"If civilization is to survive it must live in harmony with nature and not at its expense."
We are pleased to announce that Reteco is actively raising public awareness of environmental issues through the distribution of Ronald Wright's book, "A Short History of Progress". It is non-fiction that analyzes the mistakes made by civilizations that have not stood the test of time. It delivers on the title announcement in two ways.
First of all, on 180 pages of the main text, the author has accommodated considerations that address the fundamental concerns of our time - briefly but without simplification. This is all the more essential as in today's impatient times demanding things for immediate consumption, it is possible to read this book in a fairly short period of time, which increases its chances of reaching a wider readership with its message than would be the case with a work that arouses reserve by its voluminosity.
Short is the story in yet another way: the history of human civilizations, from their first heralds to their modern shape, is barely 10,000 years. Barely 10 thousand, taking into account not only the age of the Earth, of life on it, but even the appearance of the first representatives of homo sapiens about 50 thousand years ago.
There is a figurative comparison placing the successive parts of our globe's history on a clock face. Man with its civilization is a few minutes before midnight - our history is short indeed.
The Easter Story
Although it would seem that Ronald Wright wrote a history book, in fact its underlying question running through from the beginning - taken from a painting by Paul Gaugin - is: where are we going from here? Reaching deep into the past - to the origins of the human race, to the fossil remains of other species of the genus homo, to the mystery of the disappearance of homo neanderthalensis, homo longi, homo floresiensis - the author still bears in mind the most contemporary ills.
A story that is both very telling and reflects well the author's approach to the matter of human civilizations is the history of Easter Island and its inhabitants.
The island's landscape today boasts tufa moai statues facing the immensity of the ocean and low vegetation overgrowing the hills. One can hardly imagine that back in the 5th century AD, when Polynesian settlers reached it, it was overgrown with forest and had lakes with drinking water. Now there is no trace of this. What happened that over two centuries, until the arrival of the first Europeans, the landscape had changed so radically?
The answer is hardly acceptable and instructive. The settlers began clearing forests not only for farmland, but also so that they could transport the statues carved by them from volcanic rock in the island's crater to the coast. This involved effort and led gradually to the barrenness of a rather thin layer of soil. Unprotected and kept cohesive by tree roots, washed away by rainfall, it was losing its fertility.
Trees had little chance to grow anew (back), as rats were eating seeds and seedlings. Through the decades the problems continued to pile up. Around 1400 the last tree on the island disappeared.
Fewer and fewer crops, increasingly difficult living conditions, struggles over dwindling food resources, did not bring about a change in action. On the contrary, statues larger than before were forged. Even when they could not be transported to the coast through lack of wood. The largest of the statues remaining at the site of its creation is more than twice as large and heavier than those located on the island's shores.
Until the end, perhaps greater faith was placed in the salutary intervention of external, divine forces than in trying to be more economical and prudent with resources. This may be a somewhat anachronistic observation, but presumably at some point the islanders must have noticed that problems had reached a tipping point and their response - suicidal in fact - may nevertheless be instructive.
The Easter Islanders may not have had knowledge to perceive the relationship between their own actions and the state of their small world, or they may not have sought to recognize the existence of this relationship, have denied it. As a result, when the first Europeans arrived in the island in 1722, they found a handful of inhabitants, the emaciated remnants of a population of ten thousand at its heyday.
This is reminiscent - by no means inferior - of our situation: after all, we already know that we have brought the world to the edge of an abyss with our expansionism; we know that if we don't change anything soon it will be too late for any action, too late for rescue.
And yet we often deny that the climatic problem is anything more than a natural process observed over the centuries. We don't want to see that we are not only bringing the danger upon ourselves, but that we ourselves (and only we) can avert it. The recently concluded Glasgow conference shows that we still cannot break the impasse. Words, idle arguments are still and invariably substituted for action.
So..., where are we going from here?
The history of Easter Island shows that, in essence, the biggest losers were its inhabitants. The Earth endures. The landscape will change in a few or a dozen centuries and there too - the winds will carry the seeds of plants, the birds will arrive in flocks. Also, behind us, only tangible traces may be left, successively overgrown with greenery.
The difference will be that there may be no one to dwell on their origins and inquire into the reasons for the disappearance of their creators.
Wright's perspective, as one can see, is far from analyzing the political causes of the collapse of empires and civilizations. When he writes about the fate of the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization, and the ancient Sumerians, he calls our attention to the way we manage the natural resource that is land. And in the ecological imbalance he sees the root causes of the collapses of historical civilizations. Through this, he does not disregard other conditions, but lays the groundwork for them. In doing so, he also finds those that, under ever-changing circumstances, lasted for centuries and continue to do so, such as the Egyptian and Chinese civilizations, whose sign was balance.
Each example serves to answer the basic question: where are we going from here? This history of progress may be short in yet another way: if we avoid answering this question, if we deny the gravity of the problems we face and the possibility of taking action to solve them, it may simply come to an end.
Grimm's version of the tale of the fisherman and his wife depicts the mounting roughness of the sea with each successive request for more (although the wife wants, the fisherman asks - there are no innocents). The sea churns, turning almost black, until greedy people are left with all the misery they had suffered before. The Earth has said "no" to people's greed.
There are many such warnings against human unbridled rapacity. So far they have been morality plays, intended to guide people to the right path of moderation. Now, as can be seen from "A Short History of Progress," the issue is not merely moral. It is about life in its most physical dimension.
The book in the original was published in 2004, in a different reality, so to speak. At the time, the concerns and questions present in it may have seemed to most audiences equally interesting as eccentric and far removed from everyday life. Today they have burst through into public awareness and have earned the label of climate crisis and the Anthropocene.
Wright's words no longer sound like Cassandra's prophecies, but have gained the weight of factual questions, with the principal one: where are we going from here?
Although the Polish edition was enriched with a preface from 2021, written especially for this edition, there we have only a reference to what happened between the date of publication and the next translation, and not a revision of the observations made then - these have not lost their weight and relevance. They have even - unfortunately - become even more pressing.
Also, to a greater extent perhaps, Wright emphasizes today the political dimension of the problem. It is the states that largely wield considerable clout and fail to take action. It is also impossible to evade getting into a discussion of the consequences flowing from the dominance of a single, capitalist economic model. It has led to unprecedented disparities in wealth, has pushed multitudes of people into abject poverty and continues to proclaim its rightness. Driving mankind to the verge of a precipice.
Ronald Wright's book was published by the small Poznań-based publishing house - Pogotowie Kazikowe, (being) an initiative of Łukasz Wierzbicki, also the translator of "A Short History of Progress" - a well-known traveler with several acclaimed books to his credit, including a compilation of Kazimierz Nowak's notes from his cycling trip across Africa.
The original version can be found HERE.