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A Short History of Progress

The Massey Lectures series has weighed in, once again, with a provocative and timely exploration of important ideas. Ronald Wright, one of this country’s intellectual treasures, brings his background in archaeology, history, and comparative culture to bear on the loaded question of progress, and whether it is a good or bad thing.

Of course, and not to keep readers in suspense, the answer is both. The positive aspect of progress – the human drive from new to newer, from good to better – has given citizens (of the developed world, at least) safe, healthy, comfortable, and interesting lives far beyond the imaginations of our ancestors of even two or three generations ago. There are those, such as George W. Bush in the second presidential debate this past fall, who will argue that more progress, especially of a technological nature, will inevitably solve any environmental or social problems our society might currently face.

Ronald Wright takes a far more pessimistic view. When humans have moved from inventing gunpowder to cannons to shells and finally to the atomic bomb, he believes, “we have made rather too much progress.” In many fields – from agriculture to medicine and beyond – we are inclined to fall into what Wright calls “progress traps” when we tip over from cleverness into recklessness. Paleolithic hunters who learned to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress; once they learned to kill 200, by driving them over a cliff, “they lived high for a while, and then starved.”

This is essentially a simple conservationist argument for moderation and intelligent use of the world’s resources. What makes Wright’s book richer than most pleas for ecological sanity is his ability to strap on seven-league boots and take his readers on a sweeping educational tour of history and every continent’s previous civilizations.

His particular interest in the Amerindian cultures of Central and South America, about which he has written extensively in Time Among the Maya and Stolen Continents, gives him the ability to make effortless connections between Greco-Roman civilization, for example, and what was going on at the same time in Peru and Mexico. Human ingenuity, he asserts, is universal, but so is the human tendency to go too far.

Wright takes us to Easter Island, a formerly abundant place rich in trees and provenance, where tending to the cult of the moai, the 30-foot-high stone carvings of the gods, destroyed the forests and the land forever. Seduced by what anthropologists call an “ideological pathology,” the islanders continued along their doomed path to ecological disaster and population crash.

His next stop is Sumer, the great early civilization of southern Iraq that invented, among other things, irrigation, the city, the corporation, professional soldiers, hereditary kings, and writing. The flash floods caused by massive deforestation have filled in 80 miles of the Persian Gulf in the past 5,000 years. Irrigation techniques turned the land to salt. First the cultivation of wheat was abandoned, then barley. Populations became too high, then shrank to nothing. Even today, says Wright, “the land remains sour and barren, still white with the dust of progress.”

Turning to Rome and to its American contemporary, the Mayan civilization, Wright indicates that both of them were most unstable at their peaks, when they had reached maximum demand on the ecology. The costs of running and defending an empire became so burdensome in Rome that debasement of the currency took place. “Citizens worn down by inflation and unfair taxation began defecting to the Goths.”

Among the Maya, overpopulation and agrarian failure were the culprits. As Wright says, “They had cashed in all their natural capital.” The response of the Mayan leaders? “Higher pyramids, more power to the kings, harder work for the masses, more foreign wars.” Sound familiar?

There is, perhaps, an inherent human inability to foresee long-range consequences. Wright attributes this partly to the fact that the elites in large-scale societies continue to prosper long after the environment and the common people begin to suffer. (Surely, in modern democracies, the short terms prescribed for governments also encourage short-term thinking among our political leaders.)

The only reason that our own civilization has prospered so long in spite of its profligacy, says Wright, is because it was able to loot two huge “unknown” continents, North and South America. However, there aren’t any more of those left to plunder.

In a final chapter of bitter prediction and faint hope, Wright notes that the economic interdependence of the world today means that collapse, if and when it comes again, will be global. Ideology of any sort – Islamic, Christian, Marxist, or market fundamentalist – will push us all the faster toward that collapse. Only “moderation and the precautionary principle” can save us.

Now if this excellent book could only be made required reading at the White House and on Capitol Hill in Washington….

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