Surviving Progress


We have thrived, but can we survive?

One of the main criticisms levelled at the Occupy movement has been that it is unclear what it is about. Critics have pointed to a plethora of issues – corporate greed, government debt, indigenous rights, unemployment, homelessness, ecological destruction, GMOs, climate change, and more – that seemed to be jostling for peoples’ attention. Of course, many or all of these issues are interconnected, although it seems we are still struggling to find the wherewithal to express just how.

Surviving Progress, a new documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, launching at the Rio Theatre December 2-8, does a pretty good job of just that. The film was actually made before the Occupy movement exploded onto the scene in North America. But it echoes many of the same ideas and concerns raised by Occupiers, in a series of thought-provoking interviews with leading thinkers placed within the context of the big picture of human evolution, from the primitive ape of the Ice Age to the intellectual ape of the Technology Age.

One of the key interviewees and inspiration for the film is Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2005), upon which the film is based. Wright suggests that, while progress generally brings improvement, sometimes it can lead to what he calls a “progress trap.” For example, when primitive man became too successful at hunting mammoths, his food supply became extinct.

This ecological theme tracks right through Surviving Progress. “Earth is finite”, we cannot overspend its “natural capital,” we are reminded by the likes of Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, and some slick CGI sequences and flyovers depicting disappearing natural landscapes.

Yet there is a rapidly growing population around the world wanting access to the “bonanza” of resources and material wealth, as is conveyed in a tense visit to a saw mill at the edge of a Brazilian rainforest and a road trip with a convoy of Chinese nouveau riche drivers.

As Michael Hudson, former balance-of-payments economist for the Chase Manhattan Bank explains, our financial system is designed for the short-term gain of a self-governing financial class, at the expense of whole nations that are burdened with debt, poverty and ecological devastation: “They’re cutting down the rainforest, they’re emptying out the economy, they’re turning it into a hole in a ground – to repay the bankers,” he says.

Familiar territory perhaps, but the documentary is more contemplative than alarming with its soothing, minimalist soundtrack and deft editing that reinforces the idea of humanity’s interconnectedness. While there’s no denying the danger of impending ecological collapse due to humanity’s voracious expansion, the film suggests that survival is possible by transcending the “ancestral” or “reflexive” mind of our primitive hunter selves and acting together to fix the system. “We are running 21st century software – our knowledge – on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years,” says Wright.

Stephen Hawking’s suggestion of interplanetary colonization and geneticist Craig Venter’s rather frightening proposition that we “write software for life… redesigning for our own survival” offer a glimpse of potential technological solutions (funded by multi-national corporations). However, the film seems to side with Jim Thomas, author of the The New Biomassters, who dismisses out of hand synthetic biology as “a progress trap par excellence.” “The microbes are going to end up laughing at them,” he says.

Ultimately, as Vaclav Smil, population scientist and author of Global Catastrophes and Trends, puts it in an irrepressible monologue, the main solution, the one that people don’t want to talk about, is not a new one: “We have to use less.” Surviving Progress is the kind of good-looking and palatable package that may help sink that elementary idea a bit deeper into our ape brains.

Robert Alstead writes at

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