A Review of Ronald Wright (2004) A Short History of Progress, Toronto: House of Anansi Press.
Aldous Huxley wrote that ‘technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.’ Our capacity and desire to advance motivates ‘progress’, but this can also be our undoing. Simply put, humans may be too intelligent for our own good. Ronald Wright muses upon this paradox in his superbly written book, A Short History of Progress. He laments the tendency of humankind to repetitively fuel the locomotive of progress, failing to heed the destruction in its wake.
Wright challenges us to recognise this destruction, and learn from the ‘black boxes’ of failed civilisations in order to change the course of our collective future. He wants us to address the third question posed by Paul Gauguin on his vast nineteenth century painting: ‘where are we going?’ And he claims now is the time to answer this question, since ‘the world has grown too small to forgive us any big mistakes.’
Indeed, now is the time when it is popular to pose such grand questions. As vehement debate over climate change, globalisation and poverty rages, authors like Wright and Jared Diamond (Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel) find an apparently receptive audience of post-millennial readers still half-expecting the apocalypse. In contrast to Diamond’s tomes, however, Wright possesses the extraordinary ability to shrewdly address the fundamental puzzles of our very existence, providing both a convincing response and a call to action, in less than 150 pages.
Wright explores two civilisations that failed (Easter Island and Sumer); two that foundered but survived (Rome and the Maya); and two that prospered (Egypt and China). He concludes that in plundering natural resources with scant regard for the consequences, humans have consistently failed to act in our own interests. Moreover, we are hindered by our propensity to hope that things will improve without pausing to learn from history.
The ‘myth of progress’ has precipitated innovation and invention. However, if we cannot overcome our collective myopia, we risk continuing to fall into self-constructed ‘progress traps’. Technology has facilitated our material progress, but has also become dangerous – quite literally with respect to advances in weaponry. But another danger is less immediately tangible: the slow burn of environmental degradation, propelled by our ever-increasing consumption. Our apparent inability to ensure the ‘health of land and water’ is not new; it plagued previous generations. Thus we must learn from the past in order to change the course of the future.
This is indeed an astute observation. But I fear we are not capable of Wright’s proposed ‘transition from short term to long term thinking.’ Wright’s written expression is intelligible, and the credibility of his arguments is fortified by his adroit use of evidence. Yet there is little evidence that the ability to engage in self-reflexive contemplation will re-orient our progress.
We are indeed ‘experimental creatures of our own making’; we are the products of the culture, science and political life that our ancestors constructed. But we cannot fully identify with those ancestors, or more importantly, with our descendants who will inherit our achievements and mistakes. Our culture is one of short-term gratification. Ultimately we only make plans and pursue goals that we can bring to fruition in our lifetimes.
I found the premise of Wright’s central argument to be somewhat ambiguous. He claims that civilisation began accidentally, as an ‘unconscious experiment’. Nevertheless, ‘two cultural experiments’ met in the sixteenth century and found their civilisations ‘had evolved independently on both sides of the earth’. Wright argues that the Spaniards’ arrival in America thus suggests that we are ‘predictable creatures’. Is it not the case, then, that our unconsciousness is to be expected? Was our early development really so accidental?
According to Wright, Sumer was the first civilisation to develop independently, and Easter Island one of the last. That both ultimately failed suggests that civilisations must share resources, ideas and information in order to survive; or, for the misanthropic, in order to rape the earth’s bounty on a mass scale, by extending each civilisation’s reach once its own territory is barren.
Easter Island is a particularly fascinating case; its isolation meant that once the island’s resources had been pillaged, the population dwindled. As a microcosm of civilisation, it tells a chilling tale of humans’ lack of foresight. What most engaged me in this book was Wright’s belief that we have a chance to overcome the myopia that he demonstrates has been endemic throughout history.
Why does Wright believe we are any more ‘conscious’ of our experiment today? Certainly we have the intelligence and the knowledge to arouse this consciousness – to monitor how our experiment is progressing. But we also have the means to choose not to be conscious. We do not wish to live our lives in a state of constant self-reflexive scrutiny. This would detract from our quality of life today – or for the more cynical, our ability to engage in self-justification. Like the Easter Islanders, we will continue to ‘rob the future to pay the present’; we have not learned any other means to exist, and have no sufficient incentive to do so.
Wright may well believe this also, but he is virtually obligated to give the reader some hope; prophesying dystopia does not facilitate a widespread readership. William Golding did not appear to bear the same burden. The Inheritors had a profound influence on me when I was seventeen. It seemed to elucidate the problems with which I was grappling in my archetypal adolescent torpor: humanity is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since we developed a sense of self, and thus of ‘other’. Accompanying such awareness was the capacity for selfishness, greed, anger and hate. Golding’s early man was harmonious because he lacked such emotions; he was exposed to them only when a more advanced species arrived.
The depravity of man is thus proportionate to his mental capacity. As soon as our intelligence enabled a sense of ‘us and them’, we were doomed to engage in what Wright calls ‘ruthless victories’. The detriment of our myopia is thus compounded by our propensity for violence in place of peaceful resolution, as Wright recognises. However, he believes we can learn from the past; I feel all we can learn is that descent into the progress trap is inevitable.
A Short History of Progress is certainly important, and the lucidity, elegance and humour of Wright’s work make his message accessible and cogent. He deftly provides persuasive answers to the question ‘where did we come from?’ But I fear he is optimistic in his hope that enough individuals will bother to ask ‘where are we going?’ let alone seek to shape the answer. Wright may have revealed the tripwire to the booby trap of progress, but seeing it more clearly does not mean we will cease to hurtle directly towards it.