Just yesterday I pulled into the parking lot of a Staples, running a quick errand, and I spotted this license plate:
A big fan of the human race? I asked myself as I drove by the car, or is this person, like me, an enthusiastic reader of Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I immediately assumed it was the latter, parked my car, jumped out and snapped a quick pic.
It might perhaps seem odd, to you, that someone would advertise their favorite non-fiction book on their license plate, but don’t dismiss the possibility. Harari’s Spapiens really is one of those kinds of books, the kind of book that makes you think in new ways about human beings and about our place in the world, or as one reviewer said Harari’s Sapiens is making the world strange and new again.
One of the things Harari talks about in Sapiens is The Luxury Trap. Ah, methinks, a brief discussion of The Luxury Trap might be particularly germane given that it’s that time of year, the consumeristic frenzy otherwise known as the holiday season.
The Luxury Trap starts when human beings commit themselves to a course of action that they believe will better their lives, but there are unforeseen and unfortunate costs. These costs far outweigh the benefits, and eventually we wind up more miserable; but the lure of luxury and ease is a temptation that we just can’t resist.
Such was the case in our transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life into the “agricultural revolution.” As hunter-gatherers, human beings wanted for nothing. It wasn’t utopia, but we didn’t farm, there were no crops, there were no farm animals. We simply took from the abundance of the earth, using our intimate knowledge of the land to gather wild vegetables, roots, and berries; and we hunted wild game.
And it all worked pretty well. It was a well-rounded diet, diverse and nutritious, and human beings had a good deal of spare time. We had no luxuries, but we lived well.
This is the essence of the Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.
Then people began to farm. This was the “agricultural revolution.” There was more food, initially, in terms of quantity, so people started having more children, and we settled down onto farms and into villages — but farming radically reduced our food options and narrowed our food sources down to only a few items. We no longer enjoyed a diverse, well-rounded diet.
We went all in for quantity but the quality of life decreased. People became smaller than their hunger-gatherer ancestors, lifespans decreased, and mortality rates increased.
“Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation?” Harari asks. “For the same reason that people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions.”
So, why not just back out? “Why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.”
And this brings us back, full circle to the holiday season of today, and here is Harari’s warning for us:
“The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.”
So, beware of the luxury trap. Less is more.
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.”
Less is more.