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A Short History of Progress

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  4,477 ratings  ·  385 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, 224 pages
Published March 17th 2005 by Da Capo Press (first published 2004)
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Dec 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
May 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-reads
A solid, information-filled history of human civilizations and their downfalls or demises, in just 132 pages of text and 54 pages of substantive endnotes. I had wondered whether the 2004 publication date would make a difference, but except for some new discoveries in the paleontological record of Neanderthals, it really does not, since this is a big-picture, panoramic long-view study. Interesting that this could be read as a sort of condensed version of Diamond's Collapse - but I think Wright to ...more
Keith Akers
Oct 03, 2015 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone needs to read this!
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
Aug 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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.
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
This book is the worst kind of intellectual flattery. People will read it, take in all the big words and big facts, and feel like they've filled their brain with something, though they won't be any more informed or articulate about its topics than they were previously unless they hadn't happened to have heard about, for example, what happened at Rapa Nui before. Let me tell you now that you can find a better source for every fact you can find in this book, and save yourself the patchy, poorly-ar ...more
Dec 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Adults.
Recommended to Helen by: No-one.
This was a superb and very informative series of lectures delivered by the author at cities throughout Canada in 2004- each lecture being a chapter of his book of the same title. It was great listening to Mr. Wright's voice actually reading his book, in his British-Canadian accent - precisely and presciently, although much of what he warned about has since come about or intensified. The world is slipping into political chaos with the rise of the right wing and the ill effects of climate change, ...more
May 30, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Adam Marischuk
May 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, economics
Very light reading.

I understand that the book is based off the Massey lecture, but nonetheless, the book is dangerously close to being too light of reading for the subject matter.

In the book Wright attempts to describe the history of how "our" civilization reached its current state and the dangers inherent in the situation. By briefly and selectively reviewing and summarizing the rise and fall of other civilizations he attempts to highlight three possible weaknesses which precipitate the collaps
Mar 15, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Nico Van Straalen
Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
"The human career divides in two: everything before the Neolithic Revolution and everything after it" is the phrase in the book I like quoting and it is indicative for Wright's very short treatise of the human story and his deconstruction of progress. Read this book and you learn about sapiens as much as from Harari's ten times more voluminous work.
Jan 08, 2016 rated it did not like it
No, this one didn't do it for me. Only the first chapters are interesting, but after that it goes all the way down. See my more elaborate review in my Sense-of-History-account: ...more
Richard Reese
Mar 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Sadly this book is as relevant as when it was published, and even more urgently needed.
Aug 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Feb 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: environment
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
Aug 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
Simo Ibourki
May 24, 2017 rated it liked it
The problem with this book is that it is well ... short, I think it would be far better if Mr Wright developped his ideas more in detail, one idea per chapter. I felt like the whole book was just repetition of statements and facts but no analysis, no depth, and no practical solutions.
Marija S.
May 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book should be a compulsory read in schools and parlaments.
Juliet Wilson
Apr 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, environment
This is a brilliant short book that gives an overview of human progress that looks at questions posed by the French painter Gauguin who asked: Where do we Come From? What are We? Where are we Going?

Tracing our journey from prehistory to the present day and looking at possible futures, Wright casts an eye on how humans have made progress and how this affects the world around us. There is a strong eco-consciousness in this book, the critique of how human development has had generally a devastating
Oct 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Using historical data accumulated through archaeological investigations (physical and climatic) over the last couple of hundred years, Wright gives a concise examination of how civilizations (all agriculturally based) inevitably collapse. The details vary depending on a variety of conditions (ecological, climatic, external pressures, a combination of forces). The emphasis is on resultant complexity as technological development advances and the ultimate growth of a hierarchical class system which ...more
Aug 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
WOW I did not know what I was in for when I picked up this book! Ronald Wright crafts a beautiful and compelling argument for the transient nature of civilization. By utilizing archaeological evidence and historical accounts he explores how civilization, after civilization, fell because of environmental degradation, over-population, and disease. In our current over-populated world, our only hope can be to live within our means and to prioritize the stewardship of nature. I suppose it goes with t ...more
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: school-history
I picked up this as part of my reading around the idea of History as progress for our scholarship program at school this year.

Wright's text tackles the key question- where are we going? His base argument is that civilisation makes the same mistakes over and over again. Wright identifies what he terms "progress traps"- actions and developments which provide short term benefits but are ultimately evolutionarily unsustainable- they are dead ends.

I thought that Wright presented this argument clearly
Jun 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Preaching to the choir with me on this one, but I did enjoy it. My only criticism is that I wished is was longer and more detailed (but 'short' is part of the title, after all).
Wright talks about how our current measure of progress is technology and material wealth as opposed to moral progress. He discusses the myth of progress and the trap it has set for us and how we are not learning from our past and the failed civilizations such as the Neanderthals, Sumer, and of course, Rome.
This book was p
May 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Worth the price of admission for the passages on Easter Island and the background on how progress has been sold as a good and is most likely a not-good when considering the role of humans in progress.
Aug 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, 2018
Short, cogent, powerful. It's not accidental that we're living in an age where billionaires are building rocket ships.
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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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