A Short History of Progress

A book review.

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright

published: 2004

ISBN: 0887847064

genre: History


👍🏼 recommended


This is a work of history and anthropology. It details with great care the mistakes of past civilizations, and boils them down to a certain predictable set of circumstances:

1. short-term politics are put ahead of reasonable resource management

2. environmental degradation leads to declining agricultural returns

3. the shit hits the fan

The story is a compelling one, especially as it relentlessly draws from source after source to detail the problems that have plagued each and every previous civilization. Logically, it's a no-brainer, and the conclusions are grimly easy to parse. Simply put, there are too many mouths, we're pushing the environment too hard, and our rate of consumption is not only exhausting our resources but making us incapable of adjusting to a sustainable way of life.

This didn't work for the Sumerians, and it didn't work for the Mayans. It didn't work for civilizations in Spain, the Andes or Easter island. Why should it work for an unlimited civilization that is drawing, as this book declares, 120% of the Earth's abilities to renew (and this is only counting renewable resources!)

Strangely (for me), my reaction to this book was emotional rather than intellectual. I blame becoming a parent. As a new parent, I find it easier to understand than I do to accept that my son is not only inheriting a physical world that is heading into a chaotic downward slide, but a human world in which are about to spin into a very predictable problem: a final panicked fight over basic resources.

I don't believe for a second that everything will be all right (anyone counted how many countries are currently seeing riots over energy prices!) or that technology is going to lead us out of our current mess (Hydrogen cars? Bwahahaha!). Nor do I believe that "progress" even exists, in the cutural sense -- this would seem to suggest that there's a goal!

But as a parent I have to believe that there's got to be something we can still do (other than sending my young son to live with survivalists). As with some of my other reading in the past few years, I'll use the grim lessons from this book to reshape my life.

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