Review: Surviving Progress

A salient new documentary that questions whether 'progress' is a dirty word, and whether cyborgs (!) are the answer.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


The news is not new: We live in a consumer society. We consume too much. A twisted form of intentionally opaque international economic forces have conspired to ruin the planet. The environment is becoming increasingly filthy. Politicians have become oligarchs who are manipulating the political systems in order to earn more money, and keep economic growth going. These points have all been made before, they're all pertinent, and they're all what drives Mathieu Roy and Harold Crook's new documentary/meditation Surviving Progress, based on the 2005 non-fiction book A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright, which opens in L.A. this Friday. From that brief description, you might get the impression that Surviving Progress is a preachy polemic from extreme left-wing environmentalists with a definite political agenda. And, to be sure, the film is indeed a polemic. But this is not a film interested in partisan finger-wagging, nor is it looking to place blame directly on one specific group or another (despite some pretty heavy glances toward the likes of Ronald Reagan and other recognizable American politicians). No. Surviving Progress is more philosophical. It encourages us to think about all our established systems, and questions openly what we're going to do about the environmental degradation we are witnessing the world over. It does so with the use of Koyaanisqatsi-like montages, and alarming interviews with a series of talking-head experts. It's pretty to look at, only somewhat preachy, and, most importantly, incredibly salient. This is a great film for college classrooms.

Mostly, Surviving Progress asks us to reevaluate our ideas of progress itself. Human beings, the film argues, tend to look at progress (at least since the Industrial Revolution) as a positive change. As societies become more complex, after  all, isn't it a sign that we're achieving, growing, becoming better? The term Ronald Wright is trying to coin is “progress trap.” That is to say: becoming more complex and inventing new things and thinking of new ways to consume is ultimately going to prove to fail. After all, humanity can only grow so far before it begins butting heads with the finite quantities of the planet Earth. Earth is, after all, only so large. Consumer society is only encouraged by the people in charge, and their fostering of debt seems to know no limits. A few biologists and geneticists argue that economics itself is a flawed pseudoscience, as it doesn't account for life or the planet or biodiversity or anything that keeps humanity actually healthy. Even more damning, Wright argues that, if we continue growing to the point of self annihilation, we will prove that civilization itself is an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Human endeavor, he muses in his more pessimistic moods, is the ultimate progress trap.

The film does offer a few solutions, although they are also lambasted as progress traps. Stephen Hawking is quoted as a proponent for the colonization of other planets, and for incorporating machines into our biological makeup in order to survive as a species. As a sci-fi fan, these possibilities seem exciting, but, the film argues, these are also progress traps. They will only carry us so far, and will not stand in the way of our natural needs toward greater (and destructive) complexity. A geneticist named J. Craig Venter sees some hope in genetic alteration to survive. Evolution has previously been a natural reaction to the environment. Perhaps, some feel, it's time we move toward artificial selection.

So, yeah, for the film's first 80 minutes, you're going to be pummeled with some innovative and salient – if not somewhat usual – viewpoints that all indicate that humanity is screwed. Luckily, the film ends on a positive note (as I suppose such films ought to; it's not enough to simply say that things are broken and we need to tear down the old system, without first proposing some sort of solution). Wright seems to say that, evolutionarily, we've been given the tools to create our own fate. We can, essentially, play God with our own makeup. Now that we are capable of godlike creation, perhaps we need to make the next evolutionary step. We need to become more moral. We need to be wise. I like that. Human nature is, the film argues, not selfish, but communal and social. We care more about living in a society than we do about base creature comforts. And if enough people become wise, then we all can. I like that too.

Like I said, the film is preachy, but it doesn't ever speak down to the audience. At only 87 minutes, it doesn't bean you over the head (too badly) with its message like the very good but way-too-long The Corporation. It does seem to have a political viewpoint, but its thoughts are larger than a political agenda. Surviving Progress is, more than anything, a simple meditation on the state of the world (in the Errol Morris-mode; there are many, many shots of cities in time-lapse), a look at the philosophical problems of the modern age, and a new way of perceiving things. Will it set the world on fire? No. I imagine a lot of people will walk away feeling threatened. After all, another basic truth of humanity: people don't like being told what to do.