Monday, 18 May 2020
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
This is a brilliant short book that gives an overview of human progress that looks at questions posed by the French painter Gaugain who asked: Where do we Come From? What are We? Where are we Going?
Tracing our journey from prehistory to the present day and looking at possible futures, Wright casts an eye on how humans have made progress and how this affects the world around us. There is a strong eco-consciousness in this book, the critique of how human development has had generally a devastating impact on the environment.
The book highlights key elements of human development including the discovery of fire, the development of agriculture, tools, weapons and cities. The history of human development is littered with civilisations that fell victim to progress traps, where progress goes too far. An early example of such a trap given in the book is this:
Palaeolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200 by driving a whole herd over a cliff had made too much.
The author's overarching premise is that civilisations overreach themselves, get caught in progress traps and then use up all their natural capital in unsustainable ways and then collapse. The classic example given is that of Easter Island but, as the narrative explores, the concept applies (to some degree at least) to many other civilisations from the Romans to the Mayans.
Can we learn from our history to fashion a sustainable future for ourselves?
It should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of humankind, particularly pertinent as we face the global pandemic of COVID_19. It's also a great introduction to the issues that are explored in greater depth in the work of Jared Diamond (particularly Collapse).
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright published (2005) by Canongate.