Pitched somewhere between Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’, and Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, Ronald Wright takes a broad view of history, telling the human story from its earliest origins to our uncertain future.
His particular focus is progress, the notion that life must get better every year. It is, he reveals, a new idea, and not always a good one: “The myth of progress has served us well – those of us seated at the best tables, anyway – and may continue to do so… it has also become dangerous. Progress has an internal logic to it that can lead beyond reason to catastrophe.”
The logic of progress dictates that the next step is inevitably better, and always desirable. There is no limit to progress, no ‘enough’, and no basis for saying no to the next step. We have learned, for example, to make smaller and smaller micro-circuits and miniaturized machines. Nanotechnology is therefore inevitable and desirable. It will happen, it must happen, whether we want it or not. It may turn out to be a bad idea, but it cannot be stopped. We cannot stand in the way of progress.
This danger is something that Wright refers to as ‘the progress trap’: “The paleolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200 – by driving a whole herd over a cliff – had made too much.”
We don’t drive mammoths over cliffs any more, but we do use bottom-trawler fishing nets, which is basically the same principle. In the nuclear bomb we’ve invented a weapon so powerful that it could destroy our entire world, a progress trap if ever there was one. We didn’t set out to create anything that dangerous, we just followed the logic of progress from one bang to a bigger bang. We are poised on the verge of biotechnology and nanotechnology breakthroughs with completely unpredictable consequences for life as we know it. In some ways, we don’t appear to be any smarter than the neanderthals.
Reading the sweep of history in such a short space is both thrilling and disconcerting. You realise how little we still know, how recently we got our act together. One thing that leaps out at me is just how fragile our civilization is. Civilization is only ever experimental, and while history tells us plenty of things that didn’t work, there is no clear formula for making it work in the long term.
We’ve structured ours around progress and economic growth, and for a couple of centuries it has looked like the answer, the successful formula at last, so much so that we were able to declare ourselves ‘The End of History” not so very long ago. But of course every civilization has thought they were the last and the ultimate. Climate change, peak oil, pollution and a half dozen other attendant problems conspire against the story of progress, and according to Wright’s analysis, “our present behaviour is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance.”
The question now is whether or not we are going to accept any of history’s lessons, or are “all human systems doomed to stagger along under the mounting weight of their internal logic until it crushes them?”