A Short History of Progress | Ronald Wright

The cover of A Short History of Progress by Ronald WrightMost of us take civilization for granted—Ronald Wright does not.

For Wright, civilization is a relatively recent experiment with devastating consequences in many of its forms. He centres his talks on four main societies that all self-destructed:

  1. Sumer
  2. Rome
  3. Maya
  4. Easter Island

Societies destroy themselves when they (seemingly inevitably) overuse their environmental assets. The societies which didn’t self-destruct (Egypt and China) only remained viable because of their special-case natural resources. China had an abnormal amount of topsoil which sustained their soil-degrading farming practices, while Egypt had the Nile which brought new resources from the South every season.

This is a stern warning to us since Western society is following all the societies that crashed before it. As the cynical graffiti says, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” (107).

Wright’s argument is solid, although his cavalier throw-away statements towards Judaism and Christianity are irritating. Take this example in his discussion about ancient Sumer (65):

Legends we know from the Hebrew Bible—the Garden of Eden, the Flood—appear in Gilgamesh in earlier forms, along with other tales deemed too racy, perhaps, for inclusion in the Pentateuch.

He’s half right—the Garden of Eden and the Flood do exist in earlier literary form in Gilgamesh. He wildly misunderstands the nature of the Pentateuch, though. Those ancient stories were rewritten as a polemic against the surrounding nation’s polytheistic milieu.

(Also, if Wright thinks Gilgamesh contains stories too racy for the Pentateuch, then he clearly hasn’t read the Pentateuch!)

Despite these minor irritations, A Short History of Progress is a highly readable ecological treatise. It deserves a wide reading today.

—Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Toronto, ON: Anansi Press, 2004).

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