Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Humankind's Most Dangerous Invention: A Short History of Progress (Wright)

    Ronald Wright. A Short Illustrated History of Progress (2006) A paperback version of Wright’s 2004 book, with pictures, and coloured pages with pithy quotes displayed in large type. The book doesn’t need these gimmicks, it’s compulsively readable. Wright’s thesis is that civilisation is a trap. He’s an archeologist/anthropologist. He uses “civilisation” to mean a large complex culture based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. A civilisation is marked by hierarchies, administrative complexity, specialisation of work, politics, etc.
     Almost every civilisation we know of has ended destroying itself. The type example of this process is Easter Island, which hosted a simple civilisation which at its peak fed around 10,000 people, but which collapsed when the people focussed on making gigantic statues. the statues which were supposed what we would call ecological collapse. It didn’t work, and when Europeans made contact with easter Island, there were about 1,000 nearly-starving people and a couple of hundred statues left on a treeless, rapidly eroding hunk of rock. To counter the argument that Easter Island culture wasn’t really a civilisation and so cannot stand as a warning, Wright looks at the first city-based civilisation, Sumer, which did the same damage to its ecology as the Easer Islanders did. It just took them longer. The successors to Sumer pretty well all made the same mistakes: Assyria, Babylon, etc, exist only in clay tablets and stone statuary.
     Jared Diamond wrote a longer (and gloomier) meditation on the same themes as Wright (whose book began as a series of Ideas programs on CBC). Wright’s book is a much better read,  Diamond’s book provides more data. They both come to the same conclusion: “Civilisation” is humankind’s greatest and most dangerous invention. If we don’t learn from past experiments, we’ll destroy our civilisation, too. Because it’s a world-wide one, the collapse will entangle a larger swath of the ecosystems on which we depend, and which we persist in either ignoring, or see as an obstacle to further progress.
     Recommended. ****

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