Locked in The Progress Trap: Interview With Author Ronald Wright

The Progress Trap by Will Brown

Ronald Wright, the award-winning author of A Short History of Progress, says North Americans are the greatest “villains” when it comes to climate change. While Europe has put forward some serious money and strategies to try to combat it, Canada and the U.S. are dragging their heels.

Wright’s comments are particularly noteworthy after Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s recent visit to Europe, where he tried to sell Canada’s approach to oil sands to a skeptical audience. Europe is considering imposing a tax on Canadian bitumen because of its emissions.

I sat down with Wright on Salt Spring Island, B.C. to talk about why society can’t seem to change its way of thinking. He blames what he calls, “The Progress Trap.”

This is the first of two parts of my conversation with Wright.

Jim Hoggan: Why, despite mounting evidence and calls for urgent action from experts in the atmospheric, marine and life sciences, are we doing so little to address environmental problems like climate change, the declining health of our oceans and mass species extinctions?

Ronald Wright: I think we in North America are among the greatest villains in coming to grips with these issues. The Europeans have put forward some very serious money and serious proposals. They are working towards a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 (from the original benchmark back in the 1990s) and propose spending $90 billion euros a year - the kind of money the Iraq war cost the USA each year.

They have also said that if other countries get on board they will go to a 30-per-cent cut and even more funding. This hasn’t happened because of a lack of will from other countries, including Canada and the U.S. There’s a denial amongst many of our leaders, an absolute inability to face up to the fact that there are limits to the human impact. It goes against the cultural grain of North Americans who are used to the idea that the future is always going to be bigger and better and wealthier, and that they are going to have more stuff than in the past. Those days are over.

JH: Why do we resist change like this?

RW: There are two things: First, there’s a cynical propaganda campaign extremely well funded by the people who have a vested interest in hydrocarbons. Second, there is a very willing audience among people who don’t care, don’t know the facts, or can’t be bothered to look at them. People want to believe that they can just go on expecting the high consumption North American lifestyle forever, because that’s kind of American - and Canadian - dream they were promised.

Of course there are those who realize there is a problem, but enough people have been stampeded by the propaganda that climate change is a “hoax,” or a socialist conspiracy to constrain the high consumption lifestyle of North Americans, or a problem that’s so far down the road we needn’t worry about it.

JH: Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Is that what we’re facing here? Are we not paying attention to the lessons of history when it comes to the impact of overstressing the planet?

RW: In A Short History of Progress I looked at the pattern of civilizations’ rise and fall throughout history. Many civilizations who thrived and achieved brilliant things, such as the Sumerians or the Maya, eventually fell victim to their own success. This is what I call a “Progress Trap,” which happens when technological innovations create conditions or problems that society is unable to foresee - or unwilling to solve.

An example is irrigation systems. This was a terrific idea for the Sumerians, allowing them to grow food in the desert. However, as time went on, irrigation led to a build up of salt in the land. Eventually, over a few centuries, the Sumerian fields began to turn white from salt. After about a thousand years, their crop yields fell to only a quarter of what was possible in the fields they started with. Large parts of southern Iraq had to be abandoned, and still haven’t recovered.

That is one example, but I think we can be sympathetic in the Sumerians’ case because they couldn’t have foreseen the consequences before it was too late. But in our case, we do know what’s going to happen to the planet as the climate warms and destabilizes. We have an overwhelming consensus of scientific opinion and computer modeling that shows it. We don’t have the excuse of ignorance or lack of technology.

Where I see the similarity today with these ancient civilizations is in the behaviour and denial of the elites - the political leaders - people who should be the decision-makers just hoping the problem will go away.

The ancients tended to respond by saying “the gods are angry so we need to build bigger temples.” In other words, magical thinking. Our version of this is the widespread belief that the problems caused by rampant growth and technology will be solved by more of the same.

JH: How do people respond to A Short History of Progress - this idea of too much progress? Is it a difficult concept for people to accept?

RW: It is. The success of Western society has been based upon developing new inventions quickly, harnessing them and producing wealth. Yet, we ignore the fact that not all progress is good. In fact, some kinds of progress are very dangerous. Nuclear and germ weapons, for example. Or efforts to make patented GM crops with a “terminator” gene - an invention that could wreck the food chain.

Even if things merely keep going as they are a few more decades, there’s no way that nine billion people, which is the latest population projection by mid-century, are going to be able to live like Canadians or Europeans do now - simply because the by-products of our industrial activities are overwhelming natural systems. We are trashing the planet, stealing from our children’s future. The idea that growth is infinite is the Big Lie of our times. Yet we still believe it because we find it extremely hard to shed the idea that progress is an inherent good.

I saw my role, when I wrote
A Short History of Progress, as being the person who says, “The building is on fire.” I don’t necessarily know how to put the fire out, I’m not a fireman, but I smell fire. That book was really a way of saying, “Look, this is the pattern of the rise and fall of civilizations through history; if they don’t deal with their problems, if they over expand, if they wear out their welcome from nature, they end badly.”

We’re now in this situation where we are running beyond the capacity of nature to sustain us, and, for the first time in history, we’re doing it everywhere at once. Not only are we drawing down resources, but we’re damaging natural systems and polluting every corner of the world. Too many of us are taking too much. But I don’t believe our problems are hopeless, yet. It’s very late but not too late. We still have one last chance to get the future right.

**In Part 2 of the conversation, Wright talks about the false argument that people can only support the environment or the economy, and not both. He also explains why he hasn’t given up hope that society can change to stop runaway climate change.

This interview has been edited and condensed.