Sunday, 19 October 2008

Is this progress?

This article is inspired by the book A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright (2004). Basically this is about the meaning of progress and its implications for civilizations both past and present.

On page 3 of his book, Wright says this:
Our civilization, which subsumes most of its predecessors, is a great ship steaming at speed into the future. It travels faster, further, and more laden than any before. We may not be able to foresee every reef and hazard, but by reading her compass bearing and headway, by understanding her design, her safety record, and the abilities of her crew, we can, I think, plot a wise course between the narrows and the bergs looming ahead.
And I believe we must do this without delay, because there are too many shipwrecks behind us. The vessel we are now aboard is not merely the biggest of all time; it is also the only one left. The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years. Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world so far by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown too small to forgive us any big mistakes.
This introduces two key concepts that Wright builds on in the rest of the book. The first is that our journey into the future (progress) is not unique - we have made similar journeys in the past. The details of the progress made differ, but the way in which we deal with it has been repeatable, so the second point is that we can learn from the past. Nothing new in that, of course, but he also makes this rather frightening comment that this time the journey we're on could break us if we get it wrong; there'll be no coming back from disaster. And the lessons from history - as the rest of his book shows - are that we are headed for disaster.
The book was published in 2004, before the current wave of financial crises and credit crunches. And oh boy it seems prescient!
The main point he makes in the book is that when a civilisation arises, it is due to some form of progress, and at first this is a good thing. It helps that civilisation to establish itself and become powerful, wealthy and stable. He cites examples such as the Roman and Sumerian Empires. But then something starts to go wrong: progress becomes the wrong thing to do because it starts to deplete the resources upon which that civilisation depends. The "good thing", taken to extremes, becomes a recipe for disaster.
One of the simpler examples he gives  - and therefore easier to summarise here - is that of Easter Island, that strange Pacific island with giant stone heads (picture courtesy of Wikipedia) but which was depopulated and barren when discovered by Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. Originally the island was literally a tropical paradise, rich in natural resources. It was colonised by humans in around 1200 AD (though some argue that it was around 800 AD). The inhabitants thrived because of the island's rich ecology, and their progress depended on the exploitation of this environment. Unfortunately they went too far and as their exploitation continued and intensified they effectively denuded the island of all its forest cover: every single tree was eventually cut down. And this affected the rest of the island's ecology including its fresh water resources. And as a result the once thriving and rich population declined, never to re-establish its former glory (which had been represented by those giant figures, the Ahu). At some point it should have become obvious to the Easter Islanders what was happening. They could have reversed the decline by conserving their forests - the person who cut down the last tree could have saved it. Of modern civilisation Wright concludes (pp 131-132):
We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees' seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don't do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.
Now is our last chance to get the future right.
How does this relate to us? What is the "progress" that helped build the developed world and is now threatening to destroy it? It's the free market system. This is what drove the banks to make ever more risky investments in the name of generating profits. In the free market there was nothing to stop this going out of control - and we end up with the credit crunch and its consequences. I believe that one of the problems with large organisations / governments is that they find is very hard to do sacrificial work (such as "set economic limits in line with natural ones"). Organisations are based on and sustained by command and control, and sacrifice is alien to that culture.
How can ordinary people like you and me stop this madness - make our voice known? Social media (like blogging) is uncontrolled. On the downside this means its structures can be just as easily vandalised and destroyed as built up and preserved. Yet when you look at things like Wikipedia, clearly the good prevails over the bad: vandalised articles are restored almost instantly. Over time good articles become better because people incrementally improve them. And this is done without centralised control, by volunteers who usually don't even know one another. There is a kind of "pay it forward" force at work here. Put into the Easter Island context, people would be saying "don't cut down that tree, we need the resource for the future", but the organisation would be saying "cut it down, we need the resource now".
So if we can somehow put control of the vessel Wright describes into the hands of the people (i.e. the passengers) rather than the crew (i.e. the organisations & governments) we might just reverse the trends we're now seeing of "cutting down every last tree".
If you like what you read, please link to this or quote it. read Wright's book (get it from your library). Use the power of social media.
In coming posts I'll write more about social media, so if this interests you, please call back.

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