Book Review: A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress” was published as part of the Massey Lectures presented by the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation). It is essentially a discussion of human progress with a particular focus on the fall of past civilizations; in specific, the book focuses on civilizations that progressed at a rate or to a point that could not be sustained by the environment in which they were located. He also discusses progress traps which are technological advances that are initially useful but can become dangerous to society.

For example, Wright described the history of the Polynesian society on Easter Island. This once prosperous society grew at an incredible rate using their resources with little forward thinking. Resources were abused and the elite over-consumed, eventually eroding the land to such a state that it could not support further vegetation. The society began to die off and ended up in a state of chaos and cannibalism.

This is only one of the many examples presented by Wright (others are Sumer, Rome and Maya). The consistent element in all of the examples was that the ecological deterioration was not sudden, but was a slow decline that should have been easily seen by members of the society. Wright poses that concerns for sustainability were set aside in favour of progress resulting in collapse, and that present capitalist progress may be headed down the same path.

Wright does not present many new ideas in his book or offer many recommendations, however what he has accomplished is creating a concise and convincing discussion that is easily read and understood by everyone. Some might think that the conclusions are a little extreme given that our civilization differs from those in the past in terms of technology and globalization.

Wright completes the book (a concise and surprisingly entertaining 130 pages!) by attempting to draw a parallel to the current state of human civilization. We continue to progress thought technological innovation; however is this progress sustainable? If the progress is not planned and there is no focus on the long term ecological inputs, are we also doomed to collapse?

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Posted in sustainable development, sustainable living
One comment on “Book Review: A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
  1. jeremy says:

    Anna – Thanks for your post! This is on my reading list. You have spurred me on to place an order with Amazon now. If you are interested, I have a podcast from Australian radio which includes an interview with Wright.

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