The problems of civilization
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 20, 2012
One percenters won't like what "Surviving Progress" has to say. The affluent oligarchy is a frequent target of blame in Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks's powerful but pessimistic documentary look at the corner we humans seem to be painting ourselves into, economically, ecologically and otherwise.
Based on Ronald Wright's 2004 book "A Short History of Progress" - which posits that the technological and capitalist advances we're making in the name of civilization are creating more problems than they're solving - the movie feels, at times, like listening to a street-corner doomsday prophet. With financial crashes, environmental destruction, rampant consumerism and selfishness, the outlook presented by the film for the future of mankind isn't rosy.
But just because the news isn't good doesn't mean we don't need to hear it. "Surviving Progress" is jampacked with questions, if not solutions. Confronting those questions can feel like an all-out assault on our entrenched world views, but it also feels critical to our very existence.
And, yes, more than a little bit scary.
Come to think of it, a large chunk of the other 99 percent probably won't like what the movie has to say either. Through interviews with Wright and such thinkers as Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking, "Surviving Progress" argues that we have reached - or, actually, more likely passed - a turning point in the history of our race. The film's message is this: Unless we - and that means you, too, dear reader - scale back dramatically, on all fronts, we're toast.
For starters, the world's population needs to shrink by at least half, according to one blunt-spoken interviewee. And people - not just the super-rich, but everyone else, too - need to learn to make do with a lot less stuff, and to play a little nicer with others.
If this makes the film sound like bitter medicine - good for you but not much fun - it's a lot more engaging than that. Speaking through his computerized voice synthesizer, Hawking calls himself an optimist about the survival of our species. Never mind that his proposed solution is for some of us to leave planet Earth behind entirely, for some as yet undetermined space outpost. If we can make it through the next two centuries without "improving" ourselves into extinction, Hawking intones, we should be okay.
That's nice to hear, amid some of the gloomier prognostications about the coming revolution, epic collapse and catastrophic climate change.
If there's a single point to the movie - which is as harshly critical of biological engineering as of the banking industry - it isn't that we need to stop playing God. In fact, as one of the film's subjects notes, maybe what we need to do is to act more, not less divine.
That means being more concerned for others than for ourselves and keeping more of an eye on the big picture than on our own immediate needs.
All is not yet lost, the film hints. It is, after all, called "Surviving Progress."
Contains brief images of sickness, poverty and death.