Waleed Aly: Why Are We So Good At Inventing Things That Do Us Harm?

It started with wheat and went downhill from there...

What do you think of wheat? Sorry if that’s a strange question, it has just been on my mind since I’ve been flicking through Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens. He spends several pages talking about the time -- somewhere around 9000 BC -- we figured out how to farm wheat. It meant we wouldn’t have to hunt and forage for all our food anymore. Food would become more plentiful and we could support a significantly larger population. Great!

Except that if you believe Harari, you’d think it’s one of the stupidest things humans ever did: “History’s Biggest Fraud” booms the title of the relevant chapter. Turns out the work involved in growing all this wheat ruined our bodies: “slipped discs, arthritis and hernias” unknown to hunter-gatherers.

Instead of relying on a wide range of animals and plants for our diet, we relied on very few crops and often a single staple. That meant two things: 1) our diet became far less nutritious; and 2) our food supply was much more vulnerable because if crops failed or a plague of locusts arrived, we had no alternatives.

A field of wheat or 'history's biggest fraud'? Image: Getty.

As Harari summarises it, farming wheat ultimately gave us “the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions”. It took us thousands of years to improve the situation.

I’m raising this because of a couple of stories that came up on The Project last week that, at first blush have nothing to do with wheat. They were only very brief parts of the show, but they stayed with me in that really uncomfortable way.

The first was a study by Deakin University, which found that a third of undergraduate students felt anxious if they weren’t able to check their phones regularly. We’re all familiar with the idea of phone addiction. If we’re honest, most of us will admit we suffer from it to some degree (even if it’s not really an addiction in the clinical sense). And you’ve probably read countless articles about how our phones and our social media use is depriving us of sleep, and leaving us vulnerable to depression and anxiety (to say nothing of 24-hour cyberbullying).

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But what really scared me this time is the idea that even putting our phones down might not help very much. Consider the situation for that one-third of students. Take their phones away, they become anxious. Give their phones back, they get on socials, and become anxious. Put that way, it sounds more like a prison than a gadget. Little wonder the researchers concluded we need to start thinking of phone use.

Is it a prison or a gadget? Image: Getty.

The second story came from a study in a science journal called Nature Climate Change, which found that tourism is, well, destroying the planet even more than we thought. Apparently, the carbon emissions of tourism are around three times larger than originally thought. And apparently that means it makes up a whopping 8 percent of all emissions around the world. It’s not just flights that do this, but everything about tourism, from eating out all the time, to catching lots of taxis and buying souvenirs. Turns out we’d be better off taking trains around Europe rather than flights, or better yet, getting stuck into “staycations”.

And I have to admit, this one really hurts. I’d say my phone addiction is moderate, but my travel addiction is severe. It’s pretty much all I want to do. It’s when I feel most alive: like the months or years in between are like a holding pen for my life until I get to do the real thing.

Force me to choose between my phone and travel, and it’s no contest. Force me to choose between travel and the planet, and, well, I’m dumbstruck.

It’s a long way from wheat to the aeroplane, and even further to the iPhone. But the idea that unites them is that we humans seem very good at inventing things that harm us. Not everything, of course. No doubt you could make a good argument for a lot of medical advances, for instance. But when we get it wrong, we’re often not very good at recognising it, and even worse at reversing it.

Carbon emissions from tourism make up 8 percent of emissions around the world. Image: Getty.

Once we invented wheat farming we were never going to go back. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we get about just how much damage our smartphones are doing to our brains, or our mental health, or even our democracy, they aren’t going anywhere. And tourism? Really the only solution I can see is one that somehow builds the environmental damage into the how much it costs.

I’m sure you could add your own examples. And I’m sure you can think of ones that are on their way (our obsession with artificial intelligence springs to mind). And given how quickly these developments happen now, maybe it’s time for us to start paying attention to our own warnings. If we really believe smart phones have become a public health issue, why wouldn’t we come up with a public health response – like we might with, say, obesity? Maybe that could be one of our greatest inventions: the ability to change course slightly when we’ve unleashed something whose implications we don’t fully understand.

The Project airs Sunday to Friday on ten and tenplay