A Classic ‘Feel Bad’ Movie About Progress - Miller-McCune
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.
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.