We are caught in a “Progress Trap”

A Short History of ProgressA Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica).

Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why they went down. The two consistent reasons that stuck most with me are 1) brutal social hierarchy that ensures there’s never enough to go around and 2) raiding the local ecology of the place to the extent that it can no longer support the civilization.

Sound familiar?

His history of how European discovery of the New World turbo-charged our present-day pace of technological development is fascinating. For example, it was disease that finally enabled the Spanish conquistidors (after 100 years of unsuccessful trying) to “conquer” the Mayans. And that gold and other resources from the New World flowed back into the Old, to finance the industrial revolution. Without that treasure, things would’ve been very different indeed.

It’s all written in an engaging and very readable style, with extensive footnotes taking up over 1/3 at the back – for those geeky sorts who must have all the details (guilty as charged). Wright is obviously a very learned man, but in no way stuffy or inaccessible – nor does he pander.

The most lasting effect of this book has been to loosen up my heretofore unexamined assumptions about “the way things are.” Human history goes back many thousands of years (actually, millions), and it’s quaint of us to believe that the last 200 are the pinnacle of civilization, just because they are the most recent. The assumptions about social hierarchy are especially dangerous, derived as they are from the (now absurd to us) notion that kings are direct descendants of the Divine.

Again, I am left wishing that everyone would read this book. It would certainly change the debates we are currently engaged in, debates that distract us from the real conversations we need to be having. Here are two snips from near the end, to give an idea of how Wright’s mind works.

“John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

“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.”

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  1. […] of times to something that is deeply ingrained in Americans’ psyches. As captured succinctly by Ronald Wright in A Short History of […]

  2. […] It is significant that the places in More’s story and Huxley’s are both islands. They are literally and figuratively separated from the rest of the tainted contemporary world, giving their residents the chance to re-invent society from whole cloth. And yet, Huxley’s ending tells us, it’s impossible to escape the juggernaut of modern civilization. Given its wealth of unexploited oil reserves and plenty of land on which to build fertilizer factories to make chemical weapons, Pala looks to become yet another Easter Island, ruined by greed, shortsighted ambition, hierarchy, narcissism, and violence. Just like the rest of the civilized world. […]

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