Ronald Wright, Progress Traps and the Future of Food
We’ve just published our interview with Ronald Wright, an extraordinary writer and thinker, author of such challenging books as Stolen Continents and A Short History of Progress. Trained in archaeology, Wright dissects the past, seeking clues to the future. What kind of an animal is the human being? How have humans behaved in the past? What does that tell us about their behaviour in the future?
The news is not good – but it’s not hopeless. Time and again, human beings have carelessly ravaged their environments, and thus destroyed their societies. Our original Eden, green and lush and fertile, was probably in Iraq – which is hard to believe when you look at the dusty misery which is Iraq today. The deserts of North Africa were once the granary that fed the Roman Empire. For a really chilling saga of just how deluded and destructive we can be, read Wright’s account of the denuding of Easter Island.
As it happens, I’m also reading David R. Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, which tells the same story as a history of soil erosion. Populations, Montgomery notes, tend to track agricultural production. As production increases, so does population – which means that agricultural societies are always just a couple of bad harvests away from famine. And since intensive agriculture eventually destroys the soil, crops eventually do fail and catastophe generally ensues. I would like to do a Green Interview with David Montgomery.
In the past, of course, we humans left the exhausted places behind us and moved on to new territories, clearing the forests, plowing the forests, planting our crops and once again watching the soil wash away as a result of our efforts. And in the modern age, when there was no more new land to break, we doused the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. One of our earliest interviewees, Chris Turner, has just published “The Farms Are Not All Right,” a splendid feature article in the current issue of The Walrus (http://www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2011.10-food-the-farms-are-not-all-right/ ). In it, Chris notes that “by one recent estimate, nearly 50 percent of the world’s population now relies wholly on petrochemically derived nitrogen fertilizer for its daily bread.” Our food is, in effect, grown hydroponically in a bath of petroleum – and the petroleum is running out.
Among Ronald Wright’s most fruitful concepts is the idea of “progress traps” – innovations that look like progress and initially give fabulous results, but ultimately lead to disaster. Bottom trawling for Atlantic cod initially brought spectacular catches – but ultimately it destroyed the fishery. The development of weapons made hunters more productive and gave one group of humans an advantage over the others – but it ended up with nuclear weapons, which, if used, will destroy everyone.
The best defence against progress traps is (oddly enough) better accounting – accounting which evaluates the costs of our bright ideas as well as the benefits. When we fished the cod, we only counted the catches; we didn’t count the stocks themselves, so we didn’t know that we were catching more cod than the sea could produce. We count the value of the wood and paper that we can produce from a forest – but we don’t offset that against the value of the forest itself as a carbon sink, a defence against erosion, a habitat, a community of life. That’s why the adoption of Ron Colman’s Genuine Progress Index – or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness – is an absolutely essential component of a sustainable future.
Meanwhile, is the idea of progress itself a progress trap? What about agriculture, or civilization itself – are these the greatest progress traps of all? Ron Wright would say that these are indeed traps – but only if we allow them to be so. We have the knowledge and the ability to switch from short-term thinking to long-term thinking, from cleverness to wisdom. We can escape from the intellectual traps we have set for ourselves. But if we don’t do these things now, while we’re prosperous, he writes, “we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands,” ushering in “an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages of our past.”