I recently traveled to Egypt, and of course, like a good traveler, I went to see the pyramids with my own two eyes. The only Ancient Wonder of the World still standing, and it is incredibly impressive.
Specifically, the Great Pyramid, which stands at the same height as a modern skyscraper, yet was built almost 5,000 years ago (2580–2560 BC) by a society that had not yet invented the wheel. By the time the Egyptians had invented the wheel, the Pyramids were already ancient, much like how we see Angkor Watt in Cambodia today.
That is crazy, and it is a testament to human ingenuity and organizational power. The Great Pyramid (also known as the Pyramid of Khufu) took ten years to plan and twenty years to build according to Herototus, the Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC.
Let’s do some maths to see just how crazy this is. This pyramid contains approximately two and a half million blocks, each with an average weight of 2,500kg.
This gives us a total weight of 6.2 billion kilograms, and during working time, a block would have to be delivered every one to two minutes. Consider that these blocks were not all sourced locally, but sometimes as far away as 500km south down the Nile, and you start to realize the vast scale of such a construction project, and add to the fact that these monuments are so old that they were older ruins to the Romans than the Roman ruins are old from our current perspective in the early 21st century.
While this is amazing, you have to wonder whether there could be a better use of resources than just building large stone mountains, and this is what I want to explore today in this essay.
Of course, we should be fair and point out that building large monuments as tombs or religious symbols is not a specifically Ancient Egyptian thing. In fact, it has occurred pretty much all over the world, and so it is even more important to investigate why this is, and to understand if there might have been alternatives available, so we do not repeat any mistakes in the future.
In fact, we are still doing this to this day. We only need to take a look at present-day New York.
While obviously, the skyscrapers in New Yorkare not just monuments, but practical buildings that provide vast amounts of required office space, you can still ask if they are necessary. Why do we need so many people to go into offices each day?
And this leads me to my central point in this essay, the fact that since humans have managed to overcome the issue of production, and that we now over-produce on a massive scale, we don’t actually know what to do with our vast resources. And so, we engage in massive projects that carry a semblance of meaning, especially in a world now that has lost meaning for many, since the rejection of God has become far more commonplace than it used to be.
I’ve mentioned before how scale and size can themselves give meaning to what we do, and why it is quite a strange phenomenon.
In fact, it may also be how religion in Egypt came to be developed, as larger and larger monuments were built, retrospective stories to explain why they were built were required, and these then became more elaborate as the monuments grew, and everyone followed along.
We also have to be careful when examining the motives of building something like a pyramid, because what is senseless to us now may well have been very meaningful to people in the past.
For instance, in building a large cathedral, the justifications may be to build a great place for local worshipers, to inspire belief in God, and to honor God’s greatness.
These are great reasons — if you’re Christian.
If you’re not, then the whole exercise may well appear a waste of time, regardless of how beautiful the stained windows are, or how many engineering innovations came to be due to the project.
Conversely, there are very good reasons for monuments in ancient times that are legitimately good reasons, but we would not discover them unless we think deeply about the state of affairs back then. Having lots of large pyramids built may have been a great way to ensure that Pharaohs could keep their power as they could point to these huge monuments as proof that their power was legitimate. This is something that wouldn’t quite work nowadays but was properly very effective back in ancient times.
However, I believe that many of these monuments across the world were a waste of time, exactly in the same way that many things across all societies in all times have been wastes of time, and that is because of overproduction.
After all, why do any societies build monuments? The straight answer is, of course, because they can.
While this seems obvious, it has a deeper meaning. When we say “they can”, it literally means that the society in question has spare resources that they don’t know how to use, except by building a monument.
If they had better ideas, they surely would have put their resources into that idea instead of building monuments.
The other great way of using up resources is war. Russel Bertrand in his fantastic essay “In Praise of Idleness” discusses how nonsensical it is to employ people to build explosives, and then employ others to go out into the world and set them off, and how this is the absolute peak level of complete inefficiency.
He points out how during wartime, a country is still able to provide the basic goods for everyone, regardless of the fact that vast amounts of people are employed in the war effort. He beautifully counters the fact that financial borrowing covers a lot of the cost of war, because you cannot, literally, eat tomorrow’s bread. So if the bread could have been made, it means that there were resources in place for it to be made, the fact that money had to be borrowed to make it is only true in the subjective reality of human beings, the same place where capitalism works.
So why do societies tend to waste so many resources? Well, the basic problem, especially for autocratic rulers, is that spare resources create problems. If the mass population isn’t struggling to make ends meet, then they have more brainpower left over at the end of each day to think about how things work, and that’s not a good thing if you’re the boss.
Later on, in my trip to Egypt, I visited the Aswan High Dam, which in the ten years following its construction, created Lake Nasser, one of the largest human-made lakes in the world. This created a completely clean way to generate electricity for Egypt, which at its peak reached 50% of the total energy consumption of the country (nowadays this is much lower). This is an example of a productive way to use resources, and it is estimated that the cost of building the damn was made up in overall savings to the country in only two to three years, and it has been benefiting Egypt for decades.
So perhaps there are ways to use up the spare resources in the world without building pointless if beautiful, monuments that serve only to bloat the egos of those who commission them and then to remind us of this fact through the ages.
This may be of even more importance in the coming years as automation and artificial intelligence begin to decimate many of the jobs that keep millions of people employed. With a huge surplus of human resources at hand, what will governments do? The idea of everyone working only a handful of days a week while being able to enjoy the benefits of modern life doesn’t appear to be a dream that is so far away, but if history is anything to go by, we will probably find a way to squander even more resources, and ensure that everyone keeps rather unproductively busy, regardless of the fact that we can procure and produce all that is required to live well with a minimum of human effort.
A really interesting possibility is that we may eventually decide to completely abandon the real world, and fully enjoy our lives in a virtual world where everything is the way we think things should be in the real world. Clean rivers, no traffic, meaningful work, great friends, a safe planet, and endless opportunities.
If given the choice, what would you choose? The real, imperfect world, or the ideal life, but not really lived?
If you believe that our experiences are nothing but neurons firing in our brain, and our brain interpreting these electrical signals into a coherent story, then there is nothing wrong with spending your entire life in bed, hooked up to a machine that will keep you alive, and enjoy life in a virtual world.
That said, there is still something deep inside of me that feels that this is too easy a way out and that we must, one day, face the music and try and actually solve the problems we have in society once and for all.
To go back to the original question of whether the Pyramids were a waste of time. To some people back then, clearly, they were not, as otherwise they would have never been built. To us now, they have lost their initial significance, but they can still inspire us in other ways, and so perhaps we can decide to make them useful if we spend time thinking about them.
Even the biggest mistakes or wastes of time always teach us a lesson.