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Our Violent National Game

The great hockey debate continues

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

The Traps of Progress

How many dead ends must we hit before we find our way to the future?

Salem Alaton

A Short History of Progress

Ronald Wright

House of Anansi Press

211 pages, softcover

ISBN: 0887847064

A mind-boggling sight greeted a group of Dutch sailors on Easter Day 1722. On an unknown, scarcely populated island in the South Seas stood hundreds of gargantuan stone idols. Massive and bizarre, some of the ones mounted atop rock altars were 10 metres high and weighed 73 tonnes. And at those dimensions, the most inexplicable aspect of the Polynesian moai or statue figures was their setting: a treeless and desperately eroded landscape, barren of any materials by which these giants could have been lifted and moved. Moreover, the island had hardly two inhabitants for each of the more than 1,000 monuments, a remnant populace later seen by Captain James Cook as scrawny and miserable, many living in caves.

Answers to the mystery of Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, would come only with scientific study much later. Examination of the island’s crater lakes would reveal that Rapa Nui once supported lush woods springing from a rich, volcanic soil. The island is now believed by archeologists to have been initially settled in the fifth century by migrants from elsewhere in Polynesia. A ready supply of turtles, fish and other ocean-borne sustenance saw human numbers grow over the next several centuries to a high-density peak of 10,000 inhabitants in sturdy homes and prosperous villages.

Like Polynesians elsewhere, the islanders divided into clans headed by priests and nobles. Following a familiar cultural tradition, ancestors were honoured with stone carvings. But that tribal religious effort became increasingly rivalrous and cultish on Rapa Nui. We today plausibly speculate that the compulsion spiralled beyond any rational comprehension, consuming all the island’s natural materials for housing and boats, and diverting human energies, ultimately even from self-preservation.

“The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another,” writes Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress, the book which joined his delivery of the 2004 Massey Lectures at several Canadian universities in November. “And they felled it anyway.”

An award-winning Canadian historian (Time Among the Maya, Stolen Continents) and novelist (A Scientific Romance), Wright has an academic background in archeology that informs this gripping and eloquent inquiry into the third of Paul Gauguin’s famous questions on where we come from, what we are and where we are going. It is a propitious moment for that search, and not only because our world seems yet again locked in a trance-like embrace with disaster. Wielding evolutionary theory with one hand and carbon-dating technology with the other, anthropologists and archeologists have made enormous strides in providing responses to the first two parts of Gauguin’s plaintive query.

Do those responses essentially answer the third question about where we are headed? We might fervently hope not. In their book Easter Island, Earth Island, archeologists Paul Bahn and John Flenley note that unrestricted population growth, wanton use of resources, ecological havoc and a kind of insensate reliance on religion destroyed civilization on Rapa Nui. “Is the human personality always the same as that of the person who felled the last tree?” they demand. If the archeological evidence is not conclusive, it is deeply unsettling. Ranging over the bright-burning trajectories of history’s great civilizations, Wright notes that Sumer, Rome and Maya only got about 1,000 years each, like Easter Island, and for reasons that may feature more connections to reckless expansion and overconsumption than one could contemplate with sanguinity in our own time.

Wright refers to progress traps, in which hunters who learn how to drive the whole herd of buffalo over a cliff eat very well for one winter and then starve. Ancient societies repeatedly entered these traps with their use of resources and people, he notes. The Sumerians’ brilliant development of irrigation for agriculture eventually brought so much salt into the soil that wheat could not be grown. That civilization’s ziggurat edifices, emblems of its prosperity and advancement, soared vertically, but the resulting deforestation of upstream watersheds laid bare the horizontal plane to devastating floods. The pressures of domestic animal grazing followed by the cultivation of hillsides were ruinous to ancient Athens, while Imperial Rome became increasingly dependent on food imports from a farflung empire that it could eventually not sustain. Meanwhile, violent aggression through the subjugation or decimation of other populations was intrinsic to many such dominant cultures.

This self-destructiveness in the “human personality” is disturbingly close to playing out through history as the unending tape loop of the entire enterprise. Humanity’s circular story goes back to what might be conjectured as the first comprehensive human war. A body of anthropological thought today postulates that Cro-Magnon man eliminated Neanderthal man in the world’s debut genocide, one that took place, on the scale of the long evolutionary journey, about 20 minutes after we graduated from being apes outright. Another 30,000 years went by, and we had become top-hatted, opera-going Homo sapiens driving fine automobiles while the chimneys were smoking at Treblinka and mushroom clouds were burgeoning over Japan. Progress has a short history, indeed, and perhaps an even shorter moral arc.

Wright reveals a soft spot for the Neanderthals, with their presumed gentler ways. In a gesture of inclusiveness beyond even current Canadian norms, he points with declared pride to a certain Neanderthal-like ledge of bone at the back of his own skull. It is welcome news for those who prefer to imagine that Neanderthals were assimilated rather than exterminated by Cro-Magnons, who had superior weapon-making skills and may not have been fussy about whom they raped.

Wanting to identify with any distant genus whose remains communicate a different model than the corrosive one of most human civilizations is understandable. But is it also quixotic, even misguided? Wright adopts Gauguin’s poignant concern about where we are going as the central one now facing us, but other, darker questions may trump it. One might be: wherever we are headed, do we have any choice? Have we ever had a choice? Do rock-ribbed devotees of absolute divine control and unstinting evolutionists who see all existence as physiology with marching orders actually agree on the most devastating point of all, namely that we are as cinched by destiny as swampland alligators and molecules of carbon?

If all such noisy fretting proves inane, future generations may forgive it, noting we had just emerged from a century so deep in human anguish that even Wright finds it hard to make credible analogies with the prior tortures along humanity’s path. And, of course, we are hardly confident that we have emerged at all. We publicly enunciate more sensible things than we did in, say, the Middle Ages, and our capabilities can seem astonishing, yet the evidence is still depressingly thin that international connectedness can diminish atrocity, that science can avert ecological ruin, that medicine can prevent new plagues, that North Americans would eschew sport utility vehicles if they otherwise had to wear gas masks to bed, or even that we actually all agree that it’s time for millions of children to stop dying of hunger.

It is clear that many nations continue to act out of the narrow self-interest that has repeatedly corroded the most developed of human societies. Rome and post-Weimar Germany are not needed for examples; the ugly selfishness of an arms-dealing, nuclear bomb-testing, self-aggrandizing nation such as present-day France is more than
illustration enough. No reasonable observer denies that the successes of the industrialized world have been problematic, preferable to many of the alternatives but still leaving most of us no better than ambivalent about the very term “progress.”

Unhappily, progress has always been a selective benefit.Wright finds a recurrent dynamic in which the power and opulence attending the governing and priestly castes of civilizations such as Maya and Rome grew proportionally to the wretchedness of serf-like surrounding populations (peoples who eventually played a part in bringing those civilizations down). Yet, while the blinkered greed that ruined those great societies was directed by rulers, today’s market model of advanced civilization maintains that it is individuals who can command how they live and, implicitly, the consequences of how they live.

Little good it seems to do. Whose fate do we really manage to feel engaged with beyond ourselves, our family, maybe our clan, to whatever extent most people in the developed world perceive themselves to belong to a clan? Our perceptual links to the rest of humanity remain startlingly parochial, even solipsistic. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the million-person massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were taking place at the same time in what might as well have been parallel universes. Global communication and a vast media culture have in some perverse way often magnified the disconnections, with people who would not spare a glance at the broken man on the sidewalk beneath their feet bawling and flagellating themselves in public over the celebrity departure of the painfully vapid Princess Diana. Between the AIDS epidemic and paying an extra buck at the gas pump, it is no better than a dead heat when it comes to occupying hearts and minds hereabouts. We would rather die, and quite possibly will, before giving up even the most fatuous of our self-inflating fantasies. We will be fortunate if Martians visiting the Earth a few centuries from now find something other than a clutch of deranged wretches huddled at the base of giant stone effigies of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Much of this is only, ah, human, and most of us this side of Stephen Lewis alternate between oblivious and guilty self-centredness. The issue may now be that we need to become something more than human, at least in relation to what being human has been. Wright believes that in becoming Homo sapiens, “we moved beyond the ecologies that had made us, and began to make ourselves”; in other words, that human tools—particularly language—shaped our development in ways undetermined by the kind of lock-step evolution that had gone before. He is not alone, with cognitive scientists and philosophers such as Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett and, as recently discussed in the LRC’s pages, Keith Stanovich offering many tantalizing ideas about an ongoing Darwinian revolution in consciousness, artificial intelligence and other frontiers of the fantastic.

This surely supposes, however, that some kind of transcendence of primal, unyielding urges is going to be achieved. That is an awfully long shot. Put aside that every war to end wars has inexorably been followed by the next horrific conflagration. Take any workaday animal function— okay, sex—and try to demonstrate that our present lives are less bound to it and roiled by it than at any previous time. There is a reason a billion people in China learned the name of O.J. Simpson. That lurid case that apparently galvanized almost the whole of humanity was as vivid a reminder as we could have had that the same hormones drive sex, rage, achievement, power and madness. Add those virile themes of territory, status and race in the Simpson affair and you are back on planet Cro-Magnon as surely as if the Sistine Chapel had never existed. Civilizations may briefly confer and enforce order, but they barely cloak our poorest-kept secret: if all our crocodilian-brain impulses were deeds, there would be no other industry on the globe than murder and rape.

Yet, more than violent aggression, it is aggressive expansion with its symptoms of economic disparity and ecological destruction that Wright finds at the heart of the calamity in the long saga of failed human societies.We would have already been long up against the wall of our unsustainable ways, he notes, if not for the discovery of the New World, which opened up another whole pair of continents for our consumption.

Where has rapaciousness really put us? Here, our battalions of scientists, economists and other thinkers leave many people in that state of perplexity that seeks relief in Hollywood movies. Is there, for example, menacing overpopulation in the world just now? Wright thinks so, and a doubling of the world population in just the last few decades might seem to bear him out. That is not demographic experts, however, who insist that our capacity to feed the global population has kept improving. Industrialized countries are actually now anxious about underpopulation, a problem the U.S. is remedying, notes a recent essay by Tom Fennell in the Walrus, with the highest birth rate in the industrialized world and a corresponding promise of increasingly voracious suction of global resources.

Apropos the U.S.—is not everything these days?—economic disparity in the world is plainly severe and, according to many estimates, has widened. Yet one is hard-pressed to make the case that the vast number of humans is worse off materially now. India and China are clearly better fed than in even the recent past and, while sub- Saharan Africa remains dreadfully impoverished, much of the world suffers less stark privation than before.

If that progress is coming at the cost of, say, a functioning biosphere, of course, the victory may be moot. In his concise and trenchant survey of all that has gone before, Wright leaves an indelible impression that the biggest human victories are often won at a finish line marked not with a ribbon but a concrete barricade. When the last stone god had been hoisted on Rapa Nui, there was no wood left to build roofs for houses. The Mayan empire ended in a desperate militarism that fought to defend increasingly unstable dynasties while grandiose building projects insanely went on.

If that is the template for human civilization over the millennia, what does Wright leave us with? Through no fault of his, a lamentably slender thread. Having cautioned that delusional optimism has only aided our undoing through time, he proceeds to offer his own filament of hope, fraying it even as he extends it: although we have never learned much from our past, our best chance is to learn from our past. That seems so reasonable, so graspable. We have grown this massive Homo sapien brain atop that primitive little crocodilian neural lump. We have used it to develop awesome tools of inquiry and understanding; so let’s inquire, understand and do it all differently this time. If only we would. If only we could.

Salem Alaton is a former Globe and Mail arts reporter and features writer.

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