By turning the idea of progress on its head, the nimble Surviving Progress exquisitely presents to us the possibility that humankind’s achievements may cause its downfall. The film articulately makes the case that modern civilization is in what author Ronald Wright calls a “progress trap,” the instance, essentially, in which development excludes the solution to the problem it creates, which he illustrates with a classic example: woolly mammoth hunters who, after figuring out they could lead a whole herd off a cliff instead of killing the animals individually, found that they had inadvertently driven the animals into extinction.
In the tradition of The Corporation, an anxiety-inducing masterpiece of the activist documentary genre, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’s documentary uses an “advanced sense of rhetoric,” to quote Jonathan Rosenbaum on the former film, to give shape to, and make comprehensible, problems in the modern world that appeal to liberals and confirm their worst suspicions. Making connections between economics, the environment, history, and science to argue that the rules the world currently lives by are unsustainable, Surviving Progress is staggeringly broad, brisk, and pithy, making what would normally be considered a topic suited only for books (most of the interviews are with authors) into an edifying and entertainingly alarming 86 minutes.
Because we’ve been operating under the delusion of unlimited growth, in only the 0.2% of human history that we’ve lived in civilization, as the film informs us, we’ve managed to pillage the planet of its finite resources. The largest manifestation of this basic principle of American life is, of course, our capitalist economy, a voracious beast that allows us to consume exponentially more energy and goods than those in some “developing” countries, and which also makes some of those countries indebted to us to such a degree that their natural resources must be relinquished, like in the case of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. That countries such as China are set on meeting, and fast approaching, our same living standards will put even more stress on the planet.
David Suzuki, one of several notable environmentalists featured in the film, calls this form of economics, in which nature isn’t part of the equations used to give currency a value, “a form of brain damage.” A harsh charge, but a criticism shared throughout the film that’s put more diplomatically by Ronald Wright (writer of the book A Short History of Progress, which inspired the film), who says, with a skyscraper’s view behind him, we’re operating our world with 21st-century software (our knowledge) on ancient hardware (our brains).
Sleek and articulate, Surviving Progress makes up for what some consider the Occupy movement to lack. In a sentiment the film shares with those disgruntled protesters, it posits that we shouldn’t trust that the “financial oligarchy” that’s currently running our country—and the world—will be more intelligent or ethical than the institutions that presided over the fallen empires of the past, according to historian and former Wall Street economist Michael Hudson. And all the more is at stake this time around since the world is more interconnected than ever.
Surviving Progress pulls off the trick of preaching doomsday with optimism, but even though this optimism was probably necessary to sell the film, it still feels forced. Bad news is bad news, so the vague instructions given by those interviewed “to use less” feel flimsy considering that most gains in fighting overconsumption will be undone by the world’s growing and unsustainable overpopulation. In the end, the film hints that the way for the planet to rebalance itself is for us to do something more drastic than consuming less—but what that is, for now at least, is the stuff of imagination.