In A Short History of Progress, author and archaeologist Ronald Wright explores the rise and fall of six civilizations of the past. He looks at how these cultures degraded the environment and he warns readers that our current civilization is also headed for collapse.
Wright argues that civilization is a 10,000-year-old experiment that humanity has not been able to control. His thesis is that humanity must understand the past in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. He says our civilization can avoid global disaster if we can break free from our addiction to progress.
Wright wrote this book for a specialist audience as he uses many scientific terms. It is a scholarly work citing 182 books. Wright clearly makes a case for his thesis through five logical chapters. He starts with asking the questions: “Where do we come from?” “What are we?” and “Where are we going?” He explores humankind by going back to the Stone Age as well as to historical civilizations. He sees a pattern in the mindset and motivating factors of man throughout history. He shows how civilizations have repeated the same mistakes. He also draws on the environmental problems of today to clearly show that humankind is again repeating those mistakes.
Chapter 1 starts with three questions posed by painter Paul Gauguin — “Where do we come from?” “What are we?” and “Where are we going?” Wright states the direction of the book by saying that he plans to address the last question, which is the most important, by answering the first two questions. He says that once we clearly see what we have done in the past, we can go forward into the future making better choices.
Wright explores the concept of progress; he questions the idea that progress is always an improvement. He says our culture measures progress by technology. In the past, civilizations measured progress by morality. He says moral progress is no longer important to our civilization.
The idea of progress has become very powerful and our civilization no longer questions whether progress is good or bad. Progress today is as ingrained in our culture as myth was in ancient cultures.
In Chapter 2, The Great Experiment, Wright warns of progress traps. He points to the advent of agriculture as being the biggest progress trap. Agriculture, he says, has allowed us to become more specialized.
Wright argues that species can specialize themselves out of existence. He points to the saber tooth tiger, which became so specialized that it could not adapt when the prey that it depended on disappeared.
Wright looks at the human brain, which is more flexible than the brains of other species. He says the brain is the human’s specialization and that it has allowed us to survive thus far. However, as cultures continue to become more specialized, there are risks. Wright provides the example of the atomic bomb, which could lead to mass destruction.
One of the oldest progress traps, Wright refers to, was in the Stone Age, when hunters became so good at hunting that they killed off all their prey.
Wright warns that continued progress has led to such crises as global warming which could lead to agricultural catastrophes, if it is not curtailed.
Wright expands on the idea of progress traps as he looks at the civilizations of Easter Island and Sumer in Chapter 3, Fools Paradise. He shows how two civilizations met their demise through over consumption and greed.
First, Wright looks at the tragedy of Easter Island. The settlers on Easter Island found a paradise, rich with resources such as trees, animals for food and fish on it shores. The perfect conditions allowed the civilization to thrive and to grow. As their culture grew, they started to practice a religion that involved erecting monolithic stone statues. Building these statues required lots of timber for hauling and erecting. Eventually, they ran out of wood and totally depleted their resources, which resulted in civil war and the demise of the civilization.
The Sumerians settled in the plains, which is now Iraq. Their land was not rich and fertile, but they invented irrigation to bring water to the crops. This success led to growth in the population. Soon, they needed to irrigate more and more land. But, in the end, the land become saturated with salt and could no longer grow crops and the civilization died.
Wright points out that progress can be deceptive. What may seem like an inexhaustible resource is, in fact, limited. He warns that civilization needs to live within its ecological means.
Wright compares progress to a pyramid scheme in Chapter 4. Pyramid schemes must continue to grow to survive and those that benefit from the scheme are those at the top. He says when wealth is concentrated at the top, the wealthy, who are in power, continue to promote the status quo.
Wright provides examples from the Mayan and Roman civilizations. As power became more concentrated, the civilizations continued to build greater monuments. The Romans built statues and buildings; the Mayans built pyramids. In the end, both of these civilizations depleted their resources and could no longer continue. He warns that we may be headed in the same direction.
Wright also looks at Egypt and China, two exceptions that were able to endure much longer. He says that these two cultures grew more slowly and lived within their environmental means. They were more sustainable, although they eventually fell for other reasons.
In Chapter 5, the Rebellion of the Tools, Wright considers three explanations of cultural collapse – the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur and the House of Cards. The Runaway Train exemplifies continual progress, without consideration of the effects of progress; the Dinosaur attitude is a disdain for change; and the House of Cards explains the collapse of cultures that overuse resources.
Wright shows how each civilization’s fall is larger than the last. He warns that our current civilization is global and interdependent and its collapse would be global as well. In the past, one could assume that one civilization’s fall would result in the rise of another. Because of our global interdependence, this is no longer true. Wright says that the advantage our civilization has is the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past. He says there is still time to change, but change must occur very soon.
Wright’s book as a whole makes a strong case for changing our attitude toward progress and for beginning to live within our environmental means. He provides a wake-up call for our culture, which is currently very materialistic and greedy, consuming resources much too quickly. Our future survival depends upon our ability to change our habits of over consumption and on our ability to care for our environment.
Wright, Ronald. “A Short History of Progress.” New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.