The wolves are mocking you. Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/ Getty Images

April 18, 2024   8 mins

As I write, lean grey wolves are pacing through a rain-soaked landscape in eastern Europe, untroubled by the fact that their forest is dotted with the decaying ruins of buildings abandoned half a century ago. Their home is the Chernobyl exclusion zone on the northern border of Ukraine, abandoned after the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.

It may seem like an improbable leap from Chernobyl wolves to a flustered speech by Yuval Noah Harari, the pampered darling of the Western world’s corporate aristocracy, but if you bear with me, I’ll show you the connection. Harari, the chief intellectual of the Davos set, is a vegan atheist who practices mindfulness meditation and writes the kind of big-picture history books that evoke adoring swoons from the corporate media and eyerolls from real scholars. In his most famous book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of the Future,  he takes it for granted that even the stickiest wet dreams of today’s internet-addled tech bros must surely come to pass. Intellectual hubris? His picture should be next to the entry in your dictionary.

The guy put on a fine display of pearl-clutching in an interview earlier this year, insisting that if Donald Trump is re-elected it will be “the death blow to what remains of the global order”. It wasn’t simply the King in Orange who had Harari fainting on the couch in the best Victorian style. What really seems to have shaken his world is that Trump and his supporters don’t just disagree with the specific institutions and ideals that Harari’s friends at the World Economic Forum are pushing these days. They reject the entire concept of a planned global order.

Reading about Harari’s outburst, I found myself nodding and muttering, “he almost gets it”. For all the mockery I’ve directed at him, the man deserves credit for an intellectual leap that most people of his class seem incapable of making. This inability to grasp the rejection of global order is quite a recent phenomenon, especially considering that the entire project of an international order planned and managed behind the scenes by an economic and political elite only dates back a little more than a century.

Before that point, efforts to impose some permanent structure on the seething chaos of human affairs mostly took the form of imperial conquest on the one hand, or treaties woven via careful compromises between major political and military powers on the other. It took the gargantuan carnage of the First World War to convince a great many people in the wealthy classes that these two traditional options wouldn’t make the world safe for plutocracy. That led to the creation of paired non-profits in Britain and the United States — the Royal Institute for International Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations — and thence to similar organisations, of which the Club of Rome and the World Economic Forum are perhaps the best known today.

One consequence of this common heredity is that no matter what the problem is, the only solution these organisations can recognise is going further in the same direction they’ve been pushing all along. The one remedy they have to offer is global coordination by vast bureaucratic structures that erase the lines between government, corporate, and non-profit sectors. The mere fact that it hasn’t worked yet does nothing to slow them down.

The Club of Rome is a good example. The one Club of Rome publication everybody’s heard of, The Limits to Growth, posed a set of problems that global bureaucrats have tried to solve in a flood of publications since. What’s fascinating about this obsession is that the problems discussed in The Limits to Growth can’t be solved through global coordination by vast bureaucracies. They can’t actually be solved at all.

What The Limits to Growth showed is that if economic growth is pursued far enough, the costs of growth rise faster than the benefits and force the global economy to its knees. Global bureaucracies can no more change that than they can amend the law of gravity. In fact, as the costs of growth begin to bite, one of the few options that offers any hope for improving conditions is to cut back sharply on bureaucracies of all kinds, since bureaucracy consumes resources and energy, and produces remarkably little in return.

A viable world on the far side of peak growth is not, therefore, a world of global managers. It’s a world where local, community-scale politics and economics replace the hugely expensive global systems that sprang up during the last extravagant blowoff of the age of unchecked growth. Yet you can read all those studies churned out by the Club of Rome and never see a word about this.

That the world of the future will inevitably have less room for global management is something that would-be global managers can’t even begin to conceive. Yet the system they dream of running is stunningly incompetent. Take climate change, for instance. For decades now, doing something about climate change has been one of the central projects of the Davos set. But none of their conferences and loudly praised international agreements have had any measurable effect on the rate at which CO2 gets dumped into the atmosphere. If this is the best that global management can do, the world is better off without them.

It’s become popular in some circles to insist that the panoply of cascading failures set in motion by the Davos set prove that our global managers are evil masterminds who deliberately intend to cause the dismal outcomes their pet policies have so reliably brought about. A somewhat less popular opinion, though arguably a more accurate one, holds that global managers belong to a decadent aristocracy so sheltered from the consequences of its own actions and so caught up in a world of vapid abstractions that it’s a marvel they haven’t caused even worse disasters. I’d like to suggest a third interpretation: our world is far too complex for global management to be a viable option.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, from the perspective of modern scientific materialism, human intelligence is not some kind of nature-transcending superpower; it is simply the set of cognitive processes our ancestors evolved as they sought to find food and mates and avoid predators — important tasks, to be sure, but not especially intellectually demanding ones. By contrast, from the religious perspective, humans are simply one class of created beings, irremediably finite and fallible. It’s only in the hubristic delusions typified by Harari’s book Homo Deus, which jumble misunderstood scientific and religious ideas together into a kind of crackpot anthropolatry, that these obvious realities get mislaid. The fact that our current caste of global managers has fallen into such stupidities goes a long way, I think, to explaining their failure to manage the world.

This is where the wolves come loping back into sight. When the Chernobyl exclusion zone was first evacuated, people speculated that it would become a radioactive desert, devoid of life or populated solely by a scattering of hideously crippled mutant life forms. As we now know, that didn’t happen. Instead, the eastern European forest of an earlier time promptly grew back, coping easily with the increased radiation flux. Deer found their way there promptly; horses abandoned by their owners shook off centuries of domestication, found mates and gave rise to herds of wild horses. Wolves soon followed in pursuit of tasty prey.

At the top of the food chain, the wolves of Chernobyl absorb more radionuclides than anything else in the area. Under ordinary circumstances, this would make them horribly vulnerable to cancer. But wildlife biologists researching the wolf packs recently discovered that the wolves had evolved a robust resistance to cancer. Nobody understands the biochemistry yet, and it’s possible that nobody ever will. In their quiet way, the wolves have achieved something that modern medicine has tried to do for more than a century, without any noticeable success.

Impressive though this is, it is by no means unique. Nature outwits science all the time. There are bacteria and algae that thrive in the water that circulates through nuclear reactors, basking in streams of high-intensity gamma rays that would fry you and me on the spot. There are living things that grow on the outside of spacecraft in orbit, handling the hard vacuum, lethal cold and sizzling radiation of outer space with perfect aplomb. There are fungi that eat carcinogen-laced toxic waste and go back for second helpings. We can’t do any of these things. Nature chuckles at our incompetence and shows us how it’s done.

Then there’s Ascension Island. Nearly two centuries ago, when HMS Beagle dropped anchor there, it was a barren little cinder of volcanic rock in the middle of the South Atlantic, so far from any other scrap of land and so devoid of water that the only living things on it were sea birds and a few species of fern whose spores were light enough to blow there across the ocean. On board the Beagle was the ship’s naturalist, a young man named Charles Darwin, then at the beginning of his career. While he’s most famous for his theory of natural selection, Darwin was also the only person in history to invent a tropical forest, and he did it more or less by accident.

It’s a remarkable story. After his visit to Ascension Island, Darwin wrote to the British Admiralty suggesting that if somebody planted trees on the island, the increased water vapour arising from the trees would make the local climate suitable for a naval base. The Admiralty, with the sort of bluff, blundering enthusiasm for which Britain has long been famous, took him up on it in the stupidest possible way: they ordered any ship that meant to pass Ascension Island to pick up some plants at the last harbour they left and plant them once they got there. As a result, the island ended up with a dog’s breakfast of invasive species scooped up from half the world’s coastal ecosystems.

In theory, that should have produced ecological chaos. In practice, in just a few decades, much of Ascension Island turned into a green tropic paradise with lush upland forests. Current theory insists that this is impossible, and that a stable tropical forest requires millions of years to adapt and grow. Nobody told the plants about current theory, though, so they just went ahead and did it. Not only did Ascension Island get a tropical forest in an eyeblink of geological time, it got one of the more delicately balanced forms — a cloud forest, which thrives on water vapour condensing on the leaves of trees at high elevation. Oh, and Darwin was quite correct: the forest changed the local climate, yielding adequate water, and Ascension Island became an important naval base.

Rather than letting plants work things out for themselves, however, scientists have tried repeatedly to plan and create ecosystems. Those attempts reliably fail because ecosystems are too complex to plan rationally.

The same principle can be applied more generally to explain the cascading failures of the managerial elite. Those failures continue to happen because the world is too complex: it is so full of unpredictable variables and intricate feedback loops that no degree of human expertise, no set of abstract principles, no concept of world order can provide accurate predictions and allow the creation of a viable and productive order on a global scale.

That doesn’t mean that human beings can’t co-create a relatively stable, successful, thriving order in the world. It just means that this project is best pursued on a local level, relying on personal experience, folk wisdom, and close attention to local conditions. That’s exactly what the managerial aristocracy can’t provide — and why world domination keeps slipping through their fingers.

“A great many ordinary people are sick and tired of the pompous pretensions of the class for which Yuval Noah Harari speaks.”

All this partly explains why Yuval Noah Harari is shrieking like an overwrought six-year-old. The world isn’t just refusing to follow the abstract models he brings to it, it’s refusing to follow any abstract models at all. Educated to think of the world as a passive medium that privileged intellectuals can shape at will, he’s being confronted with the terrifying discovery that the world literally couldn’t care less about him, his credentials or his ideas. Admittedly, he’s not handling it very well, but then few people can deal gracefully with the flat disconfirmation of their most precious beliefs.

The fact is that a great many ordinary people are sick and tired of the pompous pretensions of the class for which Harari speaks. They know that when Harari talks about global order, what he means is that he wants them to be ordered around by his rich friends, according to some set of fashionable abstractions detached from local realities. They believe that letting ordinary people live their lives and pursue their own self-defined goals — like Chernobyl wolves or Ascension Island plants — will have better results than leaving the world in the hands of an incompetent elite. And the evidence suggests that they’re right.

A great many of these people are prepared to take matters into their own hands. As Napoleon Bonaparte is supposed to have said, wars happen when the government tells you who the enemy is; revolutions happen when you figure it out for yourselves. Quite a few people in the United States have figured things out for themselves, and many of them seem quite willing to use Donald Trump’s monumental ego as a battering ram to knock some sense into a system that’s given them nothing but misery for too many decades. If that fails, they’ll simply reach for some other instrument, and it’s worth keeping in mind that their next choice may be even less welcome to Harari and his rich friends.

Meanwhile, the wolves of the Chernobyl zone roam unharmed through a radioactive landscape. Those wolves are laughing at us.  We may want to listen to them.

John Michael Greer is the author of over thirty books. He served twelve years as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America.