review for Surviving Progress on AllMovie

Surviving Progress (2011)
by Mark Deming review

Near the beginning of the film Surviving Progress, a number of noted academics, environmentalists, economists, and thinkers are asked to define progress. Nearly all of them respond with a look of deep concentration but say little, while one immediately begs off and states that it's simply too complex to define. So if we aren't exactly sure what progress is, why has it had such an impact on the global culture since the dawn of the industrial revolution? And how do we know if we're really going forward when we can't readily define the term?

Author Ronald Wright has some provocative ideas about progress, or at least where the notion of progress has led us. In his mind, progress can be a trap as much as a way forward, and he argues that mankind has so relentlessly attempted to move onward and upwards in terms of finance, technology, and lifestyle that we've dug ourselves into a hole from which we may never escape. Wright explained his views in his best-seller A Short History of Progress, and filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks have adapted the book into a fascinating documentary. Surviving Progress is clever, beautifully crafted, and deeply thoughtful; it's also an 87-minute letter of warning to anyone who watches it that mankind has painted itself into a corner, and if we want to get out without making a mess, some changes need to be made.

Surviving Progress may sound alarmist, but for all the urgency of its message, the people in it speak with quiet, well-founded reason, and this isn't a movie with much use for rabble-rousing; as Roy and Crooks present their arguments, they make it clear that there are no easy answers, and just as mankind slowly evolved into its current state, our culture will have to change its ways of thinking and behaving if the planet and global culture are going to survive. One of the scientists interviewed in the film suggests our current dilemma harkens back to that of our primitive ancestors; as hunters and gatherers, they knew that finding better ways to hunt and kill a woolly mammoth was a good thing in terms of providing food and warm furs. But once someone realized mammoths could be herded off a cliff, killing dozens at a time became the order of the day -- until the mammoths became extinct and humans began to starve. Similarly, Wright and the other experts interviewed in Surviving Progress describe our world as a place where we've either forgotten or prefer to ignore the obvious fact that our natural resources are finite, and that by putting them into the hands of corporations, they will almost certainly be used for short-term income rather than be seen as a long-term investment.

Surviving Progress presents a sobering number of examples of humanity's shortsightedness about the future from both ancient and recent history, and most of the voices in the film make clear that just because we used technology to get ourselves into this mess, that doesn't mean it will get us out of it. As serious as the documentary's message is, the people who articulate it here are for the most part fascinating and genuinely entertaining speakers, including Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Hudson; the filmmakers also feature some compelling real-world perspectives, such as a man who leads caravans of SUVs on tours through China (where they stop at villages that still lack proper electricity), and a woman who works to enforce environmental law in the Amazon but ends up chasing after small businessmen while the major companies that control the rain-forest economy remain out of reach.

The simplest and most reasonable solution to the problems discussed in Surviving Progress is articulated by Vaclav Smil, a Russian energy expert, who says the developed world just needs to learn to use less of everything. However, as Smil admits, getting people to actually do that is a gargantuan task. But Surviving Progress does the valuable service of pointing out why we need to make the effort, and thanks to the skill of Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks, and their crew (particularly cinematographer Mario Janelle), what could have been an intimidating recitation of facts and figures is instead a visually striking and truly absorbing lesson in history and economics, and without panicking the film quietly confirms the urgency of this message. Surviving Progress' craft and technique may be a spoonful of sugar, but in this case it makes the medicine even more potent.