March 9, 2010

On A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright

In this book, the author takes a look at the downfall of civilizations. Yes, that's plural. There are several models of how civilization is progressing. One is that we're getting better and better as time goes by. Another, less popular one states that we are actually in decline, going down from some sort of golden age. You'll find many of these proponents in the old age homes and such. For them, the only disagreement is when we are declining from.

In this book we look at the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of civilizations, taking examples from several once- prospering civilizations. This book stands as a call to action that something must be done to grow smartly and be careful on how we allocate the scant resources we have left. While he doesn't hit an anything new, this book's strength is its concise nature. The several examples are familiar and in that have more impact. The strongest example is one he visits several times to show an analogy of current times: Easter Island. This isolated speck in the Pacific was once a thriving mini-civilization with culture and art. And a lot of trees. These trees helped the islanders fish and raise their ceremonial head sculptures. However, these trees also were a poorly cultivated resource. Someone not too long ago cut down the last tree, and the island is now a wasteland and anthropological curiosity. We are doing the same thing. How many trees do we have left to cut?