1. What have you been up to since A Short History of Progress?
The last chapter in A Short History of Progress gave me the idea for my next book, What Is America?, published in 2008, which followed the money from Inca gold in the 1530s to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the USA. That in turn has led to my latest book The Gold Eaters, a historical novel set during the Spanish conquest of Peru. It will be out in fall 2015.
2. Has your thinking around progress and what you call “the progress trap” shifted or evolved since your 2005 lecture series?
The idea of the “progress trap” has taken on a life of its own since I came up with it in the 2004 Massey Lectures. I think this is because more and more people are recognising that progress often has unintended consequences which result in disaster when it runs into natural or social limits. Over the past ten years we have not done well in rethinking progress so that we keep the good without letting the bad run out of control. It is even more urgent now that we face the question of whether civilization itself will prove to be the ultimate progress trap, an outcome we can avoid only by changing our shortsighted and profligate ways.
3. What would you say are the most prominent myths that organize ideas and action today?
Unfortunately the myth that progress will solve our problems is still behind the wheel. Almost as tenacious is the myth that nature will clean up our mess, no matter how messy it gets. Such myths serve the money and power elite by seducing the public. Modern hypercapitalism is congenitally resistant to looking beyond short-term profit and endless growth. “Endless” in both senses: without limit, which is ultimately impossible; and without point or purpose, because there’s little to gain and everything to lose.
4. In your lecture “Pyramid Schemes,” you explain that the Egyptian and Chinese civilizations lasted longer than others because they recognized the limits of expansion: “Nature made Egypt live within its means.” In what ways are we now recognizing or ignoring the limits of expansion?
To give credit where due, some farsighted laws have recognized natural limits. The creation of national parks and nature reserves, the phasing out of ozone-hole chemicals, the protection of farmland from development by BC’s pioneering Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), the fixed boundaries of Portland (Oregon) and many European cities –all these were enacted for the long-term good. But as human numbers, need, and greed keep growing –and industry becomes ever more desperate for resources –such laws are under attack. So far we have failed to deal with carbon emissions; we are whittling away at wilderness and parkland with roads, pipelines, fracking, mining etc; BC is weakening the ALR after 40 years of respecting it; Harper has torn up much of our environmental law; and urban sprawl, whether planned or chaotic, is smothering huge tracts of the Earth.
5. What projects are you focusing on now?
I’m finishing my novel, The Gold Eaters. The invasion of Peru 500 years ago may seem far removed from the here and now, but we are still bearing the consequences. Both Marx and Adam Smith traced the Industrial Revolution and rise of the West to that stolen hoard of New World treasure. My title comes from a true incident where an Inca, baffled by Spanish greed, sarcastically asked, ‘Do you eat gold?’ The answer was yes. And we’ve all been living on it ever since.
6. You’ve said, “the health of land and water – and of woods which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.” Where do you think we are now with climate change and sustainability?
This year the North Pacific waters are several degrees hotter than they’ve ever been. Fracking chemicals are poisoning groundwaters—including well water—everywhere the practice is allowed. Millions in Asia are choking on foul air from pollution and forest fires. An area of boreal forest greater than Belgium has already been churned into a lifeless toxic wasteland by the Alberta tarsands (and yes, that’s what they’ve always been called until corporate spin doctors renamed them “oil” sands). All not good. But there is some real progress: Europe has agreed to cut its CO2 emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Although China’s emissions are still rising, more than half its new energy is now coming from wind and solar. These things could be done here, too. But unfortunately North America, once a land of vision and innovation, has become the world’s dinosaur park.
7. How do you understand Canada’s relationship to the uneven distribution of wealth?
Different numbers are being thrown around, but there’s no question that over the past three decades the gap between the middle class and the super-rich has widened enormously, and the underclass has grown. This was not inevitable; it was brought about by the rise of the new Right, a constituency only a third of Canadians support even now. Governments need to get back in the business of governing: looking out for the greater longterm good of all. Canada used to do that. Somehow we’re being dragged down into a neocon nightmare by Stephen Harper’s coalition (that’s what it is). To understand how this happened, I urge everyone to read Michael Harris’s new book Party of One before the next election. This is a calm, careful, footnoted documenting of the abuse and corruption of Canadian democracy by a Prime Minister running this country for little besides big money and Big Oil.
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