Dilemma: you die right now, but nature recovers completely and all plants, animals and the rest of the people live happily ever after. Or: you, together with your friends and loved ones, will reach a healthy 100, but in a world of decline and decay. Norwegian philosopher and children’s author Jostein Gaarder, known for the worldwide bestseller Sophie’s world (1991), would not hesitate for a second and sacrifice himself for humanity.
His latest book, we are the world, is an inspired letter to his grandchildren, in which he shares his concerns about our survival on earth. He does this, as his many fans are accustomed to, on the basis of well-told anecdotes about the origin of life and the occasional difficult question or a tasty dilemma.
Thinking clearly about our future is necessary, because according to Gaarder we have arrived at the most decisive century and a half of our planet: a period of lightning fast and possibly disastrous development, which starts approximately with its own birth in 1952 and hopefully ends well by the time his grandchildren are the same age as he is now.
Saving the Humans
According to Gaarder, human consciousness is the most beautiful and fascinating thing the universe has produced, and we are there to admire and understand that universe. He therefore does not look forward, like some environmental fanatics, to a revenge action by nature that would cause man to become extinct. Gaarder certainly does not hate people and will not easily put dissenters in a certain corner. For example, of astronaut and engineer Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon and who believed that aliens have been on Earth, he speaks with amusement and curiosity. He sees no evidence for such theories, but who knows? Above all, Gaarder believes that the universe would lack something essential without humans, and therefore wants to save us all.
The only real miracle, according to Gaarder, is that the world exists. And that we know that. He illustrates how clever that is with a fascinating detour via Harrison’s chronometer. In the 17th century, this made it possible to determine a person’s exact location on Earth based on the time difference with Greenwich. This device was used to accurately estimate the size of our solar system, including by measuring the movements of the planet Venus along the sun in the South Pacific. At such moments, Gaarder gives his reader breathtaking insights.
It is a pity that it is precisely this uninhibited curiosity that also ensures that Gaarder’s love letter to humanity flutters in all directions. He argues that telepathy could theoretically be possible. He explains in detail how the themes in his oeuvre, a large part of which have not been translated into Dutch, can be traced back to a painting in his grandfather’s clockmaker’s workshop. He elaborates on his family’s holiday home. Separately, they are interesting mini-essays, but all that protractedness unnecessarily distracts from the point he’s trying to make.
In his lesser moments – and there are just too many of those in this book – Gaarder reveals himself as an unbridled chatter major who does pretend to be interested in children, but above all likes to hear himself talk. Without irony, he writes that if his grandchildren cannot follow him, they should get a dictionary.
Like Sophie’s world is reading we are the world here and there as cut and paste work from a syllabus for first-year students. Sometimes it really is a mystery where he wants to go. For example: ‘Perception is also a somewhat complicated word in this context, it is better to speak of extrasensory perception, so perceptions without our senses being involved.’ Or this one: ‘You can call that way of expressing a vicious circle and, moreover, it deserves the name circular reasoning.’ The somewhat stiff translation does not help.
we are the world is a much more personal book than the bestseller that made it world famous in the 1990s. At times, Gaarder shows himself to be a genius and very entertaining, and for enthusiasts he offers a glimpse into the world of thoughts behind his oeuvre. But the same story could have been a lot more impressive in half the number of pages. This aftertaste predominates: despite all good intentions, those grandchildren have long since started playing hide-and-seek except for a few, but talkative Gaarder hardly notices it.
Jostein Gaarder: We are the world. Translated from Norwegian by Lucy Pijttersen. The fountain; 208 pages; €17.99. From 14 years.