- A Short History of Progress
For those who loved Jared Diamond's runaway bestseller Guns, Germs and Steel, but don't particularly feel like wading through all five-hundred-plus pages of his more recent Collapse, an agreeable alternative would be to flip through Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress, the book version of his 2004 Massey Lectures.
In a mere 132 pages of text, Wright works through the same talking points, but with a great deal more pizazz. For example, his retelling of the Easter Island story, which Diamond first began publicizing over a decade ago, has considerable zip. The environment movement needs more people like Wright, who can worry about the fate of the earth so poetically: 'How long can it withstand a blaze of consumption so frenzied that the dark side of this planet glows like a fanned ember in the night of space?' he asks.
Both Wright and Diamond are 'environmentalists' in both the normative and the explanatory sense of the term. They think that we should take better care of the planet. More controversially, they think that the environment constitutes the central variable when it comes to understanding variations in human culture, settlement patterns, and population levels, along with the 'rise and fall' of human civilizations.
Diamond actually has a rather nuanced five-point classification of primary influences on the success of human civilizations, some of which include social factors (such as interaction with hostile neighbours). For Wright, on the other hand, it's all about the topsoil. Keep your topsoil in good shape, civilization flourishes. Wreck your topsoil, it's game over.
So why did the Roman empire collapse, while the Chinese were always able to stage a comeback? Whatever the proximate causes (corruption, plague, barbarian invasion, etc), the ultimate causes were environmental. The Roman empire 'impoverished the soils of southern Europe.' Chinese civilization was able to persist thanks to the miracle of the Yellow River, with its 'lump sum deposits' of renewed topsoil, making the land 'almost endlessly forgiving.' [End Page 208]
Of course, what follows from this sort of environmental reductionism is the occlusion of any social factor as an explanatory variable. But having discounted the role of culture and social institutions in explaining civilizational collapse, Wright is left with almost nothing useful to say about what we, as a society, should do about our environmental problems (other than make 'the transition from short-term to long-term thinking'). In particular, he has no sense of the way that the development of the market economy makes the task of environmental sustainability in some ways easier, but in other ways more difficult. Indeed, one of the central lessons learned over the past twenty years about the inadequacies of 'limits to growth'-style environmental thinking is that we cannot ignore the way that the price system dynamically adjusts both production and consumption to conditions of relative scarcity.
It should also be mentioned that Wright's presentation is marred by some genuinely silly speculative asides. For example, he suggests that the disappearance of Neanderthals and their replacement by Homo sapiens may provide 'stone age forebodings of the final solution.' 'If it turns out that the Neanderthals disappeared because they were an evolutionary dead end, we can merely shrug and blame natural selection for their fate. But if they were in fact a variant or race of modern men, then we must admit to ourselves that their death may have been the first genocide.'
This makes one wonder just what Wright thinks an 'evolutionary dead end' is. It's not as though certain genetic variants just give up one day and decide to stop reproducing. Getting killed off, either directly or indirectly, by conspecifics or otherwise, is what makes a particular variant an 'evolutionary dead end.'
Neanderthals may have disappeared because Homo sapiens girls didn't like boys with heavy brow lines, or they may have disappeared because Homo sapiens boys threw rocks at them. Since either explanation is equally plausible, there is something rather tabloid about Wright's suggestion that we may be 'genetically predisposed by the...