Ronald Wright: Progress Traps
Here’s a Sunday Herald column (published today)based on a recently-recorded Green Interview with Ronald Wright. The full-length interview will be posted on The Green Interview site later this year.
RONALD WRIGHT: PROGRESS TRAPS
September 5, 2010
"Archaeology is the best tool for looking ahead,” says Ronald Wright. Written history is useful, he agrees, but archaeology doesn’t depend on the relatively recent invention known as writing, and the information it provides is difficult or impossible to fake. The location of Babylon or Chichen Itza is not a matter of opinion. We know where the ruins are.
A tall, lean man in a blue oxford shirt and tan trousers, Wright is talking quietly but intensely in his hilltop home in Salt Spring Island, BC. He is a diligent student of failed civilizations, picking through their remains for clues to their failures. This is not an academic exercise. The fate of our own civilization is at best uncertain. If we understand what happened to our predecessors, perhaps we can avoid their fatal errors.
Wright has written several books about past civilizations. I am here to ask him particularly about his 2004 Massey Lectures, published as A Short History of Progress. Progress is one of the foundational ideas of our culture — the notion that the future will be different from, and better than, the past. That’s an increasingly doubtful proposition.
Consider one of the most powerful ideas to emerge from Wright’s work, his concept of “progress traps.”
A progress trap, Wright explains, is an idea or a technology that generates splendid results at first but leads to a deadly, impossible end. Take weapons, for instance. At the outset, improved weapons meant a better food supply, and a major advantage in conflicts with other humans. The flint arrow, the bronze knife, the long-bow, the rifle. But with the new weapons we hunted game animals to extinction — and the end result of progress in weaponry is the hydrogen bomb.
That’s a progress trap. And indeed, the whole idea of progress may be a trap. Progress, Wright has written, “has an internal logic that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe.” The Garden of Eden story probably has its roots in Mesopotamia, where, over the centuries, people cut down the forests and plowed up the ground, stripping away the earth’s resilience. The rains brought soil erosion and legendary flash floods — perhaps including Noah’s — and the terrain became almost uninhabitable.
“Human beings drove themselves out of Eden,” Wright concludes, “and they have done it again and again by fouling their own nests.” The short-lived 21st-century BC Empire of Ur, he writes, shows the paradigm — failing to change social beliefs and practices to adapt to changing conditions, “robbing the future to pay the present, spending the last reserves of natural capital on a reckless binge of excessive wealth and glory.” The result was “a collapse from which southern Mesopotamia has never recovered.”
Does that sound at all familiar?
“The lesson I read in the past,” Wright concludes, “is this: that the wealth of land and water — and of woods, which are the keepers of water — can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”
Refugees from earlier failed civilizations could move on to other places and try again. Today, however, civilization is global. This time we cannot flee. As a sign at the Copenhagen summit noted, “There is no Planet B.”
Are we doomed? Perhaps not. The civilizations of China and Egypt survived for millennia, and we have a unique advantage over earlier cultures, namely the knowledge of how they failed and how we might avoid their fate. But the time is short, and the demands on our culture are profound. It’s up to us to prove that civilization itself is not just a vast progress trap.
“We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones,” Wright declares. “If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And 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.”
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