Surviving Progress DVD Review: How to Temper a Double-Edged Sword

Surviving Progress takes a look at the advancements human beings have made over the last few thousand years, what our current situation of balancing progress and resource consumption against what Earth can reasonably support, and the steps needed to correct our path to attain a sustainable future.  The good news is that all is not lost, but some things need to change.  We as a species need to become more cognizant of our impact on the world we live in — on both a small and large scale — and what each one of us can do to rise to the occasion of being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

Early on, the discussion identifies what are known as “progress traps” and how to avoid them. Cavemen learning and devising methods to kill two mammoths at once instead of one could be considered progress.  Driving a herd off a cliff to their death and killing more than can rationally be used by the tribe is a progress trap, as the technology and techniques available have superseded the need of the population.  The perceived progress goes above and beyond what is necessary without considering the long-term effects, like diminishing the food supply faster than it can be replenished, to the point that the mammoth hunters need to relocate to sustain themselves.

The same can be said of modern man, who is largely still using a majority primitive hunter-gatherer brain and methods of problem solving. The documentary examines how “fight or flight” response is useful for basic survival and solving immediate problems, but it works against our very nature as evolved beings (or at least as evolved as we are so far) to consider what the impact of our advances and technology may be fifty, a hundred, or even a thousand years from now.  It’s enough of a stretch to try to fathom what the impact of burning millions of tons of fossil fuels will be in our lifetime, let alone in ten lifetimes.  In that way, humans are very self-serving by nature and think only as far as the repercussions on their own lives.  It takes effort to consider those around us, and even more effort to envision how these side effects will hamper the lives of those around the world we will likely never meet.

Then comes the difficulty in balancing progress against survival.  For many in the Amazon basin, logging is a major industry, without which many would be jobless, and soon after homeless and starving.  However, if logging proceeds at the rate it has been, the climatological effects of destroying such a large amount of rain forest will inevitably be felt around the world.  Why don’t the locals take personal responsibility for this and protest?  Because a) they have families to feed, and b) the companies using the timber they produce are international conglomerates, many of which are based in the U.S.  If there’s significant climate change or profit loss, it’s going to hurt people far away, not them.  Again, the film demonstrates the necessity of thinking globally and considering the impacts of your actions on your neighbors, but solutions are difficult to present, and even more difficult to implement.

Jane Goodall states that, for being the most intellectual species to ever walk the Earth, we are somehow not bright enough to consider that most of the things we do are bad for our home. But one thing that sets us apart from animals is that we question “Why?”  If a chimp is given a block with the task of standing it on end, it will do so.  However, if the block is weighted in such a way that it will always fall over when stood on end, the chimp will try for a short period of time the same repetitive attempts over and over, grow weary of the problem, and move on to something else.  Human beings have the capacity to inquire about the situation, to examine and work to determine what’s causing this situation to not work as expected, and to continually exhibit a negative outcome.  It is this capacity for inquiry that gives us the chance to still turn things around.  The same advanced level of problem solving that created fossil-fuel burning machines can work to make them ever more efficient, or find a replacement that works even better while consuming fewer resources.  Moving from the horse to the car was progress.  Moving from the Model T to the Lamborghini or hybrid cars weren’t really progress; they’re more examples of optimization of existing ideas.  It’s what that next big leap will be in manufacturing technology, transportation, and shipping that will change the game significantly once again.  We just have to have the wherewithal to look for it.

However, faith in progress is viewed by some as a sort of new age religion, where we just expect that a solution to any problem created by progress will likewise be borne out of further progress, and will arrive just in time to curb any impending disaster.  This may work some of the time, but it will not work all the time.  Unfounded faith in other belief systems has led to the downfall of previous societies, and it will lead to the downfall of ours.

The idea of slowing population growth is one possible solution for decreasing our strain on a limited resource supply, but it’s also a touchy subject for many, who trumpet religious freedom and the sanctity of the family as reasons not to do anything about it.  However, what we’re seeing now is not a sustainable rate of growth, so sooner or later we’re going to have to tackle the subject, like it or not.

Also interesting is how previous societies had debt forgiveness once certain debts became so significant there was no reasonable hope of it being repaid, and many of those debts were to the state, not to individuals or enterprises.  Forgiven debt to the state was easier debt to absorb and fewer feelings were hurt in the process.  Rome kicked off the notion of forced debt repayment, and went to war with countries that owed them, destroying land, aquifers, and entire economies in the process.  Ultimately, the concentration of wealth at the top of the social pyramid proved unsustainable, peasants were forced off public land due to the interests of the wealthy in owning the land privately, and what was left wasn’t usable for the basic needs of the populace.  This isn’t the only time/place it’s happened, either.

Proposed solutions to the problem fall into three main categories:

  • Focus on ecology instead of economics
  • Advances in synthetic life and genetic manipulation (though it poses a tremendous progress trap if not used carefully and judiciously)
  • Use less of everything

These aren’t solutions we haven’t heard of before, but the trick is getting people to do their part.  On the individual level, it’s easy to say that any one person isn’t making that big of an impact.  However, those people add up quickly.  Several top researchers, economists, anthropologists, and politicians weigh in on every topic presented throughout during the film, each with strong convictions and suggestions on what we need to do correct the path of progress before we reach a point of no return.

Overall Surviving Progress was a satisfying, informative, and engaging watch. These are issues that need to be dealt with starting today, not in 20 years.  There’s a sense of urgency behind the message presented here without making it sound doom-and-gloom or overly paranoid.  It’s well balanced and paced, sources some great individuals who are well known in their respective fields, including Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, and Ronald Wright, author of the best-seller A Short History of Progress, the book that inspired the making of this film. The disc received for review included only the documentary; I’ve not seen anything to indicate the retail release will be any different.

I recommend seeing this film not just because it’s well made, but because it addresses in very real-world ways the problems and solutions we all need to get involved with to ensure not just a better tomorrow, but that there will be a tomorrow there at all.

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Mark Buckingham

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