Biogeochemistry and Global Change: Selected Reading (2008)

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright (2004, Carroll and Graf, Avalon Publishing House, NewYork).

Wright’s central thesis:
“Civilisation 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.  A small village on good land beside a river is a good idea; but when the village grows into a city and paves over good land, it becomes a bad idea.  While prevention might have been easy, a cure may be impossible: a city isn’t easily moved.  The human inability to foresee – or to watch out for – long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering.  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.” (p.108)

Our final summary discussion section in this course will be led by me (!).  We will discuss the book ‘A Short History of Progress’ by Ronald Wright 2004.  Please plan to have read through the book prior to the final session. Participants should bring three typed relevant discussion ideas or questions relating to the book to the final session.  Alternatively, if you wish, you may critique, edit and improve some of the draft questions I have put up below.  Some copies of the book are available in the library.

Here are a few draft questions for you to consider while reading this book

  1. What is meant by the term ‘progress’?
  2. How useful is the social pyramid analogy in describing the growth and demise of civilisations?
  3. Can this social pyramid analogy be usefully compared to ecological pyramids such as Elton’s pyramid of numbers that describes the pattern of large populations of small sized organisms at the base of food chains (e.g. phytoplankton), and progressively smaller populations of relatively large organisms toward the top of the food chain (e.g. predatory fish).
  4. As a biologist, would you agree with Wright’s overall conclusion from his archaeological studies of previous civilisations:  “that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilisation’s survival and success”? (p.105)
  5. How would you counter the argument that we “as a species are doomed by hope”? (p.123)
  6. Do you accept Wright’s description of Homo sapiens as “an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise”? (p.132)
  7. Are we really bound by a human predisposition toward short-term thinking (democratic election frequency ~5 yrs; regeneration time ~25 yrs; lifespan ~80 yrs) that constrains our capacity to take longer term views?
  8. Even if we had a capacity for longer term views, would ethical constructs such as the quality of life for future generations significantly influence current behaviours?
  9. Is the history of past civilisations a reasonable starting point with which to assess the future of our own?
  10. If our civilisation were to fall, what would be the first incontestible signs of this, and where would you expect to see them?
  11. Cost-benefit impacts of activities often differ for individuals as opposed to groups (Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons). How does this impinge on Wright's thesis, and our capacity to address global change issues?
  12. If global average life expectancy has almost doubled since ~1900 (Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist), does that not mean that quality of life has also improved for most of humanity?


Other useful resources:
Lomborg, B. 2001. The Skeptical Environmentalist - Measuring the Real State of the World. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hardin, G. 1968.  The Tragedy of the Commons.  Science 162:1243-1248.
Dietz, T., E. Ostrom, and P. C. Stern. 2003. The struggle to govern the commons. Science 302:1907-1912.

Created 20 August 2003 by P. Grogan
Last Updated: 14th February 2008