What a strong ending to a slightly frustrating book: Ronald Wright’s A Short History Of Progress.
Originally a series of lectures in November 2004 for CBC Radio’s Ideas series, it was turned into a book due to it’s popularity.
Due to it’s origins as a radio lecture, I found the majority of the book frustrating to read. Wright is discussing a very important subject: the progress of humankind. Yet, for much of the book, his voice comes off as flippant. His tone is too casual.
I know that as a radio lecturer, he wanted to appeal to a wide range of listeners. He wanted to explain complex subjects in a way that was understandable to the layperson. But as a book, it needn’t be verbatim from the lecture.
The book is only 132 pages, yet it includes 66 PAGES OF NOTES!!!!!
So every paragraph or so, there is a little superscript number that directs you to the back of the book for more information. This creates a very unpleasant reading experience. The whole thing feels disjointed. If you are interested in the notes, you can not achieve a flow whilst the reading of the main body of text.
Also, the notes are unpredictable. Sometimes Wright supplies an extra paragraph or two of information, other times it is merely a citation (bibliography).
Why didn’t he include all of this information in the main text? He obviously thought it important enough to include in notes; therefore, he should’ve integrated the notes into the body text. Sure, it would’ve taken time and effort to rewrite his lecture, but the result would’ve been a much stronger book.
That aside, his information is quite interesting and how he ends the book is impressive.
Dealing with the entire history of humanity, and relating it to our present is not an undaunting task.
He concludes the book with some gripping and poignant statements:
If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature. (p129)
The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine. (p131)
I write these words as the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are starting in mere days.
With the amount of protests expected, Ronald Wright’s words feel especially heavy and daunting. Because protesters are going to be reminding us, in their own ways, of Wright’s words.
Because despite the intelligence and foresight of people like Ronald Wright, our leaders continue to operate in a completely unsustainable manner. As recently as last week, they decided to helicopter in snow so that people can ride down a hill really fast.
Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice-Age hunter only half evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise. (p132)
I do not want to be pessimistic about the future of our world, of our existence. I love the thought of raising children on a planet full of people who are wise enough to not only recognize the need for change but also wise enough to instigate, conduct, and maintain that change. And these people, you, me, and our people, will also be strong enough to resist the sloth-inducing temptations of unsustainable wealth and luxury.
I believe that intelligent progress is possible. Take time to decide what to align yourself with. Do not go blindly. Go with dedication.