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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.
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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.

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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.

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