I’ve been reorganising a lot of my books recently, revisiting some of the novels and non-fiction that has most influenced, thrilled and chilled me over the last few years. One of my favourite reads of 2006 was A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. A book that was further imbedded in my consciousness due my luck at getting to meet Wright at a literary festival in Wellington – such an intimidatingly articulate and charming man! What an abilty to make the end of the world sound so damn interesting.
One of the central questions Wright seeks to answer in this concise and gripping work is, “Why, if civilizations so often destroy themselves, has the overall experiment of civilization done so well?” He tries to answer it, with some success, by describing ‘progress traps’ that confer success at the cost of sustainability. These progress traps often take the guise of cultural belief, an almost mythical beast that, with the correct sacrifices, offers a strange mix of immortality and wealth; the determined deforestation on Easter Island is a particularly chilling example of this. Wright bangs the old drum of ‘Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” but he taps a compelling rhythm, one that takes a tired adage & transforms it into an urgent reality. A precise & extremely compelling work that inspires a desire to know more.
Also, if you have any interest in pre-colonial north and south America, I highly recommend reading one of his other books, Stolen Continents, a deeply interesting analysis of displaced cultures and civilizations before, during and after colonisation.