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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
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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Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
"Short History" is his prose version of a rather alarming view of where humanity is headed. He tells the same story in fictional format in "A Scientific Romance". In the same way, he tells us the tragedy of the European invasion of America with his non-fiction "Stolen Continents" and the fictional "Gold Eaters". The result is to provide the reader with more than facts and dire predictions. Wright drags you into the tragedy of human history, "up front and personal". He makes you feel it.
The message is always about the relentless march of time. Our mistakes are terrible and irreversable.
Most recent customer reviews
Among the most important books ever written, and essential reading for every thinking person. He is pessimistic, and we need not be - but we must be absolutely clear about the... Read morePublished 2 months ago by Amazon Customer
Too many passages to quote from this novel. I had planned to give it away like everything else, but I may need to read it again.Published 4 months ago by D. Collard
I've always been an avid reader. In my whole life, I've only read a handful of books twice. Mr. Wright's book is the only one I've ever read three times. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Ron G. Lemery
Excellent read with great examples, became on of my favourites in my library. Often lend it out to friends. Read morePublished 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
Ronald Wright is a Canadian treasure who would surely have world-wide acclaim if he was based in New York or London. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Rosieriveter
An excellent review the rise and fall of various societies. However, while it's a bit short on specific measures our own civilization might avoid a similar fate it's still a very... Read morePublished 9 months ago by John Vaillancourt
A Short History of Progress ranks among the most important books I've read in the last years.
It's truly brief, filled with insight and successful at helping it's reader... Read more
Impressive chronical of creature - man as a steward of planet earth. This is not recommended reading for the political right.Published 11 months ago by D.Patterson
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