Summary: At times a facinating read, but in the end utterly unpersuasive
This is a very short book with 5 chapters. Chapters 1-4 are a very interesting and wide ranging discussion of the collapse of a few civilisations over the past 3000 years. It mentions Rome, Sumer, the Maya and Easter Island.
All (except perhaps Rome) died because they ran out of food. Their populations got too high, or they irrigated and ended up with too much salt in the soil, or they expanded too much. None was able to arrest its decline before collapse, yet some (surely) could see it coming.
The obvious implication is that it could happen to us. Which is all very lovely and we look forward to finding out how.
But then you actually get to chapter 5, and the author seems to lose his train of thought. From there I see a 25 page train wreck in slow motion. Here are the problems as I see them.
1. No new technology: The chapter first seems to assume that there will be no new technology in the area of food or energy. Even if there is, it seems to look down on it, as if growing food with fertiliser is somehow not fair or safe. Isn't improving the odds what technology is about? Many modern technologies are depicted as dangerous and the idea seems to be that we advance our technology until it kills us. What? Remember the nuclear bomb, the book says, trying to equate this with GM food, nanotechnology and other bleeding edge technologies.
2. Death is good and bad: Much discussion about how recent population increases are 'unsustainable' and we can't feed that many people – apparently without all this new food technology we could only feed about 1 billion people. But then when war and pestulence is mentioned, with 100m dying from war (for example) in the 20th Century, this is also a bad thing. We can't have it both ways. Do you want to kill off 5 billion people or don't you? If you do, stop complaining about war and disease. If you don't, stop complaining about technology.
3. Industrial Revolution was based on pillaging: Most people would credit the rise of the machines with the transformation in human welfare which started with the industrial revolution. Somehow or other in England the conditions were right, the luddites were overrun, and the risk-averse were ignored. But this book just puts it down (mostly) to all the gold looted from South America (3 tonnes apparently, at a value today of perhaps $100m). With a GDP in the UK of about $10 billion in 1700 (http://books.google.co.nz/books?id=DF-N_lXjlL8C&pg=PA247&lpg=PA247&dq=gdp+england+1700&source=web&ots=IbYEJRvjRE&sig=XkJ_qhHtYdhyigxo8rEKo_df50I&hl=en), this isn't very persuasive.
4. Progress is a Myth: At the start of the book, progress is called a myth apologetically, but by the end there is no apology. Progress is a myth people! This is simply ridiculous. Just look at our houses, diets, life expectancy and travel speed compared to 1700. Or perhaps the myth refers to the idea that progress goes on forever. Well, it does until it stops. Do we want to stop, or continue? I suggest we continue until we are made to stop or run out of options, not stop science just because we are worried we might have to soon. It feels like a soccer team that gets 3 goals and then waits to be defeated.
Apart from these points the final chapter just goes off into the weeds in so many ways:
Mad cow disease is supposedly a 'disaster' (p123), but really is had been minor compared to the plague, or even the flu
'In practice, communism was no easier on the natural environment. But at least it proposed a shared of the goods' (p124). This is a ridiculous statement for two reasons. Firstly communism has produced the world's worst environmental conditions, and secondly capitalism can be argued to share the goods far more efficiently and fairly than communsm.
p125 suggests steering towards 'caution, conservation and social justice'. No doubt with the 'caution' approach electricity would have been banned when it was invented. Under a 'conservation' policy, housing growth would also have been banned so even the smallest village would have people living on top of each other so as not to build houses over the precious soil. As to social justice, what is the difference between that and socialism, again?
p182 talks of bulding a colony in space in case we stuff things up badly on Earth. Then he says 'And why should we deserve another chance?' Whose side is this guy on, anyway?
p128 '...the number in abject poverty today is as great as all mankind in 1901'. This is just picking figures. The population in 1901 was about 1.6 billion and is now 6.6 billion. So another way of stating it is that we are successfully feeding at least 5 billion more people than in 1901. Another point is that poverty has dropped sharply since 1980.
p129 talks of environmental standards in trade with the third world. Surely this is just another way to exclude them from the benefits of trade. One of the things about being third world is that you can't afford first world environmental standards.
p186 talks of the 'consumerist pornography of advertising'. We could also call it 'helping consumers find the right product'. This is just a negative point of view
As you can tell, there is much I disagree with in this book and your mileage may vary. Having said that, I highly recommend it as a great read for at least the first 4 chapters – the amount of information in such a small number of pages is impressive, and it is very well written and an enjoyable read. The fundamental flaw seems to be an inability to convince that these sorts of problems will happen to us. Ronald Wright needs to stop worrying.
And anyway, if our civilisation does fail, what of it? What can we do about it anyway? We'll just start again, right? Italy is still there. Maybe someone will learn some lessons from our failure and do better next time.
(my edition ISBN 1 920885 79 X Text Publishing company, Melbourne, Australia)