A provocative assembling of evidence from history, archaeology and anthropology that what we call civilization may carry the seeds of its own destruction.
Already a bestseller in his native Canada, essayist Wright is now making his biggest mark since his debut novel (A Scientific Romance, 1997) attracted wide attention. The “progress” in the present title is purely ironic: These case studies—of ancient Sumer, the Maya in Central America, Rome, Greece and others—aim to show man as a parasitic species that constantly violates its own first rule of survival: “Don’t kill off your host.” In setting the scene, the author, perhaps most controversially, asserts that Stone Age hunters regularly drove their prey into extinction. As he tracks major transitions in the two linked “experiments” of agriculture and civilization that coincided with the opening of a favorable climate window in Neolithic times, Wright is logical and penetrating: The former wheat fields of Mesopotamia’s fertile crescent are now salt pans and flood plains in Iraq, and some 200,000 Roman farmers were on federal subsistence by the time the Gothic horde reached Rome in the fourth century. On Easter Island, somebody cut down the last tree standing to make rollers in order to situate a freshly carved monolith. And if Earth’s climate is better today than it’s ever been, Wright postulates, what happens if it reverts (as it has before, taking only decades) to its norm of extreme shifts? “As we domesticated the plants, they domesticated us. Without us, they die; without them, so do we.” The author declares outright that farmland the size of Scotland, much of it in Asia, is lost every year. Terrorist suicide bombers are nothing new, he asserts, citing Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, written a century ago, and they’re a small threat compared to hunger, disease or climate change. Attacking terrorism’s causes rather than its symptoms, he believes, might also save civilization from itself.
Illuminating and disturbing, and expansively documented.