Reading List Roundup II: “A Brief History of Progress”

A few months ago, I’d been looking for a good concise extension and filling-in of the history of the Idea of Progress, to support some of what I had read by others on this enormous subject–particularly Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” and John Michael Greer’s trenchant series of expository essays from 2013.

Judging from the title, Ronald Wright’s “A Brief History of Progress” looked like just the thing. The reader reviews only were quite glowing, and though the book dates from 2004, I thought, what does such piddling a span matter in the scheme of global history and the evolution of grand ideas? So I snapped it up and sat down with it the moment it arrived in the mail.

Unfortunately, despite the title, Wright’s book has relatively little to say about the idea of Progress, or its intellectual origins and development. While providing a reasonably well-written rundown of various historical episodes that certainly do suggest potential repercussions and follies of short-sighted human expansion and overshoot (the destruction of habitat by farming and hunting; the fall of Rome, Easter Island, the Mayan city-states, etc.), Wright’s treatment even of these episodes was mostly re-hash, and I suspect will seem so for most readers with even a moderate grasp of history.

We also learn very little about why these cultures grew dysfunctional and collapsed, or how it has any bearing on us or our own notion of Progress, other than through the nebulous implication that if bad things could happen to others, maybe they could also happen to us. To make that connection anything other than nebulous, there would need to be not only a history of deeds or outcomes–however scary and ominous, moai toppling and so forth–but a complementary history of the thoughts and ways of seeing that made these collapses possible, and then inevitable. That thought-history would then seek to place our current ideas about Progress in a wider context, to see whether they truly deserve the world-pivoting singularity with which we imbue them.

Instead, on many of the issues of greatest concern with respect to Progress–its philosophical underpinnings; its inevitability versus its contingency; and above all, the potential alternatives that might yet allow a fulfilling and sustainable tenure for this curious hominid species on this curious sapphire planet–on these things, this light little book is light to non-existent. In fact we find only passing glances at the subject, which either did not much interest the author, or ultimately proved too thorny, too overwhelming, or too blinding for him. For Wright, it almost seems, Progress is much like the Ark of the Covenant: you can mention it all you want, even track it down to put in a museum; but whatever you do, you must not look directly into it.

This is all a pity, because the study of history and particularly of the attitudes and customs of various collapsed and collapsing civilizations regarding their future–the “shape of time”, as Greer calls it in another essay–surely is indispensable to understanding the real underpinnings of our belief in progress, and to our search for alternatives.

Wright’s discussions of progress itself can almost be counted on one hand. There is an early mention of Sidney Pollard’s definition of the concept of progress, from his 1968 work The Idea of Progress: History and Society: for Pollard, progress is “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 towards improvement.”

Yet even this presents a relatively bare definition, one that scarcely touches on the psychological, mythic, and religious aspects of our collective belief in progress, especially of the technological kind. Wright does briefly mention that faith in progress

“…has ramified and hardened into an ideology–a secular religion that, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become “myth” in the anthropological sense” [4].

This is surely tantalizing and cries out for the kind of scrutiny described above; what are the “flaws in the credentials”? In what way is progress similar to a “myth” or a “religion”? Yet for another 150 pages, Wright simply seems to drop these burning questions altogether, settling for what might be described as a hushed editorial griping on the sideline. We know that Wright doesn’t like what’s in the slideshow he’s giving us, but we know little else.

Later on, much as with the historical treatments, we tend to find mostly subjects and observations that, while correct and worthy in themselves, will neither surprise us much nor offer much of a new perspective. The comments about global warming and environmental degradation, for example, though alarming for 2004 standards (the date of publication), seem almost demure today, as warming rapidly accelerates and global all-time temperature records fall by the month.

One gets the impression that “A Short History” is a torso, an abortive attempt at a much more comprehensive work which midway through was scuttled and re-worked into more of an extended essay. Certainly the massive notes and bibliography section, which take up approximately 70 pages of this slim 200-page volume, point to a research process that was extraordinarily extensive considering the fairly modest text that resulted from it, and it’s doubtful that Wright truly manages to make use of this many sources in such a small space. (From my own experience in both reading and writing, I find that 4-5 good sources can provide ample fuel for dozens of pages of analysis, whereas it’s rare to work in more than 3-4 citations per page without either seriously disrupting the continuity of a text, or giving away that that author didn’t really read the cited works.)

This, too, just adds to the “Ark of the Covenant”-like impression: it’s as though in the course of his research, Wright found himself on the verge of conclusions that he could not tolerate, or at least could not articulate to his satisfaction, and settled instead for a relatively tepid historical run-down with echoes of ineffectual (therefore acceptable) hand-wringing over environmental issues and man’s folly. Despite this, “A Brief History of Progress” could well have been kept brief, I feel, while still being far more illuminating than it turned out. What was needed was the courage to entertain wide conceptual vistas and changes of view, however dangerous and disorienting–and it is in this, I suspect, more than any scholarly shortcoming, that the effort ultimately fell short.


Finally, I also have been meaning to review E. O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence”, so I’ll post it separately in a little bit–it seems to be running into more detail than I expected (what else is new). In the meantime, I hope the Einstein equations and the history of Progress will provide my esteemed readers sufficient light reading.

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