The word progress, in my mind, has a bright, life-affirming connotation. Think of a dandelion seed suspended in a sunbeam or the opening of a cat’s eye in the night. Now, with the weapons of your imagination, pluck those images out.
The result of that game might have left with you a sense of what Surviving Progress feels like.
The documentary’s underlining idea is that humanity’s progress – ever expanding, conquering, multiplying, monetizing – isn’t always a good thing. According to Ronald Wright, arguably the movie’s main talking head, there are things called “progress traps.”
Wright – who didn’t come up with this term — wrote about human history in light of these traps in his book A Short History of Progress. Progress traps are defined (via Wikipedia) as: the condition societies experience when, in pursuing progress through ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life. This prevents further progress and sometimes leads to collapse.
By now you’re probably thinking of where such traps exit in our global society. Since we are still feeling the tremors of economic fallout as brought on by the Great Recession, the global economy seems an obvious candidate. And according to the movie, a trap is indeed lurking in the structure of our economy.
But the trap is not imbedded in the idea that free markets are necessarily bad, the trap is imbedded in the big banks, which have rigged the world so that some poor countries are shackled to poverty.
These poor countries own such huge debts that even if they pay all their yearly earnings to their creditors, they only cover the interest, the movie says. Thus they end up selling off their assets – wood, minerals, oil – to banks and foreign powers. The trap, in this economic case, is in the form of credit; a tool (or a process/ technology) that many people can’t escape and some can’t seem to help but exploit to a ridiculous and dangerous degree.
I picked the debt trap because I found it the most interesting. Wall Street economist Michael Hudson’s words on the subject were particularly piquing.
“Progress has meant: You will never get back what we take from you,” he says.
The doomed tone in that statement is mirrored by the tone of the movie. Watching it, you get the feeling there are traps everywhere and unless global society makes some major changes – such as: cease to follow religion, forgive enormous debts, learn to live within its means, and make a serious effort to preserve the planet’s resources – civilization will fail.
That idea offends me. I think it should probably offend you, too. I’m horrified by the thought of self-destruction, of losing what we’ve worked so hard to create, of our best tools failing us.
In fact, I couldn’t help feeling annoyed when the movie talked about science and technology as though they can be problems. To me, religion is a problem; bigotry is a problem; corruption is a problem; our primitive brains are a problem; but science isn’t. If anything, science is the clear tool for our continued presence on the crust of this lovely, cooling planet.
Sorry, sometimes my Carl Sagan fanboi-idis gets the best of me. What I mean to say is: Surviving Progress is provocative. It challenges your view of humanity and what it will take for us and our planet to survive.
Also, the movie is beautiful. It’s shot with stoic style and there are some juxtapositions of image and idea that are surprisingly intuitive and poetic.
Unlike many documentaries, Surviving Progress refreshingly ends without a call to arms. All too often, I’m enjoying a documentary when an eye-rolling, vainglorious ending ruins everything. Surviving Progress avoids this particular trap and leaves you with the weight of its ideas – ones that are enormously heavy, pregnant with doom, but nevertheless central to the current chapter in humanity’s history.
Surviving Progress is directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. It’s playing at the Lagoon Cinema.