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A Short History of Progress [Paperback]

Ronald Wright
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 23 2004 CBC Massey Lectures

Each time history repeats itself, so it's said, the price goes up. The twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology, placing a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth, air, and water -- the very elements of life. The most urgent questions of the twenty-first century are: where will this growth lead? can it be consolidated or sustained? and what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our future?

In his #1 bestseller A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we recognize the experiment's inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.


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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Short, yes, but quite powerful and compelling! Dec 11 2004
By RWO
Format:Paperback
It is hard to imagine a more compelling and sobering 'short history' of civilization. Wright has managed to deliver a collection of lectures/chapters that form an argument for change - immediate, fundamental and expansive - unlike any I have read before. By recounting and extrapolating from embarrassing histories of excess, short-sightedness and single-mindedness, Wright puts our current situations into a larger and longer context, going beyond what environmentalists and socialists have argued for much more than the past 50 years. In short, he suggests that "our present behaviour is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance."
This is, in a sense, a book about the 'what not to do' lessons of the past 10,000 years. It is as much proscriptive as it is prescriptive yet at no point does Wright come across as preachy or imploring (not that both haven't been or won't be necessary). Rather, he makes a thoroughly compelling argument for the "long-term thinking" that is so obviously needed - and soon - if we are to survive as a species and as a planet.
Since finishing the book this morning I have noticed two things: I have begun to think more long-term about the things I do and the choices I make; and I have been making a mental list of the people that I want to read this book. Leaders in business and politics leap to mind, but failing that, I hope that you will. I don't think that you'll regret it.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required reading for Homo sapiens sapiens! Oct. 3 2005
By Marti
Format:Paperback
Far from being 'left wing propaganda' Wright's book is compelling and well researched, clear and concise. Like Jared Diamond, Wright sees the big picture and this is something we must all try to see. It doesn't give me much confidence in humans based on past behaviour, but it is sobering - and an absolute MUST READ for anyone contemplating public office. I think it should be required reading for all humans in fact. I liked the fact that it is a short book - it will encourage even those who don't read very often to give it a go.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Short History of Progress April 7 2005
Format:Paperback
The word 'progress' is often used to imply a positive step forward. In this brilliant book Wright argues that progress often leads to "traps" with disastrous consequences for humanity and the planet (one need only look to the recently released 'Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report' to witness the negative impact we humans are having on the earth).

However, instead of whacking his readers across the shins with a litany of doom-and-gloom statistics, Wright calmly points us to past mistakes made by so-called 'civilized' peoples. The author provides his readers with the fascinating accounts of the Sumerians, Romans, Easter Islanders, and the Maya, peoples whose impact on the land was not only catastrophic for their environments, but also for themselves. That said, Wright's book is not entirely without hope, as evidently there were (and are) societies who lived in a symbiotic relationship with nature. Two examples are the Islamic civilization of Spain, and the Incas of Peru, both of which actually repaired eroded landscapes with terracing.

What I found most appealing about 'A Short History of Progress' was Wright's mastery of form-he is, without a doubt, a fantastic writer. Furthermore, not only is his book highly readable, but the author is obviously a tireless researcher. Surprisingly, when I neared the end of the book, instead of being overwhelmed by Wright's account, I found myself bolstered by the information.

As observed by Wright "The Myth of Progress has sometimes served us well-those of us seated at the best tables, anyway." Now is the time for humanity, as a collective group, to push our chairs away from our lush feast and prepare for our next meal-a meal that can be shared by all, and that doesn't do our planet such terrific damage.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Short History of Progress April 7 2005
Format:Paperback
The word 'progress' is often used to imply a positive step forward. In this brilliant book Wright argues that progress often leads to "traps" with disastrous consequences for humanity and the planet (one need only look to the recently released 'Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report' to witness the negative impact we humans are having on the earth).

However, instead of whacking his readers across the shins with a litany of doom-and-gloom statistics, Wright calmly points us to past mistakes made by so-called 'civilized' peoples. The author provides his readers with the fascinating accounts of the Sumerians, Romans, Easter Islanders, and the Maya, peoples whose impact on the land was not only catastrophic for their environments, but also for themselves. That said, Wright's book is not entirely without hope, as evidently there were (and are) societies who lived in a symbiotic relationship with nature. Two examples are the Islamic civilization of Spain, and the Incas of Peru, both of which actually repaired eroded landscapes with terracing.

What I found most appealing about 'A Short History of Progress' was Wright's mastery of form-he is, without a doubt, a fantastic writer. Furthermore, not only is his book highly readable, but the author is obviously a tireless researcher. Surprisingly, when I neared the end of the book, instead of being overwhelmed by Wright's account, I found myself bolstered by the information.

As observed by Wright "The Myth of Progress has sometimes served us well-those of us seated at the best tables, anyway." Now is the time for humanity, as a collective group, to push our chairs away from our lush feast and prepare for our next meal-a meal that can be shared by all, and that doesn't do our planet such terrific damage.
Read more ›
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Must Read" if you want to understand "Us"!
The idea intrigued me, then I heard Mr. Wright speak, and I promptly bought seven copies to gift family and friends! Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jean Freeman
5.0 out of 5 stars I LOVE IT
The book emphasizes American's history, but is very naive in asian history for instance, wrote a lot of wrong events China history. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Ming Liu
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!
Loved this book. It is so Ronald Wright and I can see elements of his "A Scientific Romance" - I am sure he wrote that. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Orchid
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing
the book was in great quality and an amazing read. It arrived on time and was as the add said it would be.
Published 18 months ago by Cady
5.0 out of 5 stars A Short History of Progress
Ronald Wright's book, A Short History of Progress is well written and a fascinating account of why the world is in such a fragile state, economically, socially and political. Read more
Published on April 8 2012 by Macread
4.0 out of 5 stars Good
The book arrived in good conditions, but un little bit long for the delivry. It Take few weeks to arrive when it was suppose to be couple of days.
Published on Dec 5 2011 by Tamere
3.0 out of 5 stars Cover was not in good condition
Cover was not in good condition. Smell cigaretts/smoke. So, I was not impressed by the quality of the book. At least, no writing was in the book.
Published on Nov. 18 2011 by MaxPero
5.0 out of 5 stars good
the book is in good quality, better than expected, however, the shipping took a while. Excellent Job!!! i am satisfied.
Published on Sept. 28 2011 by florence
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic read
Don't let the size of this book fool you: it's full of thought provoking, important ideas. I've been thinking about what the author has written, and it is profound. Read more
Published on Nov. 14 2009 by Jeffrey N. Green
4.0 out of 5 stars interesting
this was an interesting book discussing the possibility of collapse. wright makes a point that there is a tendency for something to bring itself to an end, whether this is... Read more
Published on June 3 2008 by elfdart
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