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A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse. The term gained attention following the historian and novelist Ronald Wright's 2004 non-fiction book and Massey Lecture series A Short History of Progress, in which he sketches world history so far as a succession of progress traps. Daniel B. O'Leary's book Escaping the Progress Trap appeared in 2006, having begun life in 1990 as a presentation at Montreal's Concordia University entitled "The Progress Trap - Science, Humanity and Environment". While the idea is not new, Wright identifies the central problem as being one of scale and political will. According to him, the error is often to extrapolate from what appears to work well on a small scale to a larger scale, which depletes natural resources and causes environmental degradation. Large-scale implementation also tends to be subject to diminishing returns. As overpopulation, erosion, greenhouse gas emissions or other consequences become apparent, society is destabilized. In a progress trap, those in positions of authority are unwilling to make changes necessary for future survival. To do so they would need to sacrifice their current status and political power at the top of a hierarchy. They may also be unable to raise public support and the necessary economic resources, even if they try. Deforestation and erosion in ancient Greece may be an example of the latter. A new source of natural resources can provide a reprieve. The European discovery and exploitation of the "New World" is one example of this, but seem unlikely to be repeated today. Present global civilization has covered the planet to such an extent there are no new resources in sight. Wright concludes that if not averted by some other means, collapse will be on a global scale, if or when it comes. Current economic crises, population problems and global climate change are symptoms that highlight the interdependence of current national economies and ecologies. The problem has deep historical roots. In the early stone age, improved hunting techniques in vulnerable areas caused the extinction of many prey species, leaving the enlarged populace without an adequate food supply. The only apparent alternative, agriculture, also proved to be a progress trap. Salination, deforestation, erosion and urban sprawl led to disease, malnutrition and so forth, hence shorter lives. Almost any sphere of technology can prove to be a progress trap, as in the example of medicine and its possibly inadequate response to the drawbacks of the high-density agricultural practices (e.g. factory farming) it has enabled. Wright uses weapon technology gradually reaching the threat of total nuclear destruction to illustrate this point. Ultimately, Wright strives to counter at least the Victorian notion of "modernity" as unconditionally a good thing.

Clearcut Progress Trap

Clearcut Progress Trap
Stripped landscapes, habitat destruction and disturbance, extinctions and resource depletion.

Industrial Progress Trap

Industrial Progress Trap
Air, water and noise pollution; exhaustive resource consumption; greenhouse gas production...


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