A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright (Anansi), 211 pages, $18.95 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
This book, consisting of five linked essays, reproduces the Massey Lectures broadcast over five nights last month on CBC Radio One. The "progress" of the title refers to the economic and material advances that have come about through various technologies. Our advances, though, often leave us in what historian Wright calls the progress trap: we are able to solve problems in the short term but leave more devastating problems, like environmental destruction, in our wake.
The author also looks to abuses of the environment as the main factor behind the collapse of past civilizations - obsessive deforestation in ancient Rome, topsoil erosion in Sumer and resource consumption on Easter Island.
Wright is at his best when he traces the history of indigenous people in South and Central America, examining how the vast and complex empires of the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas slowly declined and were plundered by contact with Western explorers.
His less thorough treatment of ancient Egypt and China attributes their slower decline to their less intense impact on the environment rather than their diverse economies.
Our current global civilization is the most complex and integrated that has yet existed. Wright sees this as dangerous, as we are experiencing an unsustainable level of growth. He doesn't address the fact that as societies grow richer, though, they are often able to make technological decisions that eventually ease their load on the environment (not that they always do) - like sulphur dioxide scrubbers in factories.
The writing in the book is taut and focused, but like any idea shaped to fit a broadcast format, suffers from the choice to chop some excellent content in order to fit into five one-hour time slots. Some of the best commentary is found in the book's footnotes, which were added by the author after the lectures were complete .
The book is thoughtful and well footnoted, but as the title hints, is too slim a volume for such a heavy topic.
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