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A Short History of Progress

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  2,445 ratings  ·  223 reviews
Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up. The twentieth century—a time of unprecedented progress—has produced a tremendous strain on the very elements that comprise life itself. This raises the key question of the twenty-first century: How much longer can this go on? With wit and erudition, Ronald Wright lays out a convincing case that history has always provided ...more
Paperback, 211 pages
Published 2004 by House of Anansi Press
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I got a new friend on Good Reads the other day and glanced down her favourite quotes and spotted two quotes from this book – from the 2003 Massey Lectures. I’m quite fond of the Messey lectures as they are often really very good. Not all that different (in quality or style) from the Reith Lectures in Britain or even Australia’s very own Boyer Lectures (whose name I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to remember – a bit embarrassing that, when you think of it). This one was really very inter ...more
Dec 06, 2008 Renee rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who cares about the future
Ronald Wright bases his book/lecture series around three seemingly simple, yet profound questions that have haunted human beings since time began.

'Where did we come from?'
'What are we?'
'Where are we going?'

If you have any curiosity about the answers to these questions, don't hesitate to pick up 'A Short history of progress'.

From these three questions, Wright takes us on a whirlwind tour of human history, from the dawn of humanity to the present day.

By answering the first two questions, Wrigh
Short tract on the hazards of unlimited growth with limited resources, exploitation of the masses and nature, colonialism, monoculture, etc. Vivid preaching rhetoric, but unfortunately leaves no hints of real solutions except some fuzzy 'power to the masses' stuff, and an emphasis on 'long-term thinking'. All of which are sound ideas, but it's up to other people for their implementation.

Time to get to business.
In crisp,accessible prose, RW reframes the notion of progress in this concise but sweeping assessment of the predicament of civilizations and the repetitive pattern of destruction.

Commencing with Gauguin's three apocryphal questions(where do we come from?what are we? Where are we going?) he commences to answer them in order to use this knowledge to "plot a wise course" for "the future of everything we have accomplished since intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the
In 2001, Ronald Wright was selected to give the 2004 Massey Lectures on CBC. "A Short History of Progress" was his attempt to answer three questions posed by the painter Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Unlike the last few books I've read, I can't give it an unhesitating endorsement. As the title suggests, it is short at 132 pages, but it took me nearly 3 weeks to finish. Part of that is because it has been a busy couple of weeks, but the lion's share is that I did
Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea
What an amazing book. I actually heard about this while driving back to Rochester through Buffalo one night. The author was selected as the Massey Lecturer for Canada and was on the CBC basically reading the first chapter from his book. I was fucken mesmerized. The signal finally broke and I found the book and immediately read it. I've never really read any radical anthropology with the exception of David Graeber among a few others, but his writing style was totally accessible and invigorating a ...more
Sep 11, 2008 Charlotte rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Homo sapiens
Shelves: non-fiction
REQUIRED READING for every human being. A very succinct and straightforward account of how civilizations rise and fall. The basic premise is that humans usually outstrip their natural resources, making their society unstable. Civil unrest and natural disasters ensue that kill off most of the civilians and lead to the downfall of the civilization itself. Can we say "Rome" anybody?

The author is hopeful that we homo sapiens can learn from the mistakes of the past and begin conserving our resources.
This book should be compulsory reading for all world leaders. It is a collection of the lectures that Ronald Wright originally gave as part of the prestigious Canadian Massey Lecture series where an international scholar is invited to give a week long series of lectures on a political, cultural or philosophic topic.

Wright's chosen topic was the way in which advanced civilisations have historically and repeatedly destroyed themselves by becoming too successful and destroying the very environments
This book is short and quickly read.

It was written in 2005, the same year that Jared Diamond wrote the far more detailed and penetrating account of failed societies, Collapse. Having read Diamond's book, Wright's work seems very light weight, more of a quick overview with some valuable insight offered.

Wright has a very appealing way with words and I found myself saying "that's right!" many times.

Take this example:

"John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poo
Ozgur Baltat
İlerlemenin Kısa Tarihi'nin yanıt aradığı sorular; Nereden geliyoruz? Neyiz? Nereye Gidiyoruz?. Yanıtları ararken izlediği yol, insanlık tarihinin geçmiş medeniyet deneyimleri. Paskalya Adaları, Sümerler, Mısırlılar, Mayalar, Romalılar, Çinliler, Mısırlılar ve diğerleri. Ne yaptılar da bu medeniyetler son buldu? Çöküşlerin ortak yönleri nelerdi : Kontrolden Çıkmış Tren, Dinazor ve İskambilden kule. Peki ya şimdi, nereye gidiyoruz? Medeniyetimizin bulunduğu noktada bunların tümünden fazlasıyla va ...more
Keith Akers
I read this book about 10 years ago (in 2005) and it greatly impressed me. In some ways, this is the book that Jared Diamond should have written instead of Collapse — it’s much shorter and punchier. It doesn’t have the same sort of detail and case histories that Diamond has, but he keeps the reader’s interest with his vivid writing and the sweep of the spectacle which he depicts.

His prevailing image is that of "progress traps" such as befell Mesopotamia and the Maya. The wrecks of our failed ex
I feel like I learned a lot and had my understanding of civilization blown wide open. I can't believe how clean, smart, and clear this read was. If I had skipped the footnotes, I think I could have read the whole thing in an afternoon. It's really a series of lectures, and you can listen to the whole thing on YouTube.
Benjamin Pearson
Want to premise this review by saying it is not a review of the book point by point, many other reviews on this page for this. But rather my thoughts after finishing it.

I seem to have this really weird pull to tragedy and the fall of civilisations as a concept. I find the prospect to be incredibly interesting and usually devour them quickly as I just want to see, what conclusions are drawn.

This book has a lot of this, hitch hiking on the back of the old "every good thing comes to an end" kind o
Dave Emmett
Fascinating and sort of depressing.

The idea of a 'progress trap' is quite compelling - we progress so much that we end up ruining things with success.

I recently read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which actually talked about this same idea (in different words) around the idea of city streets/neighbourhoods - the cool kids move in and make it a nice place to live, so the big companies start setting up shop there until the cool kids look for a new cool place to live, at
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project recommended this book, and I am very glad they did. It has deeply affected the way I view history and our current times. The author tells the stories of four past civilizations that failed, two that went extinct (Easter Island and Mesopotamia) and two that declined and faded into other emerging cultures (Rome and Mesoamerica).

Wright likens his examination to studying the black boxes of crashed jetliners, looking for clues as to why t
For being an excellent summary of the human race since the arrival of Homo sapiens, this book already deserves high praise. Add to that the quality of the smoothly flowing prose, which made the presentation of history not only eminently readable but absorbing for its insights. Without going into too much detail on each example of failed civilisations, we are drawn to the similarities of their paths to eventual and seemingly inevitable self destruction. Indeed, the system and machinery of increas ...more
I want all of you to read this book.


It covers the most compelling issue facing our planet- the runaway train of unsustainable living we project on this world's resources.

This isn't an anti-American, anti-Capitalist, anti-Christian, or even deep-environmentalist message. This is purely about making sure our grandchildren have clean water, clean air, viable agricultural land to support themselves, and healthy lifestyles that can escape pandemics.

Wright compiled an excellent synthesis of
Blair Conrad
This is a short book, and the content is kind of like a heavily abbreviated Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, all rolled into one. The brevity makes me think it would work better as a series of lectures than as a book.

Wright’s style is pretty good, and he writes about interesting things. If that was it, this book would be checked “worth consuming”. But then there were the endnotes.

I’ve complained before about how I didn’t like having to page back and f
Wright's presentation is an engaging critique of human technical/material progress from the origin of the species to the present. He satisfied my appreciation for doom and gloom but not so much my guilty desire for evidence of widespread unspoiled life in harmony with nature prior to civilization. Instead he suggests that humans built civilization as soon as they had the chance, evidenced by the development of agriculture, etc., apparently at the same time the longest period of climate stability ...more
I read this book after "Collapse", so for me it was a sort of summary of what is described in detail in Jared Diamond's excellent book (even if Wright does not agree completely with Diamond). Basically, the human race is on the brink of destructing planet Earth, because of its greed and stupidity. Other societies already accomplished the task of self-destruction, but on smaller scale and isolated environments – such as the infamous Easter Island.

Nowadays, globalization means that humankind has t
Richard Reese
Every year, Canadians eagerly huddle around their radios to listen to the Massey Lectures, broadcast by the CBC. For the 2004 season, Ronald Wright was the honored speaker. He presented a series of five lectures, titled A Short History of Progress. In 2005, Wright’s presentation was published as a short book, and it became a bestseller. Martin Scorsese’s movie, Surviving Progress, was based on the book.

It was an amazing success for a story contrary to our most holy cultural myths. Wright believ
Nic Lee
"If you read one book about impending doom this year, make it this one." -Ottawa Citizen
Impending doom? When? How? Why? Can it be stopped? Maybe it would be better to just focus on why. Why is 'impending doom' coming?
But first lets get it strait, when Ronald Wright writes about the so called impending doom, he doesn't mean to suggest meteors or the revival of dinosaurs hungry for all humans. No. He touches on social collapse and the impending doom of what we have grown from the early years it w
Paul Bard
This book is complete shit.

Because it makes the human race wrong.
Because it non-honestly distorts history.
Because it uses a thousand ways to appeal to sentiment over reason.

As "counterfactual history" which is the name for this genre of fiction, this book is one of the more evil expressions. It does not try to rise above the banality of its own perspective long enough to see that the book is founded in subjectivism, relativism, and the vanity of opinionation.

Please do not read it. This is shelve
The examples, information and thesis provided by the author will feel like a review for those who took undergraduate courses in anthropology at any left-leaning Canadian university, but a welcomed and crucial one. For those who haven't, it will serve to deliver the basics along side the message of the need for greater foresight.
John Doyle
Wright makes a compelling case that the modern notion of the "progress" of civilization (especially in the West) has become a religion of sorts for certain segments of the secular community. Our collective belief that civilization is advancing and therefore "improving" leads to an illogical complacency about the very real threats to humanity that are arising from our overuse of resources. We act as if we have total faith that "progress" will solve problems like climate change, disease, hunger et ...more
I think that this book should be required reading for everyone. It's written in a very clear, accessible style, and really draws the reader in. It is, however, a depressing commentary on where we (humankind) are headed. But perhaps if everyone did read this book, it would help us to smarten up and start to change things . . .
I read this one a couple of years back and it has stuck with me ever since. A really succinct read of the rise and fall of a number of civilizations and the lessons to be learned. I think it is very much of our time and how we need to review humankind and our relationship to this planet.
Benoit Galarneau
Ronald Wright utilise l'angle écologique pour expliquer la chute des civilisations sumériennes, romaines, mayas et Pascuannes. Avec le même cadre de réflexion, il justifie les longévités exceptionnelles des empires égyptiens et chinois. Il termine par une mise en garde pour nos civilisations actuelles et les 7 milliards d'humains de notre seule planète.
C’est bien écrit, c’est documenté, c’est intelligent. On en ressort avec une urgence d’agir.
C'est la deuxième fois que je lis ce livre. À l'époq
Adam Cherson
I rate this book a 4.26 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being best.

"Therefore, be wary of technological determinism for it tends to underestimate cultural factors and reduce complex questions of human adaptation...

In hunter gatherer societies, with the exception of a few cases, the social structure was more or less egalitarian with only slight differences in power and wealth between greatest and least...

People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated. The warrior caste, supposedly society’s protec
Sebastien Roy-Ssf
Trois questions sont posées au début du livre. C'est à travers un récit historique bien documenté que l'auteur nous entraîne dans son argumentation. La conclusion est simple, le désir incessant du progrès nous fait répéter les mêmes erreurs. La fin de la civilisation telle que nous la connaissons est annoncée. Jusqu'où devrons-nous aller pour réaliser le danger qui guette l'humanité?

Percutant et très bien écrit, je recommande ce livre à tous les humains désireux de savoir où ira l'humanité si no
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Ronald Wright is a Canadian author who has written books of travel, history and fiction. His nonfiction includes the bestseller Stolen Continents, winner of the Gordon Montador Award and chosen as a book of the year by the Independent and the Sunday Times. His first novel, A Scientific Romance, won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the Globe and Mail, the ...more
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“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” 790 likes
“If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature.” 25 likes
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