A Short History of Progress

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. GEORGE SANTAYANA


Cassandra is the patron saint of paranoids. Possessed from early youth with the gift of prophecy, she repelled the advances of Apollo, who took his revenge by decreeing that no one would ever again believe her. (It happens to sexual victims all the time.) A modern Cassandra needs no curse other than the blind optimism that surrounds us from birth, endlessly implanting the sacred message that there’s nothing wrong with the world that can’t be cured by runaway consumption fed by market-driven technology, from which everyone benefits. We call it progress.


Ronald Wright’s history of this delusion makes him a Cassandra for the 21st century. Delivered as the 2004 Massey Lectures for Canadian radio and published in the UK by Cannongate, A Short History of Progress is short indeed, but it is densely packed. In a mere 132 pages plus discursive notes and bibliography, Wright demonstrates that the greed propelling us towards the destruction of the earth’s precarious ecostructure has been the dominant human motivation from the very beginning of history, leading to the collapse of each succeeding civilization. The Noble Savage living in harmony with his environment is an eccentric, the product of a static society ripe for absorption by a more agressive neighbor. Wright may not yet qualify as a paranoid, but he fits William Burroughs’ trenchant definition which he once revealed to me over a bottle of wine in Aix en Provence: “a person who is in possession of all the facts”.

Short as the book is, its essential points can be summarized even more succinctly. Wright is both an archaeologist and an anthropologist, bringing these two disciplines synergistically together. The archaeological record, he explains, is “perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead, because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time.”

Our “10,000-year experiment of the settled life” has been charactarized by environmental destruction and economic inequality. Wright's narrative starts with the “towns and villages that sprang up in a dozen farming heartlands around the world after the last ice age.” These early outposts of civilization were essentially egalitarian, like the hunter-gatherer societies before them. Their inhabitants “worked at similar tasks and had a comparable standard of living”, those with more wealth usually feeling an “obligation to share” with the less fortunate.

As disparities in wealth and power arose, the sense of obligation diminished. This bifurcation first occurred “in the Neolithic villages of the Middle East,” in the Sumerian empire centered around Ur and Uruk. Here we find evidence of what would become a recurring pattern.

Civilizations, he writes, get caught in “progress traps.” “A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea, but when the village grows into a city and paves over the good land, it becomes a bad idea.” The society begins to exhaust its natural resources—woods, water, and topsoil. Finally there is “no room left to raise production or absorb the shock of natural fluctuations.” To survive, they take out “new loans from nature and humanity.” But in the end nature forecloses, “with erosion, crop failure, famine, disease.”

The first instance of which we have extensive evidence was in the land that today makes up southern Iraq. The Sumerians stripped away their woods, leaving their flood plain vulnerable to “inundations much fiercer and more deadly than they would otherwise have been.” Over several hundred years of irrigation, the land became salty from constant water evaporation and begin “to turn against the tillers,” leading ultimately to the collapse of Sumerian civilization. A few of its great cities “struggled on as villages, but most were utterly abandoned.” The land never recovered; much of modern Iraq's formerly irrigated land remains saline, “sour and barren…a desert of their making.”

Plus ça change... “Each time history repeats itself,” Wright quotes wryly from a graffiti slogan, “the price goes up.” He summarizes the spiral progression thusly:

In civilizations, population always grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply, and all civilizations become hierarchical -- the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around...Human inability to foresee or watch out for long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering. It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the evolutionary social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer. [The masses] may suffer stoically for a while, but sooner or later the ruler's relationship with heaven is exposed as a delusion or a lie, [whereupon] the temples are looted, the statues thrown down, the barbarians welcomed, and the emperor's naked rump is last seen fleeing through a palace window.

Wright takes us through successive sequences of wealth concentration and environmental degradation, including the native civilizations of North and South America, on which he has written extensively. (He has an M.A. from Cambridge in archeology and anthropology and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.) The final cycle, in which we are currently embedded, includes the half-millennium expansion of the major countries of Western Europe, whose techno-economic structure has gradually come to embrace the entire globe. It might well have worn itself out but for the discovery and pillaging of two continents to the west, subsequently named North and South America.

Five hundred years ago, civilization in this “new world” was highly advanced, and its easy “conquest” was only possible because of the devastation caused by smallpox and other diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity:

[By 1500] all temperate zones of the US were thickly settled by farming peoples. When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, the Indians had died out so recently that the whites found empty cabins, winter corn, and cleared fields—'widowed acres'—waiting for their use: a foretoken of the colonists' parasitic advance across the continent. "Europeans did not find a wilderness here", US historian Francis Jennings has written, "they made one".

This wilderness-making is documented in detail in Wright’s earlier and weightier history, Stolen Continents: The Indian Story.

The exported wealth accumulated from monumental theft consisted not merely of precious metals and raw materials, but of agricultural products and practices which saved the thinly stretched food supplies of Europe:

Beside their effect on diet, the new crops brought a dramatic rise in output—in Africa and Asia, as well as in Europe. Maize and potatoes are about twice as productive as wheat and barley, needing only half the land and workforce to yield the same amount of food. Populations rose and large numbers of people left the farm, generating labor surpluses from Britain to the Gold Coast. In the north these people ended up in mills and factories, while in Africa they became foreign exchange[i.e. slaves] for manufactured goods, especially guns.

Modern capitalism “lures us onward, insisting that the economy is infinite and that sharing therefore is irrelevant.” We have indeed expanded our economies, but not to the benefit of the masses—the income gap is increasing exponentially. In the last century, the world's population has multiplied four-fold and the world's economic output (and therefore its drain on the earth’s resources) forty-fold. Thus, if the global gap between rich and poor had merely remained at late Victorian proportions, all human beings today “would be ten times better off” now than they were then. But over the last century, the gap between rich and poor has massively widened. Today, the number of people living in abject poverty worldwide actually exceeds the total number of people alive a century ago.

We have a “great advantage” over previous civilizations that have collapsed. We know from history that we need to “set economic limits and live within natural ones.” But knowledge, alas, does not automatically translate into action. In the West there was progressive social legislation growing out of the sufferings of the Great Depression and World War II, but recent world leaders have done their best to tear it apart at the behest of the multinational corporations that are the primary beneficiaries of so-called free enterprise. This “revolt against redistribution” — a revolt that has dominated the global economic scene since the days of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — “is killing civilization from ghetto to rainforest.”

Humanism and rationality, insofar as they have had any influence on public polity, would seem to be momentary aberrations in the long struggle for domination and survival. Dave Pollard summarizes Wright’s bleakly Darwinian conclusions with stunning clarity:

Wright describes human society-building as steeped in violence, genocide and savagery, and demonstrates that evolutionary success of human cultures has been proportional to their readiness and willingness to exterminate or subjugate 'competitors' (plants, animals, other human cultures and members of their own culture) with deliberate, zealous and ruthless barbarity. The consequence is that human evolution has self-selected for savagery and bred compassion out of the gene pool, and has consistently provided the most ruthless members of our society (psychopaths, megalomaniacs, war-mongers and power-crazies) the method, the motive and the opportunity to seize control and establish rigid and vicious hierarchies that entrench and reinforce extreme inequality, holding power by the threat of violence (sacrificing subordinates in wars and in prisons to keep others in line) and anchoring their authority by claims of divine right.



Ronald Wright threatens to make Cassandras of us all. In every news report we hear echoes of the destructive contradictions that have given rise to his mordant analysis. On the one hand, scientists tell us that the earth’s physical resources are nearing exhaustion and that pollution and/or global warming will be the death of us. On the other, economists, politicians and plutocrats unite in proclaiming that the only thing that will save the world from fiscal disaster is the perpetual expansion of the global economy by means of ever-increasing production—the very cause of our ecological crisis. There are loud echoes of late Mayan decadence:


[T]hey dug in their heels and carried on doing what they had always done, only more so. Their solution was higher pyramids, more power to the kings, harder work for the masses, more foreign wars. In modern terms, the Maya elite became extremists, or ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drops of profit from nature and humanity.


Even if by some miracle our rulers were to read and respond to the writing on the wall, there are Third World countries, exploited by the West into higher productivity, who now demand their turn at the trough. This cut-throat competition is at the expense of labourers everywhere—under the manipulated terms of “free trade”, workers in the West must compete hour-for-hour and dollar-for-dollar with virtual slaves trapped in sub-Dickensian poverty.


Agriculture has always been a potentially dangerous and self-contradictory solution to the problem of human sustenance. After a brief century in which factory farming gradually improved the diet of the poor, the multinational food industry has now become a primary impetus towards overpopulation, obesity, pollution and greenhouse gasses. Wright refers to it as a “runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem…The food crisis…has merely been postponed by switching to hybrid seed and chemical farming, at great cost to soil health and plant diversity.” And now the burgeoning Third World is placing demands on the agricultural ecostructure that go far beyond any that our planet has yet experienced.


China was long blessed with virtual food self-sufficiency, but since 1995 it has lost more than 6m hectares of arable land to cities, factories, roads and deserts—an area three times the size of Wales. To make up the lack it has gone abroad, especially to Brazil in search of soya. As a result, during this same ten-year period satellite images reveal that the Amazon rain forest has shrunk by 1.7m hectares each year, an annual loss almost the size of Israel. This has enabled Brazilian soya exports to China to increase by a staggering 10,685%—and the end is not yet in sight. “There is no such thing as sustainable management of forests. It is all predatory,” says Nielson Vieira of Ibama, the Brazilian state environmental agency. “All we can do is minimize the damage.” And this is to feed what is still a predominantly vegetarian society—heaven help us when China, like all prosperous countries before it, turns massively carnivore!


Radical ecological reform, long dismissed as a starry-eyed fantasy, is beginning to look like the only game in town. As fertile soil and unpolluted water grow ever scarcer, sustainable agriculture begins to appear more realistic than the unsustainable norm. Greenland’s glacier is approaching irreversible meltdown, which would raise the sea level by twenty feet, wiping out low-lying coastal cities; this would also endanger the Gulf stream, threatening Britain with permafrost. Antidotes have been proposed, such as capping worldwide greenhouse gas production and allocating rights on a per capita basis (Contraction and Convergence). Something along those lines had better be agreed on and implemented quickly. After the Kyoto marriage of convenience, the runaway wedding coach is speeding down the slope, the occupants blithely confident that some undiscovered new technology will accelerate them unharmed through the crash barrier. Hurtling towards imminent disaster, their optimistic cry is, “We’re all right so far!”


Ronald Wright’s seminal diatribe has been favourably noted in several scholarly websites, but there has been no proper coverage in the media; it seems to have escaped their notice, gone over their heads or been deemed too hot to handle. (The Guardian gave it three column inches in the middle of an “Et Cetera” column, more than half of which was a snivelling complaint about the paper it was printed on.) If there is intelligent life out there observing us, they will have shelved a copy of Ronald Wright’s little tract next to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”


©2005 John Whiting


Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, Edinburgh, Cannongate, 2005, £12.99,

ISBN 1 84195 711 9


Return to TOP


          An excellent review, by which I mean not merely positive
      but a fine and thoughtful piece in its own right. Ronald Wright