A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, 2004

Amazon Link

Wright examines progress made throughout human civilization, and points out patterns of failure and collapse.  He frames the story by asking three questions: who are we? (primates); where do we come from? (the lone survivors among other human-like groups); and where are we going? (not looking good).

Wright sees the abuse of natural resources as the primary cause of civilizational collapse—depletion of soil, erosion, clear cutting, anthropogenic extinction events, the toll of livestock on pasture, etc.  Now that human civilization is global and deeply interconnected, these types of disasters will no longer be contained within a specific place.  Failure will spread throughout the system virally.

The book was interesting, but didn’t cover much new ground for me.

Ideas per Page:1 3/10 (low)

Related Books: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari

Recommend to Others: only if you are looking for an introduction to the topic

Reread Personally:  No

Quotes:

4 Pollard notes that the idea of material progress is a very recent one—“significant only in the past three hundred years or so”—coinciding closely with the rise of science and industry and the corresponding decline of traditional beliefs.  We no longer give much thought to moral progress—a prime concern of earlier times—except to assume that it goes hand in hand with the material.

32  By culture I mean the whole of any society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices.

33 Civilizations are a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings.

35 …a late-Paleolithic child snatched from a campfire and raised among us now would have an even chance of at earning a degree in astrophysics or computer science.  To use a computer analogy, we are running twenty-first century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more.  This may explain quite a lot of what we see in the news.

65 …given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity, and environmental demand.

117 We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the “end” of history, in both a temporal and teleological sense.  Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow.  Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half a planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels.


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

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