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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars mankind history and future: a short history, 1 Mar. 2011
This review is from: A Short History of Progress (Paperback)
Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress.
Published 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh. ISBN 978 1 84195 830 9

The book starts ingeniously with Paul Gauguin, the french painter and writer, by most accounts considered bad and mad. Gauguin, who obviously suffered from "weltschmerz" , left his family and career in Paris to find out about the unspoiled raw "savage" man (and woman), eventually ending up in Tahiti. There he formulated three simple questions: "from where do we come from, what are we, where are we going". This is in essence what this book is about. In particular, Ronald Wright wants to address the last question. But he argues that we need to address the first and second questions first to get better clues to tackle the third question. I think this is a wise approach .Before I got this book I had written a letter-to-the-editor on a closely related subject- why we should abandon BNP increase. I happened to use the same metaphore as Wright- how we all are on an enormous global vessel that moves too fast and in the wrong direction.
Ronald Wright is a historian, has studied archaeology and also masters anthropology .His text is comprehensive (132 pages) but easy to follow and interfoiled with citations of other authors and historical episodes.He has a philosophical attitude and a scientific mind. He first describes mankinds early dawn, slowly evolving into the life of Neanderthals and Cro Magnons. Anthropological findings suggest that they fought for many centuries, finally leading to the disappearance of Neanderthals. It thus looks like the Cro Magnons, that we descend from, were responsible fo the first genocide in the history of mankind, indicating a genetic predisposition for violent behaviour in our genes.
The invention of farming allowed creation of civilisations with domestication of plants, animals and - human beings, followed by the development of towns, governments, social classes and professions. The first civilisations developed about 3000 B.C. in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) by the Sumers and in Egypt. Later, about 1000 B.C.,India, China, Mexico, Peru and parts of Europe followed. All this is well documented, as evident from the impressive about 290 references. The lesson in this chapter is that taming nature for large scale successful farming made rapid population growth possible and ocurred at all continents except Australia.
But why did at least four civilisations (and one mini-civilisation, the Eastern island) disappear? There is a common pattern. The Sumerian civilisation, with its biblical connotations (Tower of Babel, Noahs Flood) was the first to vanish. Mesopotamia was originally a wonderful forest landscape and the villages lived in peace. But as the population slowly grew, better tools were developed and the demand for wood increased. Deforestration started. Finally, after several centuries, the slopes had no trees anymore, which led to large scale erosion and arid land. This, in turn, caused massive floods after heavy rains, as recently happened in Pakistan. In addition, at the end of the Sumer civilisation a hierarchic social pyramid had formed with the economic and religious leader elite at the top and starving peasants all around. Antique Greece also broke in pieces because of deforestration and the Roman empire grew too big to support all citizens. A similar pattern emerged to the Aztek civilisation long before the Spaniards arrived. The clash of two civilisations when the spaniards arrived in Mexico was exceptional, since both were completely unaware of the other world, yet both had developed high-level culture. The clash ended up in much cruelty and slaughter, again a sad example of the savage mankind.The dystopic theme in the book is lighted by thoughtful episodes: Mahatma Gandhi was in London to speak about Indian self-rule. A reporter asked: What do you think about Western civilisation? Gandhi, who just had visited the London slums, answered: "I think it would be a very good idea".
In the last chapter Ronald Wright leans back and discusses "where are we going". He compares todays problems with the invention of agriculture, which permits population growth until crops are insufficient and all but the wealthy start starving. He urges us not to follow the ball but the game of the world. He cites historians pointing out that previously deathly germs kept dense populations restricted and that the azteks were defeated primarily by smallpox viruses from Europe and not byt he Spaniards. Ronald Wright gives many arguments why we have to stop the blind free market train, eventually destroying living conditions for most of mankind.
I quote the reviewers of this book in Times Literary Supplement: "A compelling work of distilled visdom", in Guardian: "The author sifts the findings of arcaeology and anthropology with thoughtful grace on to build a potent argument, and in Globe and Mail: "Wise, timely and briliant". I highly recommend this book for anyone who is concerned in "where are we going" and wants an excellent, well documented background plus numerous wise thoughts on the subject.

Kai O. Lindros Ph D

Petersg 11A , 00140 Helsinki Finland.+358-50-3238359
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