Humanity: Caught in a Progress Trap, Again

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October 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

A Short History of Progress. Ronald Wright. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2004. 211 pp.

Leslie Evans

Generally I don’t pay attention to very short books that try to trace the entire history of the human race, and worse, present the author’s pet theory of why we are now on the verge of collapse. Ronald Wright tackles this daunting task in an undersized binding, 8 X 5.5 inches, and a text before notes and index that runs to only 132 pages in a generous sized type. Still, he has an ear for the mot juste, a sure sense for the revealing anecdote, and a theory that, even in this highly abbreviated presentation, rings true.

The theory is the progress trap. The first great progress trap was the invention of spears and bows and arrows for hunting. The earliest stone tools date back three million years, at the dawn of the Old Stone Age, which lasted until the most recent retreat of the Ice Age glaciers 12,000 years ago. The revolution in hunting weaponry, which Wright suggests may also have been used to exterminate our closest hominid relatives, solidified around 15,000 years ago. By that time humans were established on all the continents exceptAntarctica.

“Soon after man shows up in new lands,” he writes, “the big game starts to go missing. Mammoths and woolly rhinos retreat north, then vanish from Europe and Asia. A giant wombat, other marsupials, and a tortoise as big as a Volkswagen disappear from Australia. Camels, mammoth, giant bison, giant sloth, and the horse die out across the Americas. A bad smell of extinction follows Homo sapiens around the world.”

The technical progress in weaponry first produced an era of prosperity and plenty. Then it crashed as the big game were driven to extinction. Wright calls this the first progress trap. Human population swelled from the kills, more people meant more hunters, more hunters meant less game. Over time the spear points become smaller and smaller, as people hunted rabbits instead of mammoths.

Humanity was saved by the next wave of progress, the invention of agriculture, 10,000 to 13,000 years ago This seems a long, long time, but in terms of the timeline of anatomically modern humans, which date from 195,000 years ago, it’s a brief moment.

Agriculture developed independently in four regions. In theMiddle Eastit produced wheat and barley. TheFar Eastdomesticated rice and millet.MexicoandCentral Americagrew maize, beans, squash, and tomatoes. AndSouth Americatamed potatoes, squash, peanuts, and quinoa. Wright points out that we live today on the crops of the late Stone Age. “Despite more than two centuries of scientific crop-breeding, the so-called green revolution of the 1960s, and the genetic engineering of the 1990s, not one new staple has been added to our repertoire of crops since prehistoric times.”

It is routinely said that the most common reason for extinctions is over-specialization (apart from those caused by predators, particularly human ones). The human primate has been as successful as it has largely because of its enlarged brain and opposable thumb, which, with the taming of fire and the invention of clothing, allowed it to adapt to different climates. There is a chink in that generalist armor. Wright proposes: “In the matter of our food, we have grown as specialized, and therefore as vulnerable, as a saber-toothed cat.”

He also cautions, in the manner of British philosopher John Gray, that technical progress does not equate to moral progress. “The Roman circus, the Aztec sacrifices, the Inquisition bonfires, the Nazi death camps – all have been the work of highly civilized societies.” He explains this with a computer analogy: “we are running twenty-first-century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more. This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.” That doesn’t make him ready to give the whole thing up. In one of the more memorable passages he writes:

“For all its cruelties, civilization is precious, an experiment worth continuing. It is also precarious: as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe. Those who don’t like civilization, and can’t wait for it to fall on its arrogant face, should keep in mind that there is no other way to support humanity in anything like our present numbers or estate.”

In pursuit of his thesis that agriculture is itself the next progress trap Wright traces the collapse of the Mayas and Easter Island, treated more extensively by Jared Diamond in his Collapse, published the year after Wright’s essay. More applicable to our modern situation are his remarks about ancientSumer in what is now southernIraq. Originally a plain of fertile farmland, the use of river water for extensive irrigation left a buildup of salt that poisoned the croplands.

“By 2000 B.C., scribes were reporting that the earth had ‘turned white.’ All crops, including barley, were failing. Yields fell to a third of their original levels. The Sumerians’ thousand years in the sun of history came to an end. . . . Today, fully half ofIraq’s irrigated land is saline – the highest proportion in the world, followed by the other two centres of floodplain civilization,EgyptandPakistan.” Notably, the last years ofSumerwere marked by complete denial, extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the top, and grandiose building projects.

Wright proposes to fit the fall ofRomeinto his schema. This is a highly debated topic with a vast literature of its own. Wright makes a few points that sound plausible but I leave their validity to experts.Rome, Wright says, gathered wealth into its center from an ever expanding periphery. As its population swelled and nearby farmland was exhausted,Romebecame dependent on grain imported from its outlying possessions.

“The consequences can be seen in those regions today.Antioch, capital of Roman Syria, lies under some thirty feet of silt washed down from deforested hills, and the great Libyan ruins ofLeptis Magnanow stand in a desert.Rome’s ancient breadbaskets are filled with sand and dust. . . .

“Mediaeval history confirms the archaeological evidence: the empire fell hardest at its core, the Mediterranean basin, where the brunt of the environmental cost was borne. Power then shifted to the periphery, where Germanic invaders such as Goths, Franks, and English founded small ethnic states on northern lands thatRomehad not exhausted.”

Ronald Wright has to confront an obvious challenge to his thesis. If civilizations are so prone to self-destruction through overpopulation, deforestation, and deterioration of farmland, how is it that the Earth today is supporting such a vastly larger population? His answer is that early civilizations were relatively localized, dependent on nearby food sources. Large parts of the globe were unsettled and open to colonization. Some parts were highly favored with agricultural resources that would take many generations to desiccate. Populations spread widely, and as global trade arose, shortages in one locality could be filled by imports. And there is a process of natural regeneration if the damage has not been too severe. In any case, the lifespan of most prominent early civilizations was a thousand years or so. The damage we do takes some time to manifest.

Still, at base, civilizations survive not by their technology but by the health of the natural environment from which they draw their sustenance. Wright concludes:

“The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”

Wright’s last chapter, “The Rebellion of the Tools,” is his most interesting. Here he critiques our current situation. He explains why agriculture, like hunting weapons, is a progress trap. He also calls it a runaway train. It leads, he says, “to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem because of two inevitable (or nearly inevitable) consequences. The first is biological: the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. The second is social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around.”

This last also acts to prevent remedial measures. The rich depend on the status quo and have the means to defend it, even as those at the bottom are already caught in the crumbling foundations.

We now have a global civilization, where population is pressing not only on many local and regional resource limits but on planetary ones. As Wright notes, “Adding 200 million after Rome took thirteen centuries; adding the last 200 million took only three years.”

In his final few pages, in what almost amount to bullet points, Wright limns the dead end we have arrived at. Our single global civilization is ceaselessly logging, fishing, irrigating, and building everywhere, eating the natural world alive. The defenders of the rich, like their predecessors in every failed civilization, cling to their privileges like grim death and use their power to drive the lower classes away from the table. The political Right has wrapped itself in a mixture of market extremism and religious fundamentalism that has become “a kind of social Darwinism by people who hateDarwin,” and is leading a revolt against redistribution that “is killing civilization.” The three richest Americans, he tells us through gritted teeth, have combined wealth greater than that of the forty-eight poorest countries. And then his peroration:

“If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature. Ecological markers suggest that in the early 1960s, humans were using about 70 per cent of nature’s yearly output; by the early 1980s, we’d reached 100 per cent; and in 1999, we were at 125 per cent. Such numbers may be imprecise, but their trend is clear – they mark the road to bankruptcy.”

We have a last chance, he says. Of course, mere redistribution within the overflowing human population, the centerpiece of the traditional Marxist and socialist project, will by itself provide only a short respite for those at the bottom. Both population and resource use must be cut back. Fossil fuels, metals, potable water, arable land, ocean fish, are all at or near their limits compared to the demands being placed on them. If we fail to scale back, he warns, “this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.”

The collapse stage of past civilizations was rarely sudden, seen from the perspective of the daily life of its citizens. If a dark age lies ahead, it is likely that there will be a period, perhaps a fairly long one, of a slipping down life on the way there. We seem to be in the early stages of that. We are living in the shadow of that supposed ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”


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