Monday, November 9, 2009

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

I was going to post some thoughts about a book I've been reading recently, entitled, The Last Great Sea by Terry Glavin, a voyage through the human and natural history of the North Pacific Ocean, and I will, but a slim volume by another Canadian writer interrupted that process.

In A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright, tries to tell us, not only of his attempt to understand where modern man and his civilizations came from but where we may be headed.

It is no secret that the twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human numbers, consumption and technology, placing a colossal load on all our natural systems, especially earth air and water - the very elements of life. The great question for the twenty-first century is how, or whether, this can go on.

The title of the first chapter, Gauguin's Questions, came from the title of one of the French painter's works, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
It is Gauguin's third question - Where are we going? - that Wright tries to address in this book.
He feels that by answering the other two questions first we can answer it - broad strokes.
If we see clearly what we are and what we have done, we can recognize human behavior that persists through many times and cultures. Knowing this can tell us what we are likely to do and where we are likely to go from here.

The second chapter, The Great Experiment, gives us a brief, colourful description of the early origins of our species, describing at one point the 10,000 year old Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon struggle as early man made his way out of Africa. Apparently the Cro-Magnon won. He describes the rise of civilizations, the first thought to be in Sumer (Mesopotamia - now Iraq) and Egypt, as an experiment where the progress of man, in numerous instances, became a trap that they could not or would not escape from. He cites overgrazing, deforestation, weapons technology and the ruling elite's propensity for maintaining their status quo even during darkening times. Does this sound all too familiar? This so called Progress Trap has been a slippery slope that has plagued us since the Stone Age. All cultures, past and present are dynamic, and while our civilization's particulars differ from those of the past, they are not as different as we like to think.

Wright goes on to detail how four ancient societies - Sumer, Rome, the Maya, Easter Island - which, in roughly a thousand years each, wore out their welcome from nature and collapsed.
He also mentions two exceptions, Egypt and China, who achieved runs of 3,000 years or more 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
In his comparisons to our present civilization, Wright, brings up some sobering points:
  • each time history repeats itself the price goes up
  • the world still has differing cultures and political systems, but at the economic level there is now only one big civilization, feeding on the whole planet's natural capitol
  • the twentyfold growth in world trade since the 1970s has meant that hardly anywhere is self-sufficient. Every Eldorado has been looted
  • quoting Joseph Tainter, who notes this interdependance and warns, that "collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global... World civilization will disintegrate as a whole."
Wright concludes:

"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 the 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 Islander 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."

Ronald Wright is an award winning novelist, historian and essayist. This book was part of the CBC Radio's Massey Lecture Series in 2004.

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