Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress”

Wright presents a conservationist argument urging humanity to practice moderation and use the world’s limited resources intelligently. His plea for sanity differs from all the others by virtue of the fact that he takes his readers on an informative and baffling educational tour through history in every civilization in all the continents (Episkenew, 195). His interest in the Amerindian cultures that dotted South and Central America cannot go unnoticed since he is effortlessly able to make valuable connections between the happenings in Mexico and the Greco-Roman people at a specific time. What Wright is clearly attempting to demonstrate is man’s inability to foresee future consequences. He states that a possible explanation for this is the fact that the elite in large societies always dwell in prosperity long after the local people and the environment begin to decay. The author also asserts that the only reason why this civilization has prospered for so long is due to the fact that we were able to loot “unknown” continents, namely South and North America.

The author begins his analysis with the revered works of Paul Gauguin who was a painter in the 19th century. The painter through his elaborate work asked three vital questions that could be applied directly to the dilemmas we face today. The first of these questions is “Where did we come from?”, the second is “Where are we?” and finally, “Where are we going?” I agree with the author’s intrigue for the third question. He strongly believes that careful and detailed analysis of the first two questions will without doubt answer the third. We will finally understand where our species is headed.


The author focuses on the great burden that the exploding population, technology, and excessive consumption have put on our planet. He analyzes each of these factors and in doing so asks where this murderous growth is leading to. He asks whether such growth can be sustained, and, if so, what does the future have in store for the human species. The answer he finds most suitable is the fact that our predicament today dates back to the very beginning of civilization. He calls it a 10,000-year experiment that mankind has participated in but never quite been able to control. He beaks all this down to one simple truth: every time history repeats itself, prices always sky-rocket. This, therefore, means that the only way to know the risks and dangers surrounding this experiment is by cultivating a deep understanding of the patterns of disaster and their progress, especially those that humanity has repeated over and over since the Stone Age period. With the knowledge acquired, the man may then be able to control the outcome. In doing so, lives will be spared, economies salvaged, and the planet’s health will be well on its way to recovery. The author takes it upon himself to warn his readers of the looming disasters by guiding them through history right from the Ages to the present day. He examines the lost civilization of Easter Island where their devotedness to the Moai cult made them erect huge stone carvings that forever destroyed the land (Haun, 240). In addition, he evaluates the Mayan civilization and its instability. He even takes us to Sumer, a great early civilization thought to have inhabited southern Iraq and thought to be the inventors of the city, irrigation, and professional soldiers. His manner of expression is crafted elegantly, expansive and surprisingly informative.

The author uses historical examples to illustrate the fact that human beings have always found themselves bewildered by a “progress trap”. An example that exemplifies this point is weapons. He observes that since gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, the progress witnessed in the making of “bangs” is remarkable: from the petard to the feared high explosive shell, from the simple firecracker to the deafening cannon. He observes that just at the point when the use and research surrounding high explosives was almost perfect, “progress” found an immeasurably bigger “bang” in an atom.

Technology is the measure of progress today, a point the author highlights. He, however, categorically states that the natural disaster that struck the United States of America was a revelation of how technology simply inspired a false sense of security against catastrophes. He considers this to be another progress trap. Another example is the fact that between the years 1993 and 2003 approximately 2.5 billion people suffered the adverse effects of earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and many other natural calamities. This is 60% more than what was experienced in the last two ten year periods. These figures do not incorporate those killed and displaced by the tsunami last year. In addition, property damage in 2004 cost global insures approximately 40 billion US dollars in coverage for natural disasters making it their most expensive year yet.


The author strongly points out that the idea of progress is mythical. He supports this point by stating that human beings believe that transitioning from an industrially based economy to a technologically based one is an indication of their own advancement and progress. He adds that the reality is quite the opposite because we cannot live without the food technology developed in the late Stone Age. Over 6 billion people living on this globe are fed by crops developed by a few ancient people (Ord, 227). The world has witnessed more than two centuries of crop-breeding, a scientific endeavor divided into the genetic engineering of the 90s and the green revolution of the 60s. Despite all this, there has been no addition to the list of staple foods used in prehistoric times. I agree with the author’s view of the creation of agriculture as a “runaway train” because there is a bewildering historical evidence of how it facilitated population explosion without ever really solving the food problem (Wright, 132). The author proposes two possible explanations for this. First, there is the biological component, where populations grew to the point where food supply could no longer support the people and this resulted in food shortages. The second was the social aspect. This was a time when most societies adopted hierarchy which greatly stressed the upward concentration of wealth. The implication was that there never was enough to go round, a clear illustration of a progress trap.

In conclusion, the author through his well-scripted work urges all his readers to take advantage of what they have. He means that we must learn how to use our knowledge of past mistakes to prevent similar fates. He discourages his readers from indulging in blind pursuit of material progress because like the Roman empire of the 4th Century AD or the Mayan empire that lived in the 9th century AD we are likely to undergo self-destruction. This is largely because, like these civilizations, our environmental and social order will collapse. The evidence is spread all around us in the form of malnutrition, violence, terrorism, war, and poverty. In his final chapter, the author paints a hopeless future, one in which global collapse is imminent. He explains that because the world’s economies are interconnected and interdependent, collapse will be global. He also points out that ideologies of any kind that is Marxist, Christian, market fundamentalist or Islamic will push this civilization to its doom. Our only salvation lies in the precautionary principle and moderation.

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