Every year, Canadians eagerly huddle around their radios to listen to the Massey Lectures, broadcast by the CBC. For the 2004 season, Ronald Wright was the honored speaker. He presented a series of five lectures, titled A Short History of Progress. In 2005, Wright’s presentation was published as a short book, and it became a bestseller. Martin Scorsese’s movie, Surviving Progress, was based on the book.
It was an amazing success for a story contrary to our most holy cultural myths. Wright believed that the benefits of progress were highly overrated, because of their huge costs. Indeed, progress was approaching the point of becoming a serious threat to the existence of humankind. “This new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.”
He pointed out that the world was dotted with the ruins of ancient crash sites, civilizations that self-destructed. At each of these wrecks, modern science can, in essence, retrieve the “black box,” and discover why the mighty society crashed and burned. There is a clear pattern. Each one crashed because it destroyed what it depended on for its survival.
Wright takes us on a quick tour of the collapse of Sumer, Easter Island, the Roman Empire, and the Mayans. He explains why the two oddballs, China and Egypt, are taking longer than average to self-destruct. The fatal defects of agriculture and civilization are old news for the folks who have been paying attention. It has become customary for these folks to believe that “The Fall” took place when humans began to domesticate plants and animals.
Wright thinks the truth is more complicated. What makes this book unique and provocative is his notion of progress traps. The benefits of innovation often encourage society to live in a new way, while burning the bridges behind them as they advance. Society can find itself trapped in an unsustainable way of living, and it’s no longer possible to just turn around and painlessly return to a simpler mode. Like today, we know that the temporary bubble of cheap energy is about over, and our entire way of life is dependent on cheap energy. We’re trapped.
Some types of progress do not disrupt the balance of the ecosystem, like using a rock to crack nuts. But our ability to stand upright freed our hands for working with tools and weapons, which launched a million year process of experimentation and innovation that gradually snowballed over time.
We tend to assume that during the long era of hunting and gathering our ancestors were as mindful as the few hunting cultures that managed to survive on the fringes into the twentieth century. But in earlier eras, when big game was abundant, wise stewardship was not mandatory. Sloppy tribes could survive — for a while.
Before they got horses, Indians of the American west would drive herds of buffalo off cliffs, killing many at a time. They took what they needed, and left the rest for legions of scavengers. One site in Colorado contained the carcasses of 152 buffalo. A trader in the northern Rockies witnessed about 250 buffalo being killed at one time. Wright mentioned two Upper Paleolithic sites I had not heard of — 1,000 mammoth skeletons were found at Piedmont in the Czech Republic, and the remains of over 100,000 horses were found at Solutré in France.
Over time, progress perfected our hunting systems. Our supply of high-quality food seemed to be infinite. It was our first experience of prosperity and leisure. Folks had time to take their paint sets into caves and do gorgeous portraits of the animals they lived with, venerated, killed, and ate.
Naturally, our population grew. More babies grew up to be hunters, and the availability of game eventually decreased. The grand era of cave painting ended, and we began hunting rabbits. We depleted species after species, unconsciously gliding into our first serious progress trap.
Some groups scrambled to find alternatives, foraging around beaches, estuaries, wetlands, and bogs. Some learned how to reap the tiny seeds of wild grasses. By and by, the end of the hunting way of life came into view, about 10,000 years ago. “They lived high for a while, then starved.”
Having destroyed the abundant game, it was impossible to return to simpler living. This was a progress trap, and it led directly into a far more dangerous progress trap, the domestication of plants and animals. Agriculture and civilization were accidents, and they threw open the gateway to 10,000 years of monotony, drudgery, misery, and ecocide. Wright says that civilization is a pyramid scheme; we live today at the expense of those who come after us.
For most of human history, the rate of progress was so slow that it was usually invisible. But the last six or seven generations have been blindsided by a typhoon of explosive change. Progress had a habit of giving birth to problems that could only be solved by more progress. Progress was the most diabolically wicked curse that you could ever imagine. Maybe we should turn it into an insulting obscenity: “progress you!”
Climate scientists have created models showing weather trends over the last 250,000 years, based on ice cores. Agriculture probably didn’t start earlier because climate trends were unstable. Big swings could take place over the course of decades. In the last 10,000 years, the climate has been unusually stable. A return to instability will make civilization impossible.
Joseph Tainter studied how civilizations collapse, and he described three highways to disaster: the Runaway Train (out-of-control problems), the Dinosaur (indifference to dangers), and the House of Cards (irreversible disintegration). He predicted that the next collapse would be global in scale.
Finally, the solution: “The reform that is needed is… simply the transition from short-term thinking to long-term.” Can we do it?
We are quite clever, but seldom wise, according to Wright. Ordinary animals, like our ancestors, had no need for long-term thinking, because life was always lived in the here and now. “Free Beer Tomorrow” reads the flashing neon sign on the tavern, but we never exist in tomorrow.
The great news is that we now possess a mountain of black boxes. For the first time in the human journey, a growing number of people comprehend our great mistakes, and are capable of envisioning a new path that eventually abandons our embarrassing boo-boos forever. All the old barriers to wisdom and healing have been swept away (in theory).
Everywhere you look these days; people are stumbling around staring at tiny screens and furiously typing — eagerly communicating with world experts, engaging in profound discussions, watching videos rich with illuminating information, and reading the works of green visionaries. It’s a magnificent sight to behold — the best is yet to come!
Wright, Ronald, A Short History of Progress, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2005.
A Short History of Progress - Ronald Wright
This article was originally printed in the Spring ’11 issue of Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute’s magazine for transformational people and design. To see this and other issues of Trim Tab, go to www.cascadiagbc.org/trimtab.
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
Book Review – Paul Kilpatrick
prog·ress / n / 1. advance or development, esp towards a better state: the progress of civilization
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (4th ed.). (1990). Oxford, UK: Oxford Press
“Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world so far by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown too small to forgive us any mistakes,” writes historian and author Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress. Published in 2004, Wright’s book examines past civilizations and identifies patterns of behavior that led to periods of rapid development and population growth followed by catastrophic collapse that left many civilizations in ruin. Wright reveals important lessons to be learned from those collapses, illustrating the dangers that progress from the over-exploitation of the environment and a lack of foresight can pose if left unchecked.
When considering the book title, A Short History of Progress, I found myself inclined to think of the word progress as a positive term with respect to the development of humankind, but of course not all progress has been for the betterment of humankind. Wright analyzes the meaning of the term progress and makes an important distinction between moral and material progress (noting that the idea of material progress is a relatively new, post-Victorian concept). The arms race provides an example of material versus moral progress, where advancements in weapons – culminating in the atomic bomb – represents material progress, yet isn’t likely to be considered moral progress.
The central question Wright ponders at the heart of A Short History of Progress is, “Where are we going?” In order to assess if one is progressing, it is necessary to know the destination, and Wright wonders about where our global civilization is headed. To address this question and determine how applicable the lessons from past societies are for society today, Wright first asks, “Where did we come from?” and “What are we?”
A Short History of Progress examines human history from Stone Age hominids dating back nearly 3 million years ago through to the dawn of civilization 5,000 years ago, and to the subsequent rise and fall of the Sumerian, Roman, Mayan, and Easter Island civilizations. Wright also assesses the ancient societies of Egypt and China to understand the environmental advantages they had that helped them escape the ecological collapses that befell other civilizations.
Wright defines civilization as, “…a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human being. Civilizations vary in their makeup but typically have towns, cities, governments, social classes, and specialized professions. All civilizations are cultures, or conglomerates of cultures, but not all cultures are civilizations”
Incredibly, civilization has only been around for roughly 5,000 years, representing a miniscule 0.02 percent of human existence. To put that in context, Wright notes that 5,000 years represents only 70 consecutive lifetimes of 70 years each. Over 99 per cent of human existence has been in the Stone Age. The massive, rapid changes to humankind in the past few millennia are all cultural and not physical; our last physical change occurred long before civilization emerged, “To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more. This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.”
Fundamental to A Short History of Progress is the concept of a progress trap, whereby an advantage gained by continuing a course of action or behavior in the short term comes at a potentially disastrous cost in the long term, and yet society is either unable or unwilling to forego the short-term benefit to guard against future disaster (for example, burning hydrocarbons at the risk of climate instability). Wright contends that progress traps led to overpopulation and agrarian failure for several ancient civilizations. Exceeding the carrying capacity of their environments was the key commonality between those societies, as Wright notes, “The short-lived Empire of Ur [Sumer] exhibits the same behaviour as we saw on Easter Island: sticking to entrenched beliefs and practices, robbing the future to pay the present, spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory.”
Wright wonders whether civilization itself may be a progress trap. Today we have many potential progress traps confronting us; biotechnology, genetically modified foods, nanotechnology, geoengineering, and infinite economic growth, to name a few. Fossil fuel dependence and the associated carbon emissions may be the highest profile progress trap in the news today. It is not a coincidence that the rise of agricultural development and the astounding human development it fueled coincides with the past 10,000 year period of climate stability. Acting in a manner that threatens to de-stabilize the climate is folly, as Wright suggests: “Change is not in our interest. Our only rational policy is not to risk provoking it. Yet we face abundant evidence that civilization itself, through fossil-fuel emissions and other disturbances, is upsetting the long calm in which it grew.”
Wright’s book raises important questions about progress and where our civilization is headed. The critical lessons in the past are simple enough. Nature has limits. Those civilizations that didn’t live within the carrying capacity of their natural environment eventually floundered and crashed. With well over six billion people on the planet today, picking up and starting over again somewhere else, should the foundations of our civilization fail, is not an option as it was for those that survived collapsed societies in the past.
The concept of progress with respect to the betterment of humankind needs to be considered carefully. Attention to environmental limits and the needs of future generations should perhaps be integral elements for anything to be labeled as progressive for humanity. In that light, the Living Building Challenge™ green building rating system can be held up as a sterling example of something, a system in this case, that can truly be considered progressive. It is based on sound ecological principles, long-term thinking, and awareness of humanity’s connection to the natural world, moving beyond the status quo and embracing transformational sustainability principles. Considering the global impact of the building industry on energy and resource consumption, as well as carbon emissions, leadership in this realm is critically important.
A Short History of Progress concludes with Wright pointing out that today we have the advantage of being able to look back to understand the mistakes of past civilizations; that we still have time to find solutions to the progress traps that we face if we act quickly while still in a favorable position. But, he warns, “Now is out last chance to get the future right.”
A quick read, A Short History of Progress provides plenty of fascinating, thought-provoking material. Wright’s ability to distill and synthesize a vast amount of information into a succinct and compelling book is impressive.