Sunday, January 12, 2014

1275. Book Review: A Short History of Progress

By Kamran Nayeri, January 12, 2014

The world is in crisis and a growing body of literature registers increasing awareness and concern about how to address it. 

This literature is typically divided into the genre that deal with economic, that is capitalist, crisis and the environmental/ecological literature that focuses on the ecosphere. 

Capitalist reformers and socialists focus on the economic crisis because the former aim to maintain and improve the system and the latter hope to replace it with some form of socialism, usually discussed without any organic relations to the ecosphere.  Environmentalists who focus on the problem of the ecosphere usually do not consider it in organic relation with the capitalist economy and society. Thus, the mainstream environmentalist movement aims to reform the capitalist system to address the crisis of the ecosphere.  

Some currents who call themselves ecological socialists and ecological anarchists view the crisis of society and the anthropogenic crisis of nature as one crisis. However, for the most part, these currents view the environmental crisis as a by-product of the modern era either because of the logic of the capitalist system or because of the industrial society.  However, it is true and revealing that civilizations before the industrial capitalist society also experienced crisis and collapse.  Thus, in addition to the mode of production specific analysis of the crisis, we need historical, indeed transhistorical study of such crises.  

Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (2004) provides a highly enlightening such study and should be read by all who want to tackle the crisis of our world today. The book was first presented as part of the prestigious Massey Lectures series (for an audio version of the lectures click here). Wright's intellectual background is in archaeology, history, linguistics, anthropology and comparative culture and has written among other things about New World civilizations. 

The central thesis of A Short History of Progress Wright is that our modern predicament is as old as civilization itself, a 5,000-year experiment we have participated in but never really controlled. Further, in his view only by understanding the patterns of achievements and disaster that humanity has repeated around the world since the Stone Age, can we recognize the experiment's inherent dangers, and, with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.  

Wright begins with a discussion of the question of “where are we going?” and focuses on what he correctly calls the mythology of progress.  As he notes the idea of progress is linked to the rise of science and technology about three centuries ago. Earlier societies did not view history as progressive except perhaps in a moral sense.

Further, Wright argues for the repeated cases of “progress trap” that have resulted in the ecological collapse of many civilizations.  For an example of “progress trap” Wright cites the advances in weaponry. Originally advantageous to human society, modern weapons have come to pose an existential threat to humanity with the development of nuclear devices.  A fair portion of the book is given to the discussion of such “progress traps” and the consequent collapse of civilizations. He discusses Sumer, Rome, the Maya, and Easter Islands that within roughly a thousand years exhausted their natural limits and collapsed. He also discusses two civilizations—Egypt and China—where advantageous local conditions in the form of additional topsoil brought in by water and wind respectively have resulted in a 3,000-year history for each of them. 

Clearly, Wright sees his work in continuity with the archeologist Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990). Tainter examines civilizations of the past to find common patterns leading to their collapse (for a video presentation of the book click here). His thesis is that the costs of complex societies eventually outstrip their benefits causing common crisis patterns before they collapse.  Tainter gives such patterns names such as the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, and the House of Cards. In his study, these patterns often work together to bring about the collapse.  Like Tainter, Wright argues that the collapse of earlier civilizations resulted in localized disasters but in today’s globalized economy the collapse will annihilate all or most of the world’s population. So, the stakes are much higher. I would add that the “collateral damage” to the rest of life forms on Earth is similarly much more widespread and drastic. 

A Short History of Progress includes much enlightening detail and a number of secondary theses that speak to other current debates. For example, Wright expresses a dim view of our species. The “progress trap” is not limited to civilization as Wright points to cases where forager bands armed with better weapons drove some megafauna to extinction (p. 31).  Also, he argues that our species has systematically eliminated rival humanoids, including the Neanderthal. On some of these Wright is on less firm grounds as the prehistory of our species is still not entirely clear. Recent research suggests that some Homo sapiens sapiens may actually interbred with others humanoid species, including the Neanderthal. Thus, the argument that we have eliminated all others is too one-sided and simplistic.

Still, Wright views the “progress trap” becoming more dangerous with a larger scope for more serious damage as we get closer to the current civilization.  Thus, his view stands in contradiction to more recent arguments by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011) who argues that modern times, especially since World War II is the most peaceful in the history of our species and by Jared Diamond (The World Until Yesterday, 2012) who argues forager societies have been more violent than class societies, including present-day capitalist society.   

The key weakness in Wright’s book lays in his exclusion of the role played by modes of production in crisis and the collapse of civilizations. Thus, he closes his insightful book with the advice to reform the world capitalist system that has brought us the current crisis of society and nature with “long-term thinking”: 

“The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.” (p. 131).  

To be sure, long-term thinking is essential for sustainable living as the Great Law of the Iroquois has it: think about the seventh generation after you when making decisions.  However, Wright chooses no only to ignore a wealth of knowledge gained from literature that critically analyzes the capitalist system, in particular the one Marx initiated, but also the uninterrupted history of short-term thinking that is part of the logic of unceasingly accumulation and growth for private profit. 

Perhaps part of the problem rests in Wright’s assumption that humanity cannot continue to exist without the current capitalist civilization.

“For all it cruelties, civilization is precious, an experiment worth continuing. It is also precarious: as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe.” (p. 34).

But how about going forward? For all the insight Wrights offers in his A Short History of Progress, the book does not tackle the Anthropocene (which was so named by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000) that is at the very least as old as the capitalist civilization since the English Industrial Revolution. A long-term thinking capitalist machine is an oxymoron and Wright’s trust in forging a forward-thinking capitalist ruling class has no basis in his own book or in anything we know from the theory and history of the rise, expansion and secular crisis of the capitalist civilization. 

Further, short-term thinking that worries Wright seems to be present, though certainly with increasing frequency, larger scope and severity, across the entire history he tells of our species. Nowhere does he ask if it is a natural trait of our species.  As Wright correctly observes, our species is increasingly shaped by culture rather than nature. Could we perhaps not call for a new culture--in the very same broad sense that he borrows from anthropology--that would include socioeconomic forms of organization that would support among other things the long-term thinking he rightly considers important

In a recent essay, Economics, Socialism and Ecology: A Critical Outline (2013) reviewing our very long history (history and prehistory), I have argued that alienation from nature is probably the key factor that explains the crisis of civilization, including the current crisis of global capitalist system. In my view, the transition from the cosmological worldview of the foragers that was ecocentric  to the anthropocentrism (human-centered worldview) that perhaps both the cause and consequence of the Agricultural Revolution brought with it alienation from nature. The class societies that arose on the bedrock of agriculture--a mode of production that is based on domestication not just of other species but also of ourselves and initiated the impossible quest for control and domination of nature--institutionalized anthropocentrism. Alienation from nature prepared the ground for social alienation and stratification of society in so many ways, hence seemingly eternal conflict of human societies within and between them for the past 10,000 years.  The "progress trap" that Wright so lucidly documents in A Short History of Progress would them appear as a systematic attempt to control nature, including our own species, with science and technology.  

Perhaps what is called for is not a call for just "long-term thinking," although that is certainly necessary, but a return to ecocentric world views similar to our forager ancestors and building a worldwide movement to go beyond the capitalist world system to an ecological socialist future where thinking long term will be part of our culture of peaceful coexistence with ourselves and with the rest of nature. 

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