Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress is available as a book and as a five-part audio series—the 2004 CBC Massey Lectures. (Listen here.) In both its written and oral forms, A Short History of Progress is an accessible, eye-opening tour of humanity’s long historic journey—a look at the big picture and the long term. It is aphoristic and packed with insights. But one idea stands out. Wright gets at this important idea by using the analogy of plane crashes.
Air travel today is very safe. Mile for mile, your chances of being killed or injured while traveling on a commercial jetliner are about one one-hundredth your chances of suffering the same fate in your own car. In 2016, zero people died in crashes of a US-based airlines operating anywhere in the world—the seventh year in a row that this was true (source here).
There’s a reason that airliners have become so safe: after every crash, well-resourced teams of highly-trained aviation experts are tasked with determining why a crash occurred, and once the cause is known the entire global aviation system implements changes to ensure that no plane in the future crashes for the same reasons.
Government agencies and airlines often expend enormous efforts to determine the cause of a crash. The photograph above is of the reconstructed wreckage of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747 that crashed in 1996 after its fuel tank exploded, splitting the plane apart just ahead of the wings. The plane crashed into the ocean off the coast of New York. All 230 people aboard died.
The debris field covered several square miles. In a massive effort, approximately 95 percent of the plane’s wreckage was salvaged from the sea. The plane was painstakingly reconstructed. And using the reconstructed plane as well as the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, the cause of the failure was traced back to a short circuit in wiring connected to the “fuel quantity indication system” in the centre fuel tank. As a result of this investigation, changes were made to planes around the world to ensure that no similar crashes would occur. As a result of crash investigations around the world, airlines and aircraft makers have made thousands of changes to airplane construction, crew training, air traffic control, airport security, airline maintenance, and operating procedures. The results, as noted above, have been so successful that some years now pass without, for instance, a single fatality on a US airline.
Ronald Wright argues that the ruins and records of fallen civilizations can be investigated like airplane crash sites, and we can use the lessons we learn to make changes that can safeguard our current global civilization against similar crashes. He writes that these ruined cities and civilizations are like “fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong” so that we can “avoid repeating past mistakes of flight plan, crew selection, and design.” When Wright talks metaphorically about “flight plan,” consider our own plan to increase the size of the global economy tenfold, or more, this century. And when he talks about crew selection, think about who’s in the cockpit in the United States.
Wright continues: “While the facts of each case [of civilizational collapse] differ, the patterns are alarmingly … similar. We should be alarmed by the predictability of our mistakes but encouraged that this very fact makes them useful for understanding what we face today.”
Wright urges us to deploy our archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, ecologists, and other experts as crash-scene investigators—to read “the flight recorders in the wreckage of crashed civilizations,” and to take what we learn there and make changes to our own. It is good advice. It is, perhaps, the best advice our global mega-civilization will ever receive.
While the crash of a jetliner may kill hundreds, the crash of our mega-civilization could kill billions. And as more passengers pile in, as our global craft accelerates, and as the reading on the fuel-gauge drops and our temperature gauge rises, we should become more and more concerned about how we will keep our civilizational jetliner aloft through the storms to come.
Photo source: Newsday