Reviews

A Short History of Progress

Norbert Ruebsaat

The most disturbing section of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress (House of Anansi) is the story of the Easter Islanders who, three hundred years before contact with Europeans, felled the last tree on their formerly verdant island and in so doing destroyed their livelihood and their only means of getting off the island. They felled this tree knowing it was the last, knowing there would never be another, and they felled it in the service of ancestor-gods who told them plenty would return if they continued erecting gigantic stone statues. The statues were—and are—the moai, the colossal figures Thor Heyerdahl made such a mystery of when we read him in grade ten, and they were originally status and prestige markers for fantastically rich rival clans. The barren, silent, stone-faced island that the Dutch, and a bit later Captain Cook, and then many European scholars and travellers saw and puzzled over was a man-made semi-desert, and becomes for us a marker of what happens when human communication tools become imaginary life forms. There are other stories of big ideas gone wrong in this sobering book about the “Great Experiment,” which is what Wright calls civilization (a form of culture that has been around for only five thousand years, “roughly seventy life spans laid end to end,” as Wright describes it). He writes of the Sumerians who turned what the Jews considered Eden and the Christians call Paradise into a desert with their mad irrigation schemes; of the Greeks and the Romans who clearcut the Mediterranean and the remnants of the Middle Eastern forests and let their goats and rats eat the seedlings that tried to replace them (the Romans had to conquer Europe to get more trees); of the Mayans whose empire in Guatemala, Yucatán and Belize collapsed when too much jungle was cleared and the dwindling caste of nobles concocted ever grander pyramid schemes to mark their lordship over an exhausted, impoverished land and population (which soon teamed up with the Spanish invaders); and of the “hardy perennials,” Egypt and China, whose slightly wiser stewardship of their “ecological capital” caused these civilizations to wax and wane but not to become extinct. Back in grade ten, when I was reading Thor Heyerdahl (and National Geographic), I thought in a vague way that empires rose and fell by a natural process conducted by God and that all empires prior to our current European one fell because they were not Christian. It is good now to learn from Wright’s book (it recently won the Governor General’s Award and comprises the 24 Massey Lectures broadcast on CBC’s Ideas program) that God works in more mysterious ways than this and that nature, not civilization, is the final arbiter of culture. I think vaguely now that if we, today, knowingly cut down our last tree, dam our last river, pollute our last ocean, destroy our last bit of ozone, we will all turn into Easter Islanders.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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