Sunday, August 10, 2008
A Short History of Progress – Ronald Wright
Every so often I read a book that not only makes me think deeply but also causes me to feel a measure of despair about the human condition. Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is such a book.
Exploring our short 10,000-year-old human civilization, Wright develops a portrait that can hardly be considered flattering. Examining four previous societies, Sumer, Easter Island, the Maya and Rome, the author shows the shortsightedness of each that ultimately led to their downfall. In spending all of their ‘natural capital’ (the natural resources available to them), with little thought to the future, each was ultimately felled by what Wright calls ‘progress traps’ that resulted in environmental degradation, starvation, and collapse. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of their collective demise is the fact that each of them became aware, long before conditions became irreversible, of where they were headed and yet persisted in their respective behaviours! Might this sound at least remotely familiar to the modern reader?
The power of this very accessible book lies in its demonstrated historical correspondence to contemporary life, and the message is clear: if we continue in the pattern so regularly repeated throughout our human history, we will soon be at a point where not just one or two societies collapse, but rather our entire way of life on earth. A few years ago it would have been easy to dismiss such a thesis as alarmist and overblown, but given what we now know about greenhouse gases, pollution and climate change, we would be as foolish as our ancestors were to adopt such an attitude. But of course, isn’t that precisely what so many of us and our leaders continue to do?
I suspect that one of our fundamental flaws as human beings is to confuse our technological achievements with wisdom, leading us to the belief that we are highly evolved beings when, in fact as Wright so amply demonstrates, our short history of progress shows us to be a shortsighted species, having thus far left an almost unbroken record of environmental exploitation and degradation.
The question that remains to be answered is, “Are we capable of truly learning anything from our sordid past?” Stay tuned to find out the answer.