Film Review: Surviving Progress

Fewer resources, more poverty. Is that anyone’s idea of progress on this planet? This visually impressive Canadian documentary, rich in expert ideas, is a terrific resource for those who think and really care to know.

Surviving Progress, bearing a serious message about where modern civilization appears headed, is so rich in ideas and stunning visuals that it entertains as much as it informs. That’s the good news.

But because this doc from pioneer documentarians The National Film Board of Canada delivers such an important theme—how unchecked global population growth, consumption and industrialization are endangering rather than improving our lives and environment—it’s all the more disappointing that the filmmakers have done such a poor job of identifying the locations and many eloquent talking heads making their cases.

Identifying titles may very briefly flash over a speaker once, but that’s it. Exteriors, whether aerial shots, cityscapes or remote locales, making the case for the ills of progress largely go unidentified. The doc’s cameras visit Canada, Brazil, China, the U.S. and United Arab Emirates but where specifically isn’t usually clear. This lapse in clarity isn’t just a disservice to the film’s important premise but also to onscreen participants, viewers and the filmmakers themselves.

What Surviving Progress, based on Ronald Wright's best-seller A Short History of Progress, attempts is to answer whether technological advances, economic development and population growth are really beneficial to society. The title suggests a negative answer, and the film backs it up. The main thesis is that while the notion of “progress” is seductive, there are indeed “progress traps” that the modern world may be falling into and that have already destroyed previous civilizations.

Exploring what may or may not really be advances in the areas of technology, economics, consumption and the environment, Surviving Progress has enlisted an impressive number of experts and intellectuals, including primatologist Jane Goodall (“We’re so intelligent but we destroy our earth”), writer Margaret Atwood, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, economic historian Michael Hudson, biologist Craig Venter (“We now write software for life itself, not just for computers”), and Ronald Wright himself. Also weighing in are Wall Street critics, psychologists, ecologists and workers.

There’s much here to please Occupy Wall Street partisans. Commentators complain that those at the economic top are consuming too much and too disproportionately. The DNA of banks is “toxic” and reflects the transgressions of “out-of-control oligarchs.” The doc makes the case that banks are emptying out natural resources (water, forests, etc.) at the expense of the poor.

Also out of whack is the disproportionate number of poor in countries like China and India, even though one Chinese worker brags that his country has the oldest civilization. Well, you haven’t really come a long way, baby.

The film targets the evils of materialism, of overproduction and overconsumption. And as we’re all living off the Earth’s limited capital—natural resources—our soaring population is now dipping too much into these “loans” and risks depleting them. As Atwood puts it, “The world is a finite sum.”

At the heart of this discourse simmers the question of whether past global catastrophes are indeed dire prologue to what awaits modern society. And wouldn’t you know that the whole mess may have roots in our human nature, which portends no easy fix as we are still hunters and gatherers in need of more “moral progress.”

Offering many provocative ideas, Surviving Progress deserves several viewings, but hopefully a second time around will come with more context and orientation.