“Civilization is precarious: as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe.”

21 Jun 2010

Ronald Wright’s compact book, A Short History of Progress, (about 150 pages, not counting the end notes) is a gem.

Even though I already knew most of the stuff it in, it’s a masterful summary of a huge amount of material, and he has wonderful turns of phrase that help ideas that might have been there, but vague, to crystallize in your mind. Highly recommended.

One of these nuggets is how “civilization is precarious.” Many past civilizations have gone off the rails, developing in ways that ultimately weren’t sustainable or flexible enough. Either they undermined their own existence—like with the Sumerians who irrigated their crops, but couldn’t cope with the crust of salt that built up on their fields as a result—or they weren’t resilient when hit by a swing in the climate, as seems to have happened with the Mayans in Central America.

The cover has one of my all-time favorite book quotes: “If you’re read one book about impending doom this year, make it this one.”

I agree—if it’s the second book you read. First read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, another compact but powerful argument that focuses more on the current state of things, rather than the long history of how we got here.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »