Ronald WrightA few years ago I discovered Ronald Wright. Funny how easy it is to be optimistic while going about daily life in our privileged culture.. and how easy it is to be pessimistic after watching the evening news or reading the Globe and Mail or Time Magazine. In essence, if we look hard at the realities of our world and our way of life, we have good reason to be gloomy. Not coincidentally, Wright notes that Margaret Atwood in her dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, has one of her characters ask, “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” Wright continues,

“Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism. John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” (124)

Humankind has repeatedly fallen victim to what Wright calls “progress traps,” collective judgment errors that lead us to believe that if a small amount of X is a good thing, a larger amount must be even better.. Wright notes,

“Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. 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.”

Unfortunately, Wright has done his homework and if history teaches us anything, it is that we avoid paying the piper until the water is up to our necks. In fact, stranger still, as the darkness is falling the party gets wilder. This dynamic of denial and attitude of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” only contributes to the cataclysmic end. Writing of the end of the Mayan civilization, Wright notes,

“As the crisis gathered, the response of the rulers was not to seek a new course, to cut back on royal and military expenditures, to put effort into land reclamation through terracing, or to encourage birth control. Not, they dug in their heels and carried on doing what they had always been doing, only more so. Their solution was higher pyramids, more power to the kinds, harder work for the masses, more foreign wars. In modern terms, the Maya elite became ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drop of profit from nature and humanity.” (102)

Humankind has managed to salvage itself largely because when we exhausted the ecology of one region we went off to savage another. The Gold from Incan mines funded a new age in Europe. Unfortunately, that option is no longer open to us. The overall “experiment of civilization” has continued to grow and spread. More startling than the growth is the acceleration: Adding 200 million after Rome took 13 centuries. Adding the last 200 million took only three years (109).

Listen to a Ronald Wright interview on CBC Radio The Current. Elsewhere, the PBS documentary Guns, Germs and Steel

See also The Up-Side of Down