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Traps of progress

Ronald Wright and food in the trap line



He's Canadian, a Gulf Islander and something of a philosopher king, or at least one we wish would be so. Jan Morris calls him "an historical philosopher with a profound understanding of other cultures." That, of course, stems from a wise understanding of our own, an understanding gained as insider/outsider in time, as much as in culture.

I see him as some modern-day Janus, a comparison I don't think he'd mind. Janus — the Roman god, usually sculpted in stone with two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, standing solidly in the here and now.

Historian, fantasy philosopher king, cultural analyst and commentator, writer (of 19 books, and no sign of slowing). However you think of him, Ronald Wright is likely best known in this, his adopted country (he was born in London), for his book and CBC Massey Lectures of the same title, A Short History of Progress — the most popular book ever in the Massey series.

He followed that with another in the same vein, What is America? A Short History of the New World Order. The title says it all. Lately, he's on about "the traps of progress," a term he coined in the 2004 A Short History Of Progress and the topic of lectures he's been delivering, most recently at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver last week.

Traps of progress are the messes we humans inadvertently cause as we apply our ingenuity in what seems to be a good way (that's the progress part), but one that ultimately leads to disaster because we don't have the resources or will — political will — to solve subsequent problems and get ourselves, or anything else caught in the trap, out of the glue.

Progress traps kill whole living systems, human and otherwise. "A very bad smell of extinctions follows humans around the world," said Wright at the Emily Carr lecture. A whole stinkload of progress traps have evolved around the sourcing of food — no surprise. We always want to get our good eats easier, faster, bigger.

Take the wooly mammoth. Our ancestors got good at using stone tools to kill them. It was real progress when hunters could kill two mammoths instead of one in a hunt. But when they got too good at it by figuring out they could kill an entire herd of 200 mammoths in one swoop by driving them off a cliff, hunting was destroyed as a sustainable way of life. Overkill of big game in the Stone Age: progress trap.

The patterns of over-consumption continued into agrarian times, when soil and seed were harnessed and turned into the muscle power of tamed animals.

Around 3000 BC the Sumerians living in what is now southern Iraq learned that irrigation systems were wonderful for growing crops. Progress. The irrigated areas got bigger and bigger and the water kept flowing. Then around 2000 BC something went awfully wrong.

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