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The Dangers of Progress


A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright is one of the most important books I’ve ever come across. I first read it almost six years ago. It’s the book that opened my eyes to the sheer urgency of the crises that face us. If I’d never read it, I might never have started this blog.

At 132 pages it truly is “short”, but in scope it is incredibly broad. It sums up humanity from prehistory to today, stopping along the way to examine the stories of civilizations that flourished for a time–and then collapsed. Similar issues are associated with every fall: disease, political corruption, war, drought, trade disruption, rebellion, et cetera. But Wright sees all these problems as arising from a repeated transgression of environmental limits, to the point that the land can no longer sustain large populations. “The lesson I read in the past,” he writes, “is this: that the health of land and water–and of woods, which are the keepers of water–can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”

There is one crucial difference, however, between past civilizations and ours: the one we live in is worldwide.

Ecological abuse is the reason it was necessary to start living sedentary lives–based on agriculture–in the first place. During the Upper Palaeolithic period, which ended roughly 10,000 years ago, our ancestors improved hunting to the point where they were capable of killing thousands of animals at a time. The invention of the bow and arrow was a huge lurch forward, and so was their method of driving entire herds over cliffs. Archaeological digs have uncovered many of their slaughter sites. At one, a thousand mammoths were killed, the majority left to rot. At another, 100,000 horses. The tradition of human waste spans millennia. When all the large mammals had disappeared in one region, our ancestors migrated to the next. They didn’t slow down until they’d rendered hunting unfeasible as a way of sustaining large populations.

Fortunately, around this time agriculture was discovered in several areas of the world.

Wright scrutinizes the factors contributing to the collapse of several agrarian societies throughout history. Perhaps most striking is the story of Easter Island. This island was settled during the fifth century A.D., and soon developed a culture whose religion required that ancestors be honoured  with large stone statues. These were hewn from the walls of a crater and hauled to altars near the shore. Over the centuries they became more and more extravagant, requiring increasing quantities of timber, rope and manpower for their construction and relocation. By 1400 A.D., the last tree on the island had been felled.

There was enough wood to maintain a few seaworthy canoes for about a generation after the forest disappeared. After that, wood became the most precious material on the island. The warrior class took power, fighting gruesome battles and burning villages. They ate all the dogs and they ate nearly all the nesting birds. Eventually they started eating each other.

There was no longer any wood to transport the stone giants, but that didn’t slow their construction. The islanders continued to build them within the crater. Before, the tallest statue to sit on an altar was thirty-five feet high and weighed eighty tons. But once moving the sculptures was out of the question their size grew, and the tallest ever carved was sixty-five feet high and weighed two-hundred tons.

This is characteristic of every civilization Wright examines. In times of crisis the ruling class never exercises restraint. Instead they abandon sustainability for increased spending and production. The Mayan city of Tikal was built up over a millennium and a half, but the tallest towers–the ones that survive today–were constructed during the century leading up to the collapse of Mayan civilization.

Consider the parallels with modern times. Consider the $1.2 billion dollars spent on the G20 summit held in Toronto last summer, or the exorbitant bonuses bankers receive despite continued economic turmoil.

As always, these excesses are paid for by the poor as well as the environment. It’s in the interest of the elites to sustain and widen the economic gap between rich people and poor people. The existence of this gap is the reason the wealthy are able to prosper even when civilizations are on their last legs. For instance, by the end of the 20th century the combined wealth of the three richest Americans exceeded that of the world’s 48 poorest countries.

Historically, the eve of collapse is also often characterized by increased militarism, like the warrior class taking power on Easter Island. Recent times have certainly seen no shortage of warfare. Wright points to the modern surrender of civil liberties in the name of preventing terrorism. He compares it to the abuses of the Spanish Inquisition and the paranoia surrounding communists during the Cold War.

The scope of terrorism doesn’t justify the resources invested in fighting it. While the three thousand lost in the September 11th attacks were tragic, 25,000 die every day from contaminated water. Instead of addressing only the symptoms of terrorism, Wright advocates focusing on the causes, which, in many cases, are also the causes of environmental degradation. In 1998 the UN calculated that $40 billion, invested wisely, could provide clean water, sanitation and other basic needs for Earth’s most impoverished people. Since economic security fosters lower birth rates, caring for the poor would also address our growing overpopulation problem. Wright calls for sharing resources and dispensing basic health care and birth control.

Most importantly, he says, we urgently need to “set economic limits in line with natural ones.” A Pentagon report leaked in 2003 predicted worldwide famine, anarchy and warfare within a generation should the harshest models of climate change prove true. As I discussed here, due to global warming 40% of the world’s phytoplankton–which produce 50% of the world’s oxygen–has disappeared. We don’t completely understand the Earth’s climate, but it seems pretty clear that continued abuse will yield devastating consequences.

We have to do what has never been done before: consciously set a course for our society, and stick to it. The good news, as Wright points out, is that we have the advantage of knowing not only of the dangers we face, but also of the mistakes made by past civilizations in the face of similar dangers. History doesn’t have to repeat itself.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Raven Warren permalink
    02/22/2011 3:32 PM

    This article really put things into perspective for me. The section on Easter Island was so interesting and 25,000 people a day is an astounding number. I love this: “Wright advocates focusing on the causes, which, in many cases, are also the causes of environmental degradation…We have to do what has never been done before: consciously set a course for our society, and stick to it.” Looking forward to the next one, Scott :)

  2. Courtney permalink
    02/23/2011 12:08 AM

    Come on people, start sharing these articles…

  3. The GeWf permalink
    02/27/2011 6:25 PM

    This is interesting.
    I am interested.
    Interest: not just for creditcards

  4. Anonymous permalink
    10/19/2011 9:53 AM

    Fascinating data and a very inconvenient truth for far too many of us, including me.

    Who once said, intelligence is suicidal?



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