An Even Shorter History of Progress

It’s easy to be aware of all the environmental problems facing us today (climate disruption, toxic waste, new pathogens, genetic engineering, antibiotic resistance, peak oil, peak air) without understanding what’s at the root of all these seemingly unrelated crises.

One of the best people to turn to for an explanation is Ronald Wright, bestselling author of A Short History of Progress. Last weekend The Toronto Star printed what was going to be the keynote address at tomorrow night’s Couchiching Conference, which Ronald had to withdraw from for personal reasons:

A span of five millennia may seem long enough to declare the experiment of civilization an unqualified success. But its entire run is barely one-fifth of one per cent of the human career on Earth. Even our modern subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens — people with the same physical and mental abilities as us — has existed between 10 and 20 times longer than its oldest civilization. The settled, urban life we regard today as normal is not the life that made us; not the life by which we evolved.

For me, the greatest mystery of what we call the “ancient world” is how recent it really is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. Only 70 lifetimes of 70 years have been lived end-to-end since civilization began. Yet civilization has displaced almost all other ways of living, often forcibly. There is now no viable alternative, no blank on the map, no going back without catastrophe. As we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below…

The whole thing will probably take you about 22 minutes, and is a good primer on why unlimited economic growth is a myth that we need to get over as soon as possible. Or, you could watch a Simpsons rerun instead. I don’t want to tell you how to manage your time.

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