Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress

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  • Features 5 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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A Short History of Progress Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 39-page guide for “A Short History of Progress” by Ronald Wright includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Progress Trap as a Unanimous Cultural Pattern and Social Stratification as a By-product of Urban Civilization.

Plot Summary

This study guide refers to the 2004 House of Anansi edition of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. The book is a printed version of five Massey Lectures that Wright delivered in Canada in 2004. Wright is a Canadian author of historical fiction and non-fiction with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics. This lecture series uses Wright’s unique set of skills as a storyteller and student of history to provide a sweeping and highly readable account of human progress from the initial evolution of the species to the present day. Examining several of the world’s great historical civilizations, including the people of Sumer, the Mayans, and the Romans, Wright argues that all successful cultures eventually fall victim to “progress traps:” technological adaptations which allow excessive collection of resource wealth leading first to luxury, and then inevitable collapse due to overtaxed systems. Identifying specific progress traps in each of the cultures he studies, Wright’s book warns our current global civilization that we must begin to think about the long-term sustainability of our resource use if we wish to alter the future that history set out for us.

Chapter 1, “Gauguin’s Questions,” asks three questions inspired by the work of French painter Paul Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wright will attempt to answer these questions over the course of the book. After providing a history of the Victorian ideal of progress and its current-day appeal, he proposes his concept of the progress trap. Wright then provides a history of early homo sapiens evolution and differentiation from Neanderthals, which the limited archaeological evidence suggests may have been a violent relationship. Through this narrative, Wright proposes that humans predisposed to inventiveness, but also violence and excess. We are, in other words, programmed for progress traps. This chapter informs us of where we come from and what we are to reflect on where we may be going as a species.

Chapter 2, “The Great Experiment,” covers two progress traps of ancient history. The first is the development of Old Stone Age hunting techniques that led to the ecological decimation of megafauna prey populations. This progress trap eventually gave way to a second, more geographically expansive trap, the slow development of agricultural sedentism that began around 10,000 years ago and led to the world’s first urban settlements.  Today agriculture remains our only method of sustaining the world’s vast populations, but it is undertaken at great expense to the environments around us and is a deceptively fragile support system for the human species.

Chapter 3, “Fool’s Paradise,” covers how two historical civilizations fell victim to a similar progress trap. The people of Easter Island constructed maoi, the famous “Easter Island heads.” These statues are remnants of a display of cultural competition and prestige. Highly expensive to the island’s limited resources, this cultural competition eventually bankrupted the island’s forests, and the prosperous society of Easter Island descended into violence and poverty. Similarly, the people of Sumer, early adopters of agriculture that lived in large cities by 3000 BC, paid for their progress with environmental unsustainability and eventual collapse caused by excessive farming and deforestation. Both cultures, before they collapsed, showed evidence of the development of social elites who contributed to environmental abuses—another example of how humans seem programmed for greed and excess.

Chapter 4, “Pyramid Schemes,” explains how two historically discrete empires, the Mayan and Roman, used the same “pyramid scheme” model of social organization: drawing wealth from the geographical as well as social periphery towards the center, where elites lived high. This pyramid scheme model of society demonstrates how human excess leads to unsustainable ecological as well as social hierarchies. Eventually, both these cultures outgrew the limits of their landscapes’ abilities to support them and collapsed. Other cultures, such as that of ancient Egypt and China, were luckier with the conditions of the landscapes they inhabited, helping them to survive for much longer before reaching their limits.

Chapter 5, “The Rebellion of the Tools,” begins by explaining how the colonization of the Americas allowed Europe to survive past its own geographical limits and develop the capital that led to the Industrial Revolution. Today, the technological advances that this revolution brought us have also allowed us to stave off agricultural collapse. Ultimately, however, as both the histories covered throughout the book and the statistics detailed in its final pages show, we will bring about this collapse unless we decide to change our resource strategies.

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Chapter 1