“I would rather live in a house than in a rock-shelter. I like great buildings and good books. I like knowing that I am an ape, that the world is round, that the sun is a star and the stars are suns—taken-for-granted knowledge that took thousands of years to wrest from ‘chaos and old night’. For all its cruelties, civilization is precious, and experiment worth continuing.”
What worries Wright is that civilization’s more fevered critics—Derrick Jensen comes to mind—don’t seem to recognize that “There is no going back [from civilization] 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.” 1
Wright is no Pangloss when it comes to human nature or human history. He notes that our cultures and our technological capacities have evolved much faster than our biological inheritance: “To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago. This,” he says drily, “may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.” He quotes William Golding (from the novel PINCHER MARTIN):
“I will tell you what a man is. He is a freak, an ejected foetus robbed of his natural development, thrown out in the world with a naked covering of parchment, with too little room for his teeth and a soft bulging skull like a bubble. But nature stirs a pudding there…”
The “pudding” to which Golding referred is the human brain, that locus of (as Wright describes it) “genius and madness, logic and belief, instinct and hallucination, compassion and cruelty, love, hate, sex, art, greed—all the drives towards life and death.” It is what separates us from the other animals, and it is also what enables us to threaten the delicate balances of the planet itself.
Wright’s particular concern is that humanity has, in the past, fallen into what he calls “progress traps,” ways of living which succeeded for a while but eventually became self-destructive and unsustainable. Enamored of our own successes and convinced we can maintain any given status quo forever2, we don’t realize that we’re actually paving the way to our demise; and this, Wright suggests, is what we’re in the process of doing all over again. Global warming, species extinction, devastation of landscapes and profligate use of scarce resources: if Wright is to be believed, we are currently digging our own civilizational grave under the illusion we are excavating for buried treasure.
Despite our place at the top of the food chain, our fate remains uncertain. According to Wright:
“Our main difference from chimps and gorillas is that over the last 3 million years or so, we have shaped less and less by nature, and more and more by culture. We have become experimental creatures of our own making.
“This experiment has never been tried before. And we, its unwitting authors, have never controlled it. The experiment is now moving very quickly and on a colossal scale. Since the early 1900s, the world’s population has multiplied by four and its economy—a rough measure of the human load on nature—by more than forty.3 We have reached a stage where we must bring the experiment 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.”
Having read my share of Cassandras, Jeremiahs, and doomsayers, I don’t find A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS to be entirely pessimistic—strongly cautionary, perhaps, and with a note of unmistakable urgency: “Now is our last chance to get the future right,” says Ronald Wright, warning that, if we don't, we will soon experience “an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past”.
At least he’s giving us a fighting chance.
1 Derrick Jensen (ENDGAME) is well aware of that fact, which is why he wants nothing more than for us to start killing ourselves off right now and get it over with: so that nature can restore itself to what Jensen believes is its rightful non-anthropocentric balance.
2 Famously, President George H.W. Bush on why we couldn’t let Saddam Hussein control Kuwait’s oil: “The American way of life is not negotiable.”
3 Conceiving of our economy this way--as "a rough measure of the human load on nature"--puts an entirely different spin on our obsession with economic growth. While such growth doesn't have to come at the expense of the planet's health, we seem for the most part blithely unconcerned with whether or not it actually does.