History brief yet insightful

Spend any time in conversation with the novelist, historian, scientist, and essayist Ronald Wright, and whether the subject is creeping American totalitarianism, the fragility of Canadian federalism, or Vancouver's future prospects as a livable city, you become acutely aware of the gravity of the moment in which we live.

Wright is the author of the spectacularly successful A Short History of Progress. It has sold 60,000 copies since House of Anansi Press published it last year as part of the Massey Lectures series that Anansi coproduces with CBC Radio.

A Short History of Progress is one of those truly important books that comes along only too rarely. It belongs on the same shelf as Edward Gibbon's 18th-century The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Oswald Spengler's First World War-era The Decline of the West, Arnold Joseph Toynbee's mid-20th-century A Study of History, and such contemporary works as Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies.

This is what Paul William Roberts, author of The War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq, has to say about Wright's book: "I don't care if you have never read and will never read any kind of book at all, but you must read this one. If you can't read, pay someone to read it to you." That's fairly typical of the kind of reviews A Short History of Progress has been getting.

What Wright manages to do in the mere 132 pages of this book is make the point that 1,360 experts in their various fields attempted to make in May of this year in the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Human Well-being. It was the same sort of point that more than 1,100 scientists tried to pound home three years ago in the Global Environment Outlook report prepared for the United Nations Environment Programme.

A Short History of Progress achieves this with a rare grace, clarity, and precision by recounting the final days of the Sumerian, Roman, Mayan, and other such long-dead civilizations. It is only during those desperate moments in human history, the moments just before everything falls apart, that you can find any parallel with the conditions of recklessness and excess that prevail in the world today. Wright puts the point this way in his book: "Now is our last time to get the future right."

Wright presents no frivolous to-do list of lifestyle changes or consumer choices. What he suggests instead is that we just start thinking clearly. We should replace recklessness with "moderation and the precautionary principle". We should remember the past and think ahead.

"People are living entirely in the present now," Wright laments in conversation. "They can't tell the differences between fact and fiction, bullshit and the truth."

But Wright insists he is an optimist, and the voracious public appetite for the ideas in his book must bode well. A Short History of Progress has already been translated into several lang?uages. It's being considered for a documentary film. It's got both a U.S. and British publisher, and he's just sold the rights in China.

Here's some more good news. Wright moved to British Columbia about a year ago from Toronto, where he had lived for most of the past 35 years. He grew up in Britain, but because he's the son of a British Columbian whose father was an orchardist in the Okanagan almost a century ago, Wright now happily calls himself a "third-generation British Columbian".

There's still great hope for Vancouver, Wright says, and despite great mistakes-like paving over some of the best farmland in Canada in the Lower Fraser Valley and grinding through some of the best forests on the planet-British Columbians still have a shot at holding onto the living, breathing world we've been blessed with.

Wright decided to settle down on Salt Spring Island, but he'd barely unpacked his boxes when he found himself in a public rumpus with Premier Gordon Campbell.

Campbell made a show of publicly associating himself with the ideas in A Short History of Progress on a Liberal-caucus Web site that looks strangely like Campbell's own personal blog about books. Wright thought this was odd, given Campbell's record on fish-farming, urban sprawl, the Kyoto Accord, offshore oil development, making the public pay to clean up toxic messes left by private mining companies, and things like that. After Campbell refused to talk to him, Wright penned an essay for the Globe and Mail to distance himself from Campbell and the "ecological carnage" the politician had sanctioned during his first term in office.

Wright is a formidable intellectual. His 1993 Stolen Continents helped change the way people thought about the Columbian conquest started in 1492, and it was selected as a book of the year by Britain's Independent and by London's Sunday Times. His 1997 dystopian novel, A Scientific Romance (where the ideas in A Short History of Progress percolated), won the David Higham Prize that year and was chosen a book of the year by both the Globe and Mail and the New York Times.

So welcome home, Ronald Wright. We're going to need you.