A Short History of Progress

A Short History of Progress is a non-fiction book and lecture series by 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 which was broadcast on the CBC Radio program, Ideas. The book version was published by House of Anansi Press and released at the same time as the lectures. The book spent more than a year on Canadian best-seller lists, won the Canadian Book Association’s Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year, and was nominated for the British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. It has since been reprinted in a hardcover format with illustrations.

Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided an answer, whether we care to notice or not. From Neanderthal man to the Sumerians to the Roman Empire, A Short History of Progress dissects the cyclical nature of humanity’s development and demise, the 10,000-year old experiment that we’ve unleashed but have yet to control. It is Wright’s contention that only by understanding and ultimately breaking from the patterns of progress and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we avoid the onset of a new Dark Age. Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance. Wright’s book is brilliant; a fascinating rumination on the hubris at the heart of human development and the pitfalls we still may have time to avoid.

Wright, an author of fiction and non-fiction works, uses the fallen civilizations of Easter IslandSumerRome, and Maya, as well as examples from the Stone Age, to see what conditions led to the downfall of society. 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 populationconsumption, and technology that has now placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems.

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 out-compete the other.

Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success. In the fates of such societies – once mighty, complex, and brilliant – lie the most instructive lessons…they are fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong.

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.

Wright concludes that “our present behaviour 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.

Tā vien šķiet, ka autora cilvēces izdzīvošanas apdraudējuma uzskaitījums jāpapildina ar vēl vienu mūsu laikmeta tendenci. Sabiedrībā sāk izplatīties un dominēt vispārējs cinisms, kurš veido globālos notikumus. Šī cinisma pamatā ir doma: katrs pats par sevi.


About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
This entry was posted in Are We doomed?, Common, Contemporary Society Problems, Human Evolution. Bookmark the permalink.

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