Surviving Progress

documentary, not rated
3.5 chiles

We human beings have become so good at living and consuming and advancing that we are about to fall off the metaphorical cliff like a herd of hunted mammoths. We have made so much progress that we’ve trapped ourselves in a system of survival that will eventually wipe us out.

The term progress trap, coined by author Ronald Wright, is applied to human behaviors that seem beneficial in the short-term but are actually disastrously unsustainable. For instance: population growth. There used to be enough resources to go around. If we cleared one forest or contaminated one body of water, there were always more trees and lakes to exploit. But the human race has expanded so quickly in the last 200 years, and we use so much of what came with the Earth, that we’ve diminished the supply far faster than we’re capable of replenishing it. How we got here and what it means for the future is the subject of the deeply satisfying, profoundly terrifying documentary Surviving Progress, directed by Canadian filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. The film was inspired by Wright’s book on the same topic, A Short History of Progress.

This movie will undoubtedly inspire many people to say, “You have to see this movie!” and “Oh God, we're all going to die.” It will provoke others to label it propaganda for redistribution of wealth and ecological conservation. But it’s not exactly a film about the need for conservation. The term green is never used, and the whole conservation movement is shown to be just more capitalism at work anyway. And it’s not exactly a political film about the ramifications of unchecked materialism, though it takes a stand against the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, essentially calling the international economy an oligarchy. A series of intersecting narratives delivered by scientists, sociologists, economists, historians, academics, and businesspeople is stitched together with images that underscore or illuminate what’s being said. For instance, as Daniel Povinelli, a behavioral scientist, explains that the main difference between humans and other animals is humans’ capacity and propensity to ask “why”—and that this is what leads to advances in human knowledge—images of satellites, brain scans, fetal ultrasounds, and a space shuttle play across the screen. Sometimes the footage relates directly to the narrative. When Chen Ming, a tour guide in China, describes his cross-country excursions for wealthy Chinese who want to visit holy sites to gain enlightenment, we see a line of at least a dozen identical rental cars driving through a mountain pass (proving that Buddhism can be just as commercialized in China as it is in the United States).  

The downside to our ability to ask “why,” according to Povinelli, is that “we invent the whole cascade of modern technology.” The problem is that we don’t know how to use what we discover and invent in ways that don’t ultimately harm us or future generations. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall asks why, as the most intellectual species on the planet, we are so intent on destroying the only home we have. Research psychologist Gary Marcus explains that the human brain hasn’t changed much in the last 50,000 years, so we are facing modern problems and ethical dilemmas with, basically, the brains of cavemen. We make snap decisions for our survival based on fight or flight, and though we have developed the ability to think more deliberately about the long term and for the good of society, these two modes of thought do not always work together. We are also social creatures; we want to be the same as other people and have what they have. But the world cannot support a billion more consumers. The solution is not for the poor to have everything the rich have but for the wildly wealthy to be less wealthy and for everyone in developed nations to simply use less stuff. Another solution presented is revolution of the underclasses.

The ideas presented build layer upon layer until a full picture of our global ethical dilemmas emerges, although not everyone in the film takes such a dark view of the future. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and J. Craig Venter, a biologist and the CEO of Synthetic Genomics, recommend taking over our genetics to help us adapt to the barren world humans will soon enough be forced to inhabit—a plan they call ‘optimistic,’ because they, too, consider this a dangerous period in history.

Many of the commentators draw parallels between our modern world and ancient Rome, which expanded too quickly and disenfranchised its poor until the country was beset by civil wars, violent bands of migrants, and extreme political splintering. Given the times we live in and plenty of historical precedence, the threat of an actual revolution could be why the government has clamped down so hard on the peaceful 99 percent protests. There are more poor people than there are rich people, and once they start to congregate, there's no telling what kinds of ideas might be stirred up, and with the speed of social networking, how quickly they might spread.  


This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 06/01/2012