Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Part 4: The Scientific Revolution, Chapter 17: The Wheels of Industry
Capitalism is a deeply enmeshed part of modern society. There are flaws in the free-market capitalist system, notably that it requires some amount of regulation to ensure that people behave fairly, without fraud, and also to ensure that the desire for growth does not blind capitalists to ethical considerations (e.g., subjugation of the African people of the Congo to acquire rubber). The capitalist system foretells of a world where will eventually be a ‘pie’ that is big enough for all people to have a sufficient slice, although not equitably. The question then arises as to if this is a possible and sustainable goal, an ever-growing pie. History has shown that modern humans should be able to indeed sustainably keep up with growth, as new scientific and technological advances find novel ways to harness energy and materials.
Counter-intuitively, while humankind’s use of energy and raw materials has mushroomed in the last few centuries, the amount available for our exploitation have actually increased. Whenever a shortage of either has threatened to slow economic growth, investments have flowed into scientific and technological research.
The invention of the steam engine in the early 1700s propelled the Industrial Revolution forward, as “people became obsessed with the idea that machines and engines could be used to convert one type of energy into another” (p. 337).
The Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.
Our earth’s sun is the ultimate energy provider, giving life to plants that ultimately give life to all other living beings, and if its immense energy could be more effectively converted for particular use cases, the problem of finite energy resources would effectively be solved.
Only a tiny portion of the sun’s energy reaches us, yet it amounts to 3,766,800 exajoules of energy each year.
The explosion of human productivity was strongly felt in the agricultural industry, in which new chemicals improved yields, transportation and storage technology increased breadth and length of a food’s shelf-life, and methods of animal production improved yield at the cost of animal-welfare.
Around the time that Homo Sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines.
These improvements freed-up the majority of the population to pursue lives that were not centered around manual labor, and birthed the religion of consumerism: “For the first time in human history, supply began to outstrip demand” (p. 346). This shift in society had far reaching implications, switching the roles of the elite and the masses; pre-modern/capitalist era, the elites would spend much of their wealth on frivolities, but now the elites are gripped with the capitalist mindset of investing and asset management, and conversely, the poor invest less, and spend more on unnecessary luxuries.
The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’
This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.
Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services as a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves, and even kill themselves slowly by overconsumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured.
Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world. Obesity is a double victory for consumerism.
People of all walks of life have desires and needs, and it is nigh impossible to define the difference in modern society, perhaps coming closest at the extremes (i.e., no one needs a pricey yacht). Biologically, humans have certain needs to stay alive, but one would be hard-pressed to accept that everything beyond food/water/shelter requirements as being a luxury. This differentiation, between needs, wants, and luxuries, seems to be a common point of disagreement among right- and left-leaning folks when discussing government-provided social services.