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Pandora’s box of ‘progress’

Written by Canadian author Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress [2004] examines the meaning of ‘progress’ and its implications for past and present civilizations, using the fallen civilizations of Easter Island, Sumer, Rome, and Maya as his primary examples, although he also cites the Stone Age.

It’s while examining instances of Stone Age progress that Wright first deploys the term ‘progress trap’, going on to note that “many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success. In the fates of such societies – once mighty, complex, and brilliant – lie the most instructive lessons … they are fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong.”

More prosaically, Wright uses the phrase ‘progress trap’ to refer to innovations that create new problems that a society is unable or unwilling to solve, or inadvertently create conditions that are worse than what existed before the innovation.

This, he argues, was exemplified in the Stone Age by innovations in hunting that allowed for more successful hunts and consequently more free time during which culture and art – such as cave paintings and bone carvings – were created, but also led to extinctions, most notably of megafauna like ye olde woolly mammoth. This meant that increasingly smaller game had to be hunted to replace the now-extinct larger animals, leading to hunts becoming less efficient and successful, and the subsequent decline of culture.

Ultimately, Wright uses the civilizational “black boxes” he exhumes to make the case that the 20th Century was a time of runaway growth in human population, consumption, and technology that has now placed an unsustainable burden on all natural systems.

At the time he wrote the book, Wright appeared to believe there was still time for our civilization to correct course. “We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones.” Whether he retains this optimism almost 20 years later is unclear.

The above description, of course, does a simplistic disservice to the book and its argument – Times-Age readers are encouraged to get hold of a copy and draw their own conclusions.

Be warned, though – it’s likely you’ll start to see signs of impending civilizational collapse everywhere if you do.

You may, for example, start to wonder whether the downsides of our increasingly wired-up world [the awfully ironic increase in loneliness and disconnection, and the way social media enables social contagions, for example] have reached the point where they far outweigh the upsides.

It’s also possible you’ll grow concerned about and suspicious of the way that further innovation is almost always promoted as the way out of the increasingly untenable situation that earlier innovations have led us to – generally by the same individuals, organisations, and institutions whose driving is largely responsible for the slow-moving civilisation crash we’re arguably in the midst of.

Perhaps maintaining a studied ignorance is the best chance of some kind of bliss. Even in the age of information, it remains a choice.

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