It’s early morning on the first day of Family Day weekend in Alberta. Everyone else is still asleep in the house. A good time to put out another blog post. This one is about a great book. It is Ronald Wright‘s brief classic, A Short History of Progress. I first heard of it as the Massey Lectures topic in 2004, and I read the book shortly after. I re-found and re-read it again during the Great House Clean-Up of 2016.
The idea is that people, being opportunistic animals, find and exploit local natural niches, live there and grow numerous and prosperous. We develop cultures, ways of doing things with each other, to divvy up the ecosystem’s bounty. And then we get too efficient in our exploitation or we grow too numerous, or both, and the ecosystem is exhausted and collapses. At which point there are a whole bunch of disappointed people with a culture, a way of doing things, that no longer works. The book argues that all civilizations, including our current global one, are examples of this boom-and-bust cycle. It is the trap of civilization.
It was fun for me to come across Solon and Peisistratos, in Progress, in a quite different context. I had written about them as adversaries in the struggle for democracy, but they were also allies in the struggle to slow deforestation around ancient Athens.
But I think the most evocative story in Progress is the parable of the Easter Islanders. On that isolated Pacific island social standing came to involve carving and erecting those iconic stone figures. And that involved cutting down trees to roll the statues into place. And so the Easter Islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island, and could no longer build boats. As Wright says,
We might think that in such a limited place, where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed, and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree, could know with perfect certainty there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.
Did some Easter Islanders rail against the clear cutting policy? Were they mocked as ‘tree-huggers’ by mainstream society? In the end, Easter Island conservationists were not socially dominant, could not carry the day, and they and their civilization paid the ultimate price.
Nobody on Easter Island wanted that to happen. Evey thinking person knew there would be serious consequences to cutting down the last tree. Somehow, the people in charge, in the highest ranks of their competitive society, they dared not loose face before their social rivals. Somehow, those important people let their own standing cloud their judgement.
Progress goes on to tell how, in the final years, everyone knew mistakes had been made. In hopeless fury, people pushed over and smashed as many of those stone statues as they could. The former leaders and their offspring could not have fared well in those last days. Only through cannibalism could anybody survive, and the slogan “Eat the Rich!” would have taken on special significance.
The similarities between the ancient Easter Islanders and us today in our global society are pretty obvious. The question that Progress poses is, can we 21st century people survive the civilization trap? It has never been done before. If we do avoid the trap, it may be done by practicing (real) democracy.
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