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A Short History of Progress Paperback – Oct 23 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: House of Anansi Press; 1 edition (Oct. 23 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0887847064
  • ISBN-13: 978-0887847066
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 1.3 x 20.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 249 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #7,837 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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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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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By RWO on Dec 11 2004
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 By Marti on Oct. 3 2005
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 By Jason Brooks on 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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on Feb. 28 2007
Format: Paperback
Ronald Wright has produced a fascinating little study on the historical record of mankind as it relates to various civilizations `progressing' through time. By the very title, The Short History of Progress, the author is not very optimistic that any society will ever discover the secret of long-term growth and development: careful long-range planning and prudent use of natural resources. Standing in the way is a menacing and inexorable capacity to consume resources to the point of destroying their natural environment and ability to produce. Each of the situations that he looks at in the book - Easter Island, Mesopotamia, and ancient Greece among others - has the hallmark of raping the land for short-term gain and pleasure. Capitalism is one of those modern ideologies that promotes this kind of profligacy. This study parallels a lot of what Diamond says in Collapse as to why nations come and go in history. It should also remind us that our journey through time has been anything but "up, up and a way". Well thought out and very good read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By elfdart TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 3 2008
Format: Paperback
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 intentional or not. there is the extinction aspect, sometimes a species or group of people just can't cope with a change and they die out, like the sabre toothed tiger, as wright discusses. sabre toothed tigers survive on big game, thats why they need those big teeth to rip into the huge animals, but those teeth get in the way if they were hunting say a rabbit, so as big game died out so did they. but the other kind of extinction, the one more relevant to us today, us being the leading countries with the power to carry out wright's fears, is very much intentional. an example from wright explaining this is the easter islanders... there were a few but i like this one best because it makes it more real for me as i live in suburbia. the easter islanders cut down all the trees on their island and because of that went extinct. that sounds kind of ridiculous to us, but we're doing the exact same things today. wright calls these progress traps and examples would be farming and neuclear weapons. we have become so dependent on farming and use that solely to produce food that if the climate were to change we'd be in something of a pickle.. and i'd assume you can guess how neuclear weapons would hinder the progress of the human species. wright brings our attention to our possible demise by our own hand. a decent quote is "the most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine".

it's not so much a history book as it is a call to attention. it uses history to explain the theories it proposes, because history is all we have, but it is not an all encompassing guide to the progress of humanity throughout time. i thought it was a pretty good book, readable.
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