A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS: Now Is Our Last Chance to Avert Chaos and Get the Future Right

By Wright, Ronald | CCPA Monitor, September 2005 | Go to article overview

A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS: Now Is Our Last Chance to Avert Chaos and Get the Future Right


Wright, Ronald, CCPA Monitor


Historian Ronald Wright's Massey Lectures on the CBC last year were later converted into a best-selling book, A Short History of Progress, The following article contains the full text of Chapter 5, "The Rebellion of the Tools."

I have a weakness for cynical graffiti. One relevant to the hazards of progress is this: "Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up." The collapse of the first civilization on Earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions.

So far [in previous chapters of the book] we've looked at four ancient societies-Sumer, Rome, the Maya, Easter Island-which, in roughly a thousand years each, wore out their welcome from nature and collapsed. I've also mentioned two exceptions, Egypt and China, who achieved a run of 3,000 years or more. Joseph Tainter, in his book on past collapses, nicknames three kinds of trouble the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards. These usually act together. The Sumerians' irrigation was certainly a runaway train, a disastrous course from which they could not deviate; the rulers' failure to tackle the problem qualifies them as dinosaurs, and the civilization's swift and irreparable fall shows it to have been a house of cards.

Much the same can be said of the other failures. We are faced by something deeper than mistakes at any particular time or place. The invention of agriculture is itself a runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem because of two inevitable (or nearly inevitable) consequences. The first is biological: the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. The second is social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around. The economist Thomas Malthus explored the first dilemma, and thinkers from Christ to Marx have touched on the second. As the Chinese saying has it: "A peasant must stand a long time on the hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in."

Civilization is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps. A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea. While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn't easily moved. This human inability to foresee-or to watch out for-long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

Yet despite the wreckage of past civilizations littering the Earth, the overall experiment of civilization has continued to spread and grow. The numbers (insofar as they can be estimated) break down as follows: a world population of about 200 million at Rome's height, in the second century A.D.; about 400 million by 1500, when Europe reached the Americas; one billion people by 1825, at the start of the Coal Age; 2 billion by 1925, when the oil Age gets under way; and 6 billion by the year 2000. Even more startling than the growth is the acceleration. Adding 200 million after Rome took thirteen centuries; adding the last 200 million took only three years.

We tend to regard our age as exceptional, and in many ways it is. But the parochialism of the present-the way our eyes follow the ball and not the game-is dangerous. Absorbed in the here and now, we lose sight of our course through time, forgetting to ask ourselves Paul Gauguin's final question: Where are we going? …

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