Film of the Week: Surviving Progress

Submitted by edg on Fri, 21 Sep '12 7.01pm
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Mathieu Roy & Harold Crooks (directors)
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Surviving Progress, a Canadian documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks (who will be attending the Filmhouse screening), provides a series of thought-provoking interviews with leading thinkers placed within the context of the big picture of human evolution, from primitive ape of the Ice Age to the intellectual ape of the Technology Age.

One of the key interviewees is Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (2005). 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 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 Brazillian rainforest and a roadtrip with a convoy of Chinese nouveau riche drivers.

Our consumption knows few limits. What's more, 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 who 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 our species' 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 interplanetry colonisation 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 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.

Screening at Filmhouse, 21 Sept 8.15pm