Surviving Progress is a heavy-duty think piece of a documentary based on Ronald Wright’s best seller A Short History of Progress. Co-directed and co-written by Mathieu Roy (François Girard en Trois Actes) and Harold Crooks (The Corporation), the film tries to tackle some giant-sized issues regarding humanity, progress and the very future integrity of our civilization.
Speaking in planetary terms, mankind is in its infancy. We’ve been around for only a tiny portion of our world’s existence, and we’ve only been “civilized” for around 5,000 years. The foundation of Wright’s book—and of this subsequent documentary summation—is that we’re operating some mighty high-tech “software” (our rapidly increasing scientific knowledge) on some awfully outdated hardware (physiologically speaking, humans haven’t evolved in about 50,000 years). At our core, we are still primitive, Ice Age hunter-gatherers.
That simplistic world view (acquire, use up, repeat) can be a problem when it comes to navigating the sorts of problems with which we are now confronted. For starters, we’ve got to define what exactly constitutes progress. It’s not a simple question, and it’s one that stumps even the brainy talking heads assembled here. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, author Margaret Atwood, primatologist Jane Goodall, global economist Simon Johnson, scientist / environmental activist David Suzuki: It’s an impressively diverse list. And yet, progress can be interpreted in so many ways.
However you define it, though, it’s clear that cultural progress isn’t keeping up with scientific progress. We, as a species, are capable of some incredible—some might say godlike—feats. We can split the atom, create life in a test tube. But a lot of our thinking is dangerously out of date. Could it be that our greatest achievements (like nuclear power and genetic manipulation) actually hold the key to our doom? Call that the Scary Thought of the Day.
It doesn’t take long to figure out the central boogeyman of Surviving Progress is an oligarchy-based capitalist economy—a system of driving wealth to the top 1 percent that first came about in the late Roman Empire. It’s an economic model (overspend on material goods, go into debt, work harder to pay off said debt, so you can start again at the beginning) that drives progress forward at an accelerated rate. But it’s also an idea that simply isn’t workable with a world population as large as ours. Since we can’t talk about population control—because it violates a lot of religions and goes against the idea of personal choice—we’re stuck with an increasingly overpopulated planet. What happens when the newly affluent, nearly one and a half billion people in China, for example, decide they want to live on an equal social footing with Westerners: cars, landscaped backyards, swimming pools, refrigerated air, cable TV, a Walmart within driving distance. There simply aren’t enough resources on the planet to accommodate that.
Despite the dour scenario, Surviving Progress isn’t all doom and gloom. It isn’t trying to turn progress and its frequent partner, technology, into a monster. In fact, progress could actually present the answer to our problem with, well, progress. Space exploration and mapping of DNA codes, for example, may provide solutions to many of our current crises. (Stephen Hawking sure thinks so.) But for every step forward, there appears to be a corresponding step backwards. The film points out the important work being done by geneticists to engineer microorganisms that create fuel oil as a natural waste product. Surely this could alleviate a great many of mankind’s woes. Absolutely. But concurrent with that development comes the scary fact that such advancements are causing major global corporations like Monsanto to snatch up and patent every plant, seed and DNA strand on the planet. In the future, you could have a cheap, abundant fuel source—and a company could own the genetic copyright on any offspring you might produce.
In a surprisingly brief time (under 90 minutes), Surviving Progress covers a staggeringly broad range of topics: from economy to environment to philosophy to science. Of course, not every topic is addressed with the level of depth it deserves. The hope, I suppose, is that viewers will take up the initiative and dig deeper on their own. The film does offer a smattering of solutions, the most direct of which is that we need to “use less” lest the planet write us evolved apes off as a “failed experiment.” But that exhortation to viewers bears little weight when you compare the number of people who will see this film to the number of people who will be born in India today alone. Dropping off your used batteries for recycling at Whole Foods is great, but it ain’t gonna be nearly enough.
Good and bad will always go hand in hand, and Surviving Progress admits as much. Dazzling, artful, Koyaanisqatsi-esque imagery of cities, forests, favelas, automotive factories and wheeling space stations are used to break up the talking head shots and remind us that even the ugly parts of the planet are pretty when viewed at a distance. Perhaps that’s what Surviving Progress does best: provide some much-needed perspective. What we do with that perspective us up to us and our primitive monkey brains.