Introduction for Ronald Wright


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The highlight of the presentation ceremony is the introduction of the authors by distinguished individuals.


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Ann Saddlemyer, literary scholar, distinguished professor, and former Master of Massey College introduced Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress.


RONALD WRIGHT has made popular one example of cynical graffiti that weaves itself like a thread through most of his work - that "Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up". The Old Testament provides earlier equally sobering writing on the wall that also summarizes his global warning -- 'Mene, mene, tekel, upharson" ´ we have been "measured, measured, and found wanting". However, despite the seriousness of his message, this modern day Daniel does more than interpret dreams, for he has proved himself an elegant master of the art of story-telling, receiving awards not only as an historian and essayist, but as a riveting novelist.


He began his training in anthropology and archaeology, that "tool for looking ahead" by reading the garbage left by the past, but early on escaped the potentially deadening effect of compartmentalizing academia. (The University of Calgary has remedied this by awarding him an honorary doctorate.) By inclination a philosophical historian, Ronald Wright is, like the heroes of his first novel, A Scientific Romance, something of a time-traveller in his awareness of the incredible pace of change of the last two centuries, and of his remarkable perspective not only on his own culture but on all those that preceded us. He is an indefatigable, impeccable researcher - even his novels have footnotes - seducing his readers into exploring again and again Gauguin's three anguished questions "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

Appropriately, his first publications were travel books themselves: Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru, which traces the history of the Incas with historical sensibility; On Fiji Islands, again combining wry humour with a vivid historical imagination; and Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, the study of an enduring civilization with much to teach the present, which was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. Then came Stolen Continents: The "New World" Through Indian Eyes, a history of the collapse of the Americas following the European so-called "discovery" in 1492; this justifiably won the Gordon Montador Award for the Best Canadian Non-Fiction Book on social issues and was chosen a book of the year in Britain by the Independent and the Sunday Times.

Stolen Continents in turn influenced his first novel A Scientific Romance, a dystopian satire of love, plague and time travel which in parable form depicts the impact of our destructive, careless civilization on Earth itself. As the hapless hero (a failed and flawed industrial archaeologist) escapes to a future which is with us now, we are presented with extreme climate change, genetically modified survivors, and the warning that we have one, only one last chance. A Scientific Romance was awarded Britain's David Higham Prize for Fiction and was chosen a book of the year by the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, and the Sunday Times.

A second novel (and seventh book) Henderson's Spear, is again an examination of the 20th century, this time "from each end". Here he makes use both of historical records from his own family ´to tell of a late - Victorian British naval officer who begins life full of optimism and belief in progress and ends disillusioned by the first world war, and a fictional documentary film-maker involved in a film on Herman Melville who has moved from England to western Canada, but at the beginning of the book is writing from a Tahitian jail in the 1980s. Through the twinning of these two life stories he describes, in his own words, "the runaway human impact on the world", "a sense of the giddy pace of change, and the enormous losses - losses of innocence, of human and natural diversity, of resources, of possibility - that our world has endured". In these two novels we are given striking images for the consequences of "environmental destruction, climate change, and half-understood technologies such as genetic engineering".

Which leads us to the disturbing and remarkable book we celebrate today, A Short History of Progress, the story of a runaway10,000-year experiment in civilization. (I have just learned that it has also bee shortlisted as Book of the Year by the CBA, and Ron Author of the Year.) In five elegantly written, meticulously documented chapters again tracing Gauguin's three questions with wry wit, Ronald Wright explores and analyzes the "traps of progress" that our "social laboratories" have developed in our useless attempts to invent "new fixes for old messes". Human societies everywhere bear striking similarities in their greed and arrogance: there is a "compelling parallelism" in the stories he tells, warning us that the only answers and remedies to our present state "lie in the fates of past societies". Yet humans seem unable "to foresee long range consequences" despite the ominous threat of world catastrophe. The lesson from the past? "That 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". The remedies? Before it is too late we must learn to live off nature's interest, not her capital; shift from short-term to long-term thinking; and adopt "the precautionary principle".

A Short History of Progress originated as the 43rd annual Massey Lecture, a series created in 1961 to honour Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General. Widely regarded as the premier intellectual engagement in the country, for nearly two decades the lectures have been part of a partnership with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the House of Anansi, and Massey College in the University of Toronto. During my tenure as Master of Massey the lectures, beginning with Ursula Franklin's The Real World of Technology, moved outside the recording studio, with each speaker providing at least one public lecture in Toronto. Four years ago as part of the 40th anniversary of the lectures, it was decided to present all five in different academic venues across the country, which Massey College under the leadership of the present Master, John Fraser, is responsible for arranging. Needless to say, this is gruelling for the lecturer, but immensely rewarding for audiences across Canada. A Short History of Progress had the largest Massey Lecture audience ever registered by CBC "Ideas" and in its published form has already proven itself to be a national and international best-seller.

Some dozen years ago in a collection of his travel writings called Home and Away, Ronald Wright traced not only his adventures as a traveller with a strong social conscience, but his personal journey from being ´ in his own self-deprecating words ´ "your typical English upper-middle-class twit to somebody who's really not sure what country he belongs to". Fortunately for us, in the 1970s he discovered Canada and never looked back. As a fellow islander, I am especially proud that like Patrick Lane he has chosen British Columbia, where he lives in a passive solar house on Salt Spring Island and, while cultivating his garden, continues to challenge us to turn away from the "ideological pathology" of present American public policy and take responsibility for our present civilization and its possible future.

I am honoured to present as one of the outstanding authors for the first British Columbia Achievement Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress.
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