A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress CoverA Short History of Progress consists of Ronald Wright’s Massey Lecture series on the dangers of the very modern ideal of progress and runaway growth. The idea is that we may be on a course to our own downfall, and learning from the errors of the past is the key to saving ourselves.

The effectiveness of A Short History of Progress comes from the combination of Wright’s knowledge and writing––along with his wit, I suppose. He frames the discussion around three questions posed by the writer and painter Paul Gauguin: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? With this, he delves through anthropological and historical evidence along with the most widely accepted theories available at the time to analyze a wide range of civilizations that met their downfall throughout the eras, from the perspective of progress run amok. The author’s careful presentation of specific concepts allows for a significant and surprising leap to an abrasive talk about the progress trap we now find ourselves within, how we’re going down the same road as these fallen societies in very significant ways and we have an imperative to act now if we want to steer away from this course. In constructing his argument in this manner, he both very effectively explains his perspective and angers up the blood.

Despite being a relatively short read, A Short History of Progress is one of those books that lasts with me for a long time, not only because it gives me a lot to consider, but because it has that most wonderful “problem” associated with good non-fiction, of leaving me with a large list of further reading by the end of it––hence my new “A Short History of Reading” shelf on Goodreads. Take this as one of my highest recommendations.