Surviving Progress Review

“We've Heard It Before: "Consume Less," But We Need To Have Memories Refreshed Often By Docs Like This.”

March 21st, 2012


First Run Features

Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten

Grade: B

Director: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks

Screenwriter: Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks from Ronald Wright's "A Short History of Progress"

Cast: Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Michael Hudson, Ronald Wright

Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 3/21/12

Opens: April 6, 2012

In teaching high school history, I regularly run into a kid in the class who says, "Let's talk about current events." I reply, "OK, let's look into civilization in Ancient Greece." "Huh?" replies the youngster? Easy to explain. We human beings have been living in civilization for only 0.2% of our existence on the planet. The other 99.8% of the time we were living in the Stone Age (like one of the current presidential candidates). We have the software to advance (technology) but the hardware (our own bodies) is not much difference from the way it was at prehistoric levels. As Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks bring out in the documentary "Surviving Progress," which they have adapted from Ronald Wright's best-selling book "A Short History of Progress," we still have the attitude of prehistoric hunters. They found enough food to eat by learning how to kill a wooly beast, something like today's bison. Then they found the tools that allowed them to kill two of these big animals at a time. Finally, they must have said, "Let's drive the animals over the cliff so we can produce 200 of them in one shot." That they did and guess what happened? The animals became extinct and the human beings had to rely on, what-french fries?

This is an excellent analogy for what we are doing now, according to the talking heads, who include such heavies as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Kawking, Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Michael Hudson and Ronald Wright. In the span of just 86 minutes they, particular book writer Wright, take us from early civilizations in Sumer through Rome, into the Dark Ages which became dark because the folks who lived a mere 5,000 years ago metaphorically drove the bison over the cliff. The Romans in particular could have foreshadowed the Wall St. and banking crisis whose bubble broke just a few ago. The elite Romans, perhaps the top ten percent of the society, consumed so much, leaving scraps for the others, that the society collapsed at the hands of the more Spartan enemies.

The principal point made by the doc is not an original one but a view that typifies principally those of us to the left of the political center: we have to consume less. Thomas Malthus may have been wrong when he suggested in the Nineteenth Century that population increases would overwhelm the amount of food produced (technology has enabled us to grow a lot more on limited, fertile land), but given the way humankind is reproducing and adding 200 million people every three years (it took centuries for that much growth to occur in the past), we are going to run out of stuff. One needs no convincing more explicit than the fact that the average American consumes fifty times what is used by the typical Bangladesh resident-which seemed OK for a while. But now that China and to some extent India have made growth the most important word in their vocabularies, we will run out of minerals more quickly than anyone had considered possible to say nothing of the pollution such "progress" brings.

The doc does not lay out anything that we educated film critics do not already know or have not seen or read about before such as the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, but Mario Janelle's camera provides us with some entertaining fast-motion antics to show the zany rapidity of life in the developed, read: exploitative, world. The one interview that made the clearest sense, featuring a motormouth with a Slavic accent (Vaclav Smil I think), is that we Americans cry if we cannot afford renovating our bathrooms at a cost of $50,000.

The film is bookmarked by a chimpanzee who is given a reward of fruit each time he can set up two blocks on a table. When the blocks are "fixed" so that one cannot stand up like the other, the chimp tries and tries and simply cannot figure out what to do. While chimp brains are quite a bit like ours, there is one thing the hairy animal cannot do which we (or some of us) can, and that is to ask, "Why?" The point to be made could be "Why make progress when bad progress can lead us over the cliff?

Unrated. 86 minutes (c) 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Want to join the discussion?

Facebook Twitter

    Top Movies