|The Idea: Archaeologist-historian-novelist Ronald Wright summarizes and analyzes six spectacular civilizational collapses from throughout our history, and reads us the riot act about what we need to do now to avoid another collapse, this time a global one.
It is impossible to avoid comparisons between Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which was broadcast by CBC last November as the 1994 Massey Lecture series, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which came out only a few weeks later. Both books describe incidents of civilizational collapse from human history (Wright covers Easter Island, Sumeria, Rome, Maya, Egypt and China), both draw lessons from those stories, and both point out how similar our 21st century global civilization is to these examples just prior to their collapse. Both stress that, for the first time since we arrived on this planet three million years ago, a single culture is so ubiquitous on the planet that its collapse could bring not only the end of a dynasty, but species extinction. Both identify the factors that presage civilizational collapse.
The difference (besides brevity — Wright’s book is a mere 132 pages, excluding the 70 pages of exhaustive notes and references, with 90% fewer words than Diamond’s) is one of tone. As I reported in my review of Collapse, Diamond lays the responsibility for preventing collapse clearly at the feet of the masses, and asserts it can be done. Wright’s tone is considerably darker, and he sees the challenge as considerably greater.
This does not bode well for our ability to think, invent, or collaborate our way out of the crises that threaten to topple today’s civilization. We have repeatedly fallen victim to what Wright calls “progress traps” — collective judgement errors that lead us to believe that if a small amount of X is a good thing, a larger amount must be even better. Paleolithic hunters who killed two mammoths instead of one had made progress, but when they drove 200 over a cliff “they lived high for awhile, then starved”. The taming of fire, the perfection of hunting, the agricultural revolution, each have been major lurches forward in human progress, and each has brought with it progress traps.
Since the early 1900s, world population has multiplied by 4 and the economy — human load on nature — by more than 40. We have reached the stage at which we must bring the experiment [that of a species shaped more by its own culture than by nature] under rational control, and guard against present and potential dangers. It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.
Wright explains the extraordinary similarities between the culture of Spain and the culture of Mexico when they clashed 500 years ago, after being completely out of touch for at least a millennium, as an indication of the inherent and perhaps inevitable human drive for a very similar and unsustainable vision of progress. He explains that agriculture and civilization were precluded from happening even earlier in our evolution only by the unimaginable instability of climate — fluctuating wildly from decade to decade — for a period of half a million years that lasted until the retreat of the last ice age just 12,000 years ago and brought a period of unprecedented climate stability — which of course we are now threatening.
He quotes this extraordinary poem written by Ovid in 60 B.C.:
earth…had better things to offer — crops without cultivation,
fruit on the bough, honey in the hollow oak.
no one tore the ground with ploughshares
the shore was the world’s end.
clever human nature, victim of your inventions,
why cordon cities with towered walls?
why arm for war?
He describes the “unsavoury truth that until the mid-19th century most cities were death traps, seething with disease, vermin and parasites. Average life expectancy in ancient Rome was only 19 years”, This is consistent with Richard Manning’s research findings in Against the Grain. He explains:
Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up…In civilizations, population always grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply, and all civilizations become hierarchical — the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around…Human inability to foresee or watch out for long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the 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 evolutionary 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.
Another revelation of the book is the state of the Americas when they were pillaged by Europeans 500 years ago. At that time, civilization was as advanced in the new world as in the old, and the ‘conquering’ of the Europeans was only possible because of the devastation caused by smallpox and other diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. “[By 1500] all temperate zones of the US were thickly settled by farming peoples. When the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts, the Indians had died out so recently that the whites found empty cabins, winter corn, and cleared fields — ‘widowed acres’ — waiting for their use: a foretoken of the colonists’ parasitic advance across the continent. “Europeans did not find a wilderness here”, US historian Francis Jennings has written, “they made one”.
At the end of the book, Wright quotes from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake:
One of her characters asks, “As a species we’re doomed by hope, then?” By hope? Well, yes. Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism.
That takes us to the present day, where the “concentration of power at the top” continues to hoard resources, steal from everyone else, ruthlessly suppress opposition, and prospers as the environment and the general populace suffer. And we, strange creatures of our disconnected and self-made culture, cling desperately to the hope and false assurances that we will be saved by our gods, or our ingenuity, that what we are doing to our world is beyond our control, is not our fault, not our responsibility, and is not so bad in the global scheme of things anyway.
The idea that the human race has, under the harsh rules of Darwin, bred compassion out of the gene pool in favour of more ‘successful’ savagery, and that it is this ruthless and relentless violence, rather than our ‘superior’ intelligence, that has led to our staggering numbers, is not new. But it casts the lessons of our history in a different, and darker, light. It is serious enough trying to deal with one fatal character flaw — our propensity to hope things will get better without the need for radical change or the learning of lessons from history. Add a second fatal character flaw — a preference for murder and genocide over more peaceful and compassionate solutions — and the outlook gets much bleaker. Perhaps this explains the finding that the best informed people in modern society tend to be the least optimistic. Fortunately, they also tend to be the most determined to make things better. Power struggle, anyone?