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General · 2nd March 2013
Ray Grigg
History never repeats itself. This is a comforting notion because it suggests an endless future disappearing over the horizon of time, a continual supply of fresh opportunities and challenges to encounter and master. It's the optimistic position. The past, therefore, has little to teach us because the present is always new.

While the details of history never repeat themselves, the patterns of history do — with alarming regularity. The circumstances only seem new because they arrive in different wrappers. But the contents are the same. The same human character repeats the same behaviour, creating the same problems and stresses that we respond to with an old familiarity.

Little of this is obvious in the present because most people are too engrossed in the moment to notice history's repeating patterns. So this perceptive responsibility falls to the likes of anthropologists, those studious academics with a perspective of time long enough to notice the symmetry between the old and the new. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress, is one of these anthropologists.

Wright's book, published in 2004 following its presentation on the CBC's prestigious Massey Lecture series, possesses an insightfulness and elegant clarity that has been powerful enough to provoke frequent discussion, commentary and interviews. One of the latest persons to join this dialogue with Wright is Chris Hedges, himself an award-winning journalist with his own uncanny sense of perspective. The meeting of these two minds in “The Myth of Human Progress” (truthdig.com, Jan. 13/13) makes impressive reading. And it gives Wright a chance to explain more clearly some of the ways in which history repeats itself in patterns.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating. They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in A Short History of Progress the ‘progress trap.’”

Why do civilizations tend to “collapse” soon after reaching their peak? Because they continue to expand until they overreach the maximum exploitation of resources that their environment can tolerate. Then nature forecloses in its own inimitable way. Wright thinks we are now approaching this critical state. In his estimation, “We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers.” He notes that they have tripled in his lifetime and that “the number of people in dire poverty today — about 2 billion — is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

The environmental effects of massive industrialization and a soaring human population, amplified by the power of globalization, differ only in scale from the patterns that brought down previous civilizations. Our response, too, is the same, explains Wright. As we become aware of the stresses that threaten collapse, we “retreat into what anthropologists call 'crisis cults'.” These are beliefs of desperation, ideological responses to “the powerlessness we feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos...”. They are unhelpful because summoning divine intervention or invoking traditional solutions have historically proven to be less effective than addressing civilization's real problems with rational and practical measures.

Another common response that fits the historical pattern is to Intensify the same activity that is already threatening the existing civilization's viability. For the Easter Islanders, it was cutting even more trees to erect even more of the huge stone statues that honoured their gods. For the Sumerians, it was irrigating even more intensively the soil that was already being ruined by salinity.

For ourselves, the pattern suggests it is accelerating economic activity, more technology with more industrialization and greater consumerism. It may also be increasing the extraction of fossil fuels, the burning of which is raising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels — the primary cause of global warming, climate change and a parade of related environmental problems that are becoming more disruptive and costly. The oil, gas and coal are critically important energy sources for our civilization but they are also the primary cause of ecological harm. The discovery of vast new shale gas and oil supplies in country after country, therefore, is an event that can be interpreted as both liberating and suicidal.

The patterns of history seem to repeat themselves so we would be presumptuous to assume that we are exceptions. “We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit,” Wright reminds us. “We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Indeed, as history attests, we have never been very good at avoiding disaster. This dawning awareness is causing a proliferation of concern in many prominent thinkers and concerned citizens. It is a small and hopeful sign that we may avoid repeating history.