Documentary expertly made, but not its arguments
Ronald Wright’s 2004 book, “A Short History of Progress,” looked at societal decline in terms of the past — Easter Island, ancient Sumeria, the Roman Empire, the Mayans — drawing lessons for today. Wright meant the title ironically.
“Surviving Progress,” a Canadian documentary inspired by Wright’s book, looks at societal decline in terms of the present and future (with a few glances at the past). The lessons to be drawn — don’t burn down the rain forest; greed is bad; so was Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator; and so on — don’t quite qualify as lessons. The filmmakers, Mathieu Roy (who directed) and Harold Crooks (who co-wrote with Roy), mean the title ironically, too, though irony is not their forte. Footage of stock-exchange trading floors, for example, is accompanied by music from a carnival calliope. More to the point, the title doubles as accusation. Progress is dangerous and requires survival tactics, just as a hurricane or avalanche does.
A slick jeremiad, “Surviving Progress” is expertly made (it’s far from tedious) but intellectually muddled. It never really says what it means by progress. Is progress primarily technological in nature? Economic? Political? Social? So the documentary jumps around from a primate lab to a spacecraft (“2001” alert) to China to Wall Street to ancient Rome to Brazil.
Some of the things we are shown are clearly bad for the planet — open-pit mining, say. Others are good for many people (growing prosperity in China) but not without consequences. With all the problems affluence in the developed world has created, think of how much worse those problems are likely to become with affluence in now-underdeveloped countries.
The single most interesting thing in the documentary is a brief segment on a Chinese tour guide who has prospered thanks to the rising standard of living enjoyed by his countrymen. We see him leading an auto caravan through rural China, and it’s a window on a world we know is there — but who ever stops to think about it, let alone even knows what it looks like? Then we cut to the guide’s father, a professor (someone affluent in a traditional way), talking about the drawbacks of China’s economic explosion, and the son is enraged. He has done very well by the new wealth, and what’s wrong about that? The clash of emotion is as striking as the clash of views.
What “Surviving Progress” usually offers is talking heads and travelogue footage. Biologist-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter seems happily unruffled. Novelist Margaret Atwood has an unfortunate on-camera habit of making air quotes. Jane Goodall appears, and the computer-programed voice of Stephen Hawking is heard. The movie’s best line comes from David Suzuki, the geneticist and activist: “Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.”
Wright frequently pops up. He’s forceful and articulate. That said, a statement such as “We are running 21st-century software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn’t been updated for 50,000 years, and this lies at the core of many of our problems” is breathtaking in its goofiness. “The Ice Age hunter is still in us,” he warns. That sounds like something a Liam Neeson character might say, except that coming from Neeson it would be a boast.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.