Movie review: A probing look at Earth’s chances of ‘Surviving Progress’


The very title of the subversive documentary “Surviving Progress” sounds counterintuitive. Isn’t progress a good thing, the sure cure for civilization’s ills? What’s to survive?

Plenty, according to this expect-the-unexpected Canadian film based on Ronald Wright’s bestselling “A Short History of Progress.” Both brainy and light on its feet, bristling with provocative insights and probing questions, this film feels like it’s expanding your mind while you’re watching it.

The premise of “Surviving Progress,” much more dystopian in its quiet way than “The Hunger Games,” is that we delude ourselves if we think the seeming improvements that growth and development bring will result in quality-of-life advances or even survival of the planet.

In fact, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks argue that technological progress is threatening the very existence of humanity. As author Wright puts it, “Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

Though it features lively editing and a wide variety of involving visuals, “Surviving Progress” depends for its impact on the intelligence and eloquence of the numerous people interviewed, such as celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall. “Arguably, we are the most intelligent creature that’s ever walked on planet Earth,” Goodall says. “So how come, then, that this so intellectual being is destroying its only home?”

Part of the problem, the film posits, is our brains, which apparently have changed little in quite some time. As Wright himself says, “We’re running 21st century software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years.” Though the implications of our technology, for instance, require us to make long-term choices, our fight-or-flight brains are better at making immediate snap decisions.

As a species, we tend to fall into what Wright calls “progress traps,” where things that are initially positive developments prove ruinous in the final analysis. The man who figured out how to kill two mammoths rather than one was a hero, Wright explains, but the man who figured out how to kill a whole herd helped destroy hunting as a way of life.

One of the ways “Surviving Progress” frames the state of the world is by using the concept of natural capital, namely the natural resources the planet provides. Up until roughly 1980, experts say, we were living on the interest, but now, as a civilization we are eating our capital.

Complicating that problem, not surprisingly, is the recent financial crisis, which, says Simon Johnson, a former chief economist with the International Monetary Fund, may have been inevitable given the economic system we have constructed: “The bankers can’t stop themselves. It’s in their DNA, in the DNA of their organizations, to take massive risks, to pay themselves ridiculous salaries and to collapse.”

One of the consequences of having the kind of international debt that cripples the countries that owe the money is that these nations are under intense pressure to sell their resources to pay it off. That in turn leads to harmful situations such as the continuing deforesting of the rain forests in the Brazilian Amazon, which, as one speaker says, is an example of the global financial system being willing to turn a country into a hole in the ground. “Conventional economics is a form of brain damage,” one expert provocatively claims. “It’s disconnected from the real world in a dangerous way.”

What “Surviving Progress” ends up telling us, whether we want to hear it or not, is that if we are to survive as a planet, we will have to use less, setting limits on ourselves both as individuals and as a society. The lures of progress aside, author Wright sums up, the question is “whether we’ll master the other half of being God. The moral half.”