Basically, Wright lays out the history of progress as it occurred in several distinct and now fallen civilizations, namely Sumer, Easter Island, Rome, and the Inca, as well as China and Egypt as long-standing civilizations that have had extended runs. (In the case of Egypt, mind you, with annual increases in soil salination because of the Aswan Dam's moderating effect on the Nile's annual cleansing floods, this particular ancient civilization may be approaching collapse.) Wright argues that progress happens because we keep intensifying our application of the original solutions to the original problems, as well as applying these solutions to new problems caused specifically by the original solutions themselves. Things get better for a comparatively long time, and then things get very bad indeed, much more quickly, often catastrophically so.
The most total example is Easter Island, a story that makes for horrifying reading no matter how many times you see it. At some point, there was a final standing tree, that at some point in the previous year had yielded viable seeds, and yet no one saved a seed and someone cut the tree down, almost certainly to participate in the raising of yet another pointless moai. After this last tree was gone, islanders were forever unable to build fires, shelter, or boats, either to leave or to catch enough fish. They walked willingly into their doom, which was almost total, and unbelievable given the complexity of their society before its collapse.
(It should be said that there are objections out there to the story Wright tells; for example, at least some of the islanders' boats may have been built from reeds rather than wood. Still, all of the fewer than 5000 Rapanui alive today, of whom fewer than 2500 live on Easter Island, are descended from 36 of the 111 Rapanui alive in 1877. There had been roughly 10,000 in the 14th century, living in a complex society with relatively advanced housing and social structures; in the early 18th century at first contact with Europeans, there were only around 1000 left, and not only were they apparently practicing cannibalism [admittedly a common lie by European explorers, but likely true in this instance, based on the archaeological discovery of human bones in cooking sites], they were living mostly in caves and "stone henhouses where they guarded this last non-human protein from one another day and night" [Wright, p.61]. With the predictably helpful ministrations of colonial powers, the Rapanui were very nearly extinguished by 1877, after many of them had been enslaved for the mining of guano on various islands in Polynesia and off South America.)
After all the bleakness, which is leavened only by his straightforward and highly readable prose style, Wright begins to suggest a few principles for shifting our own progress, mostly having to do with reducing the ecological load (halting population expansion, shifting toward lower-input farming methods and food varieties, that sort of thing). These feel not unlike ideas recommended by political activists of various forms, like the Green Party in Canada, so he ends with an important assertion meant to distinguish his approach from a political one:
The case for reform that I have tried to make is not based on altruism, nor on saving nature for its own sake. I happen to believe that these are moral imperatives, but such arguments cut against the grain of human desire. The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine. (p.131, emphasis mine)Behind much of Wright's work, of course, is the shadow of global warming, which has darkened in the four years since he delivered his lectures. It's certainly the case that the world has been much colder in the past than it is now, and that for much of the planet's geological history, humans would have found vast expanses incapable of supporting life; from this limited perspective, a little warming might not be a bad thing, but the kind of perspective that sees pollution as salvation will doom us as a species.
I'm left wondering how many more Massey Lectures we'll produce, brilliant as they so often are, before the radios fall silent forever. I'm not sure whether this makes Wright's book successful or not.
Hug your loved ones tight.