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'Our last chance to get the future right' Add to ...

Elegantly clad in a black, fine-wale corduroy jacket, co-ordinating trousers, an open-necked, soft, white shirt and a blood-red poppy, Ronald Wright looked good and felt bad on Wednesday afternoon.

The launch party for his ecological lament, A Short History of Progress, was about to start, but he had slept fitfully the night before, turning on the television at 5 a.m. to see if the results from Ohio had tipped in favour of his man, John Kerry. By now it was clear that George W. Bush, "a primitive man who should be extinct," as Mr. Wright described the incumbent, was headed back to the White House for four more years.

"It is a huge disaster for the planet," he said bluntly, sitting in a slate blue leather arm chair at the University of Toronto's Massey College, citing Mr. Bush's dismal record of rolling back the environmental protections instituted by his predecessors.

Mr. Wright, who is this year's Massey Lecturer, has a succinct and alarming message: Our global civilization will disappear if we don't change our flagrantly wasteful ways.

His eloquently argued treatise begins with the Neanderthals: Was their extinction the first known instance of a genocide, or did the Cro-Magnons assimilate them? Mr. Wright hasn't made up his mind conclusively on that one, inclining to the view that "Neanderthal blood still flows, however faint, in the Cro-Magnon tide."

As evidence of enduring Neanderthal genes, he invites me to feel the bony ridge running horizontally across the back of his skull, a party trick that beats any of the other male gambits I've heard over the years.

From the Neanderthals, Mr. Wright analyzes what happened to other civilizations including the Romans, Sumerians, Easter Islanders and the Mayans. Ecological neglect and devastation invariably precede political chaos and violence as survival becomes an issue of the strong exploiting the weak.

"It doesn't matter which side of the religious or ethnic divide you are on," he says, "we are all part of this great big economic industrial system that feeds on the entire planet. If it goes wrong, the whole system will go down, because we cannot feed six billion people using medieval farming methods -- and that is what we will be stuck with."

Mr. Wright, an archeologist by training and a best-selling novelist, travel writer and essayist by vocation, has built a career writing about past civilizations in books such as Stolen Continents, Time Among the Maya, Cut Stones and Crossroads and Home and Away.

Ironically, the kernel of his Massey Lectures -- which are currently being delivered across the country before being broadcast on CBC Radio and published by the House of Anansi Press -- came not from his non-fiction, but from his 1997 novel, A Scientific Romance.

That novel, about a nightmare future, leans on H.G. Wells's futurist tale The Time Machine. The main character, David Lambert, uncovers a real time machine from reading clues in a cache of Mr. Wells's letters, climbs aboard and hurtles forward to the year 2500 -- a vantage point from which he looks back at the environmental destruction we have wrought.

Mr. Wright wrote A Scientific Romance as an Orwellian ecological warning. But he found that things he had made up had started to come true. "There's a scene where Lambert finds the remains of a bunker in the middle of London where he concludes the British government must have hunkered down and then I saw in The Globe just a few months ago that Tony Blair plans to put a 15-foot concrete wall and razor wire around the Houses of Parliament," he says, his eyes widening in alarm.

Another spur for A Short History of Progress came from Civilization Is a Pyramid Scheme, an essay about the fall of the ninth-century Mayan civilization he wrote for this newspaper in August, 2000. Mr. Wright felt that he could elaborate on the argument he had made that civilizations rise because they find new ways to exploit natural and human resources and fall because they gobble up their own ecology, making it impossible for them to continue to expand.

In the past, these failures were mainly regional. Survivors either went away for 1,000 years until the local environment had recovered or migrated to new fertile areas. As well, isolated civilizations rose in areas distant and unconnected from collapsed ones: While Rome fell in the Mediterranean, the Maya rose in Central America.

Nowadays, we have nowhere left to go on the planet -- leaving us metaphorically like Easter Islanders without any means of sailing to a new home. At the same time, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is greater than it has ever been before. "The difference between a poor person in Haiti and a CEO in the U.S.," Mr. Wright contneds, "is far greater than the distance between an Egyptian pharaoh and the guy dragging stones to build a pyramid."

Instead of looking for fancy and risky new technologies, such as hot fusion, to solve our problems, he thinks we need to use political and social initiatives to protect the environment, conserve energy and redistribute wealth.

Mr. Wright is neither the first nor the only person to say the end of the world as we know it is nigh. So why does he think people will listen to him? He doesn't, necessarily, but writing and lecturing are the only tools he can muster to convince the rest of us that this is "our last chance to get the future right.

"I think it is going to take a near-miss to turn around public opinion, particularly the political agenda and the thinking of the people at the top of the economic food chain. The best we can hope for is something that hits us hard enough to slap us in the face and wake us up, but not hard enough to knock us out."

Does he mean the ecological equivalent of 9/11? That should do it, Mr. Wright allows.

"Although," he says after a glum pause, "the response to 9/11 has only made the situation worse, especially when Bush went into Iraq."

No wonder he's depressed.

Sandra Martin is a senior arts writer in Globe Review.

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