Sapiens: Yuval Noah Harari on Travel and Romantic Consumerism
I read Sapiens at the beginning of this year after hearing it was recommended by Barack Obama.
And let’s be real…
The subtitle A Brief History of Humankind makes it sound like another boring history book, but in reality it’s far from boring.
Harari, who’s a vegan, a heavy meditator and who has a quick answer to questions that would leave me (or virtually anyone else) scratching their head and drooling, explains things about human life and history that should be obvious…
But that nobody ever talks about.
Money, gender, war, colonialism, environmental destruction…
It’s all in Sapiens
In all honesty…
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is, without exaggeration, the best book I’ve read in the last 5 years.
The recommendation I’ve given in person to some friends is: “You buy a copy or I’ll buy you a copy, just read it. It’s like seeing the goddamn matrix!”
Anyway, I recently published an article about tourism ruining Spain and wanted to quote what Harari says, in Sapiens, about travel.
And about the romantic consumerist myths we tell each other about how tourism expands your mind.
It should be said, by the way, that I love travelling. But sometimes the myths (usually in the form of facebook memes) get to be too much.
So here goes…
Sapiens on world travel
One of my favorite takeaways from the book is that homo sapiens’ unique strength is our ability to create fictional realities…
We all live in fictional realities. From the United States of America to the European Union, from Catholicism to Procter & Gamble, democracy and the dollar, they’re all fictions we’ve developed to make society work.
Legal entities, constitutions, currencies.
They’re all fictions allow us to organize ourselves and cooperate on a level we never could otherwise.
This is the order that makes things work, and it’s purely imaginary.
Here’s Harari, in his own words, quoting from the book:
The imagined order shapes our desires
“Most people do not wish to accept that the order governing their lives is imaginary, but in fact every person is born into a pre-existing imagined order, and his or her desires are shaped from birth by its dominant myths. Our personal desires thereby become the imagined order’s most important defences.
“For instance, the most cherished desires of present-day Westerners are shaped by romantic, nationalist, capitalist and humanist myths that have been around for centuries.
“Even what people take to be their most personal desires are usually programmed by the imagined order. Let’s consider, for example, the popular desire to take a holiday abroad. There is nothing natural or obvious about this. A chimpanzee alpha male would never think of using his power in order to go on holiday into the territory of a neighboring chimpanzee band. The elite of ancient Egypt spent their fortunes building pyramids and having their corpses mummified, but none of them thought of going shopping in Babylon or taking a skiing holiday in Phoenicia. People today spend a great deal of money on holidays abroad because they are true believers in the myths of romantic consumerism.
“Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music.
“One of the best ways to do all that is to break free from our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of other people. We hear again and again the romantic myths about ‘how a new experience opened my eyes and changed my life’.
“The tourism industry does not sell flight tickets and hotel bedrooms. It sells experiences. Paris is not a city, nor India a country – they are both experiences, the consumption of which is supposed to widen our horizons, fulfil our human potential, and make us happier. Consequently, when the relationship between a millionaire and his wife is going through a rocky patch, he takes her on an expensive trip to Paris. The trip is not a reflection of some independent desire, but rather of an ardent belief in the myths of romantic consumerism. A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.”
Well said, Mr Harari.
Very well said.
Harari finishes the chapter “Building Pyramids” with the following…
“There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.”
And that’s one of the main themes that ends the book as well (about 350 pages later). There’s no escaping from fictions – all we can hope for is to move up to a better fictional reality.
My fictional reality, these days, is that of the small entrepreneur, which is a big step up from that of badly-paid immigrant.
But fictional nonetheless.
You can watch Harari talk here, he’s brilliant: Nationalism vs Globalism: the new political divide. And here’s the full recommendation by Barack Obama.
But really you should just read the book.
Okay… I hope you enjoyed this.
I’m off to pay for some Spanish girl’s sumptuous tomb. Maybe that’s what’s been missing in my relationships all these years.
P.S. I read a lot. Want more books? I’ve got some books about writing that I like. Also, if you prefer, here are some books about Spain. I try to read a book a week. And I should really write more articles about what I’m reading. Anyway…