a terrifying story: they claimed they'd received a message from the great Christian god. 'God says he loves the city of Jerusalem more than any other city in the world,' the priests explained. 'And he's angry that this city is ruled by Muslims, not Christians. So he wants Christians to conquer the city of Jerusalem.'"

Who, one wonders, were these priests? Did the Pope have anything to do with it? Any kings? How did such a complicated "story" get boiled down into something so simplistic?

The upshot, as Harari presents it, is that primitive life was better, fairer than modern life where people try to control things. Humans, he says have "become more and more bossy."

"And you know that it was all made possible by stories, which also became larger and more complicated. . . . How did some stories and rules spread all over the planet?"

It's an ironic ending for an author who wants to spread his own story. Unstoppable Us isn't good history but it offers an interesting insight into how far "progressive" thinking can take someone.