A Short History of Progress

domesticated monkey by Nicklas Gustafsson

A Short History of Progress is a nonfiction book and lecture series by Canadian author Ronald Wright about societal collapse. The lectures were delivered as a series of five speeches, each taking place in different cities across Canada as part of the 2004 ‘Massey Lectures’ (an annual series of lectures on a political, cultural or philosophical topic given in Canada by a noted scholar) which were broadcast on the CBC Radio program, ‘Ideas.’

Wright, an author of fiction and nonfiction works, uses the fallen civilizations of Easter Island, Sumeria, Rome, and Maya, as well as examples from the Stone Age, to see what conditions led to the downfall of those societies. He examines the meaning of progress and its implications for civilizations—past and present—arguing that the twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology that has now placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems.

In his analysis of the four cases of fallen civilizations, he notes that two (Easter Island and Sumer) failed due to depletion of natural resources—’their ecologies were unable to regenerate.’ The other two failed in their heartlands, ‘where ecological demand was highest,’ but left remnant populations that survived. He asks the question: ‘Why, if civilizations so often destroy themselves, has the overall experiment of civilization done so well.’ For his answer, Wright looked to natural regeneration and human migration. While some ancient civilizations were depleting their ecologies and failing, others were rising. Large expanses of the planet were unsettled. Both Egypt and China are credited with civilizational longevity due to abundant resources (e.g., topsoil) and advanced farming methods (ones that worked with, rather than against, natural cycles).

Changes brought on by the exponential growth of human population (at the time of the book’s publication, over 6 billion and adding more than 200 million people every three years) and the worldwide scale of resource consumption, have altered the picture, however. Ecological markers indicate that human civilization has now surpassed (since the 1980s) nature’s capacity for regeneration. We are now using more than 125% of nature’s yearly output. ‘If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital of nature.’ He concludes that ‘now is our chance to get the future right.’

Prior to being selected to deliver the Massey Lectures, Wright had written award-winning fiction and non-fiction books that deal with anthropology and civilizations. His 1992 non-fiction book ‘Stolen Continents: The ‘New World’ Through Indian Eyes’ was awarded the 1993 Gordon Montador Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and his 1998 novel ‘A Scientific Romance,’ about a museum curator who travels into the future and investigates the fate of the human race, won the David Higham Prize for Fiction for first-time novelists. Wright traces the origins of the ideas behind ‘A Short History of Progress’ to the material he studied while writing ‘A Scientific Romance’ and his 2000 essay for ‘The Globe and Mail’ titled ‘Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme’ about the fall of the ninth-century Mayan civilization.

Each of his five Massey speeches is presented in the book as one chapter. The writing reflects Wright oration style with the use of high rhetoric. British professor of English Patrick Parrinder said that Wright sometimes uses ‘the rhetorical armory of a rationalistic lay preacher.’ Wright takes a broad, philosophical approach, not focusing on individual people or specific politics or religions, but rather focusing on civilizations including ‘the elites and the masses.’ Wright’s tone was described as ‘rarely depressing…[and that] he remains surprisingly upbeat and even entertaining.’ The use of the word ‘progress’ is intended to be ironic: what is viewed as technological or social advancement have, in the historical narratives he provides, led to the fall of civilizations. Wright coined the term ‘progress trap’ to describe the phenomenon of turning ‘cleverness into recklessness.’

The first chapter, ‘Gauguin’s Questions,’ poses the questions that provide a framework for the book. Referring to Paul Gauguin’s painting of the same name the questions are: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wright defines progress using the Victorian terms ‘the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind…that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement.’ Despite the extended time span of the Stone Age, Wright places the first sign of progress as being the ability to create fire. The competition between Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals is examined with respect to the conditions that allowed one to outcompete the other.

The second chapter, ‘The Great Experiment,’ continues the examination of Stone Age progress by looking at the advancements in hunting. Wright uses the term ‘progress trap’ to refer to innovations that create new problems for which the society is unable or unwilling to solve, or inadvertently create conditions that are worse than what existed before the innovation. For example, innovations in hunting during the Stone Age allowed for more successful hunts and consequently more free time during which culture and art were created (e.g. cave paintings, bone carvings, etc.), but also led to extinctions, most notably of megafauna. As smaller and smaller game were hunted to replace larger extinct animals, the hunts became less successful and culture declined. Agriculture, and subsequently civilizations, independently arising in multiple regions at about the same time, ~10,000 years ago, indicates to Wright that ‘given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity and environmental demand.’ The chapter title refers to the human experience which Wright sees as a large experiment testing what conditions are required for a human civilization to succeed.

In the third chapter, ‘Fools’ Paradise,’ the rise and fall of two civilizations are examined: Easter Island and Sumeria. Both flourished, but collapsed as a result of resource depletion; both were able to visually see their land being eroded but were unwilling to reform. On Easter Island logging, in order to erect statues and build boats, destroyed their ecosystem and led to wars over the last planks of wood on the island. In Sumeria, a large irrigation system, as well as over-grazing, land clearing, and lime-burning led to desertification and soil salination. Wright said: ‘The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.’

In the fourth chapter, ‘Pyramid Schemes,’ the fates of the Roman and Mayan civilizations are compared; both peaked with centralized empires but ended with power being diffused to their periphery as the center collapsed and ultra-conservative leadership refused reformations. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter’s explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire is invoked, that ‘complex systems inevitably succumb to diminishing returns’ so that the costs of operating an empire are so high that alternatives are implemented. Two examples of civilizations that have been sustainable are described: China and Egypt. Both had an abundance of resources, particularly topsoil, and used farming methods that worked with, rather than against, natural cycles, and settlement patterns that did not exceed, or permanently damage, the carrying capacityof the local environment.

The final chapter, ‘The Rebellion of the Tools,’ seeks to answer the final Gauguin question, ‘where are we going?’, by applying these past examples to modern society. Technological advancements in bioengineering, nanotechnology, cybernetics, amongst others, have the potential to be progress traps, and the global scale of modern society means that a societal collapse could impact all of mankind. Wright argues that needed reforms are being blocked by vested interests who reject multilateral organizations, and support laissez-faire economics and transfers of power to corporations. He concludes that ‘our present behavior is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance’ and calls for a shift towards long-term thinking:

‘Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle. The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.’

‘We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands.’

Comparisons have been made between Wright’s book and anthropologist Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ which both cover similar subject matter with ‘a cautious problem-solving approach’ and come to similar conclusions. Writing in ‘Alternatives Journal,’ philosophy professor Kent Peacock notes that ‘both are well-written’ but that Diamond includes examples of societies which had achieved sustainability for centuries, whereas Wright has ‘a stronger grasp of the dark side of human nature,’ like impatience, aggressiveness, and obstinacy. Author and journalist Brian Brett described ‘Collapse’ as ‘a slow, rich feast’ while ‘the compact ‘A Short History of Progress’ is an arrow loosed from a powerful bow, a lyric dart into the heart of human behavior.’

Despite the book’s commercial and critical success, conservative pundits found fault with it’s premise. In his review for the ‘National Post,’ Peter Foster chided Wright for ‘not having the slightest clue about how economies work, or how, by their fundamental nature, markets are both moral and sustainable.’ Foster ended his review by insulting Wright’s intellect, ‘What really needs some psychological excavation is Ronald Wright’s mind, which carries a set of inflated, emotionally based moralistic assumptions derived from the structure of his primitive ignorance about markets and economics.’

The book was adapted into a 2011 documentary film, ‘Surviving Progress’ directed by Mathieu Roy and co-directed by Harold Crooks. Martin Scorsese was attached to the project as executive producer. While the book focused on ancient civilizations, the majority of the film addresses environmental impacts of our current ‘global civilization,’ including the impact of concentrating wealth in the hands of the ‘financial class.’ It is filmed as a mixture of interviews with individuals, from Wright himself to Jane Goodall and Margaret Atwood, interspersed with striking footage from all over the world.


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