Friday, May 11, 2007

Just read Wright, Ronald: A Short History of Progress

This book explores, from a thorough and scholarly perspective, the modern myth of progress.

Progress, Wright explains, as mainstream Western culture has understood it, is a belief that history moves in one direction. Technology advances, humans become more moral (more civilized, less barbarian), and while there may be accidents, unregulated markets lead a march into an ever brighter future. An individual 100 years from now will almost inevitably be better off than one today, because of the march of material progress.

Wright doesn't dwell on this, but he does point out that this myth is clearly a fiction even today. There are plenty of groups starving around the world now who were perfectly well fed one hundred years ago. And "progress", as we define it, includes a relentless centralization of money and power into the hands of an ever-smaller group of elites. Our continued accumulation of material goods (or rather, the continued accumulation by a tiny ruling class) can only continue as long as there is capital in the form of water, air, land, flora and fauna to take. And when there is nothing left to take from the Earth's existing natural capital? Our civilization will be in a lot of trouble.

And what's more (and the main point of the book): this trend isn't even remotely unique to 'modern' civilization. One large, highly complex human society after another has followed the same path. And one after another depleted its resources, collapsed into infighting over the remnants, and eventually dissolved.

Our society is not different in that plenty of others have followed the pattern: exploit to grow, deplete, implode. But we are different in that previously, civilizations have been local. When the Roman empire fell, other non-Roman parts of the world were still flourishing. But our modern civilization holds the entire planet in its grip. In its economic reach, in its ecological reach, and in its military reach. If things go bad, they go bad for everybody.

Its a short and intense read. I did it in two days and couldn't put it down. And it left me with a driving sense of urgency. We shouldn't wait for technology to save us. We shouldn't wait for our elites to save us. We must now, with the tools we have now. In our cities and towns, we must get together and figure out how to stop exploiting the environment we have. As Wright puts it, the Earth is an investment. We need to live not off the capital, but off the interest.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Collapse by Jared Diamond tells a similar story.

julie said...

Another great book that talks about impacts of the myth of progress, but this time on one individual's actions and worldview, is Humboldt's Cosmos, by Gerard Helferich. It's a biography of the great explorer, geologist, botanist, and early 19th century science popularizer, Alexander von Humboldt. According to his biographer, von Humboldt was convinced that natural science would spread prosperity and democracy around the world. If you'd like to read von Humboldt's own ecstatic prose about his discoveries, you can download a copy of his Personal Narratives from Project Gutenberg. (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/6322)