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Progress and Destruction

Entry 363, on 2006-07-13 at 14:44:00 (Rating 2, Comments)

I'm currently reading a book by Canadian historical philosopher, Ronald Wright, called "A Short History of Progress". It describes some civilisations which have been destroyed by their own success (for example, Easter Island which I blogged about a week ago). In fact, it seems that destruction might be the inevitable consequence of progress.

The type of progress he is talking about is where a civilisation expands its control and exploitation of the environment, leading to increased population and demand for resources, which results in further control and exploitation. This has happened often in the past: the Sumerian, Mayan, Greek, Roman, British empires have all fallen. In the past there has always been an alternative civilisation ready to carry on, but we have now reached the point where there might not be enough land and other resources for this to happen.

I don't want to sound too apocalyptic here. After all, how do we know the patterns of the past will repeat in the future? We don't know for sure, of course, but there is a remarkable similarity between the fall of the great civilisations of the past and signs that the same thing is happening now. Some Greeks of around 600 BC warned of environmental disaster because of unsustainable agricultural methods. They were ignored because of the self-interest of politicians and powerful land owners, and the predicted environmental disaster happened. Does this sound familiar now?

Maybe there is no hope. Human nature doesn't seem to change much, no matter how much material "progress" we make. Even if people accept that there is a lesson in the historical record they still justify current excesses in different ways. Well at least when civilisation collapses and self-destructs I can say "told you so".


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