Review of A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright


Wright writes well. I imagine he gets up in the morning, chomping at the bit to get writing. Why wait? His excellent craft is only half the story, though, for his great writing is married to great ideas. Ideas we’d do well to hear and heed.

Like, ‘If we fail [at this great experiment called ‘civilization’]… nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting the apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.’ I know we gotta make mistakes. Afterall, to err is human. Making mistakes is how we learn. But I don’t like failure, so pardon my impatience if we make haste. Some of us feel anxious that time is running out. The writing is on the wall. And in the book….

Wright sets out to answer the the first and second of Paul Gauguin‘s questions three–‘D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?)’–seeking to answer the third.

We know where we came from and what we are. We are generalists from Africa. Specialists flourish only in niches, but we have spread to six continents, not because we have sharp claws or fangs or a poisonous bite–we don’t. Instead we have this big brain, which allows us to adapt to change. Seems we can live almost any place, do almost anything, go almost anywhere. However, where we are going has been an unconscious choice up until now. Now it’s time to use our big brain to consciously choose where we’re going. To adapt to change. Wright writes, ‘Our civilization is a great ship … steaming at speed into the future…. We can, I think, plot a wise course between the narrows and bergs looming ahead.’

How serious is this voyage? Writing in 2004, he says, ‘I believe we must do this without delay.’ Why without delay? ‘Because there are too many shipwrecks behind us…. [This ship] is not merely the biggest of all time; it is also the only one left. The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on our actions over the next few years.’ But since 2004, it seems like we’re steaming full-speed ahead into an iceberg. Here today, gone tomorrow? So much for progress, eh? Where’s the hope? Why make the book into a film (Surviving Progress, which SHARE is showing in November) years later?

The erosion ‘of that confidence [in the social safety net by the tax-shifting New Right] has set off a free-for-all that is stripping the earth.’ His call is urgent, pragmatic, and simple: ‘Transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.’ Wright notes, ‘we have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.’ He concludes, ‘Now is our last chance to get the future right.’ Well researched and well written, this book offers lessons from the past to guide us into the future.

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