A Short History of Progress - by Ronald Wright



my notes: 


Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology. A secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.

But when the bang we can make can blow up our world, we have made rather too much progress.

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.

From the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly 3 million years; from the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took only 3,000

Specialization brings short term rewards but can lead, in the long run, to an evolutionary dead end.

It’s entirely up to is. If we fail - if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us - nature will merely shrug its shoulders and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.

From ancient times until today, civilized people have believed they behave better, and ARE better, than so-called savages. But the Roman circus, the Aztec sacrifices, the Inquisition bonfires, the Nazi death camps - all have been the work of highly civilized societies.

Civilization is precious, an experimenting worth continuing. It is also precarious; as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe.

Culture and technology are cumulative, innate intelligence is not.

We are running 21st century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.

Art and technology cannot be evidence that we suddenly evolved into a new species with brand new cognitive powers. But it IS evidence of a familiar cultural pattern: leisure born of a food surplus.

The food technology of the late Stone Age is the one technology we can’t live without. The crops of about a dozen ancient peoples feed the 6 billion on earth today. Despite more than 2 centuries of scientific crop breeding, not one new staple has been added to our repertoire of crops since prehistoric times.

All pre-industrial cities were constrained by the difficulty of getting supplies in and wastes out every day, a problem not always eased by horses and carts.

The unsavory truth is that until the mid 19th century, most cities were death traps, seething with disease, vermin and parasites.

The costs of running and defending an empire eventually grow so burdensome that it becomes more efficient to throw off the whole imperial superstructure and revert to local forms of organization.

We will never know when, where, or even whether the Industrial Revolution would have happened had America not existed.

One of the dangers of writing a dystopian satire is how depressing it is when you get things right.

Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create even 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.

The idea that the world must be run by the stock market is as mad as any other fundamentalist delusion, Islamic, Christian, Marxist, or any of the others.

The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in NO ONE’S interest.

Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.


Now is our last chance to get the future right.