Surviving Progress is a new feature documentary directed by Mathieu Roy, co-directed by Harold Crooks, executive produced by Martin Scorsese and produced by the director of The Corporation, Mark Achbar. It has just been released on DVD. In one of the excellent supplementary interviews, Jim Thomas, a technology activist, asserts that "the coming together of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and brain technology in a strong molecular platform" will create massive disruption of our norms and form a unified wave of change that will reorganize world civilization. By looking back at the last 550 years, he sees that the powerful have often ridden the waves of progress, but those who are marginalized get swamped by the changes and swept away. The larger question this film asks is whether or not this human nature will keep us human.
The film fades up in darkness with harrowing screams. They are not human.
Fade up on an empty, clean, cinderblock room. A gate rises and two chimpanzees enter. A mother and child. The mother looks around. She has been here before. She almost looks directly into the camera. She knows she is being filmed but must not make too big a deal about it. The baby peeks its head through a hole, looking for the human investigators who are not there. There is a pervading feeling of loneliness. The mother begins to pick up one of the two identical bright yellow L-shaped blocks. She balances the first but fails to balance the second. She retreats and her baby jumps on her for comfort. The mother does not know where to look: at the invisible humans behind the glass? At the blocks? What did she have to do with the blocks? She is scared.
Fade up to astronauts working on the exterior of the International Space Station. They try to balance an object much like the chimpanzee needed to balance the wooden block. Pull back, and see the grandeur of humanity's largest construction in space, and the Earth below.
This sense of curiosity and imperative mixed with threatening ambiguity floats through our society in both fiction and fact. By intentionally referencing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a contemporary documentary, Surviving Progress ambitiously raises deep questions about our past and our future. It asks whether technology and morality will fail to save us from species-induced self-destruction. Surviving Progress is a startling introduction to ideological pathologies. Before long, you are on earth and in space, and feeling around your own brain, and your connection to the global history uncovered through anthropology and archaeology. Never will you be just a tourist at a World Heritage site, but a witness. And the film deftly provides some answers that require thought, action, and sacrifice.
Meet Ronald Wright, author of the best-seller, A Short History of Progress, on which this film is based. Wright wants progress, but to distinguish between good and bad. "We tend to delude ourselves that these changes are always good, from the human point of view." Wright believes most previous civilizations were destroyed by "progress traps" -- technologies and beliefs that served temporary needs of systems. Ultimately, progress caused unsustainable growth. The film's other experts show extreme discomfort in ascribing a direct meaning to the word progress, an humorous editing choice which transforms into a montage, both exciting and terrifying, showing science, tribalism, economics, and warfare.
Since the end of the Dark Ages, much has been advanced, re-invented and forgotten. Now, the internet, global markets, interconnectedness and massive over-consumption have increased at historically unseen proportions. So stakes are raised not for one civilization, but for all. In other words, even though we are all conditioned to think that progress is good, Wright's thesis is that progress increasingly dilutes the possibility of an extended human future. Jane Goodall declares that "as long as we continue with materialism as the main support of life on Earth, we'll never succeed."
Smart editing builds upon beautiful cinematography, arresting and evocative sound design and a bright score. Interviews include Margaret Atwood, author and essayist; Simon Johnson, Former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); J. Craig Venter, Biologist and CEO Synthetic Genomics, a chief scientist who helped create the first cell with a synthetic genome. Cumulatively, they contribute to Wright's argument that technological advancement and productivity "are very seductive until they reach a certain scale." By showing how we are still very much living with our primate brains, the film asks: What is driving us? Is the problem in our very genetic makeup? Is our human culture, our "twentieth century software" running around in hunter-gatherer bodies which may not adapt fast enough to figure out what to do with all our so called progress?
The filmmakers do not shy away from connecting our genetic future to politics and economics. The crisis may have started no less than 5,000 years ago, when wealth consolidation fed the crisis of leadership in Rome. In the present, that form of accumulation directly relates to how the IMF puts developing countries in debt with no accountability.
Moving scenes follow an earnest environmental police officer in Brazil's rainforest who cannot possibly do enough to stop Amazonian deforestation. She defends trees with her gun but poor loggers say they will blame Americans' need for fresh air if they lose their jobs and their babies die. Are the real culprits the politicians and agribusiness making a profit from the deforestation and then moving their money to another resource ready to be exploited and disposed of?
Another compelling expert, Michael Hudson, an economic historian and former Wall Street economist condemns progress that "has meant 'You will never get back what we take from you.' That's what brought on the Dark Ages and that's what's threatening to bring in the Dark Ages again." For the global financial system it's right for corporations to remove natural resources and leave a hole in the ground.
There is an absurd anger lurking here, and David Suzuki expresses it best: that conventional economics is not scientific. It monetizes anything and everything without understanding that parts of nature have priceless value: How much should the ozone layer cost? The film shows that even children know that the economic system demands the rainforest becomes a desert.
Stephen Hawking thinks we are in a very dangerous period of history because our genetic code is primitive compared to our present challenges. We could easily destroy ourselves. But he remains an optimist, saying that if we can survive another two centuries, then we should spread out into space.
Venter's career is based on turning genetic ideas into technology that will create better health services. His new work hopes to father new organic beings which become biofuel, produced on a massive scale in partnerships with existing power companies. But the developed world will need ethical and moral limits on its rate of consumption.
Goodall, ever haunting us with her calm stare, warns that we are "arguably the most intellectual beings that have ever walked on planet Earth. Maybe someday we'll be on Mars, but until then... why are we destroying our habitat and threatening the future of our own species?"
Consider Surviving Progress in the same vein as An Inconvenient Truth and Last Stop at the Oasis, which opened up contemporary conversations about specific environmental issues that we thought we understood but are also changing rapidly. Anyone who refuses to take part in the issues brought up in this film is really giving up their stake in what the future holds. Here, the message is simple: human life is very complicated and we need a guidebook to remake our planet.
As a child, I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey many times. I never thought about on whose backs we would get to space, I only wondered about when that adventure would become real and our mundane lives disappear into history. 2001, so far away, seemed more important than religion, than country, than family. I wondered whether the chimps that touched the silent monoliths were inspired or catapulted to push civilization forward. Those dark, unreachable monoliths were what artists term a negative space -- where everyone can place their views of the meaning of life.
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