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Ronald Wright’s book ‘A Short History of Progress’ Essay

People all over the world, time and again, have made similar advances and mistakes states Wright in his book A Short History of Progress (Wright, p 57). From the time civilizations have come together, humans have made similar mistakes which have had similar results leading to the destruction of the environment around them and a disastrous end to their own civilizations. Various civilizations such as Easter Island, Catal Huyuk and Mesopotamia have been destroyed because of self destructive traps called progress traps (Wright, p 56). Progress traps are created by three main factors namely by the overuse of natural resources, too much faith in religion and human wars. The catastrophe that causes these traps is not nature but man himself and we humans have a long and destructive history of ravaging ourselves.

Easter Island, an island west of South America made remarkable progress because of religion but the progress also proved to be its doom. Their misplaced faith in the religious statues called moai and their uncontrolled population depleted the natural resources on the island (Wright, p 60). At first there was an abundance of natural resources on the island but after each generation, the statues they built were bigger than the last demanding more natural resources. The people had never thought about the future while using the resources because of their boundless confidence in their religion and their moai Gods told them that prosperity would return as long as they built more stone statues (Wright, p 61).

In the end with no resources left, all the different clans got divided and raged wars with each other. The peoples of the island had made too much progress in erecting images leading to an ecological disaster which ultimately promoted a war between the different clans (Wright, p 63). Therefore, Easter Island was self destructed by the Polynesian settlers because of their senseless use of resources, too much faith in Moai and internal clashes. The people had no route of escape as they were stranded on an island with no resources. Moai, the stone giants had devoured the land (Wright, pp 60-61).

In the case of the Sumerian settlement at Catal Huyuk things were not different but the settlers had a route of escape. The people that first settled in Catal Huyuk began farming without any knowledge that they were slowly reducing the richness of the soil which in the end would force them to migrate their whole settlement again. Rich soils and good farming land became a cause of wars and there was competition for land in Catal Huyuk (Wright, p 66). Widespread deforestation, overgrazing, lime burning etc. made the land totally bare and turned it into the desert we see today. They like the Easter islanders had befouled their nest, or rather stripped it bare (Wright, p 67). They however were lucky as they could move to Mesopotamia which was lower down on the great plain of Tigris and Euphrates (Wright, p 67). The settlers Catal Huyuk had ended their civilization because of over farming and various wars for fertile land.

Mesopotamia being a good option for the Sumerians, was immediately occupied by the migrants and the land was very rich in fish, dates, soil etc. (Wright, p 67). But the land was again over used and the priestly corporations that had developed started to take advantage of the common people. The priests were concerned more about their own wealth and greediness rather than actually protect people from natural calamities as they claimed to have doing (Wright, p 70).

The enormous wealth of the priests also promoted clashes with the mountain and desert folk. On the other hand, deforestation due to overgrazing and ploughing of fields caused the frequent floods in Mesopotamia to have a larger than normal effect. Woodlands at first used to absorb most of the rain water but due to deforestation, the soaking up of the water did not work (Wright, p 74). The Sumerians destroyed their own civilization due to deforestation which caused disastrous floods, too much faith in the priests and clashes with the mountain and desert folk.

All in all, Wright argues that we should use our knowledge of past mistakes to prevent a similar fate for our present day world. Over consumption of natural resources, blind faith in religion and wars had destroyed past civilizations such as Easter Island, Mesopotamia and Catal Huyuk. Wright records in his book A Short History of Progress that humans have a habit of self destruction and because of various current problems, we are even heading towards self annihilation today.


Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. “1st ed”. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2004.

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