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Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided an answer, whether we care to notice or not. From Neanderthal man to the Sumerians to the Roman Empire, A Short History of Progress dissects the cyclical nature of humanity's development and demise, the 10,000-year old experiment that we've unleashed but have yet to control. It is Wright's contention that only by understanding and ultimately breaking from the patterns of progress and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we avoid the onset of a new Dark Age. Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance. Wright's book is brilliant; a fascinating rumination on the hubris at the heart of human development and the pitfalls we still may have time to avoid.


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Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself: This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a-convincing case that history has always provided an answer, whether we care to notice or not. From Neanderthal man to the Sumerians to the Roman Empire, A Short History of Progress dissects the cyclical nature of humanity's development and demise, the 10,000-year old experiment that we've unleashed but have yet to control. It is Wright's contention that only by understanding and ultimately breaking from the patterns of progress and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we avoid the onset of a new Dark Age. Wright illustrates how various cultures throughout history have literally manufactured their own end by producing an overabundance of innovation and stripping bare the very elements that allowed them to initially advance. Wright's book is brilliant; a fascinating rumination on the hubris at the heart of human development and the pitfalls we still may have time to avoid.

30 review for A Short History of Progress

  1. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    I got a new friend on Good Reads the other day and glanced down her favourite quotes and spotted two quotes from this book – from the 2003 Massey Lectures. I’m quite fond of the Messey lectures as they are often really very good. Not all that different (in quality or style) from the Reith Lectures in Britain or even Australia’s very own Boyer Lectures (whose name I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to remember – a bit embarrassing that, when you think of it). This one was really very inter I got a new friend on Good Reads the other day and glanced down her favourite quotes and spotted two quotes from this book – from the 2003 Massey Lectures. I’m quite fond of the Messey lectures as they are often really very good. Not all that different (in quality or style) from the Reith Lectures in Britain or even Australia’s very own Boyer Lectures (whose name I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to remember – a bit embarrassing that, when you think of it). This one was really very interesting – a bit like a cross between Collapse and Germs, Guns and Steel, if shorter and sometimes funnier. The argument is pretty simple – we humans tend to make pretty much the same mistakes with this civilisation thing over and over again. He refers to these mistakes as ‘progress traps’. A really nice example of progress traps is the idea that it is great to build a village beside a river, but a pretty stupid idea to build a city beside one. It is a good idea for a village as the land beside the river generally has excellent soil for growing food. But villages tend to become cities by building and paving over what was once our best farming land. Bit of a mistake that, really. This problem is only made worse when we need to feed more people and to do that by growing food on what is increasingly more marginal land. Do you know when someone says something and suddenly a whole series of ideas that you’ve known forever suddenly snap into place? That happened here when he talked about the relationship between rivers and salinity. Here is what I already knew. One of the first extinction events in the history of our planet occurred when trees first started growing. They broke up the soil and it was this that released salts into rivers that then flowed into the seas. After a while (a very long while) this caused oceans to become increasingly salty and that subtle and slow acting change killed off many of the biota (I’ve been wanting to use that word for ages) living on the planet, causing one of the first mass extinction events. What I hadn’t thought of was the idea that rivers (which we generally think of as being filled with ‘fresh’ water) are actually the source of salt water. Except, clearly I did sort of know this before, I just didn’t really understand all of the implications. Now, what I learnt from this book was that one of the things we humans do (one of the progress traps we find ourselves in) is to use rivers to irrigate our fields. We channel what is deceptively mostly fresh water (with tiny amounts of salt) onto our fields where we grow our food. The water evaporates and leaves behind tiny amount of salt – repeat this process with abandon over a couple of hundreds of years and the field stops being able to produce food anymore. He also discusses the other little problem we have with food – the fact that animals that only eat one kind of food generally end up extinct when something bad happens to that particular food type – think Giant Panda or Koala or Humans. We like to think of ourselves as omnivores, but in fact, our food of choice, despite appearances, is oil. We use it to grow all of the other foods we eat (super nitrate anyone?) and to transport our food from distant fields to supermarkets to kitchen. When the oil runs out we have much more to lose than just the convenience of getting from here to there in a SUV with only ourselves on board. Comparisons are made here with the collapse of other civilisations that have existed along the way and the remarkably common features each of these collapses had. Generally these involved people living beyond their means, fouling their own nests and then finding that nature doesn’t always come ‘roaring back again’. The book ends with something that I’ve been becoming increasingly concerned about over the last little while. It is the idea that what is most likely to presage collapse is the increasing inequity of the distribution of the wealth of society. This was true, it seems, of the collapse of the Mayans, also the less than happy folk of Easter Island, of Rome and the frighteningly close and all too recent ‘end of the world event’ we had in the Great Depression. It seems that wealth distribution tends to become absurdly unequal as things become increasingly dire and precarious for civilisation. And with increasing greed comes increasing unconcern (‘no, that’s fine, cut down the last tree, pull out the last fish, hunt the last whale – God will provide, bring on the end times, science will fix things’) until beyond the time when we have gone too far. On a planet where we are quickly and quietly heading towards a population of seven billion people with stagnant (perhaps even diminishing) food production, maybe now is a good time to start thinking about if our practices are sustainable long term what we can do about them if they are not. Instead we seem to be doing quite the opposite, gorging ourselves with both hands. And talk about inequitable distribution. As he says here, at the time of writing the richest three people in the world owned as much as the bottom 48 countries. Has there ever been a time in human history when such incomprehensible inequity existed? I’ve been surprised by how often, in discussion inequity of this scale with Americans on various internet sites, that I’m told that I wouldn’t understand freedom as I live in a socialist country. Firstly, Australia is about as close to being a socialist country as my arse is to being a sharpshooter – and secondly, what sort of freedom is it where one person has everything and everyone else sees their wealth diminishing towards nothing? He explains this paradox by quoting a line of Steinbeck: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporality embarrassed millionaires.” This book seeks to provide comfort by the thought that we have lived through these kinds of collapses before and that we can therefore finally learn from past errors and change enough this time so as to avert catastrophe. I guess you can almost smell the error in that little piece of logic – the all too dismally apparent fact that the one thing we never learn from is history – particularly ‘other people’s history’. So, although this book isn’t unremittingly depressing, it comes fairly close. I recommend it all the same.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Renee

    Ronald Wright bases his book/lecture series around three seemingly simple, yet profound questions that have haunted human beings since time began. 'Where did we come from?' 'What are we?' 'Where are we going?' If you have any curiosity about the answers to these questions, don't hesitate to pick up 'A Short history of progress'. From these three questions, Wright takes us on a whirlwind tour of human history, from the dawn of humanity to the present day. By answering the first two questions, Wrigh Ronald Wright bases his book/lecture series around three seemingly simple, yet profound questions that have haunted human beings since time began. 'Where did we come from?' 'What are we?' 'Where are we going?' If you have any curiosity about the answers to these questions, don't hesitate to pick up 'A Short history of progress'. From these three questions, Wright takes us on a whirlwind tour of human history, from the dawn of humanity to the present day. By answering the first two questions, Wright seeks to answer to third and most difficult question, 'Where are we going?'. Unsurprisingly, the outlook is bleak. Wright predicts that our society will collapse like so many other ancient civilisations, Easter Island and Sumerian society being the most prominent examples, but on a much grander scale. To avoid the downfall of our civilisation, we must wake up and realise that we can no longer afford to repeat history. What sets Wright apart from other historians is his talent for compressing so much into so little time, while preserving the essence of his material. His biting wit, skill with language and dry sense of humour make his lectures a pleasure to listen to (contrast to the average university lecture!). Wright’s book, despite the breadth of its subject matter, is extremely readable. Compared to Jared Diamond’s verbose works, ‘A Short History’ is accessible to even the least academically inclined among us.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Hadrian

    Short tract on the hazards of unlimited growth with limited resources, exploitation of the masses and nature, colonialism, monoculture, etc. Vivid preaching rhetoric, but unfortunately leaves no hints of real solutions except some fuzzy 'power to the masses' stuff, and an emphasis on 'long-term thinking'. All of which are sound ideas, but it's up to other people for their implementation. Time to get to business.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    A solid, information-filled history of human civilizations and their downfalls or demises, in just 132 pages of text and 54 pages of substantive endnotes. I had wondered whether the 2004 publication date would make a difference, but except for some new discoveries in the paleontological record of Neanderthals, it really does not, since this is a big-picture, panoramic long-view study. Interesting that this could be read as a sort of condensed version of Diamond's Collapse - but I think Wright to A solid, information-filled history of human civilizations and their downfalls or demises, in just 132 pages of text and 54 pages of substantive endnotes. I had wondered whether the 2004 publication date would make a difference, but except for some new discoveries in the paleontological record of Neanderthals, it really does not, since this is a big-picture, panoramic long-view study. Interesting that this could be read as a sort of condensed version of Diamond's Collapse - but I think Wright took a swipe at Diamond - can't find the reference now and he's in the biblio. but not the index. While listening to Krista Tippett's book a few days ago I heard Richard Rodriquez talk about visiting the desolate deserts of the Middle East's Holy Lands, and coming to a deep realization of the significance of that lonely desert landscape in the origin of monotheism and emergence of three world religions. It was persuasive in a sort of woo-woo way and I didn't think about it too critically. Reading Wright's book reminded that it was once fertile crescent of marshes and waterways, irrigation and agriculture, that became desert through a combination of climate change and misuse/overuse. There is a lesson there that is important not to forget.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Magdelanye

    In crisp,accessible prose, RW reframes the notion of progress in this concise but sweeping assessment of the predicament of civilizations and the repetitive pattern of destruction. Commencing with Gauguin's three apocryphal questions(where do we come from?what are we? Where are we going?) he commences to answer them in order to use this knowledge to "plot a wise course" for "the future of everything we have accomplished since intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the In crisp,accessible prose, RW reframes the notion of progress in this concise but sweeping assessment of the predicament of civilizations and the repetitive pattern of destruction. Commencing with Gauguin's three apocryphal questions(where do we come from?what are we? Where are we going?) he commences to answer them in order to use this knowledge to "plot a wise course" for "the future of everything we have accomplished since intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years." p3 RW is not content to give an academic overview or merely bring together obscure historical observations and new findings. He is bold enough to reach inevitable conclusions and they are sobering.He notes: Terrorism is a small threat compared with hunger,disease,or climate change....terrorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injusice,poverty,inequality,and other violence....Of corse a full belly and a fair hearing won't stop a fanatic,but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics. p126 "If we don't do these things now,while we prosper,we will never be able to do them when times get hard....Now is our last chance to get our future right." p132

  6. 5 out of 5

    Charlotte

    REQUIRED READING for every human being. A very succinct and straightforward account of how civilizations rise and fall. The basic premise is that humans usually outstrip their natural resources, making their society unstable. Civil unrest and natural disasters ensue that kill off most of the civilians and lead to the downfall of the civilization itself. Can we say "Rome" anybody? The author is hopeful that we homo sapiens can learn from the mistakes of the past and begin conserving our resources. REQUIRED READING for every human being. A very succinct and straightforward account of how civilizations rise and fall. The basic premise is that humans usually outstrip their natural resources, making their society unstable. Civil unrest and natural disasters ensue that kill off most of the civilians and lead to the downfall of the civilization itself. Can we say "Rome" anybody? The author is hopeful that we homo sapiens can learn from the mistakes of the past and begin conserving our resources. As he puts it, this has nothing to do with one's political or economical opinions. It is simply transitioning from short-term to long-term thinking. You may have a pessimistic week while reading this one, but if you're the type who would choose the red pill over the blue pill then you must read this book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Clif

    This book is short and quickly read. It was written in 2005, the same year that Jared Diamond wrote the far more detailed and penetrating account of failed societies, Collapse. Having read Diamond's book, Wright's work seems very light weight, more of a quick overview with some valuable insight offered. Wright has a very appealing way with words and I found myself saying "that's right!" many times. Take this example: "John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poo This book is short and quickly read. It was written in 2005, the same year that Jared Diamond wrote the far more detailed and penetrating account of failed societies, Collapse. Having read Diamond's book, Wright's work seems very light weight, more of a quick overview with some valuable insight offered. Wright has a very appealing way with words and I found myself saying "that's right!" many times. Take this example: "John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This helps explain why American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, why voters during the last energy shortage rejected the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and elected Ronald Reagan, who scoffed at conservation and told them it was still "morning in America". Nowhere does the myth of progress have more fervent believers." His idea is that societies box themselves in by their technologies and become incapable of changing even when there is clear evidence that what they do cannot be sustained. Like Diamond, he offers up the Maya and the Easter Islanders, but his point is general and he points out that hunting and gathering could not support more than a limited human population until farming came to the rescue. Wright attempts to look at the characteristics of human civilization per se - what do all societies have in common that can help us see where we are headed? One common thread is the movement of wealth to the top with the result that the powers that be will always want to keep things as they are to keep their benefits flowing. The book is filled with interesting factoids to stop you in your tracks: it took 19 centuries after the fall of Rome to add 200 million people to the population of the world. Now it takes only three years to add this number. It took from the dawn of time to 1825 for the human population of the Earth to reach 1 billion. We now add 1 billion in 12 years. Having read this book, Diamond's Collapse, and recently Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, I have to ponder if modern man has opened a Pandora's box with science and technology. For hundreds of thousands of years humanity was in stasis as just another form of animal. Now, seemingly empowered without limit, I wonder about the old story of the person who, questioned why he wants to climb a mountain, answers "because it's there". Humans have always been driven - it comes with being a form of life. Life in itself is driven to survive. Wright wonders if we can find out something about ourselves by looking at the behavior of past generations and then consider where we are going ("progress"). I wonder if we have any choice...pushing on is just something that we do regardless of the consequences...and we laud it as "the human spirit". For a very quick read on the topic, get this book. For the nitty gritty, scholarly, fascinatingly detailed, yet tragic accounts of cultures mentioned by Wright and more, read Collapse by Jared Diamond. This book is a caution, so is Diamond's book, but that book is heartbreaking as well because in its detail it really brings the humanity of ancient cultures home.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Keith Akers

    I read this book about 10 years ago (in 2005) and it greatly impressed me. In some ways, this is the book that Jared Diamond should have written instead of Collapse — it’s much shorter and punchier. It doesn’t have the same sort of detail and case histories that Diamond has, but he keeps the reader’s interest with his vivid writing and the sweep of the spectacle which he depicts. His prevailing image is that of "progress traps" such as befell Mesopotamia and the Maya. The wrecks of our failed ex I read this book about 10 years ago (in 2005) and it greatly impressed me. In some ways, this is the book that Jared Diamond should have written instead of Collapse — it’s much shorter and punchier. It doesn’t have the same sort of detail and case histories that Diamond has, but he keeps the reader’s interest with his vivid writing and the sweep of the spectacle which he depicts. His prevailing image is that of "progress traps" such as befell Mesopotamia and the Maya. The wrecks of our failed experiments in civilization lie scattered in deserts and jungles like crashed airliners; if we can recover the "flight recorders" we can tell what went wrong and avoid it. He also cites relatively stable civilizations such as those in Egypt and China. "The greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it all is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old" (p. 55). The main examples he relies on are Sumeria, Rome, the Maya, and Easter Island. He distinguishes between true collapses and political upheavals like the French and Russian revolutions — the exhaustion of social, rather than natural, capital. When nature starts to foreclose, the social contract breaks down. "Such a civilization is therefore most unstable at its peak, when it has reached maximum demand on the ecology. Unless a new source of wealth or energy appears, it has no room left to raise production or absorb the shock of natural fluctuations. The only way onward is to keep wringing new loans from nature and humanity" (p. 84). I’m not sure of all of his details. He says that "Rome’s ancient breadbaskets are filled with sand and dust" (p. 94). It’s true that much of North Africa has been turned to desert in the past 3000 years, but my impression was that this was due to Arab herdsmen and pastoralists who came in after the fall of Rome. There is probably some truth to the idea that Rome was weakened already through environmental damage, and perhaps Joseph Tainter underestimates the impact of the environment on Rome’s fall, but I’d like a little more detail on this point before concluding that the fall of Rome as due primarily to environmental causes. Tainter makes a good case that inflation of Rome's currency was a key factor. The last Roman emperor was deposed not after a dramatic battle but when he couldn't pay his troops. This is an excellent book. This guy can write, so it's a quick and entertaining read. He marshals his evidence quickly and convincingly, and the dominant image he leaves — of our civilization facing a crisis similar to that which faced other ancient civilizations — is one that simply cannot be dismissed.

  9. 4 out of 5

    M.J.

    In 2001, Ronald Wright was selected to give the 2004 Massey Lectures on CBC. "A Short History of Progress" was his attempt to answer three questions posed by the painter Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Unlike the last few books I've read, I can't give it an unhesitating endorsement. As the title suggests, it is short at 132 pages, but it took me nearly 3 weeks to finish. Part of that is because it has been a busy couple of weeks, but the lion's share is that I did In 2001, Ronald Wright was selected to give the 2004 Massey Lectures on CBC. "A Short History of Progress" was his attempt to answer three questions posed by the painter Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Unlike the last few books I've read, I can't give it an unhesitating endorsement. As the title suggests, it is short at 132 pages, but it took me nearly 3 weeks to finish. Part of that is because it has been a busy couple of weeks, but the lion's share is that I didn't feel the impetus to go back to the book once I put it down. It didn't catch me as other books on the subject did; I read to enjoy the well-written phrases the author linked together in his warning, but there seemed little more than that. "A Short History of Progress" is an appetizer. It is well-written, but lacks substance. Following Jared Diamond's excellent books, perhaps this was inevitable. This is a book that would serve as a wonderful introduction to someone newly introduced to our history and the impact it is having on our future, but those looking for more depth would be advised to seek out something more akin to the main course.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea

    What an amazing book. I actually heard about this while driving back to Rochester through Buffalo one night. The author was selected as the Massey Lecturer for Canada and was on the CBC basically reading the first chapter from his book. I was fucken mesmerized. The signal finally broke and I found the book and immediately read it. I've never really read any radical anthropology with the exception of David Graeber among a few others, but his writing style was totally accessible and invigorating a What an amazing book. I actually heard about this while driving back to Rochester through Buffalo one night. The author was selected as the Massey Lecturer for Canada and was on the CBC basically reading the first chapter from his book. I was fucken mesmerized. The signal finally broke and I found the book and immediately read it. I've never really read any radical anthropology with the exception of David Graeber among a few others, but his writing style was totally accessible and invigorating and his conclusions were immense--things I've never heard. I'll never forget his discussion of Gauguin's questions--who are we, where do we come from, where are we going. He used this as an analogy to create the conditions in which to explore the larger and more pressing social, historical, and biological question of "progress" and where it's taken the human species. I may need to read this book again really soon. I highly recommend it!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Nico Van Straalen

    "The human career divides in two: everything before the Neolithic Revolution and everything after it" is the phrase in the book I like quoting and it is indicative for Wright's very short treatise of the human story and his deconstruction of progress. Read this book and you learn about sapiens as much as from Harari's ten times more voluminous work.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Luise

    Sadly this book is as relevant as when it was published, and even more urgently needed.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

    This book should be compulsory reading for all world leaders. It is a collection of the lectures that Ronald Wright originally gave as part of the prestigious Canadian Massey Lecture series where an international scholar is invited to give a week long series of lectures on a political, cultural or philosophic topic. Wright's chosen topic was the way in which advanced civilisations have historically and repeatedly destroyed themselves by becoming too successful and destroying the very environments This book should be compulsory reading for all world leaders. It is a collection of the lectures that Ronald Wright originally gave as part of the prestigious Canadian Massey Lecture series where an international scholar is invited to give a week long series of lectures on a political, cultural or philosophic topic. Wright's chosen topic was the way in which advanced civilisations have historically and repeatedly destroyed themselves by becoming too successful and destroying the very environments that initially enabled them to flourish. Wright uses historical case studies of Easter Island, Sumerian, Mayan and Roman civilisations as examples of extremely successful and advanced civilisations which exhausted their natural resources through greed and untrammeled growth and paid the price. He argues that our global twentieth century civilisation is following the same pattern, but that the consequences for us will be far greater because of our huge population and inter connectedness. As he states, 'pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns.' While Wright's lectures are very sobering and scary, he offers the belief that we have the ability to turn things around because we can learn from the mistakes made by past civilisations and put in place the steps to avoid repeating them. I only wish I shared this belief. I think it highly unlikely that our world leaders will have the backbone to adopt the long term thinking needed to avoid the environmental crisis we are headed towards. This is an extremely well argued and well written book that covers a subject of incredible relevance and topicality. Everybody should read this.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    I want all of you to read this book. ALL OF YOU. It covers the most compelling issue facing our planet- the runaway train of unsustainable living we project on this world's resources. This isn't an anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-Christian, or even deep-environmentalist message. This is purely about making sure our grandchildren have clean water, clean air, viable agricultural land to support themselves, and healthy lifestyles that can escape pandemics. Wright compiled an excellent synthesis of I want all of you to read this book. ALL OF YOU. It covers the most compelling issue facing our planet- the runaway train of unsustainable living we project on this world's resources. This isn't an anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-Christian, or even deep-environmentalist message. This is purely about making sure our grandchildren have clean water, clean air, viable agricultural land to support themselves, and healthy lifestyles that can escape pandemics. Wright compiled an excellent synthesis of archaeological, evolutionary, economic, social, medical, and environmental information through case studies of past civilizations that have failed. Whether it was from killing off all the big game by hunting unsustainably (early Homo sapiens), allowing topsoil to erode by using unsustainable agricultural practices leaving the society vulnerable to debilitating natural disasters (Sumerian flood that was the basis for the Noah's Ark myth), destroying the natural resources of a region until there is nothing left to support the society (the people of Easter Island)- we are not strangers to full civilization collapse. The difference is that these societies fell while another took their place by utilizing unspoiled natural regions. Now, we have filled every inch of useful land and are plundering it unsustainably. Policies and practice must change if we hope to maintain our prosperity and "progress".

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    For being an excellent summary of the human race since the arrival of Homo sapiens, this book already deserves high praise. Add to that the quality of the smoothly flowing prose, which made the presentation of history not only eminently readable but absorbing for its insights. Without going into too much detail on each example of failed civilisations, we are drawn to the similarities of their paths to eventual and seemingly inevitable self destruction. Indeed, the system and machinery of increas For being an excellent summary of the human race since the arrival of Homo sapiens, this book already deserves high praise. Add to that the quality of the smoothly flowing prose, which made the presentation of history not only eminently readable but absorbing for its insights. Without going into too much detail on each example of failed civilisations, we are drawn to the similarities of their paths to eventual and seemingly inevitable self destruction. Indeed, the system and machinery of increasingly complex and hierarchical human enterprise is designed and predestined to eventually collapse under it's own weight and unsustainable demands on the environment in which it grew out of. In the case of our current global civilisation, there is simply no room left on the planet for flight or to start anew as there was in the past. Wright pleads with us to heed the lessons learnt from the wreckage of past societies before it's too late, a commonly heard refrain, but one which I'm afraid will fall on our collective deaf ears as mankind accelerates towards collapse. The only question is how fast will we fall when it happens.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Dierregi

    I read this book after "Collapse", so for me it was a sort of summary of what is described in detail in Jared Diamond's excellent book (even if Wright does not agree completely with Diamond). Basically, the human race is on the brink of destructing planet Earth, because of its greed and stupidity. Other societies already accomplished the task of self-destruction, but on smaller scale and isolated environments – such as the infamous Easter Island. Nowadays, globalization means that humankind has t I read this book after "Collapse", so for me it was a sort of summary of what is described in detail in Jared Diamond's excellent book (even if Wright does not agree completely with Diamond). Basically, the human race is on the brink of destructing planet Earth, because of its greed and stupidity. Other societies already accomplished the task of self-destruction, but on smaller scale and isolated environments – such as the infamous Easter Island. Nowadays, globalization means that humankind has the power to wipe out the whole of itself, not just small populations living on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. This also thanks to neoliberal capitalism, which degrades nature into "ecosystem service" and the concept that "everything can be seen in terms of economics". Unfortunately, it looks like the monkeys already started destroying the lab and nobody will stop them...

  17. 5 out of 5

    Ozgur Baltat

    İlerlemenin Kısa Tarihi'nin yanıt aradığı sorular; Nereden geliyoruz? Neyiz? Nereye Gidiyoruz?. Yanıtları ararken izlediği yol, insanlık tarihinin geçmiş medeniyet deneyimleri. Paskalya Adaları, Sümerler, Mısırlılar, Mayalar, Romalılar, Çinliler, Mısırlılar ve diğerleri. Ne yaptılar da bu medeniyetler son buldu? Çöküşlerin ortak yönleri nelerdi : Kontrolden Çıkmış Tren, Dinazor ve İskambilden kule. Peki ya şimdi, nereye gidiyoruz? Medeniyetimizin bulunduğu noktada bunların tümünden fazlasıyla va İlerlemenin Kısa Tarihi'nin yanıt aradığı sorular; Nereden geliyoruz? Neyiz? Nereye Gidiyoruz?. Yanıtları ararken izlediği yol, insanlık tarihinin geçmiş medeniyet deneyimleri. Paskalya Adaları, Sümerler, Mısırlılar, Mayalar, Romalılar, Çinliler, Mısırlılar ve diğerleri. Ne yaptılar da bu medeniyetler son buldu? Çöküşlerin ortak yönleri nelerdi : Kontrolden Çıkmış Tren, Dinazor ve İskambilden kule. Peki ya şimdi, nereye gidiyoruz? Medeniyetimizin bulunduğu noktada bunların tümünden fazlasıyla var. Uyanın!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jamie

    I feel like I learned a lot and had my understanding of civilization blown wide open. I can't believe how clean, smart, and clear this read was. If I had skipped the footnotes, I think I could have read the whole thing in an afternoon. It's really a series of lectures, and you can listen to the whole thing on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AsPMaG...

  19. 5 out of 5

    Richard Reese

    Every year, Canadians eagerly huddle around their radios to listen to the Massey Lectures, broadcast by the CBC. For the 2004 season, Ronald Wright was the honored speaker. He presented a series of five lectures, titled A Short History of Progress. In 2005, Wright’s presentation was published as a short book, and it became a bestseller. Martin Scorsese’s movie, Surviving Progress, was based on the book. It was an amazing success for a story contrary to our most holy cultural myths. Wright believ Every year, Canadians eagerly huddle around their radios to listen to the Massey Lectures, broadcast by the CBC. For the 2004 season, Ronald Wright was the honored speaker. He presented a series of five lectures, titled A Short History of Progress. In 2005, Wright’s presentation was published as a short book, and it became a bestseller. Martin Scorsese’s movie, Surviving Progress, was based on the book. It was an amazing success for a story contrary to our most holy cultural myths. Wright believed that the benefits of progress were highly overrated, because of their huge costs. Indeed, progress was approaching the point of becoming a serious threat to the existence of humankind. “This new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.” He pointed out that the world was dotted with the ruins of ancient crash sites, civilizations that self-destructed. At each of these wrecks, modern science can, in essence, retrieve the “black box,” and discover why the mighty society crashed and burned. There is a clear pattern. Each one crashed because it destroyed what it depended on for its survival. Wright takes us on a quick tour of the collapse of Sumer, Easter Island, the Roman Empire, and the Mayans. He explains why the two oddballs, China and Egypt, are taking longer than average to self-destruct. The fatal defects of agriculture and civilization are old news for the folks who have been paying attention. It has become customary for these folks to believe that “The Fall” took place when humans began to domesticate plants and animals. Wright thinks the truth is more complicated. What makes this book unique and provocative is his notion of progress traps. The benefits of innovation often encourage society to live in a new way, while burning the bridges behind them as they advance. Society can find itself trapped in an unsustainable way of living, and it’s no longer possible to just turn around and painlessly return to a simpler mode. Like today, we know that the temporary bubble of cheap energy is about over, and our entire way of life is dependent on cheap energy. We’re trapped. Some types of progress do not disrupt the balance of the ecosystem, like using a rock to crack nuts. But our ability to stand upright freed our hands for working with tools and weapons, which launched a million year process of experimentation and innovation that gradually snowballed over time. We tend to assume that during the long era of hunting and gathering our ancestors were as mindful as the few hunting cultures that managed to survive on the fringes into the twentieth century. But in earlier eras, when big game was abundant, wise stewardship was not mandatory. Sloppy tribes could survive — for a while. Before they got horses, Indians of the American west would drive herds of buffalo off cliffs, killing many at a time. They took what they needed, and left the rest for legions of scavengers. One site in Colorado contained the carcasses of 152 buffalo. A trader in the northern Rockies witnessed about 250 buffalo being killed at one time. Wright mentioned two Upper Paleolithic sites I had not heard of — 1,000 mammoth skeletons were found at Piedmont in the Czech Republic, and the remains of over 100,000 horses were found at Solutré in France. Over time, progress perfected our hunting systems. Our supply of high-quality food seemed to be infinite. It was our first experience of prosperity and leisure. Folks had time to take their paint sets into caves and do gorgeous portraits of the animals they lived with, venerated, killed, and ate. Naturally, our population grew. More babies grew up to be hunters, and the availability of game eventually decreased. The grand era of cave painting ended, and we began hunting rabbits. We depleted species after species, unconsciously gliding into our first serious progress trap. Some groups scrambled to find alternatives, foraging around beaches, estuaries, wetlands, and bogs. Some learned how to reap the tiny seeds of wild grasses. By and by, the end of the hunting way of life came into view, about 10,000 years ago. “They lived high for a while, then starved.” Having destroyed the abundant game, it was impossible to return to simpler living. This was a progress trap, and it led directly into a far more dangerous progress trap, the domestication of plants and animals. Agriculture and civilization were accidents, and they threw open the gateway to 10,000 years of monotony, drudgery, misery, and ecocide. Wright says that civilization is a pyramid scheme; we live today at the expense of those who come after us. For most of human history, the rate of progress was so slow that it was usually invisible. But the last six or seven generations have been blindsided by a typhoon of explosive change. Progress has a habit of giving birth to problems that can only be solved by more progress. Progress was the most diabolically wicked curse you could ever imagine. Maybe we should turn it into an insulting obscenity: “progress you!” Climate scientists have created models showing weather trends over the last 250,000 years, based on ice cores. Agriculture probably didn’t start earlier because climate trends were unstable. Big swings could take place over the course of decades. In the last 10,000 years, the climate has been unusually stable. A return to instability will make civilization impossible. Joseph Tainter studied how civilizations collapse, and he described three highways to disaster: the Runaway Train (out-of-control problems), the Dinosaur (indifference to dangers), and the House of Cards (irreversible disintegration). He predicted that the next collapse would be global in scale. Finally, the solution: “The reform that is needed is… simply the transition from short-term thinking to long-term.” Can we do it? We are quite clever, but seldom wise, according to Wright. Ordinary animals, like our ancestors, had no need for long-term thinking, because life was always lived in the here and now. “Free Beer Tomorrow” reads the flashing neon sign on the tavern, but we never exist in tomorrow. The great news is that we now possess a mountain of black boxes. For the first time in the human journey, a growing number of people comprehend our great mistakes, and are capable of envisioning a new path that eventually abandons our embarrassing boo-boos forever. All the old barriers to wisdom and healing have been swept away (in theory). Everywhere you look these days; people are stumbling around staring at tiny screens and furiously typing — eagerly communicating with world experts, engaging in profound discussions, watching videos rich with illuminating information, and reading the works of green visionaries. It’s a magnificent sight to behold — the best is yet to come!

  20. 5 out of 5

    Vince

    Using historical data accumulated through archaeological investigations (physical and climatic) over the last couple of hundred years, Wright gives a concise examination of how civilizations (all agriculturally based) inevitably collapse. The details vary depending on a variety of conditions (ecological, climatic, external pressures, a combination of forces). The emphasis is on resultant complexity as technological development advances and the ultimate growth of a hierarchical class system which Using historical data accumulated through archaeological investigations (physical and climatic) over the last couple of hundred years, Wright gives a concise examination of how civilizations (all agriculturally based) inevitably collapse. The details vary depending on a variety of conditions (ecological, climatic, external pressures, a combination of forces). The emphasis is on resultant complexity as technological development advances and the ultimate growth of a hierarchical class system which generates additional internal pressures contributing to the big fail (e.g. unequal wealth distribution, large military). Wright calls these "progress traps". Some wax and wane over a relatively long period (Egypt, China), while others go down quickly. But fall they do. For greater detail Joseph Tainter is the go-to-guy. See, for example 'The Collapse of Complex Societies' (hard to find) or lots of YouTube lectures.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    I picked up this as part of my reading around the idea of History as progress for our scholarship program at school this year. Wright's text tackles the key question- where are we going? His base argument is that civilisation makes the same mistakes over and over again. Wright identifies what he terms "progress traps"- actions and developments which provide short term benefits but are ultimately evolutionarily unsustainable- they are dead ends. I thought that Wright presented this argument clearly I picked up this as part of my reading around the idea of History as progress for our scholarship program at school this year. Wright's text tackles the key question- where are we going? His base argument is that civilisation makes the same mistakes over and over again. Wright identifies what he terms "progress traps"- actions and developments which provide short term benefits but are ultimately evolutionarily unsustainable- they are dead ends. I thought that Wright presented this argument clearly- drawing on a number of sound examples to support this theory. In some sense, this was quite a bleak book to read. Ultimately, Wright really issues a call to arms- we must change our system or perish by it.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Autumn

    Preaching to the choir with me on this one, but I did enjoy it. My only criticism is that I wished is was longer and more detailed (but 'short' is part of the title, after all). Wright talks about how our current measure of progress is technology and material wealth as opposed to moral progress. He discusses the myth of progress and the trap it has set for us and how we are not learning from our past and the failed civilizations such as the Neanderthals, Sumer, and of course, Rome. This book was p Preaching to the choir with me on this one, but I did enjoy it. My only criticism is that I wished is was longer and more detailed (but 'short' is part of the title, after all). Wright talks about how our current measure of progress is technology and material wealth as opposed to moral progress. He discusses the myth of progress and the trap it has set for us and how we are not learning from our past and the failed civilizations such as the Neanderthals, Sumer, and of course, Rome. This book was published in 2004 but everything still applies today, tenfold.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Simo Ibourki

    The problem with this book is that it is well ... short, I think it would be far better if Mr Wright developped his ideas more in detail, one idea per chapter. I felt like the whole book was just repetition of statements and facts but no analysis, no depth, and no practical solutions.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Barry

    Short, cogent, powerful. It's not accidental that we're living in an age where billionaires are building rocket ships.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Blair Conrad

    This is a short book, and the content is kind of like a heavily abbreviated Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, all rolled into one. The brevity makes me think it would work better as a series of lectures than as a book. Wright’s style is pretty good, and he writes about interesting things. If that was it, this book would be checked “worth consuming”. But then there were the endnotes. I’ve complained before about how I didn’t like having to page back and f This is a short book, and the content is kind of like a heavily abbreviated Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, all rolled into one. The brevity makes me think it would work better as a series of lectures than as a book. Wright’s style is pretty good, and he writes about interesting things. If that was it, this book would be checked “worth consuming”. But then there were the endnotes. I’ve complained before about how I didn’t like having to page back and forth when I was reading America, and that was only one or two pages each time. This book has way too many endnotes, probably over 3 per page. In fact, the book has 132 pages of content and 54 pages of endnotes. What the heck is that? I had to use two bookmarks and it was nothing but flip flip flip flip flip. Worse, many of the endnotes were useless: half of them were conversions from imperial to metric measure or citations, which aren’t awful, but which I had no interest in at the time. The other half actually had content, sometimes close to a page of content to expand on a short paragraph in the text, so I never got to the point where I felt I could just give up on the endnotes. Worst, the guy seems to have a hate on for Jared Diamond. There are two endnotes that drive this home to me. First, Wright mentions that Diamond’s description of pre-Columbian New World agriculture is flawed, without saying how, and how Diamond’s portrayal of certain New World conquests by the Spanish is tendentious. Given that Wright doesn’t support his claim about Diamond’s work, I thought tendentious was kind of amusing. Later on in the book, after a paragraph that states that China’s civilization has done as well as it has for 3000 years is partly due to the fact that much of its area is covered by very thick topsoil, he tacks on the following endnote: The main crop was millet, until wheat appeared around 1300 B.C. It took wheat 6,000 years to reach China after its domestication on the far side of the continent, hardly the rapid transit of technology in the Old World argued by Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel). Why is 6,000 years not rapid? Given the technology available at the time, the lack of roads and trade, and so on, how long does Wright expect such a transit to occur? What examples has he of similar transits being made rapidly to compare? And, the question that’s really on the tip of my tongue, “What’s any of this got to do with thick topsoil?” The endnoted paragraph had nothing to do with millet, wheat, or the transit of technology. It seems like Wright just said, “It’s been a while since I bashed Diamond without backing my opinion up. This seems like a good place.” Now, I’m probably biased because I read and enjoyed the Diamond books, and that’s likely why I’m so upset. However, I’m perfectly willing to entertain the idea that Wright is right in all he says about Diamond’s works, but he could have at least backed his comments up. Trash someone if you must, but at least do it well.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Nymue

    This book is the worst kind of intellectual flattery. People will read it, take in all the big words and big facts, and feel like they've filled their brain with something, though they won't be any more informed or articulate about its topics than they were previously unless they hadn't happened to have heard about, for example, what happened at Rapa Nui before. Let me tell you now that you can find a better source for every fact you can find in this book, and save yourself the patchy, poorly-ar This book is the worst kind of intellectual flattery. People will read it, take in all the big words and big facts, and feel like they've filled their brain with something, though they won't be any more informed or articulate about its topics than they were previously unless they hadn't happened to have heard about, for example, what happened at Rapa Nui before. Let me tell you now that you can find a better source for every fact you can find in this book, and save yourself the patchy, poorly-argued thesis that is supposed to tie all Wright's anecdotes together, which could easily make you more confused about the patterns of history and what we can expect for the future. The consumption of pop nonfiction like this is an agonising illustration of what I can only call the literary Dunning-Kruger effect. I picked up this book second-hand expecting that, given the number of citations throughout, there would be a substantial argument for me to critically engage with. Unfortunately it doesn't hold up to a critical reading, and it's more of a dressed-up, waffling opinion than the comprehensive kind of analysis I was hoping for, which would have been an argument for patterns in the course of human progress based on a tested hypothesis. Wright's ultimate thesis might happen to be correct, but he's presented it more to persuade than to prove. I can't help but find this intellectually insulting. The shallow arguments appear to have originated with a conclusion rather than the evidence, which is a frustrating trend in fields like social history. A book like this, if it claims any informative authority, ought to present the results of a rigorous investigation which sought the interpretation of history with the most explanatory and predictive power. As such it presents little more than just-so stories, even if the included facts are correct in all their specifics. The citations are peppered in seemingly wherever the author has previously come across something that fits into his picture of the ancient world. Clearly the relayed historical anecdotes, which are fascinating for those first encountering them, are enough to convince the casual reader that the author is drawing on a breadth and depth of knowledge which isn't evidently there. Judging by how unsystematically he places his references, how broadly he quotes and how dubiously he chooses his sources, he is either trying to inflate a very shallow background or he is making intentional omissions to make his case look better. There's one passage in particular which doesn't even make an argument. Here he just strings together some vague correlations to appeal to political prejudice, as far as I can tell. He mentions that early human communities tended to shift from a state of egalitarian subsistence, with everyone contributing and receiving about the same, to unequal distributions of wealth and power as the populations rose. But instead of elaborating what this means, he digresses: ...This pattern first appears in the Neolithic villages of the Middle East, and it has recurred all over the world. The first farmers along the Danube, for example, left only tools in their remains; later settlements are heavily fortified and strewn with weapons. Here, said the great Australian archaeologist Gordon Childe, "we almost see the state of war of all against all arising as... land becomes scarce." Writing these words in 1942, during Hitler's expansionist policy of Lebensraum, Childe did not need to underline how little the world had changed from Stone Age times to his. Patriotism may indeed be, as Dr. Johnson said, "the last refuge of a scoundrel," but it's also the tyrant's first resort. People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated. The warrior caste, supposedly society's protectors, often become protection racketeers. In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security. The more elusive or imaginary the foe, the better for manufacturing consent. Let's stop there for now. What does this tangent have to do with anything that had come before? He's making observations on the genocidal battles that arose when resources became scarce due to overpopulation — what does that have to do with foes that are 'elusive or imaginary'? It is patently disingenuous to take instances where human life actually and tragically became a zero sum game, in which some must perish for others to survive, and try to draw parallels with deceptive warmongering. You do not have to trick a people who are on the point of starvation into feeling that another group beginning to encroach on their territory is a threat. I don't know how to read this other than petty point-scoring against the concept of nationalism and military defense, as if their prototypes in early tribes indicate something profound about their purpose or necessity. We're left to suppose that people have only ever come into conflict through the manipulation of a Hitler. He continues this diatribe with more cherry-picked, decontextualised examples: The Inquisition did a roaring trade against the Devil. And the twentieth century's struggle between capitalism and communism had all the hallmarks of the old religious wars. Was defending either system really worth the risk of blowing up the world? Now we are losing hard-won freedoms on the pretext of a worldwide "war on terror," as if terrorism were something new. (Those who think it is should read The Secret Agent, a novel in which anarchist suicide bombers prowl London wearing explosives; it was written by Joseph Conrad a hundred years ago.) The Muslim fanatic is proving a worthy replacement for the heretic, the anarchist, and especially the Red Menace so helpful to military budgets throughout the Cold War. This misplaced political argument isn't even a good one. All the things he lists are previous threats that could only be dealt with through some form of military defense. Communists have successfully gutted several nations, even in the years since this book was published. But how telling is it that he thinks a reader should seek more information from a novel than any of history's nonfiction writings which give evidence of the longstanding existence of terrorist tactics? As much as I love Joseph Conrad, there's a time and a place for recommending his novels. I can't help suspect that this is the only book on the topic of terrorism that Wright happens to have personally read, with an early enough publication date to make his point. He ends the paragraph there, so the reader can forget what he was originally on about. He got to the point he wanted to make, so who cares how he got there, right? I was tempted to stop reading there, since I didn't think I should take more interest in how he built his argument than he himself did, but I was genuinely curious to see how he approached the successes of capitalism in eradicating the poverty he takes such an interest in. However, besides citing instances where unchecked growth has exhausted local ecologies, a pattern he shows is not peculiar to capitalism but which capitalists as anyone else should obviously be wary of, he simply omits any detail that may accidentally show how much the societal practices of voluntarism, free enterprise and free trade have done to reduce global poverty and improve the life quality of the poor all over the world through the creation of new value, in a break from the trajectory of the pre-industrial world that is staggering if one merely looks at the numbers. (Of course one could go on to note how this can be impeded or grossly misappropriated by governmental interference in capitalism.) In any case, I know that this betrays my own economic politics, but anyone interested in the successes and failures of human "progress" should be able to account for that noteworthy trend, much less mention it. This book is an embarrassment which can only impress pop-history readers and those who will take any argument that is framed to appeal to their existing worldview. Don't waste your time if you're seeking to be either informed or intellectually stimulated.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica). Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why t Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica). Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why they went down. The two consistent reasons that stuck most with me are 1) brutal social hierarchy that ensures there's never enough to go around and 2) raiding the local ecology of the place to the extent that it can no longer support the civilization. Sound familiar? His history of how European discovery of the New World turbo-charged our present-day pace of technological development is fascinating. For example, it was disease that finally enabled the Spanish conquistidors (after 100 years of unsuccessful trying) to "conquer" the Mayans. And that gold and other resources from the New World flowed back into the Old, to finance the industrial revolution. Without that treasure, things would've been very different indeed. It's all written in an engaging and very readable style, with extensive footnotes taking up over 1/3 at the back - for those geeky sorts who must have all the details (guilty as charged). Wright is obviously a very learned man, but in no way stuffy or inaccessible - nor does he pander. The most lasting effect of this book has been to loosen up my heretofore unexamined assumptions about "the way things are." Human history goes back many thousands of years (actually, millions), and it's quaint of us to believe that the last 200 are the pinnacle of civilization, just because they are the most recent. The assumptions about social hierarchy are especially dangerous, derived as they are from the (now absurd to us) notion that kings are direct descendants of the Divine. Again, I am left wishing that everyone would read this book. It would certainly change the debates we are currently engaged in, debates that distract us from the real conversations we need to be having. Here are two snips from near the end, to give an idea of how Wright's mind works. "John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." "The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise."

  28. 5 out of 5

    Adam Marischuk

    Very light reading. I understand that the book is based off the Massey lecture, but nonetheless, the book is dangerously close to being too light of reading for the subject matter. In the book Wright attempts to describe the history of how "our" civilization reached its current state and the dangers inherent in the situation. By briefly and selectively reviewing and summarizing the rise and fall of other civilizations he attempts to highlight three possible weaknesses which precipitate the callaps Very light reading. I understand that the book is based off the Massey lecture, but nonetheless, the book is dangerously close to being too light of reading for the subject matter. In the book Wright attempts to describe the history of how "our" civilization reached its current state and the dangers inherent in the situation. By briefly and selectively reviewing and summarizing the rise and fall of other civilizations he attempts to highlight three possible weaknesses which precipitate the callapse (sometimes sudden) of empires. He details the histories of four civilizations which collapsed (Sumer, Rome, Maya and Easter Island) and two which have managed some level of continuity (Egypt and China). His analysis is quite selective and simplistic but it helps further his agenda regarding our own civilizational perile: we will collapse in one of three ways. He borrows these three ways from Joseph Tainter: the Runaway Train, House of Cards, and Dinosaur (p.107). The runaway train refers mostly to overexpansion, either in the Malthusian sense or in the industrialization sense. Either way, a civilization depletes its environment to the point of sudden collapse. Similarly, the House of Cards refers to a civilization which builds itself up on a weak foundation and quickly collapses when there is a minor shift (environment, disease, migration, war). Thirdly, the Dinosaur is a civilization too conservative to adapted to the new changing situation and lumbers on only to die and be replaced by more dynamic civilizations. This is the best part of the book but he goes on to classic Marxist conclusions: his naivety towards the rise of Islam as an alternative to western democracie is dated and familiar "terrorism is a small threat compared with hunger, disease, or climate change...Violence is bread by injustice, poverty, inequality..." (p.126) His Marxist interpretation of history blinds him to the ideological roots of various civilizations and their collapses, or the only indeology which poses a threat is conservativism. Most of history is explained away by material problems and he dismisses the ideological underpinings of the aforementioned civilizations, the first and second world wars, terrorism. Additionally obnoxious is his Pocahontas interpretation of pre-Columbus life in the Americas. It is clear that this was sponsored by the CBC because only the CBC could idolize the state of constant tribal warfare, poverty, slavery and subsistence living which characterized indigenous "civilization".

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dylan

    Wright's presentation is an engaging critique of human technical/material progress from the origin of the species to the present. He satisfied my appreciation for doom and gloom but not so much my guilty desire for evidence of widespread unspoiled life in harmony with nature prior to civilization. Instead he suggests that humans built civilization as soon as they had the chance, evidenced by the development of agriculture, etc., apparently at the same time the longest period of climate stability Wright's presentation is an engaging critique of human technical/material progress from the origin of the species to the present. He satisfied my appreciation for doom and gloom but not so much my guilty desire for evidence of widespread unspoiled life in harmony with nature prior to civilization. Instead he suggests that humans built civilization as soon as they had the chance, evidenced by the development of agriculture, etc., apparently at the same time the longest period of climate stability (the Holocene) commenced. He suspects Homo sapiens of violent conflict and eventual genocide against neanderthals as well having as a significant role in the extinctions of the Pleistocene megafauna, which he also suggests was a reason for the advent of agriculture and mass migration. He sees all these as just the first in a recurrent, seemingly inevitable, series of "progress traps" into which every previous civilization has fallen and subsequently collapsed. He also recognizes the the qualitatively different character of this particular iteration of the "great experiment," pointing out that while all previous collapses have had causes and consequences that were localized, the modern environmental crisis and civilization responsible are both global. The collapse must be global too. But his solution is insufficient at best: "The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking." He, like almost everyone who remains in the mainstream, naively thinks the necessary changes can be made as long as the New Right and Christians anticipating the end of the world are kept at bay so that this magical political change may proceed. Instead, the predictable "ideological pathology" of progress persists in a post-Bush world. As the world observes in 2009, Wright's warning rings true: "Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise." The "ideological pathology" (my favorite term in the book) of the pursuit of infinite growth isn't limited to the Christians or Republicans, and there is no reason to hope that it will be challenged within the mainstream as long as the Orwellian illusions like "green shoots" can be effectively evoked. But I agree that long-term thinking is the key to escaping the progress trap. Governments have proven they are part of the trap, however.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin Pearson

    Want to premise this review by saying it is not a review of the book point by point, many other reviews on this page for this. But rather my thoughts after finishing it. I seem to have this really weird pull to tragedy and the fall of civilisations as a concept. I find the prospect to be incredibly interesting and usually devour them quickly as I just want to see, what conclusions are drawn. This book has a lot of this, hitch hiking on the back of the old "every good thing comes to an end" kind o Want to premise this review by saying it is not a review of the book point by point, many other reviews on this page for this. But rather my thoughts after finishing it. I seem to have this really weird pull to tragedy and the fall of civilisations as a concept. I find the prospect to be incredibly interesting and usually devour them quickly as I just want to see, what conclusions are drawn. This book has a lot of this, hitch hiking on the back of the old "every good thing comes to an end" kind of view and surprisingly blames Man kinds ingenuity for his problems. "If only that stupid bastard just stayed put where he was and died sooner!" is basically his call throughout this book. So is Ronald Wright just another of these Paleo fans? The answer is a yes and that is where I find the biggest flaw in his work. This book is anti-technology (he advocates stopping it, as its progress is linked to instability) and is quick to draw broad, simplistic conclusions to what were incredibly complicated moments in human history. I can't help but see an old man, who craves the world he knew as a kid and just can't quite wrap his head around the way the world has changed and it scares him. I think, it is no surprise that all the doom sayers are usually old men. Bit patronising maybe, but when you think about it, it makes sense. They are approaching their own end and start to see the death and destruction around them. If your someone thats not particularly into alarmist stuff, or hates it when people try to say that back in the olden days of pre-civilisation it was awesome. I would recommend you stay away from this book, but for everyone else I would say dive on in, because it was an entertaining and a thought provoking read.

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