Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Classic ‘Feel Bad’ Movie About Progress

• April 02, 2012 • 9:35 AM

The new documentary “Surviving Progress” takes a cautionary view of modern advancement and sees major problems at every juncture.

Ronald Wright refers to the internal combustion engine as a “progress trap” — an invention that seems brilliant at the time but comes with unforeseen consequences.

“The internal combustion engine was going to solve all the problems of horses and the limitations of railways,” says the Canadian author, whose book A Short History of Progress forms the basis of the new documentary Surviving Progress. “But,” he adds, “the engine has created a world of these enormous sprawling cities, and we’ve created settlement patterns where the density is so low, it’s impossible to replace private transport with public transport.”

Not to forget, of course, auto pollution and its affect on the environment. Surviving Progress is filled with plenty of highly evolved thinking about progress, its positives and negatives, but basically it’s a cautionary look at contemporary world civilization, which director Mathieu Roy’s film sees as one giant progress trap. Faith in progress has become sort of theological, says the documentary, a belief that technology will solve the problems it causes.
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Moving Pictures

MOVING PICTURES
An occasional look at movies that matter.

[/class]
Take, for example, synthetic biology, which its proponents are claiming can solve the world food crisis. “There are very useful technologies, but I think our problems can and should be solved with existing technology,” says Wright. “The more powerful technology becomes, and more complex, the less we can see the downside, the greater the unforeseen risk.”

Wright is no Luddite, and the film does not advocate any simplistic “back to the land” solutions. It does push for a reduction in consumption by the industrialized nations, so that we gradually work toward, in Wright’s words, “a society that is less than a throwaway society.” In one key section it also addresses the metastasizing Chinese economy, with its increasing demand for consumer goods and what that could mean for the future of nonrenewable global resources.

“It’s a difficult sell for us to say to the Chinese, ‘You can’t have the standard of living we have because there are too many of you, and the world can’t take it,’” says Wright. “We can work toward getting a reasonable standard of living for a reasonable number of people, and we’ll have to reduce the level of consumption on the high end. There is a way of having a good quality of life without having a negative environmental impact — smaller cars, smaller housing, better heating, better public transportation.”

If nothing else, Surviving Progress is also a crash course in “what goes around comes around,” a look at how the problems of an ancient culture like the Maya were similar to ours.

[youtube]3DuampumYoc[/youtube]

The Maya built huge cities in the jungle, but their elite became more and more top heavy, demanding more and more resources. They became divorced from the realities of where food and water were coming from, and some of the city-states became embroiled in warfare, trying to seize each other’s resources. Thanks also to what some observers believe were catastrophes caused by drought and disease, the cities were abandoned and the Mayan civilization collapsed.

“They were at a similar stage to us, where they were running at the limit the environment can provide,” says Wright. “When it got to this peak stage, there was no room to go wrong, and I feel that’s where the modern world is now. Whether it’s nature, or something we do to nature, we’re in a precarious situation.”

Wright says on a scale of one to 10 — one meaning global collapse and 10 being everything’s hunky-dory – “I wouldn’t give us much more than a two or three. It’s not hopeless, but things are going downhill really fast. The world financial system is in serious shape, it’s looking worse than ever for the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there’s over-population and over-consumption of water. And that’s all made worse by climate change.”

Surviving Progress is, in many ways, a classic “feel bad” film. Everything from the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests to the Third World debt crisis makes it appear our problems are critical and unsolvable. But Wright does see hopeful signs, such as his contention that “China is doing more to promote new green technologies than anyone else.”

Still as far as the film and Wright are concerned, the future survival of the planet hinges on one big, almost unimaginable ‘if’: “We have to find the political will and change the economic system,” says Wright. “That will be the first step in reducing the gulf between the haves and the have nots.”

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

More From Lewis Beale

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.