Title frame for ‘A Book in Five Minutes’, no.11: ‘A Short History of Progress’ (2004)
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‘A Short History of Progress’ (2004)

This is the last in a series of three ‘techno-critical’ reviews, examining the excuse that underpins the whole project of industrialisation: ‘Progress’ – looking at Ronald Wright’s 2004 book that, 18 years later, still provides well-observed (if bleak) view of the future.

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Cover of the first edition of ‘A Short History of Progress’ (2004)
‘A Short History of Progress’:

First Edition, House of Anansi Press, 2004. ISBN 9780-8878-4706-6.

UK Edition, Canongate Books, 2006. ISBN 9781-8419-5830-9.

15th Anniversary Edition, House of Anansi Press, 2020. ISBN 9781-4870-0698-3.

Ronald Wright is a Canadian historian and anthropologist. His 2004 book, ‘A Short History of Progress’, started as a series of lectures for CBC. The book also inspired the 2011 documentary, ‘Surviving Progress’ (which sank into obscurity, despite being better than Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation).

Wright’s case is stated at the beginning:

“...the idea of material progress is a very recent one, coinciding closely with the rise of science and industry and the corresponding decline of traditional beliefs. We no longer give much thought to moral progress, except to assume that it goes hand in hand with the material... Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become ‘myth’... ‘an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations’... Progress has an internal logic that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe. A seductive trail of successes may end in a trap.”

Strangely, it was only in writing this review that I realised that for fifteen years my use of the term, ‘secular religion’, probably stems from reading this book.

Cover of the UK edition of ‘A Short History of Progress’ (2006)
Cover of the UK edition (2006)

Wright highlights the flaw at the heart of modern society: It’s a ‘pyramid scheme’. As demonstrated by recent, and present-day, economic crises, for the human system to exist people need food, energy, and shelter. As human society urbanised, these commodities must be supplied not only ‘just in time’ to consumers, but the consumers must be able to purchase them – they have no other recourse to survival under this system except as a unit of economic production.

As Wright says:

“All pre-industrial cities were constrained by the difficulty of getting supplies in and wastes out... The unsavoury truth is that until the mid-nineteenth century, most cities were death traps, seething with disease, vermin, and parasites. Average life expectancy in ancient Rome was only nineteen or twenty years – much lower than in {a Stone Age settlement}, but slightly better than in Britain’s Black Country... Without a constant inflow of soldiers, slaves, merchants, and hopeful migrants, neither ancient Rome nor Georgian London could have kept its numbers up. Rome had several serious pandemics, possibly of Asian origin. While these caused manpower and fiscal problems, they may also have postponed the empire’s decline by relieving pressure on the land.”

The problems of resource supply today, from oil and gas to computer chips, were eased by the recent pandemic; only to be resurrected more perniciously in 2022’s breakdown in global civility. But the reaction to the current crisis is to try and perpetuate the system rather than fix its deep flaws:

“Civilization is an experiment, a very recent way of life in the human career, and it has a habit of walking into what I am calling progress traps... This human inability to foresee – or to watch out for – long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind... It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed, and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the 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.”

Poster for the 2011 documentary based on the book, ‘Surviving Progress’
Poster for the 2011 documentary based on the book, ‘Surviving Progress’

Does that sound familiar?

While we might see this book as intersecting with other concerns about ecological collapse, energy supply, or pandemics, what the book proposes is a greater truth: It argues that the failure of urban society is innately, ‘human’.

Throughout human history, all settlements have been ‘resource islands’ – requiring a supply of materials to keep functioning. Nomadic hunter-gathers just moved; but once society became settled it created a whole new problem – logistics:

“...civilization is therefore most unstable at its peak, when it has reached maximum demand on the ecology. Unless a new source of wealth or energy appears, it has no room left to raise production or absorb the shock of natural fluctuations. The only way onward is to keep wringing new loans from nature and humanity. Once nature starts to foreclose – with erosion, crop failure, famine, disease – the social contract breaks down.”

Wright’s conclusion to the logistical underpinnings of historic societies – and the extent that modern society has created logistical webs to capture resources – is not thrilling. Which is probably why the book has received so little attention since it’s initial success:

“Civilizations often fall quite suddenly; as they reach full demand on their ecologies, they become highly vulnerable to natural fluctuations. The most immediate danger posed by climate change is weather instability causing a series of crop failures in the world’s breadbaskets. Droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes are rising in frequency and severity. The pollution surges caused by these – and by wars – add to the gyre of destruction. Medical experts worry that nature may swat us with disease: billions of overcrowded primates, many sick, malnourished, and connected by air travel, are a free lunch waiting for a nimble microbe.”

These events are entirely foreseeable; and if only the ecological lobby could escape its complacent trance of first-world affluence, perhaps we would be talking more about the precise mechanics of these problems.

Which brings me to the other term which I have unconsciously regurgitated from this book:

Cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition of ‘A Short History of Progress’ (2020)
Cover of the 15th Anniversary Edition (2020)

“The case for reform that I have tried to make is not based on altruism, nor on saving nature for its own sake... The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine.”

Whether it is from the point of view of: Who benefits from technology (the first of these reviews); or its effects on those subject to it (the second); or the overarching purpose of that society (this review) – modernity has become a ‘suicide cult’. And even many who are critical of it willingly work to protect and preserve the system that holds them ‘enthralled’, whilst at the same time destroying their future. If there is a way out of Wright’s ‘progress trap’, then that will only materialise when we step outside the “myths” which our dominant economic culture holds to be true.