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Surviving Progress, a cinematic antidote for excessive holiday spending

By Barbara Kessler Green Right Now Like most Americans, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday overeating, shopping and ensconced on the couch watching movies. Surviving Progress explores the possibility that civilization...

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Like most Americans, I spent the Thanksgiving holiday overeating, shopping and ensconced on the couch watching movies.

Surviving Progress explores the possibility that civilization will implode under the weight of progress.

The shopping I tried to keep in check. I’m a virtual non-participant in Black Friday. And by virtual, I mean, virtual. I do check the sales online. Like everyone else, I want to save a few dollars if I can. But I don’t get up at 6 a.m., and certainly not at midnight. There’s not enough pumpkin pie in my system to fuel any heroic sweeps of crowded malls, and a part of me is repulsed by this bald consumerism. So I missed getting a $10 pancake griddle. I’ll survive.

Or maybe I won’t.

Among the movies we saw over the holiday was a documentary based on the bestselling book, A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. The premise of the film, called Surviving Progress, is that we may not. Survive.

Indeed, it’s about how we humans appear to be incredibly effective at devising our own demise, creating so much “progress” that it’s choking off the natural systems that have kept the planet alive and breathing for millions of years. Ever narcissistic, we assume that we’ll continue into infinity. But let’s be brutally honest, as this documentary is, the future of human civilization is looking a little shaky.

There are many chilling nuggets in this ethereally calm movie about pending apocalypse (the interviewees are all relatively serene and seated, save for, ironically, Steven Hawking who speaks while floating in a spacesuit). Here’s one: Until about 1980 the human race was not consuming more than it could restore or replenish. We were living on the interest of the natural capital that Mother Earth so generously supplied, narrator Ronald Wright tells us. But about that time, with human population exploding and “advanced” and developing societies extracting more and more to sustain modern culture, the scales tipped. We began digging into our natural capital, into the principal, and well…the soil, the fish, the forests, the grasslands are not infinite. Our consumption has been beyond sustainable for more than 30 years. Something has to change.

You’ve heard this theme before, or variations of it. There have been other documentaries about how we’re maxing out the planet. The 11th Hour, The Age of StupidNo Impact Man (whose star, Colin Beavan also appears in this film), etc. But this one, written and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, is different. While so many of the others have focused on detailing the physical exhaustion of the planet — the loss of soil, plant life, marine animals, ice caps, glaciers and forests — to drive home that reality, Surviving Progress takes a step back and asks why do we humans create such devastation? What is it about us, that drives us to the brink? Why do we hurtle forward on a date with doom?

Why, why, why do we compulsively build and create things that destroy irreplaceable natural resources or harm human health, creating what Wright has termed “progress traps”?

The answers may lie in our evolution as hunter and gatherers, or our lack of evolution. We may, the film suggests, be operating 21st Century software on 10,000-year-old hardware, that is, our relatively unevolved brains. That would explain why we humans have repeatedly create exploitative civilizations (think: Roman Empire, or almost any modern industrialized nation). Take “gathering” to its extreme and you can see how it could propel an oligarchy, an acquisitive controlling class that seizes and hoards resources to the detriment of the society’s survival.

Take the impulse to hunt and put it on Wall Street. The hunt becomes a hunt for money, while the “commodities” of the natural world — the water, air, food and land, divorced from the equation, are destroyed in the name of progress.

Surviving Progress shows how the unstoppable drive to build wealth is devastating the planet, creating insurmountable debt in nations that must pay with their natural capital, sacrificing their own future. The film shows poignant examples in the Amazon rainforest, where laborers depend upon timber mills for jobs, and in the Congo, where a dictator friendly with the West enriched himself and corporations, but left the people impoverished.

In money-based economies,“progress has meant: “You will never get back what we take from you,” says Wall Street economist/historican Michael Hudson. That’s the mentality that has dealt civilizations a death blow, and now it’s being adopted worldwide.

The solution lies in recognizing and stopping these human behaviors that have outlived their utility. But can we do this? Or will we continue to wrap ourselves and trap ourselves in progress?

The discussion is riveting, as Surviving Progress touches base with many brilliant minds, such as author Margaret Atwood, environmentalist David Suzuki, energy expert Vaclav Smil, primate expert Jane Goodall and other notable economists, behaviorists and historians as well as some regular people caught in the crosshairs of progress.

Yes, this movie will make you squirm. This is not a Hollywood end-of-the-world fantasy, it’s a contemplation of the real and imminent potential end of the world, and its laser-like analysis catches us all playing a role, however small, in the global heist.

But Surviving Progress also is a call to our better instincts, an appeal to progress to higher moral ground, and that makes it essential holiday viewing.

(Surviving Progress is available on Netflix, and will be screened at dozens of film festivals over the next 11 months.)

Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network


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