Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
Many fear that this is only a temporary victory, and that some unknown cousin of the Black Death is waiting just around the corner. No one can guarantee that plagues won’t make a comeback, but there are good reasons to think that in the arms race between doctors and germs, doctors run faster. New infectious diseases appear mainly as a result of chance mutations in pathogen genomes. These mutations allow the pathogens to jump from animals to humans, to overcome the human immune system, or to resist medicines such as antibiotics. Today such mutations probably occur and disseminate faster than in the past, due to human impact on the environment.
Yet in the race against medicine, pathogens ultimately depend on the blind hand of fortune.
Doctors, in contrast, count on more than mere luck. Though science owes a huge debt to serendipity, doctors don’t just throw different chemicals into test tubes, hoping to chance upon some new medicine. With each passing year doctors accumulate more and better knowledge, which they use in order to design
more effective medicines and treatments. Consequently, though in 2050 we will undoubtedly face much more resilient germs, medicine in 2050 will likely be able to deal with them more efficiently than today.
In 2015 doctors announced the discovery of a completely new type of antibiotic – teixobactin – to which bacteria have no resistance as yet. Some scholars believe teixobactin may prove to be a game-changer in the fight against highly resistant germs.
Scientists are also developing revolutionary new treatments that work in radically different ways to any previous medicine. For example, some research labs are already home to nano-robots, that may one day navigate through our bloodstream, identify illnesses and kill pathogens and cancerous cells.
Microorganisms may have 4 billion years of cumulative experience fighting organic enemies, but they have exactly zero experience fighting bionic predators, and would therefore find it doubly difficult to evolve effective defences.
So while we cannot be certain that some new Ebola outbreak or an unknown flu strain won’t sweep across the globe and kill millions, we will not regard it as an inevitable natural calamity. Rather, we will see it as an inexcusable human failure and demand the heads of those responsible. When in late summer 2014 it seemed for a few terrifying weeks that Ebola was gaining the upper hand over the global health authorities, investigative committees were hastily set up. An initial report published on 18 October 2014 criticised the World Health Organization for its unsatisfactory reaction to the outbreak, blaming the epidemic on corruption and inefficiency in the WHO’s African branch. Further criticism was levelled at the international community as a whole for not responding quickly and forcefully enough. Such criticism assumes that humankind has the knowledge and tools to prevent plagues, and if an epidemic nevertheless gets out of control, it is due to human incompetence rather than divine anger.
So in the struggle against natural calamities such as AIDS and Ebola, the scales are tipping in humanity’s favour. But what
about the dangers inherent in human nature itself? Biotechnology enables us to defeat bacteria and viruses, but it simultaneously turns humans themselves into an unprecedented threat. The same tools that enable doctors to quickly identify and cure new illnesses may also enable armies and terrorists to engineer even more terrible diseases and doomsday pathogens. It is therefore likely that major epidemics will continue to endanger humankind in the future only if humankind itself creates them, in the service of some ruthless ideology. The era when humankind stood helpless before natural epidemics is probably over. But we may come to miss it.
Breaking the Law of the Jungle
The third piece of good news is that wars too are disappearing. Throughout history most humans took war for granted, whereas peace was a temporary and precarious state. International relations were governed by the Law of the Jungle, according to which even if two polities lived in peace, war always remained an option. For example, even though Germany and France were at peace in 1913, everybody knew that they might be at each other’s throats in 1914. Whenever politicians, generals, business people and ordinary citizens made plans for the future, they always left room for war. From the Stone Age to the age of steam, and from the Arctic to the Sahara, every person on earth knew that at any moment the neighbours might invade their territory, defeat their army, slaughter their people and occupy their land.
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 about 56 million people died throughout the world; 620,000 of them died 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.
Even more importantly, a growing segment of humankind has come to see war as simply inconceivable. For the first time in history, when governments, corporations and private individuals consider their immediate future, many of them don’t think about war as a likely event. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into a mad act of collective suicide, and therefore forced the most powerful nations on earth to find alternative and peaceful ways to resolve conflicts. Simultaneously, the global economy has been transformed from a material-based economy into a knowledge-based economy. Previously the main sources of wealth were material assets such as gold mines, wheat fields and oil wells. Today the main source of wealth is knowledge. And whereas you can conquer oil fields through war, you cannot acquire knowledge that way. Hence as knowledge became the most important economic resource, the profitability of war declined and wars became increasingly restricted to those parts of the world – such as the Middle East and Central Africa – where the economies are still old-fashioned material-based economies.
In 1998 it made sense for Rwanda to seize and loot the rich coltan mines of neighbouring Congo, because this ore was in high demand for the manufacture of mobile phones and laptops, and Congo held 80 per cent of the world’s coltan reserves. Rwanda earned $240 million annually from the looted coltan. For poor Rwanda that was a lot of money.
In contrast, it would have made no sense for China to invade California and seize Silicon Valley, for even if the Chinese could somehow prevail on the battlefield, there were no silicon mines to loot in Silicon Valley. Instead, the Chinese have earned billions of dollars from cooperating with hi-tech giants such as Apple and Microsoft, buying their software and manufacturing their products. What Rwanda earned from an entire year of looting Congolese coltan, the Chinese earn in a single day of peaceful commerce.
In consequence, the word ‘peace’ has acquired a new meaning. Previous generations thought about peace as the temporary absence of war. Today we think about peace as the implausibility of war. When in 1913 people said that there was peace between France and Germany, they meant that ‘there is no war going on at present between France and Germany, but who knows what next year will bring’. When today we say that there is peace between France and Germany, we mean that it is inconceivable under any foreseeable circumstances that war might break out between them. Such peace prevails not only between France and Germany, but between most (though not all) countries. There is no scenario for a serious war breaking out next year between Germany and Poland, between Indonesia and the Philippines, or between Brazil and Uruguay.
This New Peace is not just a hippie fantasy. Power-hungry governments and greedy corporations also count on it. When Mercedes plans its sales strategy in eastern Europe, it discounts the possibility that Germany might conquer Poland. A corporation importing cheap labourers from the Philippines is not worried that Indonesia might invade the Philippines next year. When the Brazilian government convenes to discuss next year’s budget, it’s unimaginable that the Brazilian defence minister will rise from his seat, bang his fist on the table and shout, ‘Just a minute! What if we want to invade and conquer Uruguay? You didn’t take that into account. We have to put aside $5 billion to finance this conquest.’ Of course, there are a few places where defence ministers still say such things, and there are regions where the New Peace has failed to take root. I know this very well because I live in one of these regions. But these are exceptions.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the New Peace will hold indefinitely. Just as nuclear weapons made the New Peace possible in the first place, so future technological developments might set the stage for new kinds of war. In particular, cyber warfare may destabilise the world by giving even small countries and non-state actors the ability to fight superpowers effectively. When the USA
fought Iraq in 2003 it brought havoc to Baghdad and Mosul, but not a single bomb was dropped on Los Angeles or Chicago. In the future, though, a country such as North Korea or Iran could use logic bombs to shut down the power in California, blow up refineries in Texas and cause trains to collide in Michigan (‘logic bombs’ are malicious software codes planted in peacetime and operated at a distance. It is highly likely that networks controlling vital infrastructure facilities in the USA and many other countries are already crammed with such codes).
However, we should not confuse ability with motivation. Though cyber warfare introduces new means of destruction, it doesn’t necessarily add new incentives to use them. Over the last seventy years humankind has broken not only the Law of the Jungle, but also the Chekhov Law. Anton Chekhov famously said that a gun appearing in the first act of a play will inevitably be fired in the third. Throughout history, if kings and emperors acquired some new weapon, sooner or later they were tempted to use it. Since 1945, however, humankind has learned to resist this temptation. The gun that appeared in the first act of the Cold War was never fired. By now we are accustomed to living in a world full of undropped bombs and unlaunched missiles, and have become experts in breaking both the Law of the Jungle and the Chekhov Law. If these laws ever do catch up with us, it will be our own fault – not our inescapable destiny.
Nuclear missiles on parade in Moscow. The gun that was always on display but never fired.
Moscow, 1968 © Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images.
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. Whereas in 2010 obesity and related illnesses killed about 3 million people, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 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-Qaeda.
How, then, do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation throughout the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos. Consequently states often feel obliged to react to the theatre of terrorism with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.
Terrorists are like a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot budge even a single teacup. So it finds a bull, gets inside its ear and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened in the Middle East in the last decade. Islamic fundamentalists could never have toppled Saddam Hussein by themselves. Instead they enraged the USA by the 9/11 attacks, and the USA destroyed the Middle Eastern china shop for them. Now they flourish in the wreckage. By themselves, terrorists are too weak to drag us back
to the Middle Ages and re-establish the Jungle Law. They may provoke us, but in the end, it all depends on our reactions. If the Jungle Law comes back into force, it will not be the fault of terrorists.