Bernard Werber: Our generation is lucky but bad students
Crises like the one we’re going through right now are good at revealing who we really are. We discussed humankind’s revelations with Bernard Werber, best-selling science fiction author and philosopher.
The text of the interview has been edited for clarity
Sophie Shevardnadze: Bernard Werber, best-selling science fiction author, visionary, philosopher, it's really great to have you on our show today, we've got a lot of things to discuss with everything that is going on around us. Philosopher and a writer, a sci-fi writer, is exactly who I need to talk to. So I know that you say science fiction, although often pessimistic, could write about how everything is not going to be so bad, and how things could work out in the future. But in a recent short story that you wrote, inspired by the quarantine that we're all going through right now, you said “it’s going to last for three weeks and now it has been three years”, - not very optimistic to my view...
Bernard Werber: In my short story, I say that it could be more complex than what we speak [about], actually, because I think that at this moment nobody really understands what’s happened. There are a lot of politicians who make good communication but there are not a lot of scientists who say, “we have understood what COVID-19 really is”. So it's why I say we think that it was, it was going to be three weeks and it is three years. But never mind, I think that what is fabulous is that humans always evolve to be better and to adapt to the new difficulties. So I hope that in a few years if the pessimistic scenario happens at this moment, we’ll have to change our way of life and perhaps we’ll have to stay confined every time and to build a new city where everybody is confined. It's not comfortable but it could be a new way of life. It’s why my short story is named “Homo confinus”, it means that we have done an evolution to be different because there is new difficulty.
SS: Well, you call it “evolution”, some call it “adaptation”. In your story “Homo confinus” people really magnificently just adjust to living underground, which when I imagine, for me, it's like being buried alive. Do you really believe that people can get used to pretty much anything?
BW: I think that if we look at the past our ancestors had a lot of difficulties that were harder. When you see the Second World War, when you see the plague, when you see the famine, when people had nothing to eat, it was more difficult than what we’re experiencing at this moment - we just have to stay home and we can use a computer, we can use a phone, we have movies, we have food. So it's a very comfortable crisis. And I think we will find a way to get out and to change to be perhaps Homo confinus, perhaps a better animal in the nature of ours.
SS: So when you describe a world going underground because of the virus, you imply, that's what I thought, that it's a way out of an untenable situation, right? So if we apply this to what's going on today, that would mean that we should live three years in a really harsh lockdown. That's, you know, how I parallel your story is to today's situation. Is there really no hope of continuing as we know, the life that we know, in light of the virus?
BW: Yes, there is a hope that we could find the old-way life just as it was before, but anyway, something’s changed, the world will no more be the same. You see, I'm in Paris, and in Paris the air is cleaner. Everything is cleaner, and we see that there are other animals, I see other birds I’ve never seen before. It's like a revenge of nature, and I think that nature has had to get its revenge for a long time. Because there are too many humans on this planet. And we are not able to stop the demographic growth. In a few years we will be 10 billion people. It's very difficult for Earthand for nature to support so many humans. So it's like, when you say “pause”, when you say “stop and think about what happened”. We cannot always go with more people and more economic [activity] and more destruction of nature, we just have to take a pause and to think, how we can leave a better planet for our children. I think there is too much waste. We are living in the society of consumption, to make more money and consume. And money is not the solution for us to be happy. I think happiness is to find a new way to be with nature, to respect our planet, I don't have another word than harmony, - to find new harmony between humanity and the rest of the living [beings]..
SS: We’re certainly going to talk about that in a little bit more detail because we don't have a planet B and whatever is going on may have a very symbolic meaning…
BW: Yes, exactly.
SS: But before we get to that, I still want to ponder a little bit more on human nature and get your thoughts on whatever is going on with us right now in terms of transformation because human nature is such that, on the one hand, we can adapt to pretty much anything. On the other hand, we are social animals, we’re not born to be, you know, excluded from each other. We're not born not to hug, we're tactile, you are not born to be alone underground. So I'm wondering, I want to hear your thoughts, what do you think in this precise situation, whatever we're going through right now, which one of the two important traits of a human will take over - adaptation or social animal part? Because I feel like a lot of people are adapting but at the same time, a lot of people are having a lot of mental problems because they can't handle being alone and locked away from the society…
BW: You know, my first book is about ants, and ants’ way seems to be the way that we could choose because it's a very old way. Ants have been on Earth for 120 million years and we have been living on Earth only for 3 million years. So it's a very old civilisation. And the solution that they have found is to create like a pyramid of a city where everybody stays inside and they just have a little group who go outside to find food and to find a new way of building again another city, for example. 80% of ants' population stay in the city inside. So it's a way to stay, as you say, there is always a social relation, but they don't invade everything everywhere, they don't travel anywhere. Actually we use planes, boats so much, we do so much pollution for nothing, just for holidays, just to find a little place where we are quiet, and there is no need for so much traveling. We can have a family life inside, we can have a family life within a little group. We don't need to gather 100,000 people at the same time to hear from just one person, like a musician or to see a politician. We don't have to be so many people - just find a way to come back to family and perhaps to tribes.
SS: So limiting the interaction is what you're saying? Basically traveling and socialising and connecting which, you know, the global world is about is going to become a luxury. Is that what you're saying? And we have to go back to like the most basic things of staying with a family. But then what about those who don't have a family?
BW: Yes. I think we have to come back, as you say, to a smaller group, but we could keep the big community with social networks. You know, every Thursday, I make a TV show. There are, perhaps, 10,000 people who are listening to me, just with the computer. So it's a new way to have a big community of people without using cars, without using everything that makes pollution, just with the computer. And this technology is the same like, you know, I speak about the ants. Ants use their antennae to sense pheromones. It's like perfume, it's a smell. But for us, it's not the smell that we use to communicate, it's electronic waves, but it's the same. So I think that ants show us a new way to be more adapted to our planet, and to be more ecological and to be more in harmony with nature, and perhaps it's an uncomfortable moment, but it's the way that we need to use to have a good evolution.
SS: So you share pretty much an optimistic view on what the post-pandemic future will be. You're saying that you expect a shift in mentality, you believe in that group of evolved people from what I understand, and you expect that shift in mentality from “always more” to “always better”.
SS: But what makes you think that humans are capable of changing the way they are? Because I'm being skeptical. You're a believer, I can see, but I'm being skeptical. Why do you think that this isolation will lead to an always better kind of paradigm?
BW: Because we don't have a choice. The only way to go on is to change our mentality, to change our habits, to change our connection to nature. We don't have a choice. It's why it's very interesting now. It's not a democratic experience. We don't ask people, “what do you want?” What happens is everybody has to change their mind because there is no choice. It’s that or you’ll die in a few weeks or in a few months. The only way to speak to 8 billion people is to say, you don't have a choice, you have to do that, or you will die.
SS: I completely agree. But when you speak to 8 billion people and you're saying “you don't have a choice, because unless you do that you're gonna die”, we know that we don't have a choice and we're willing to obey because we know it's temporary. But then what keeps people going is the hope that we're going to go back to normal after we've obeyed and survived. I mean, we're all craving this return to normality. Everyone is now stoically sitting at home, just waiting for things to sort of settle down so we can live normally again. But I mean, normal is relative. It's a concept that we invented. But in what ways other than better over more, which you think will happen, the new normal life will manifest itself? Can you give me a description, what would the new normal when we go back to normal will be like?
BW: I hope everything will be okay after the crisis. For my life I hope… You know, every morning I go to a cafe, to a bistro, to work, and I hope I will do it again. But I think something in the unconscious of everybody has changed. And the thing is that perhaps we’ll have one day to stop completely the usual life, and perhaps like in my novel, we have to always stay confined at home. And we’re used to it now. This experience has shown to us that we are able to do that. And perhaps it could be the solution for the new generation to have pure air, to have no disease, to have no plague. It could be the only solution. And at this moment, it's like in my novel “Homo confinus”, we will be always at home and we will always stay as we are now.
SS: Do you think the virus, this whole crazy pandemic that has swept humanity off its feet will be forgotten quickly when it's over? Because I'm thinking about the Spanish flu, and I’m thinking about cholera... I mean, it was even much more serious than COVID-19, but somehow, you know, people are like, “okay, it's over now” and they just, you know, continued living like they did before without really changing anything, like you're hoping for people to be more conscious about the Earth and the climate and, you know, consumption... But do you really think we're capable [to do that] because from what I've seen...
BW: I think it will take time. Humanity is like children. You know, when children do wrong things, you say, “stay in the corner and wait”. It’s the experience we have now - staying in the corner and thinking about what we have done, okay? When the children come back, you say, “have you learned the lesson? You don't have to do that or you will stay again in the corner”. And usually, the first punishment doesn't work. So you need different moments. And at the end, the children, the young boy doesn't do any more harm, he stops doing the wrong things he was doing before. So it's an education of all species. We as species were too egoistic, we were wasting everything. It's a lesson, but I suppose the first lesson is not enough. We will have the second and the third one until the moment we really understand that we have to find a harmonic way to live together and to live with the other species, vegetation and animals. There is also always another question - it’s a demographic problem. I think there is another way to bring forth a new humanity which would always produce children that we can love, that we can educate and that we can feed. We don't need to make 10 children, if we are just able to love and educate and give food to three children or two children it’s enough, but it's not a country decision, it's not a national decision, it’s for all nations. Usually the big problem is that we see that every country does its own politicy about demography. And at the end what happens is that there are more and more humans and we are destroying more and more nature, more and more woods and more and more animals. And it cannot always be like that. So I think we have to think together to be wiser, to be calmer and make fewer children because... Also in the old times, they made a lot of children because there was high mortality. But actually, there isn’t high child mortality any more. So we have to think that the children we make, we have to educate, we have to love them, and we have to give them a job and we have to give them food and not leave them like that. And it will take a lot of time because a lot of countries do not agree to this idea. And we have to do it all together.
SS: So just to be sure, you're saying that humanity's like children, that they don't learn right away from the first try. So you're saying that this COVID-19 pandemic experienced as COVID-19 trial, if you wish, is not going to change the way we think about our environment? You really believe that people are just going to go back to flying the way they were flying, using cars the way they were using?
BW: It’s just started to change. It's something new. Before, in the minds of the politicians there was only the problem of economic growth and the problem with money and consumption, and we have to stop the idolatry of the economy, economy is not the only solution. It was a problem for our grandparents because they were not sure they’d get food every day. But it's easier for us to get food every day. I think it will start with the new generation. Our generation - we are too old, we have bad habits. So it's for the new generation, they will, I think, better understand because perhaps the experience of confinement and the experience of the fear of COVID-19 could change them. They are malleable, they are more adaptable, the young people.
SS: Okay, what about our generation? Because, look, in the 21st century, we almost started thinking of ourselves as the Homo Almighty, that we’re gods. I mean, we started reversing the ageing process, we started messing with the genes, and we're saying like, immortality is just around the corner. And look at us now - we're scared and nervous and we run, we don't know where to hide. And, you know, it sort of took the tiniest microbe to put us in this state and it's not even alive. So do you think, our generation is going to come out of this crisis still thinking of ourselves that we're Homo Almighty?
BW: I think that our generation is a very lucky generation because we’ve seen the first people to walk on the moon, we’ve seen sexual liberation, we’ve seen a lot of cultural things.
SS: Cultural revolution, yeah.
BW: Cultural revolution, yes. And probably the people from our generation will live to be one hundred years old. Because of medical evolution, because of medical progress for our generation there will be a possibility to be one hundred years old and that's new. Being able to live for one hundred years, perhaps, we will be able to understand things better because we’ll have more time to think about them. But our generation - we are the lucky but we’re bad students because we are very selfish and it's why… We will profit from every scientific revolution also because we have computers, we have medical things. But the philosophical revolution is up to our children, not us. It's too late for us.
SS: So you’re saying our generation is gonna come out of COVID-19 crisis, being just as selfish, just as silly and just as selfish and sure that they’re gods?
BW: We don't move because we have had bad habits for so long. But the new generation - they will do better than us. Every generation does better than the one before. So, I have a lot of hope for the new generation on this concept of harmony, not always to grow but to find harmony.
SS: Well, I have to be honest, I still have some hope for my generation as well. And let's agree to disagree on that. So we can finish on a nice note that at least someone has hope for our generation that it will also change a little bit and come out better from this crisis. Thank you so much for this wonderful insight, and I wish you all the best of luck and I still hope that we come up better, even my generation. Thank you very much.
BW: Thank you. And I'm very happy to speak with myRussian readers and Russian people.
SS: Thank you so much, Bernard. So hopefully we'll speak again soon.