“The agricultural revolution [when humans started living in permanent places] made the future far more important than it had ever been before. Peasants were obliged to produce more than they consumed so that they could build up reserves. Without grain in the silos, jars of olive oil in the cellar, cheese in the pantry and sausages hanging from the rafters, they would starve in bad years. And bad years were bound to come, sooner or later. A person living on the assumption that bad years would not come didn’t live long.”
You’ve probably seen the posts before… 47% of Americans said they would have to borrow money, sell something, or don’t know how they would pay for a $400 emergency. Four in 10 Canadians said they spend all or more of their take home pay. Of course, these are just surveys that gather data from a sample of the population. However, it’s tough to deny that many, if not most, people are financially fragile, with little or no savings to their name.
“A person living on the assumption that bad years would not come didn’t live long.” It’s a powerful sentence. Despite how little people might have had thousands of years ago, they still had to put aside a small portion for the future. Even a handful of rice each day equates to a substantial sum over time.
Harari told a good story in the book that sounded a bit like this… If you were living in the year 1000, and somehow managed to take a time machine and skip ahead 500 years to 1500, not much really would have changed in terms of technological advancements and day to day life. However, if you were living in the year 1500 and skipped ahead 500 years to 2000, life would be unbelievably different. In other words, the difference between life in 1000 and 1500 was negligible. The difference between life in 1500 and 2000 was astronomical. The last 500 years has witnessed a phenomenal growth in human power. In the year 1500, there were about 500 million humans in the world. Today, there are 7 billion. The total value of goods and services produced by humans in 1500 was around $250 billion (in today’s dollars). Today, the value of a year of human production is about $60 trillion.
The rise of credit played a key role in the economic growth of the last 500 years or so. CREDIT. But credit has caused many problems too. As mentioned in the book: “Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future.”
3. Money, money, money, money…money
“Money is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised. When money was first created, people didn’t have this sort of trust, so it was necessary to define money as things that had intrinsic value. Histories first known money – Sumerian barley money – is a good example. Barley money was fixed amounts of barley grains that were used as a universal measure for evaluating and exchanging all other goods and services. Standardized sized bowls were mass produced so that whenever people needed to buy or sell anything, it was easy to measure the necessary amounts of barley. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, because it was easier to store and transport. Today, money isn’t a material reality. It’s a psychological construct. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who do not know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.”
Money itself is worthless. It’s a piece of paper. These days, it usually isn’t even a piece of paper – it’s a number on a computer screen or cell phone that goes up or down with the click of a button or a tap of a credit card. It really is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever!
5. Our very recent obsession with stuff
“Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. Frugality was this their watchword. A good person avoided luxuries, never threw food away and patched up torn trousers instead of buying a new pair. Consumerism sees the consumption of ever more products and services a positive thing. It encourages people to treat themselves, spoil themselves and even kill themselves slowly by over-consumption. Frugality is a disease to be cured. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology, to convince people that indulgence is good for you, whereas frugality is self-oppression. It has succeeded. Religious holidays such as Christmas have become shopping festivals. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and that until yesterday we didn’t know existed.”
Animals much like humans first appeared about two and a half million years ago. Around 150,000 years ago, East Africa was populated by Sapiens who looked just like us. And for the past 10,000 years, homo sapiens have been the only human species. I’ve lived my entire life with a consumerist mindset. But humans have been around for a long time. The 22 years of my life are such an extremely small fraction of the past that is hard to believe that for almost all of history, people lived with very few possessions. It has only been during the half century or so that we have had an obsession with buying things we don’t need.