For most authors, now is the very worst time to bring out a book. The shops are closed; the festival circuit has migrated to Zoom; there’s a plague to compete with. But for Rutger Bregman, this might just be the perfect moment to publish Humankind, a sweeping survey of human existence which argues that, despite all our obvious flaws, most people are basically good.
A book whose subtitle is “A Hopeful History” should be welcome at a time when people are gagging for cheering news. It fits the mood too, appearing just as neighbours are helping neighbours, people are clapping for carers, and humans the world over are cooperating to save each other’s lives. What’s more, as some are talking of a radical fresh start once we emerge from this crisis, a 1945-style new settlement, Humankind offers a roadmap for how we might organise ourselves very differently.
At the very least, the book has all the right ingredients to be a hit. With luminous endorsements from a raft of big names, from Yuval Noah Harari to Stephen Fry; an almost indecently readable style; and a vast sweep, taking in history, archaeology, psychology, biology, economics, anthropology and much more, it’d be no surprise if it proved to be the Sapiens of 2020.
Fame would not be wholly unfamiliar to Bregman, who recently turned 32. He briefly became an online sensation at Davos last year when he turned on his audience, condemning the absurdity of the rich taking 1,500 private jets to hear David Attenborough warn of the climate crisis and, above all, their failure to pay their taxes or even to mention the word. He said he felt as if he were “at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water”.