A Short History of Progress

A Short History of Progress

"A Short History of Progress" is a book-length essay penned by Ronald Wright and published in 2004. It was originally read by the author as a series of hour long Massey Lectures given in each of five different cities across Canada and broadcast on the CBC Radio program, "Ideas", of the same year. The book spent more than a year on Canadian bestseller lists, was nominated for a British Columbia Achievement Foundation Award, and won the Canadian Book Association's Libris Award for Non-Fiction Book of the Year. It has since been reprinted in a hardcover edition with illustrations.

Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization itself: a 10,000 year old experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. He examines the meaning of progress and its implications for civilizations past and present. The twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology that placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems. The twenty first century represents our last opportunity to succeed where our forefathers almost without exception have not.

Book structure

The Book is divided into five chapters:
* "I - Gauguin's Questions"
* "II - The Great Experiment"
* "III - Fools' Paradise"
* "IV - Pyramid Schemes"
* "V - The Rebellion of the Tools"

Wright's concerns

cquote|Our civilization, which subsumes most of its predecessors, is a great ship steaming at speed into the future. It travels faster, further, and more laden than any before. We may not be able to foresee every reef and hazard, but by reading her compass bearing and headway, by understanding her design, her safety record, and the abilities of her crew, we can, I think, plot a wise course between the narrows and the bergs looming ahead.

And I believe we must do this without delay, because there are too many shipwrecks behind us. The vessel we are now aboard is not merely the biggest of all time; it is also the only one left. The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years. 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 big mistakes.|25px|25px|page 3


Wright writes a colourful history of our species and sets about asking of humanity three questions first posed by the reclusive artist Gauguin: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" (p. 2). Detailing amongst other things how four historical civilizations in particular — those of Easter Island, Sumer, the Maya and Rome — self-destructed from a combination of lack of foresight and poor choices that lead to overpopulation and irreparable environmental damage. From his reading of the "flight recorders in the wreckage of crashed civilizations" (p. 129) such as these there follows the persistent concern that "each time history repeats itself, the price goes up", and the lessons our now global civilization should therefore have learnt from them in order to become sustainable today with reference also to global warming and climate change.

Wright begins his journey with pre-agricultural or hunter-gatherer man in the Stone age and the worldwide slaughter of megafauna whenever and wherever Homo sapiens migrated to new lands. He includes that other Ice Age hunter, Neanderthal man, and argues that our closest evolutionary relative and competitor may well have been the first victim of human genocide: "or, worse, "not" the first — merely the first of which evidence survives" (p. 25). And further: "it may follow from this that we are descended from a million years of ruthless victories, genetically predisposed by the sins of our fathers to do likewise again and again". [cf. Wrangham, Richard., Peterson, Dale., "", (1997).]

In analysing his four particular cases, Wright notes that Easter Island and Sumer failed due to depletion of natural resources: "their ecologies were unable to regenerate". Whereas the Maya and Rome failed in their heartlands, "where ecological demand was highest," but left remnant populations that survived. He asks: "Why, if civilizations so often destroy themselves, has the overall experiment of civilization done so well?" For the answer, he says, we must look to natural regeneration and human migration (p. 102).

Wright argues that while most ancient civilizations depleted their ecologies and failed, few thrived. Large expanses of our (now shrinking) planet remained unsettled and available for migration. And a handful of civilizations — as evidenced by Egypt and China (pp. 103–4) — experienced greater longevity for atypical reasons:
*an abundance of resources, particularly topsoil, with alluvial deposits from annual Nile River flooding and wind-blown glacial loess that was exceedingly deep, respectively
*farming methods that worked with, rather than against, natural cycles
*settlement patterns that did not exceed, or permanently damage, the carrying capacity of the local environment

Wright borrows from Joseph Tainter in identifying three models of societal collapse — the "Runaway Train", the "Dinosaur", and the "House of Cards" [See Tainter, Joseph A., "The Collapse of Complex Societies", e.g. at p. 59.] (p. 107, 128) — emphasizing that they usually operate in combination and going further in suggesting that civilization itself "is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps" (p. 108). "Material progress creates problems that are — or seem to be — soluble only by further progress ... the devil here is in the scale: a good bang can be useful; a better bang can end the world" (p. 7). In addition to describing in detail these sorts of technological "progress traps" throughout the book — including even the invention of agriculture itself — Wright labels such cultural beliefs and interests that act against sustainability — and hence civilizational survivability as a whole — the very worst kind of "ideological pathology":

Changes brought on by the exponential growth of the human population — over six billion by 2006 and adding over 70 million additional people every year [Population growth today – in 2008 – though slowing, is closer now to 80 million more human beings per annum.] — the worldwide scale of resource consumption — an area of farmland the size of Scotland lost to erosion every year — have altered the picture. Ecological markers now indicate that human civilization has surpassed (since the 1980s) nature's capacity for regeneration. Humans in 2006 used more than 125% of nature's yearly output annually: "If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital of nature" (p. 129). [See for example the "Millennium Ecosystem Assessment" Reports and their chilling summary: "Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being".]

Wright concludes that "our present behaviour is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance" (p. 129). "It is a suicide machine" and "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". We must therefore "transition from short-term to long-term thinking", "from recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle" (p. 131).

Just as for the Easter Islanders before us the collapse of human civilization appears imminent if we do not act immediately to prevent it and his final prognosis for our future is a far less positive one than Jared Diamond's . [cf. concluding chapters in Part Four of Diamond, Jared M., "", (2005).]

Wright's concluding exhortation

cquote|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. And 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.

Now is our last chance to get the future right.|25px|25px|pages 131–2 finis.


Film rights have been sold to the Canadian company Cinémaginaire for a forthcoming documentary adaptation, with Martin Scorsese, Mark Achbar and Betsy Carson acting as executive producers.

ee also

*Carrying capacity
*Climate change
*Global warming
*Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
*Natural capital
*"Our Final Century"
*Population growth
*Precautionary principle
*Progress trap
*Societal collapse



*Ronald Wright, "A Short History of Progress", Toronto: Anansi, 2004, ISBN 0-88784-706-4.
*Massey Lectures 2004: "A Short History of Progress - Broadcast Lectures", CBC's Ideas broadcast, Produced by CBC Audio, Audio CDs, Approx. 5 hrs., ISBN 0-66019-330-2.
*Ronald Wright, "An Illustrated Short History of Progress", Toronto: Anansi, 2005, ISBN 0-88784-206-2.
*Ronald Wright, "Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme", an article in the "Toronto Globe and Mail", Saturday 5th August 2000.

External links

* [http://www.anansi.ca/titles.cfm?pub_subid=237 House of Anansi Press page] for the book
* [http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey/massey2004.html CBC Radio, "Ideas", page on the Massey Lectures 2004] also includes streaming audio of Chapter 1 of 5
*" [http://www.ucalgary.ca/~eslinger/crss/200/200_read/02.Wright,R._Gaugin'sQuestions_ShortHistoryOfProgress(2004)1-26.pdf Chapter I - Gauguin's Questions] "
* [http://www.transportplanet.ca/Stu'sNotes11.pdf Stu’s Notes #11] a useful summary of many selected passages from the book
*" [http://www.awok.org/civilization-is-a-pyramid-scheme/ Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme] " an online copy of Wright's earlier short article
*" [http://www.radio4all.net/pub/archive/04.01.05/anitya@graffiti.net/1400-1-20041124-Ronald_Wright_-_Short_History_of_Progress_-_1_-_Gauguin__s_Questions.mp3 Chapter I] " podcast at http://www.radio4all.net (note this site is notoriously unreliable but it does come back up eventually)
*" [http://www.radio4all.net/pub/archive/04.01.05/anitya@graffiti.net/1400-1-20041125-Ronald_Wright_-_Short_History_of_Progress_-_2_-_The_Great_Experiment.mp3 Chapter II] " podcast at http://www.radio4all.net
* [http://www.radio4all.net/pub/archive/09.01.05/philippe@bainbridge.net/1374-1-20050410-Ronald_Wright.mp3 An Interview with Ronald Wright] , April 10, 2005, EcoTalk on Air America podcast at http://www.radio4all.net

ome online reviews

* [http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc1604/article_1418.shtml]
* [http://www.strategicforesight.com/test9/bookreview_shorthistory.htm]
* [http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/2005/03/23.html]
* [http://www.raisethehammer.org/index.asp?id=198]
* [http://www.okalrel.org/lynda_reads/2005/01/short-history-of-progress-by-ronald.html]

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • History of the world — The history of the world [Williams, H. S. (1904). The historians history of the world; a comprehensive narrative of the rise and development of nations as recorded by over two thousand of the great writers of all ages. New York: The Outlook… …   Wikipedia

  • Progress trap — A progress trap is the condition societies experience when, in pursuing progress, human ingenuity inadvertently introduces problems that the society does not have the resources to solve, preventing further progress. Social collapse is often the… …   Wikipedia

  • History of Hungary — This article is part of a series Prehistory …   Wikipedia

  • History of the Netherlands — This article is part of a series Early History …   Wikipedia

  • History of Dogmatic Theology —     History of Dogmatic Theology     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► History of Dogmatic Theology     The imposing edifice of Catholic theology has been reared not by individual nations and men, but rather by the combined efforts of all nations and the …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • History of the Jews —     History of the Jews     † Catholic Encyclopedia ► History of the Jews     (Yehúd m; Ioudaismos).     Of the two terms, Jews and Judaism, the former denotes usually the Israelites or descendants of Jacob (Israel) in contrast to Gentile races;… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • History of Malaysia — History of Malaysia …   Wikipedia

  • Progress Publishers — was a Moscow based Soviet publisher founded in 1931.It was noted for its English language editions of books on Marxism Leninism.Progress Publishers were particularly also known for their Short History of USSR and ABC series ( ABC of Party , ABC… …   Wikipedia

  • History of anarchism — Part of the Politics series on Anarchism …   Wikipedia

  • History of electromagnetism — The history of electromagnetism, that is the human understanding and recorded use of electromagnetic forces, dates back over two thousand years ago, see Timeline of electromagnetism. The ancients must have been acquainted with the effects of… …   Wikipedia