Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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