A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.
The term gained attention following the historian and novelist Ronald Wright's 2004 book and Massey Lecture series A Short History of Progress, in which he sketches world history so far as a succession of progress traps. With the documentary film version of Wright's book "Surviving Progress," backed by Martin Scorsese, the concept achieved wider recognition.
The syndrome appears to have been first described by Prof. Walter Von Krämer, in his series of 1989 articles  under the title Fortschrittsfalle Medizin (Medical Progress Traps). Daniel O'Leary's proposal for The Progress Trap and how to avoid it was accepted by McGill Queen's University Press in 1992.
While the idea is not new, Wright identifies the central problem as being one of scale and political will. According to him, the error is often to extrapolate from what appears to work well on a small scale to a larger scale, which depletes natural resources and causes environmental degradation. Large-scale implementation also tends to be subject to diminishing returns. As overpopulation, erosion, greenhouse gas emissions or other consequences become apparent, society is destabilized.
In a progress trap, those in positions of authority are unwilling to make changes necessary for future survival. To do so they would need to sacrifice their current status and political power at the top of a hierarchy. They may also be unable to raise public support and the necessary economic resources, even if they try. Deforestation and erosion in ancient Greece may be an example of the latter.
A new source of natural resources can provide a reprieve. The European discovery and exploitation of the "New World" is one example of this, but seems unlikely to be repeated today. Present global civilization has covered the planet to such an extent there are no new resources in sight. Wright concludes that if not averted by some other means, collapse will be on a global scale, if or when it comes. Current economic crises, population problems and global climate change are symptoms that highlight the interdependence of current national economies and ecologies.
The problem has deep historical roots. In the early stone age, improved hunting techniques in vulnerable areas caused the extinction of many prey species, leaving the enlarged populace without an adequate food supply. The only apparent alternative, agriculture, also proved to be a progress trap. Salination, deforestation, erosion and urban sprawl led to disease, malnutrition and so forth, hence shorter lives.
Almost any sphere of technology can prove to be a progress trap, as in the example of medicine and its possibly inadequate response to the drawbacks of the high-density agricultural practices (e.g. factory farming) it has enabled. Wright uses weapon technology gradually reaching the threat of total nuclear destruction to illustrate this point. Ultimately, Wright strives to counter at least the Victorian notion of "modernity" as unconditionally a good thing.
In Escaping the progress trap O'Leary finds significant contributors to progress traps in neurological studies of cerebral development, specialization and lateralization of brain function. His study of this shows how individuals and societies can become committed to an exclusive form of technocratic rationalism. In this scenario, technical preoccupation slowly prevents creativity and problem-solving from taking effect. Where problems are created by technical specialization, such as desertification resulting from mismanaged irrigation, this trend compounds itself and can be irreversible. The classic case would be Sumer, where output-raising irrigation canals and logging slowly combined to make the fields far too salty to continue supporting the crops Sumerians had to rely on.
Other examples, such as Seymour Cray’s overspecialized Control Data Corporation or the Medieval Church's rejection of Roger Bacon's science follow the pattern: The mode of development itself excluded solutions to problems arising from that development. In a contemporary context, unabated oil consumption in a time of climate change is an illustration of the problem; sustainable development is viewed as a solution.
According to O'Leary, avoiding the progress trap pattern can be achieved by ensuring, through education and cultural vitality, that individuals and societies do not become preeminently technocratic. Citing research into creativity and resiliency theory, he argues that the intuitive, divergent side of the mind/brain must thrive, so that lateral thinking will be an option for seeing and preventing progress traps. Spelling this out in scientific terms may be necessary for policymakers to take notice.
Art and the progress trap
Aurora Picture Show, a microcinema in Houston, Texas has released a collection of "informational videos by artists who use recent technological tools for purposes other than what they were designed to do and, in some instances, in direct opposition to their intended use." The title of the DVD is At your service: Escaping the Progress Trap.
- Escalation of commitment, also known as irrational escalation
- Resilience (ecology)
- Cultural lag
- Societal collapse
- System justification
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
- A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
- The Icarus Paradox: How Exceptional Companies Bring About Their Own Downfall, by Danny Miller
- The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner
- A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting 1993
- The Ingenuity Gap by Thomas Homer-Dixon
- The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas-Homer Dixon
- The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter
- Progress and its Problems: Towards a Theory of Scientific Growth, by Larry Laudan 1977 ISBN 978-0-520-03721-2
- Progress Trap blog
- Escaping the progress trap by Daniel O'Leary
- 2008 and 2007 web archives of articles and comments on the phenomenon by Professor Tadeusz W. Patzek, University of Texas, Austin
- At your service: Escaping the Progress Trap
- Michael S. Gazzaniga Spheres of Influence, MIND, May 2008
- Eating the Earth by John Whiting