If you were to read one nonfiction book this year, I highly recommend A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. A Short History of Progress is Wright’s 2004 Massey Lecture, which is an annual Canadian lecture series presented by a noted scholar on a political, cultural, or philosophical topic. For his talk, Wright chose to examine the rise and fall of human civilizations over the last 10,000 years. He looks at the clear patterns that humanity’s civilizations follow, while also discussing the reasons why a select few civilizations are exceptions that remain with us today. His talk ends with a warning: we need to recognize and actively try to stop our destructive pattern or else our civilization will collapse (and we may very well die with it because there is nowhere else on the planet for us to go).
As this material was originally delivered orally, Wright’s tone is conversational; while he never talks down to you, he still makes his points accessible and easy to understand. His entire talk is well researched; every chapter, which correspond with the five parts of the lecture series, has an extensive note section included at the back of the book, so you can check his remarks and read more as you see fit. I’m planning on rereading A Short History of Progress in the future to delve more deeply into this note section.
We’re all aware of the impact humanity has had on the planet since the industrial revolution. Wright’s book makes it clear that humans have had a far larger and disastrous impact on the world for much longer than this. A must read.