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A Short History of Progress Paperback – March 10, 2005

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No hope, just an awareness of what's being done now and what's been done in the past, is what Ronald Wright will permit in A Short History of Progress, his grim, ammoniacal Massey Lectures, the 43rd in the series. In five lucid, meticulously documented essays, Wright traces the rise and plummet of four regional civilizations--those of Sumer, Rome, Easter Island, and the Maya--and judges that most, perhaps all, of humanity is making and will continue to make mistakes equally disastrous as theirs. He gives general reasons first for not reckoning we'll pull back from the brink. Important among them is an anthropological observation. As individuals, we live long lives. We evolve more slowly than we should, given our lack of vision and our aggressive, selfish nature. We seem to lack the collective wisdom and the insight into cause and effect to realize the limits to what Wright calls the "experiment" of civilization. What Wright calls natural "subsidies" underwrite civilizations' successes. The squandering of those gifts presages inevitable failure, but with careful, canny stewardship, a civilization can manage to muddle through eons. Wright cites Egypt's submission to the limits set by the Nile's annual floods and China's windblown "lump-sum deposit" of topsoil, used for hillside paddies instead of being put to the plough. Wright observes with unrelenting eloquence that our planetary civilization lives precariously, far beyond its means. "Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes," he acknowledges, neither claiming nor wanting to be a prophet. We certainly have the tools for change and remediation; we also know what our ancestors did wrong and what happened to them. We're faced, our author observes, with two choices: either do nothing--what he calls "one of the biggest mistakes"--or try to effect "the transition from short-term to long-term thinking." His evidence suggests we're taking the first alternative, which will include a swift, final ride into the dark future on the runaway train of progress. Wright's account tempts one to bet on the rats and roaches. --Ted Whittaker

From Publishers Weekly

Progress can do us in, or so argues British historian Wright as he embarks on a lively if meandering journey through the development and demise of ancient civilizations to determine whether our current one is doomed. By reading the "black boxes" left by departed societies (like those of the Easter Islanders, the Sumerians and the Mayans), we can learn to avoid the mistakes that led to their downfall, he suggests. Many of those errors revolve around the plundering of natural resources and the development of social hierarchies that allow elite groups to indulge in over-consumption at the expense of the masses. Other errors involve "progress traps," technologies or advances that, like weapons, are initially useful but become dangerous to civilization once fully developed, especially if moral and technical progress diverge. The analogy of civilization as a kind a "pyramid scheme," which, like the sales scheme, thrives only if it grows, is one of several imaginative mnemonic devices Wright uses to round out his argument. Today's culprit, he declares, is "market extremism," which has "cross-bred with evangelical messianism to fight intelligent policy on metaphysical grounds." This laissez-faire capitalism, he reasons, will spell the end of the planet, and our civilization, if it is not controlled. Wright crafts an entertaining tale of eras gone by, incorporating relevant facts on subjects as diverse as the lifestyles of early hominids and recent patterns of climate change, and demonstrating the holistic importance of natural resources to a society. And if he never specifies exactly what the proper choices for modern civilization are, or how they will bring deliverance from the coming storm, his book will nonetheless convince readers that we are at a crossroads where the right choices can still be made.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: CARROLL & GRAF (March 10, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0786715472
  • ISBN-13: 978-0786715473
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (99 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #76,127 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on May 20, 2005
Format: Paperback
The central thesis of this extraordinary little book is that civilization is a pyramid scheme in which the people of the present rob from the people of the future. Like bacteria in a petri dish of nutrients, people multiply until they have overrun and despoiled their resources, and then the population crashes. Historian and novelist Ronald Wright (not to be confused with Robert Wright, author of e.g., The Moral Animal) explores in some fascinating detail examples as ancient as Sumer and as recent as Easter Island and the Americas.

The main resource is arable land which soon or late becomes exhausted. We exhaust the soil with continual planting, or we irrigate the soil until the salt content becomes so high that crops will not grow on it, and then we abandon it to the winds and move on. Or we pave it over with roads and buildings. There are exceptions of course, China and Egypt have maintained continuous civilizations for several millennia, but Wright argues they were able to do this because in the case of Egypt, the Nile continually revitalized the soil and prevented the Egyptians from building on it because of the yearly floods. In the case of China he argues that it was a fortuitous circumstance that allowed the Chinese to grow crop after crop on the same land for century after century because the land had topsoil hundreds of meters thick, blown there by ancient winds. Exhaust one layer, let it blow away. No problem, the next layer is fertile. Not so almost anyplace else in the world.

Wright begins before agriculture, which would be before civilization of course. The hunters and gathers of the Upper Paleolithic period, Wright avers, killed off their way of life in "an all-you-can-kill wildlife barbecue.
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Format: Paperback
A concise history of our world in 132 pages and 50 pages of footnotes? I would have never believed it could be done. But Mr. Wright has done it. He minces no words and carefully uses every word chosen.

My world travels and prior readings/videos has noted many aspects of what he talks about - but he puts it all together concisely and clearly. We keep running the same experiment over and over and it keeps ending in disaster, the only issue now is that the experiment is being run on the entire world now.

I've yet to read Collapse by Jared Diamond, but after only getting half way through Guns, Germs, and Steel (DVD is easy to watch), I'm glad Mr.Wright provides an accessible alternative.

The author's sole recommendation is to state the shift from short term to long term thinking - this sounds great in theory, but has rarely been heeded outside of some indigenous groups and a couple of nations (See below). Perhaps more insightful would be to address an even darker subject - Self Deception. I *highly* recommend - Why We Lie by David Livingstone Smith. Hope and fear arise out of self-deception. Learning about right-brain/left-brain imbalance is insightful too. Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind is another insightful read on this too.

For the DVD minded - I recommend: Globe Trekker - Great Historic Sights (A veritable tour of the graveyards of 'our' greatest cities and societies), National Geographic's Strange Days on Planet Earth, Charcoal People, Atomic Cafe, Orwell Rolls in his Grave (US-300 million and ONLY two political parties?!!), and Persuaders. The fictional movie Rapa Nui with Jason Scott Lee might be interesting too.

For the travel minded - visit Scandinavia and understand their way of thinking - therein lies the answer.
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Format: Paperback
Jared Diamond posed a question some time ago along the lines of what went through the mind of the person chopping down the last tree on Easter Island?

This book is a look at the same issues for our modern perspective (what will go through the mind of the person buying the last gallon of gas) by considering several premier examples of disasters past. In contrast to Diamond's book 'Collapse' it is short and sharp. This leaves some loose ends but I found the brevity encouraged an uninterrupted read and a better overview than the longer 'Collapse' which is heavier on ecology and details and shorter on politics. The end notes and references are useful additions and point out some very nice 'places to go'.

An essential read, and a nice complement to Diamonds effort.
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By Rebecca Allen on November 4, 2006
Format: Paperback
These are lectures written down, which helps explain the rhetorical style (a bit pompous and florid). And Wright is consciously presenting an analysis based on other work in the field, notably Joseph Tainter's. If you are surrounded by other books on the subject (Diamond's _Collapse, Fagan's _The Long Summer_, etc.) and are looking for a lucid path through the data, Wright provides one. I don't think his presentation of the details is good enough to make sense without that background, however.

Other reviews say he doesn't present a plan. That would be a lot to ask in a slim book (a third of which is notes). However it is clear what he has in mind: population control, increased democracy, decreased gap between the rich and the poor, decreased overall consumption/resource use and sustainable agricultural practices (and he would be the first to note that some of these are difficult to make compatible). Mostly, he is not optimistic about our ability to change course. He does, however, hold out hope that it is not yet too late (but almost).
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