A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS, by Ronald Wright. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004. 132 pages, notes, bibliography, index. Softcover; $14.95. ISBN 0-7867-1547-2.

This slim volume is a must read. The author, an award-winning historian, writes a cohesive history of the technological world since the times of prehistoric humanity. Superbly written, tightly argued, Wright's theme is how our species has, again and again, fallen into the trap of overconsumption. The results have been the collapse of empires as great as the Maya, and as small as the kingdom of Easter Island. Wright is cautiously optimistic about our own civilization, arguing that by understanding past patterns we may be able to modify our ways (in some instances quite drastically) and continue into a rich and prosperous future. He is adamant in his view that to continue as we are now is to ensure civilization's collapse.

Wright begins with Paul Gauguin's three "childlike" questions, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" He addresses the last of these, by expertly analyzing the first two. For over 10,000 years humanity has "progressed," and "progress has become an icon, a secular religion." (Page 5) "The myth of progress has sometimes served us well -- those of us seated at the best tables, anyway -- and may continue to do so. But I shall argue . . . that it has also become dangerous . . . . [it] has an internal logic that can lead . . . to catastrophe."

Wright looks at six ancient societies, Egypt, China, Sumer, Rome, the Maya and Easter Island. The first two have survived (tenuously) over 3,000 years; the last four collapsed in disaster in less than 1,000. The story of Easter Island is perhaps the most interesting (and scary). Rapa Nui (the Polynesian name) was settled in the fifth century. With sixty-four square miles of incredible verdant soil and forest, the population quickly exploded to 10,000 people by the year 1000. Each generation grew bigger, each generation cut more forest; by 1400 A.D. the last tree was gone. By 1722, when Captain Cook visited the island, civilization had collapsed. The word for wood, "raku," was the dearest in their language. About 2,000 islanders still survived, and in the next 50 years after Cook's visit they were able to perfect their weapons of war and fight one another for the scraps remaining. In that 50 years, they also found the time to topple their religious icons, the 1,000 giant statues. Does their story pose a challenge for our civilization? Wright thinks so, and his reasoning is persuasive.

This is a book arguing for change. Wright writes: (page 131) "The case for reform . . . is not based on altruism . . . . The most compelling reason . . . is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine . . . . Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. . . . The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking."

Reviewed by John W. Burgeson
Rico Community Church
Rico, Colorado

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