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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

A Short History of Progress: The 2004 Massey Lectures

Reviewed: February 16, 2006
By: Ronald Wright
Publisher: CBC AUDIO
5 compact disks - approx. 5 hours, $45.75

During a winter when the six hour February drive from Dawson City to Whitehorse takes you through a range of temperature from -6 to +6 degrees Celsius it’s easy to entertain the notion that something might be a little screwy with the ecosystem, Ronald Wright’s reasonable sounding arguments for stopping to think about our own impact on that system do seem to make an abundant amount of sense.

The lectures, originally delivered in five auditoriums across the nation in 2004 and broadcast on the CBC radio program Ideas, tackle a notion he first explored in an essay he published in 2000 called “Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme” (see the original Globe and Mail article at http://www.tcp.com/~ether/articles/pyramid.html)

The jumping off point for the expanded version of his ideas is a painting by the 19th century artist Paul Gauguin entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

Lecture 1, Gauguin’s Questions, explores the first two of these issues in some detail, concluding with the depressing notion that we are the evolved descendant of a hominid which probably eliminated all of its competition in its climb to dominance on the planet. As for where we are going, that’s a bit more complicated.

Lecture 2, The Great Experiment, deals with the social innovation which took us from hunter/gatherer wilderness dwellers to increasingly urbanized beings. That innovation is not democracy; it is agriculture, the raising of plants and herding of animals. In a manner common to many human innovations, farming appeared simultaneously in a number of locations about 10,000 years ago, and gave rise to the experiment called civilization. Wright suggests that if we don’t start learning from the mistakes we have made since then, the experiment may be the end of us. The shattered, salt encrusted former farmlands of Iraq, once known as the fertile crescent, are offered as an example.

Lecture 3, Fool’s Paradise, offers a couple of instances of failed civilizations in which the arrogance of the rulers, dedication to a failed religion and total disregard for the intelligent husbanding of abundant natural resources led to social collapse and near extinction of a race. The most tragic example he offers us here is probably that of the Easter Islanders, a stark warning if ever there was one.

Lecture 4, Pyramid Schemes, explores the idea that our hierarchical social structures seem to be widening the distance between the rich and the poor. It has been commonplace in social comparisons to decry the vast gulf between the very rich and everyone else in non-North American, non-European countries, but Wright points out that, when he wrote these lectures, the three richest individuals in the world (all American) had a net worth equal to the poorest 48 countries, and that the salary gap between the management class and the shop floor employee in North America has lately grown from thirty to one to a thousand to one.

Pyramid schemes depend on constant growth to make money for those who run them. The expanding base funnels wealth to the top of the structure. The capitalist cult of continuous progress, however logically impossible it may be, is a pyramid scheme which continues to dominate our idea of the perfect society.

Lecture 5, The Rebellion of the Tools, talks about what happens when the resources give out, when the conurbation has paved all the farmland, when we have standardized agricultural genomes to the point where plagues and diseases (avian flu anyone? mad cow disease?) pose a threat to the underpinnings of our food chain.

The truly frightening thing about the fall of civilizations is that each one is larger than the last and affects more people and more of the planet. The fall of Sumeria did not prevent the rise of Rome, but the ripples from the latter fall affected all of Europe for centuries. Until the 20th century it was possible to think that a collapse would be followed by a revival elsewhere in the world. This may not be true any more.

Civilizations rise because they find ways to exploit the resources of their habitat. They persist by expanding. When they can no longer expand, they collapse. If it is correct that the civilization in which we now live is, barring slight variations in form, truly global in scope, then the potential size of the next collapse will also be global.  

That’s the rather grim message of Wright’s book, but the good news is that, since we can see where others have gone wrong historically, there is some hope that we can find ways to avoid the cycle.

These lectures are available in both book form and as a set of recordings. Both are worthwhile.

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