Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?

September 20, 2019
Posted in Blog
September 20, 2019 Editor

Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?

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Author of 2004’s ‘A Short History of Progress’ issues a progress report.

Ronald Wright 20 Sep 2019 |

Ronald Wright’s 10 books include Time Among the Maya, Stolen Continents, and the award-winning dystopia A Scientific Romance. His Massey Lectures inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary Surviving Progress. See also “Which Will Win, Wisdom or Greed?’“. For the author, “progress trap” means trapped by “civilization’s” very success.

WN: An incredibly credible and sobering voice!

The author delivered the CBC Massey Lectures in 2004, and they were published and eventually translated into almost 20 languages. An anniversary edition this year bears the original title: A Short History of Progress. Of it we read:

Each time history repeats itself, so it’s said, the price goes up. The twentieth century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology, placing a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth, air, and water — the very elements of life. The most urgent questions of the twenty-first century are: Where will this growth lead? Can it be consolidated or sustained? And what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our future?

In his #1 national bestseller A Short History of Progress Ronald Wright argues that our modern predicament is as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age can we recognize the experiment’s inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.

In the fifteenth anniversary’s Introduction–the only part of the text changed–he concludes:

Often when I read the news these days, I feel I’ve awakened in a dystopia I foretold, not yet in the jungled ruins of London but well on the way there. Perhaps our odds have fallen to one in three. So yes, I am less hopeful than I was in 2004. But I still have hope. Giving up in despair is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if the chance of success is only one in ten, it is still worth fighting for. And if we fail to act, nature will do so with the rough justice she serves on those who are too many and who take too much.

And while eco-anxiety is now a spreading psychological phenomenon, the vast majority of humanity in our wealthiest countries live in simple denial. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu in No Future Without Forgiveness commented about the brutal suppression of blacks and dissidents during the apartheid years:

The former apartheid cabinet member Leon Wessels was closer to the mark when he said that they had not wanted to know, for there were those who tried to alert them (p. 269).

When I lived for two years in West Berlin in the early 1970s, in the impertinence of youth I asked a few older persons in church, “Haben Sie nicht gewußt?” — Didn’t you know — about the Nazi Holocaust? Their eyes invariably betrayed their “Nein“. No one lived in Germany during those years who did not know!

In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, a group of rabbits flees impending disaster to their warren. They arrive in their travels at what first is considered the ideal warren. We read:

The rabbits go through several adventures before Hazel successfully brings them to a field where they believe they can live. But the field is already inhabited by a group of rabbits, who seem strange but let the travelers stay with them. Fiver warns the rabbits not to join the new warren, but they do not listen to him because the living is easy and there is food for everyone. There is something odd about the warren, but they cannot figure out what it is. Finally, after an argument with Fiver, Bigwig gets caught in a snare. Hazel and the other rabbits manage to get him out, although they get no help from the rabbits who live in the warren. Fiver figures it all out, explaining to the group that a farmer leaves the great food behind for the rabbits in order to fatten them up before he catches them in his snares. They decide to leave, and one rabbit from the new warren, Strawberry, comes with them (“Watership Down Summary”).

This is surely a parable for our modern denialism about Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, and massive depletion of Earth’s resources by our rapacious technologies. 

As Ronald Wright observes, this has been the pattern in the last 10,000 years of “civilization”. The plaintive song, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?“, by Peter Paul and Mary, contains the haunting refrain:

Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Change “they” to “we”, and we have a requiem for past great “civilizations” to be sure. But possibly one for our “civilization” as well . . . Wisdom or Greed indeed!

excerpts from the Introduction:

When I was asked a few years later to give the CBC Massey Lectures, I decided to write more explicitly about the catastrophic fall of past civilizations and what we might learn from them to avoid a similar fate. The underlying pattern to the cases I examined was that all became victims of their own success. None was able to reform or adapt effectively, and most didn’t even try — at least, not until it was too late. This gave me the idea of the progress trap: a seductive chain of successes that, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster.

The commanding heights of this group, the billionaires’ club, has more than 2,200 members with a combined known worth nearing $ 10 trillion; this super-elite not only consumes at a rate never seen before but also deploys its wealth to influence government policy, media content, and key elections. Such, in a few words, is the shape of the human pyramid today. The 2008 crash triggered by

banking fraud was staved off by money-printing and record debt. This primed a short-run recovery, which has in turn revived illusions we can borrow from nature and the future indefinitely — illusions fed by irresponsible politicians, corporate think tanks, and Panglossian[7] cherry-pickers such as Steven Pinker.

One of the sad ironies of our time is that we have become very good at studying nature just as it begins to sicken and die under our weight. “Weight” is no mere metaphor: of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96 per cent of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to 4 per cent. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history, the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success.

We are cheating our children, handing them tawdry luxuries and addictive gadgets while we take away what’s left of the wealth, wonder, and possibility of the pristine Earth. Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in “ecological deficit,” taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least thirty years. Topsoil is being lost between ten and forty times faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-twentieth century.

Whether we are triggering an extinction as severe as the one that killed the dinosaurs, when three-quarters of all species were wiped out, is still to be seen. By the time the answer is clear, there could be nobody left to know it. The lesson of fallen societies is that civilization itself is a vulnerable organism, especially when it seems almighty. We are the world’s top predator, and predators crash suddenly when they outgrow their prey. Every day, the odds climb higher that our ecological rampage will bring civilization down. If the resulting chaos unleashes full-scale nuclear war, it could well amount to a mass extinction, with Homo sapiens among the noted dead.

The failure of democratically elected governments to stand up for the greater good over the long run is fuelling disillusionment with democracy itself, above all among the young. Since neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s, power and money have ebbed from governments and flowed to corporations. Much of the top talent has followed that tide, draining prestige and expertise from public life. Corruptibility, low calibre, and sheer incompetence are the hallmarks of too many so-called leaders. Meanwhile, a revolt against taxation by the wealthy and by corporations, ever threatening to take their business to more “tax competitive” regimes, is resulting in decay of conservation measures, public education, civic values, and the social safety net. 26 Big Tech corporations such as Apple, Google, and Facebook have amassed vast fortunes by finessing a cloud-like, non-territorial status, evading their fair share of tax through jurisdictional sleight of hand. And these are just the quasi-lawful ways of dodging social responsibility. There is something badly wrong with an economic regime in which twenty-six individuals own as much as half the world’s population.

A new yet significant part of that influence is wielded by the IT and social media industry, which in little more than a decade has not only evaded regulation but hollowed out professional journalism, invaded privacy, and grown fat by pushing a new opium of the people: an algorithmic brew of ceaseless distraction, interruption, titillation, and tailored propaganda that threatens to lock us inside a virtual present uncoupled from reality and truth.

Please read Ronald Wright’s 2019 reissued book: A Short History of Progress






  1. [2] marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds : excessively optimistic It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  2. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.
  7. [7] marked by the view that all is for the best in this best of possible worlds : excessively optimistic


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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