A Short History of Progress Summary

Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress

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A Short History of Progress Summary

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Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004) is a compilation of a series of five Massey Lectures that Wright delivered in Canada for a CBC radio program Ideas. The book tracks the conception and dissolution of four primordial human civilizations: the Maya, Romans, Sumerians, and people of Easter Island, including research about the Stone Age, to postulate what might have caused them to die out. Wright uses these long-term histories, full of triumphs and failures, to analyze modern assumptions about human progress. He pushes back on the notion that the twentieth century has been our best example of progress, citing overconsumption, population control problems, and the destruction of climate and other natural systems. The book has received positive criticism for its broad and well-reasoned survey of human history.

Wright begins with a triad of questions: “Where do we come from?”, “What are we?”, and “Where are we going?” He employs a definition of progress from nineteenth-century Europe, which conceived of it as humankind’s stadial theoretic transformation through successive levels of existential improvement. Some improvements, in his opinion, are definite, such as the discovery of fire. He articulates the story of the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon, two primitive tribes that engaged in a continuous war, which eventuated in the triumph of the Neanderthals. Wright argues that many of the historical artifacts we associate with progress are actually “progress traps,” erroneous glorifications of cultures, innovations, and ignored problems that would one day prove destructive.

In “The Great Experiment,” Wright analyzes the evolution of hunting. He argues that the invention of hunting tools was a progress trap. Initially, the proliferation of these tools freed up time for art and other forms of acculturation. However, the tools led to the endangerment or extinction of many large animal species. As humans relied on the hunting of smaller and smaller animals, their efforts became less efficient, and humans lost the free time they formerly had. Wright argues that the agricultural revolution placed a similar tax on the natural world, initially improving human life but, eventually, causing systemic destruction. Given these phenomena, he equates the total narrative of humanity to one big experiment that is perpetually under revision and inconclusive.

“Fools’ Paradise,” examines Sumer and Easter Island, two civilizations that collapsed once humans depleted all of their available resources. Easter Island relied on logging to create the boats needed for resource gathering and tools for the construction of its many statues. The civilization perished in a trivial war. Sumer desertified itself, salinating the soil through the overuse of land clearing and irrigation. Wright contends that the best measure of a civilization’s success so far is how it preserves the quantity and health of its natural resources.

“Pyramid Schemes” follows the Mayans and Romans. Both were run by hierarchical governments and collapsed in similar ways after the bureaucracy became spread too thin. Here, Wright generalizes a thesis implied earlier about the overconsumption of resources, stating that all complex systems ultimately produce smaller and smaller returns from innovation. In the cases of these two civilizations, the cost of maintaining a central bureaucracy was so high that they succumbed to war. Wright outlines, in contrast, the governments of ancient China and ancient Egypt, which used environment-friendly agricultural methods, and were lucky to have a surplus of resources, such that they never fell victim to fatal resource scarcity.

In Wright’s final section, “The Rebellion of the Tools,” he attempts to answer his final question: “Where are we going?” He suggests that the reforms necessary to make modern societies sustainable are being curtailed by self-interested parties, who promote the free market at all costs and the corporate consolidation of power. In his view, we are on track to meet the same fate as past failed civilizations. He condemns arrogance and greed, vices indicative of short-term thinking that fails to learn from the past. In the end, Wright believes that modern society can succeed, being essentially different from past ones in its knowledge of history and ability to learn from it. A Short History of Progress does not place fundamental limits on the capacities for or definitions of “progress,” arguing, instead, that the word itself is amenable to reinterpretation and improvement.