Escape options narrowing for world caught in 'progress trap': Ronald Wright

In his 2004 CBC Massey Lectures, Ronald Wright warned us a “progress trap” was closing around our technologically-advanced, but dangerously self-destructive, civilization. Wright tells IDEAS now he’s unsure as to whether there is any wiggle room left.

Author and historian says youth protests may be our last hope

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright has been translated into nearly 20 languages. It was also the inspiration for Martin Scorsese's film, Surviving Progress. (House of Anansi/Satva Hall)

* Originally published on September 19, 2019.

"Our civilization... is a great ship steaming at speed into the future. It travels faster, further, and more laden [than] any before."

More than a decade ago, author and historian Ronald Wright warned that humanity was falling into a terrible "progress trap" of our own making. Population growth, over-consumption, and technology were snowballing in an unprecedented — and self-destructive — way.

With his background in anthropology and archeology, and novelist's sense of storytelling, Wright traced the rise and fall of various cultures in his riveting 2004 CBC Massey Lectures. A Short History of Progress has just been reissued in book form.

The author is not pleased to have been correct in his assessment of our path, as he recently told CBC IDEAS host, Nahlah Ayed.

In the 15 years since his lecture, the earth's population has "gone from just over six billion to just under eight billion... which is like adding another China or 40 more Canadas to the world."

And it's not just our numbers, but our behaviour that is endangering us, Wright said.

"What makes that worse, from the point of view of keeping natural systems going, is that the level of consumption per person has risen, which has pretty much doubled the impact of that increase."

Ronald Wright criticizes the policies of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro (shown here) and U.S. President Donald Trump. Globally, he says, leaders are 'unequal to the tasks and challenges ahead, especially at the moment.' (Sergio Moraes/Reuters)

He's also troubled by the myopic tendencies of governments around the world "to think in very short term cycles, and to become captured by powerful industries." 

Pointing to the Brazilian and American presidents as examples, Wright believes that "the quality of discourse and the quality of leader that we're getting in most countries seems to be unequalled for the tasks and the challenges ahead, especially at the moment."

Although he is more pessimistic about our chances to get out of this "progress trap," Wright finds hope in those who stand up to those in power, from the global protests of the Extinction Rebellion movement, to teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old Swede bluntly told U.S. Congress this week: "I know you are trying but just not hard enough."

The 15th anniversary edition of Ronald Wright's Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, is published by House of Anansi.

** This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?