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A Short History of Progress Paperback – Oct 23 2004
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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
[Ronald Wright] is an historical philosopher with a profound understanding of other cultures. -- Jan MorrisSee all Product description
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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.
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.
As noted by Globe and Mail columnist Paul William Roberts: "I don't care if you have never read and will never read any kind of book at all, but you must read this one." I couldn't agree more.
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