Progress Traps and Blind Spots

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Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress explores how the progress that allows civilizations to grow often leads them into addictive traps that end in their collapse.

His definition of progress comes from Sidney Pollard who, back in 1968, described it as “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind … that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is toward improvement.”

This default assumption, so deeply ingrained in people’s thinking and ability to visualize futures, is an idea that’s only about 300 years old. Despite that,  it holds us tight.

As Wright writes:

“Our practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology — a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become ‘myth’ in the anthropological sense.

Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations … Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time.'”

He isn’t “against civilization” but he is skeptical. He’s wary of the way in which many overlook its blind spots and go for a polarizing (and inadequate) All-Good or All-Bad framing. Time for new glasses.

How can we do civilization well? What is worth keeping? What is best discarded? Are all civilizations prone to “a seductive trail of successes” that end in collapse? These are the questions that fuel the narrative.

“If I sound at times rather hard on civilization, this is because, like Gandhi, I would like it to fulfill its promise and succeed. I would rather live in a house than a rockshelter. I like great buildings and good books. I like knowing that I am an ape, that the world is round, that the sun is a star and the stars are suns….For all its cruelties, civilization is precious, an experiment worth continuing. It is also precarious: as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe.”

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Paul Gauguin’s Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Civilization: The Great Experiment

In the late 19th century Paul Gauguin, a Parisian stockbroker, left his urban life and headed for the Tahitian tropics to, among other things — paint, chase, women, smoke opium — live a simpler life away from the trappings of civilization.

Gauguin’s Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a profound visual meditation on those three, simple questions. Thanks to the progress of science, we have a fairly detailed answer to the first two.

The ancestry of modern humans traces back 5 million years ago to apes in Africa. Evolution moves slow, but during the Paleolithic Era (3 million – 12,000 years ago), we get the emergence and spread of fire-technology and hunting-technology. This era closes with the rise of Neolithic Farming about 10,000 years ago.

The Agricultural Revolution is responsible for the birth of Civilizations. This multi-millenium experiment, what Wright terms the Great Experiment, is what a majority of his book focuses on. In a beautiful written passage, Wright paints the following mental picture:

“On a typical second-century day, the sun would rise on Han China, pass over the Buddhist stupas of Mauryan India, glare down on the brick ruins of the Indus and Euphrates valleys, and take more than two hours to traverse the Roman lake of the Mediterranean. By the time it was noon at Gibraltar, worshippers would be greeting the dawn from the tops of pyramids in highland Mexico, the Guatemalan jungle, and the irrigated valleys of Peru. Only as the sun moved west across the Pacific would it shine on no cities or stone temples, but even here the planting and building had already begun — from Fiji to the Marquesas, the first Polynesian stepping stones across the ocean hemisphere.”

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A Moai statue on Rapa Nui

Blind Spots

“We have become” Wright explains “experimental creatures of our own making.” Part of this making is what he terms progress traps.

“Paleolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200 — by driving a whole herd over a cliff — had made too much. They lived high for a while, then starved.”

It’s a delicate balance between progress and progress trap and I don’t think he advocates “no progress” in the sense of poo-pooing any technological advancement.

Wright focuses on illuminating the “blind spots” that go unnoticed by those who adhere to the Myth of Progress. A major blind spot is all the collapsed civilizations throughout history. Some go fast, others slow, and others chug along miraculously.

Collapse doesn’t mean to disappear. It means the “failing” of a particular civilization at a particular level of complexity which leads to a reversion to a simpler dynamic. The causes of are unique to a degree, but common patterns can be discerned.

Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island), the remote Pacific Island, was first settled in the 6th century CE and grew to a population of 10,000 at its height. By the 15th century it collapsed, with only a few haggard souls remaining when Captain Cooke crossed the horizon in 1722.

Denuding the landscape played a major role. Volcanic rock was carved into multi-ton stone altars, called Ahu’s and Maoi’s, that displayed the power of each clan. They were transported into place by wood and rope gathered from the local trees. But there was only so many trees.

When there were no more trees to transport the statues, the elites stayed on the course and adopted magical thinking. In a haunting display of short-term thinking, they told the workers “continue to build, for the statues will walk themselves when they’re ready.”

Just like Rapa Nui, the entrenched elites of Sumer suffered from short-term thinking. Being too enraptured by the irrigation technology that made their civilization grow, population boom, and themselves wealthy, made them blind to the fact that it was building up salt and creating fierce floods.

This loss of Natural Capital played a major role in Sumer’s collapse by 2,000 BCE. This same marker shows up in the collapse of the Roman and Mayan civilizations.

Among other factors, a denuded landscape made it harder to feed a growing population or fund an empire caught in a progress trap that’s bringing diminished returns. It doesn’t work out.

Both collapse. First in the heartland and then in the periphery (although less so), their civilizations diminish in size, power, and influence over multiple centuries.  It is what John Michael Greer calls a “long descent.”

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Prototype for the 10,000 year Long Now Clock

What to Do

Ronald Wright’s book is grand in scope, starting with the birth of the Paleolithic Era 3 million years ago, spanning from the Fertile Crescent to the Pacific Islands, and ending with contemporary attitudes toward climate change.

The purpose of this is to place the Great Experiment of Civilization — only 10,000 years old, a paltry amount of time compared to biological evolution — in a Deep Time context that will promote long-term thinking.

Despite all the examples of collapsed societies throughout history, the experiment of civilization continues going. The dream of throwing it away and starting over would spell immense destruction and suffering for billions, so the question that Wright focuses on is “how can we do civilization well?”

“The 10,000 year experiment of settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.”