Tuesday, 26 August 2008

A Short History of Progress - reviewed by John Scull

For those of us who like grand narratives, I just read an excellent book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, the 2004 CBC Massey Lectures. His method of comparative prehistory and his conclusions are very similar to those of Jared Diamond's Collapse, but a good deal more straightforward. In a nutshell, here is what he said, keeping in mind Einstein's statement that "anything that can fit in a nutshell probably belongs there."

Wright says:
  • As societies become larger and more civilized, they also become more hierarchic and shaped like a pyramid with nature at the base and a ruling elite at the top.
  • Societies survive as long as they live within their ecological limits. Those that have failed have all done so because they exceeded these limits through deforestation, salination, population, pollution, etc.
  • As they approach their limits and commodities become scarce and valuable, consumption increases. The ruling elites react with increases in oppression and militarism. Rather than addressing the ecological problem, they use violence to make sure they continue to get their share.
  • Following a period of rising poverty and rising state violence, the system rapidly collapses, like a house of cards.

The lessons for our own time are clear -- we have exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth, concerns about "security" are consuming vast resources on behalf of the wealthy while global poverty increases. Privatization and deregulation are transferring control from democratic governments to the corporate top of the pyramid, a group committed to increasing the rate of ecological destruction.

We might have a bit of extra time as a result of globalization -- past civilizations such as the Roman empire that spread over a variety of ecosystems tended to outlast those, like Sumeria, that depended on only one.

He comments, "I honestly don't know what the activist 'dinosaurs' -- the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right -- think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests."

Download a podcast of Wright's chapter 1 from CBC Ideas.

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