A Short History of Progress

Wow! Ronald Wright really has written a shorty at 132 pages of contents, the rest being notes, etc. But the writing is a gem, encrusted with phrases such as: “several yeasty times when [civilisation] rose quite suddenly and spilled across the kitchen”; “we are running 21st-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago” [to illustrate our culture overlaid on our physiology].

So, what has progress to date been? In brief: collapse. The author demonstrates how this happened for the civilisations of Sumer, Easter Island and Rome. He also shows how they responded and all the way through I was going: “Yup, yup, tick that box; that’s what we’re doing.”

The most egregious of these was the end-of-empire mania for building. Look at our empty business parks, shoddy housing estates, strangulating roads and cancerous airports – all grandiose follies. We’re following these people down the same road to ruin. Now.

Another similarity is our need for a scapegoat. To continue the quoting: “The Muslim fanatic is proving a worthy replacement for the heretic, the anarchist, and especially the Red Menace…”

The book is an interesting contrast to The Long Summer and answers one question that the latter rather glossed over: how come agriculture didn’t kick in before 10,000 years ago? The motivation had been there for tens of thousands of years as had humanity’s smartness. Then it sprang up in multiple, independent locations. The reason seems to be the climate‘s recent long stability; before that it was all over the place.

Makes sense to keep it as stable as possible then, since agriculture underpins the progress of civilisation. So, guess what we’re cooking up. We could be brewing the end of progress, which seems to be the lot of agricultural societies anyway. Or worse, in the form of collapse.

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