Ronald Wright: “The Traps of Progress”

After months of self-flogging as punishment for missing Stephen Lewis’s keynote address in 2006, I made sure to take time out of my regularly scheduled workday this afternoon to attend Ronald Wright’s opening lecture for the University of Alberta’s annual International Week.

Wright’s address was excerpted from his award winning Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress. Drawing extensively from history and in particular, literary references, he provided an overview of the human population explosion, with the dire warning that the earth cannot sustain growth at such exponential levels.

In all honesty, a forty-five minute talk can only be expected to skim the surface, and Wright didn’t have the time to go much further than the exposition of facts and quotes spanning two millennia. Because of this, I ended up paying more attention to his oratorical style.

No doubt, Wright has an ear for language and cadence (for example, a clever insertion of the descriptor “softened” following a sentence on Viagra), and as expected of a novelist, had many quotable phrases (e.g. “the new religion of the bottom line”). Still, I was a little disappointed that he mainly read from the page, and hardly wavered from his written word.

Following his speech, there was a brief Q & A session. He had an interesting response to the question probing for his opinion on how many people the earth could reasonably sustain. He harked back to the days before the steam age, and estimated that only up to two million people could live comfortably, without the great variations in wealth and poverty that we have today, and utilizing only environmentally pure technologies. This connects back to an article I read in the Globe & Mail recently about reducing our “ecological footprint.” According to a model created by William Rees, an ecological economist, Canadians are living and consuming resources as if the planet were 20-25% larger than it actually is.

At any rate, I am glad I had the opportunity to be exposed to Wright’s perspective on the global issue of sustainability.

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