Last summer I read a review of Ronald Wrights’ book, and around Christmas my own copy arrived. It has been gathering dust until now. Over the weekend I read most of it — and it is not an optimistic picture. 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.

See also The Up-Side of Down

6 Comments on a short history of progress

  1. kuestioner says:

    Thanks for your review of the book. I am fascinated by books like this one and might seek it out for myself. I find that I usually agree with the symptoms highlighted in a book like this one, but seldom feel much optimism for the prescribed answers.

    Books of this type so often point out the problem and them procedes to give the authors view of what we should do to ‘fix’ the problem, or more often, what we need to ‘get others’ to do to fix the problem. It’s like if we do such and such ‘good’ will happen, and if we do such and such else, ‘evil’ will happen. The knowledge of which is good and which is evil is what the author seems to offer.

    I just don’t much believe in that knowledge. I tend to believe more in a man who fed five thousamd, besides women and children, with a few loaves and fish. I tend more and more to see that a complete and literal faith in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit is enough to make the single change that will flow into every crevace of the universe and ‘fix’ everything that will be ‘fixed’. Anything that can’t be fixed through that faith isn’t supposed to be fixed. It’s just the thorns an thistles that will be removed when their time comes.

    We don’t lack a proper fix, we lack faith in the fix that’s already in place.

  2. […] Related: The Up-Side of Down , Theocapitalism, A Short History of Progress […]

  3. […] Run this through the grid of large church, where success was often determined simply by butts and bricks, and you know why the body is sick.. Add the approach noted by social historian Ronald Wright, our tendency to try harder using the same methods as we see the cliff approaching, and the scenario for large churches is bleak. […]

  4. […] But of course, this assumes that we actually take seriously the conditions we are now experiencing. Historically, civilizations have simply refused to do this. Denial is a powerful dynamic in human systems, the dark side of homeostasis. He opines, “From the point of view of those with a vested interest in the status quo, efforts to manage our problems can actually be a useful diversion.: such efforts provide a focus for research, discussion, and countless meetings for academics, politicians, consultants and NGOs, which in practice nothing really changes. The Kyoto climate-change negotiations kept thousands of scientists and other experts busy for years. (ironically, generating vast amounts of carbon-dioxide as they traveled from meeting to meeting) while providing cover for politicians who wanted to say they were doing something about global warming.” […]

  5. […] This section closes with the need to jettison the Christendom view of the Church. We need to do the theological work to recover a biblical expression; the alternative is to remain obsessed with data and technique. (And sadly, this is what the sociologists would predict. Ronald Wright’s work on the history of progress has demonstrated that Empires – like ideologies – always collapse inwardly via the dynamics of denial). Pastors and church leaders lacking a grounded theology of the church live in a panicky obsession with data and technique. Data and technique junkies find themselves caught in an obsession with “managerial missiology” (Engel and Dyrness). This approach enables leaders to focus on the quantitative and cosmetic frameworks of strategy and programs while avoiding the theological, relational, and content-oriented processes that are the places where visions and dreams are realized. (71) […]

  6. […] This section closes with the need to jettison the Christendom view of the Church. We need to do the theological work to recover a biblical expression; the alternative is to remain obsessed with data and technique. (And sadly, this is what the sociologists would predict. Ronald Wright’s work on the history of progress has demonstrated that Empires – like ideologies – always collapse inwardly via the dynamics of denial). Pastors and church leaders lacking a grounded theology of the church live in a panicky obsession with data and technique. Data and technique junkies find themselves caught in an obsession with “managerial missiology” (Engel and Dyrness). This approach enables leaders to focus on the quantitative and cosmetic frameworks of strategy and programs while avoiding the theological, relational, and content-oriented processes that are the places where visions and dreams are realized. (71) […]