They may also help us solve it.
“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it; you can influence it. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Steve Jobs
Approximately ten thousand years ago, humanity underwent arguably the most fundamental shift in the history of the human race: the Agricultural Revolution. It gave way to unprecedented levels of both individual wealth and poverty, and on the whole — and contrary to popular belief — an objectively worse quality of life. As a species, we worked longer hours doing harder work, were more subject to disease, and consumed far more homogenous diets than had ever been available to us as traveling bands. As Yuval Harari points out in Sapiens, however, since, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is true that the success of a species is measured by the how many times it successfully copies its DNA, any change that gives a species the ability to do so faster is an obvious choice in the state of nature. It makes sense, then, that the Agricultural Revolution spread so quickly once it started; it did not promise a better quality of life, but rather a far worse one — and yet, that far worse one was available to vastly more humans — or, to put it in his terms, more “copies of human DNA” — than was the objectively better one before it. From an evolutionary standpoint, then, the Agricultural Revolution was a smashing success. From a humanist standpoint, it was exactly the opposite.
Harari claims that the Agricultural Revolution was a trap which ensnared us quickly once the population booms that accompanied the domestication of crops — wheat, mainly — crowded out the small traveling bands that were left to their slower, and less reproductively fruitful ways of life. He also points to a more surprising fact — that is, traces of wheat have been found alongside the religious figures and temples of hunter-gatherers. It follows, then, that there was something beyond pure evolutionary calculus that drove humans headfirst into the Agricultural Revolution. That something was the myth of religion, and the drive to worship.
Religious societies have, historically, dedicated massive amounts of individual wealth to the worship of their religion’s god, whether through the construction of temples, or idols, or the sacrifice of produce, or livestock. Similarly, constructing temples and large religious figures would not have been possible without unprecedented levels of human labor, which would not have been available without a relative abundance of sustenance in the form of wheat and other domesticated crops. The Agricultural Revolution, then, was a solution to this problem — that religious societies required far more sustenance than a pre-AR society could’ve possibly produced.
Of course, religion did more than force us into agriculturally constrained lifestyles — it offered us a guiding light; an ideal to strive towards; a reason to be. It is no surprise, then, that the most profound result of our unique ability to create and share myths is our creation of one of the greatest myths of all — that of purpose.
Most everything around us is a function of our now well-refined ability to sow the seeds of myths which in turn give us purpose — the myth of the corporation, or the economy, or the “American Dream.” The tools available to us today, too — social media, television, and radio — have allowed us to create and share myths at speeds and scales that would have been unimaginable even fifty years ago. The myth of the modern, global economy is incredible — and I use that word deliberately, because it is quite literally a lie — and yet it is this lie that has enabled the creation of the wealthiest and most purposeful societies the world has ever known. To say, then, that humanity’s success rests solely in our ability to create and share myths misses what is perhaps the most miraculous result of that ability — we can quite literally conjure new sources of purpose out of thin air.
My work in sales; my friends’ in finance; my professors’ in academia — all of it exists as a function of two things: first, the idea of what the modern world is, and second, the shared belief in what the modern world has the potential to be. Both are myths. The truth of this is embedded in the myths that allow us to perform our jobs. I could not sell advertising to a business owner were it not for his ability to envision a future in which his business is more successful than it is currently. My friends’ jobs in finance would not exist were it not for the understanding that the economy of tomorrow can — and must — be larger than the economy of today. Professors, too, would have but a fraction of the importance they have today in a world in which obtaining education offered no opportunity for a better future. It is the drive to remove ourselves from a present that we have been made acutely aware can never be as good as the future, then, that has become our purpose.
Tim Wu makes this same point in his book, The Attention Merchants, by emphasizing that the goal of the great advertising campaigns of the 20th century was not to propose that what was being advertised was the solution to a problem, but rather to alert consumers that the problem was even there to solve in the first place. The greatest campaigns — those of products, of social movements, of political candidates — have all relied this idea: that it is easiest to sell someone something that proposes a solution to a preexisting problem. The problem that we were alerted to, then, was that the society’s status was nothing compared to its potential.
“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.” — Yuval Harari, Sapiens
The great trick of the myth of society’s potential is that there will never be a point at which our society will believe we’ve reached it. Every adjustment we make; every innovation we create; every threshold we appear to cross — all of this is illusory progress along a Möbius strip littered with the social constructs of days past; an eternal run along an ever faster treadmill; a Sisyphus-like tale, but with progressively heavier boulders, and progressively larger hills. The ability to unconsciously accelerate alongside the treadmill to nowhere, finding purpose through the creation of consumptive solutions to fictitious issues, is not only the basis for our entire modern economy, but for modern society itself.
This revelation is either earth-shattering or invigorating, depending on who you are and your perspective on the world — in fact, I find it to be both in almost equal capacity. On the one hand, realizing that modern society is nothing more than a conception of the human mind can lead down a deep and seemingly bottomless rabbit hole of existential doubt. On the other hand, however, it is empowering to consider that as humans, we have the power to shape the way that the world functions, from constructing the framework of modern governments, to envisioning and then creating the technology that enables the drafting and publishing of pieces like this one.
What may be most profound about our unique, myth-making capability is that beyond allowing us to live objectively better lives,² it has afforded us the opportunity to redefine what it means to live a purposeful life again and again throughout the centuries. Millennials, more than any other generation, wish to find fulfillment through their work. Previous generations, like our parents, historically viewed work as a means to provide fulfillment to others (often family, and more specifically, children, or parents). If we go even further back to the earliest generations of human, we find a people to whom the idea of “work” wouldn’t have made sense.¹ That motivations have evolved so drastically from generation to generation, then, is well-documented — it is also habitually lamented by members of each. What remains true, however, is that these motivations are nothing more than myths sold to us, by us — myths that have allowed us to feel purposeful, because there is no greater feeling in this world than being needed by someone, or some cause. What, after all, is a father without family, or a sales rep without product, or a priest without religion? How do societies function if not by allowing individuals to provide each other with meaning? The short answer is simple: they don’t. Without myths, they wouldn’t.
On July 9th, 2017, David Wallace-Wells published a compelling article in New York Magazine titled, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” that illustrated perhaps as well as anyone has just how short we have fallen of understanding the scope of climate change. The article is alarming in its simplicity; most alarming, however, is that it provides no tangible solution to the issue. Instead, it invokes the first half of the mechanism used by the great marketers of the past century to sell their products—that is, the marketing of the problem, instead of the product. The article’s illustration of that problem, too, is a picture so bleak that it is hard to imagine anyone coming away from reading it thinking that anything other than climate change is one the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
The next logical step for marketers, of course, would be their great reveal of the consumptive solution to the problem — but that reveal never comes. This time, there is no product, or candidate, that will come forward as a solution. There will be no “aha” moment; no easy, consumptive solution to the problem, because you cannot solve a problem rooted in overconsumption by giving people more to consume. The modern economy is excellent at providing consumptive solutions to problems — think Ibuprofen to cure headaches, Adderall to enhance focus, or fuel-efficient cars to decrease carbon emissions. What is has never been good at, however — or more correctly, what has never been required of it — is illustrating that many problems are better-solved through the omission of certain behaviors, or the practice of restraint, than they are by the consumption of something new.³ It is this myth that humanity will need to create, share, and above all, adopt, if we are to address the threat posed by climate change.
Humans came to dominate the earth, and bring it to the brink of its ability to support us, through our unique ability to create and share myths. It is fitting, then, that the very trait that gave way to the single greatest threat we’ve ever faced is also the most powerful tool that we have against it.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Yuval Noah Harari, Neil Postman, Ben Thompson, James Allsworth, Tim Wu, and David Wallace-Wells for inspiring the thoughts that lead to articles like this. Thanks also to David Perell for his feedback.
¹ The idea of “work” is, from a historical perspective, relatively new.
² Objectively better as measured by longevity, access to resources, etc.
³ There are certainly consumptive solutions to issues that work well, but my point is that, like how scientific progress has taught us, more than anything, just how much we don’t know, capitalism has alerted us more to problems that we never realized existed than it has solved existing problems (though it has undeniably done that as well). This is why it is such an effective growth mechanism.