Book Review: ‘A Short History of Progress,’ by Ronald Wright

(This review was originally published at www.lastwordblog.blogspot.com.)

If, like yours truly, you are concerned by the continued geometric growth of the human population, dwindling renewable and non-renewable resources, toxic air, melting ice-caps, hemorrhaging biodiversity, and the like, then this book might be for you. If, like yours truly, you think that designing transportation infrastructure around automobiles is patent madness, or that over-farming plant crops in order to feed livestock in order to sell meat at addictively-low prices is asinine, or that finite resources preclude infinite economic growth, then this book might be for you. If you’re a Republican, then this book is definitely for you, but you probably won’t like it.

This is a book about the end of the world.

Ecologists, primitivists, and other Greens will already be familiar with Wright’s central thesis (which is basically identical to that of Jared Diamond’s less-accessible Collapse): that stupid or excessive use of resources leads to social collapse, what Wright calls a “progress trap.” Different societies make different choices about how to use resources and relate to their environments, and these choices have consequences. Groups of humans become too good at something (farming, hunting, fighting, city-building) and ultimately gobble-up the ecostructure upon which their infrastructure is built. Like a virus killing off its host-population, or hunters extinguishing the population they hunt, human populations have been and still are apt to kill our respective golden-egg-laying geese.

Wright begins by explaining culture.

“I should make it clear that I’m defining ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ in a technical, anthropological way. By culture I mean the whole of any society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices. Culture is everything: from veganism to cannibalism; Beethoven, Botticelli, and body piercing; what you do in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the church of your choice (if your culture allows a choice) and all of technology from the split stone to the split atom. Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings.”

He holds that our culture–the society that has grown from Christian, European roots to pretty much take over the world by the time of this writing–is caught in a particularly large and troublesome progress trap. That’s partly due to the fact that globalization puts all of humanity’s survival-eggs in one basket, and partly because our culture tells us not to bother with sustainability because, ostensibly, history is teleological: “…a short one-way trip from Creation to Judgment, from Adam to Doom.” During the Enlightenment and especially the nineteenth century, this view of history shed God but retained its promise of salvation via technical and social progress toward earthly paradise.

Again, these aren’t original ideas. Fans of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael books will recognize the critique of civilization as a method of human society, and anyone who reads a newspaper will agree with Wright’s observation that, sooner or later, we’re headed for disaster.

What’s really valuable about Short History is the way that Wright documents collapses that have already occurred. Reading him explain of the collapse of Rome, the Sumerian empire, Easter Island, and Classic Mayan society leaves little room for the skeptic’s retreat. It’s one thing to outline our society’s tragic misuse of resources, as I bitterly did at the beginning of this review, and say, “Look, we can’t live this way forever. We’re headed off a cliff.” But this argument leaves room for the hope that our society is special, that technology will somehow save us, that our resource-use will gradually curb and stabilize, that superficial fixes might allow civilization to continue indefinitely. Wright prevents a skeptic from taking these hopeful fantasies seriously by showing, again and again, how societies just like our own have catastrophically destroyed themselves through self-delusion and by refusing to live within their natural limitations. By backing the logical argument for imminent collapse with historical examples of how it has occurred before, Wright makes it difficult indeed to hope that, somehow, our contemporary method of life might be anything less than disastrous.

Short History is adapted from a series of public lectures Wright delivered, and this shows in the text’s accessibility. At a tiny 131 pages, it’s a pleasant and thoughtful prophecy of the doom of all human life. The only real drawback is how depressing the book is: like an oracle in Greek tragedy, Wright shows us how we will destroy ourselves; yet despite this knowledge, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it.

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