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Surviving Progress (2011)

by on 2013/09/24

Surviving Progress (2011)

“Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

* * * * *

Those who know me long enough eventually learn about my religion. It’s called science.

That’s not an atheist hipster joke, I genuinely mean it. (Besides I’m an agnostic.) Inasmuch as I don’t believe in most of what people call spirituality, I do believe in science. I need to believe, because I can’t actually prove it.

Surviving Progress comes closer to expressing my belief than anything else I’ve encountered. It suggests we put a kind of faith in what we call “progress”, a vague notion of change, complexity and, often, improvement. In fact, the documentary begins by illustrating our difficulty understanding it.

It then takes a big step back through time, to survey the history of humans, how we reached our current physical form about 50,000 years ago, yet have lived in civilizations for only 5,000. The disparity is made clear. While we’re built for hunting and gathering, and have super fight-or-flight reflexes, we’re not especially good with long-term wisdom.

We celebrate our distinctiveness from other primates, our capacity for asking “Why?” and creating rich cultural lives, but could it be civilization itself is a failed experiment, a dead-end on the network of mankind’s evolution?

Several big picture issues are employed to guide us to the movie’s conclusion: the advances of medicine leading to overpopulation, the threat of economics to ecology, the fates of similar societies throughout our past, and the possibility of solutions in genetics or elsewhere. The issues are discussed in talking head style interviews, perhaps a dozen scientists, educators, and so on. Not all of them agree though, from each point of view, it’s possible to consider them all correct.

Participants include such high-profile figures as Margaret Atwood (Payback), Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), and David Suzuki (Force of Nature). The latter is angrier than I have ever seen him, in a segment about how economies are based on maths which serve only selfishness.

My only complaint about the speakers is how some of them are positioned, speaking with interviewers, facing directly into the cameras, or an ineffable middle distance, slightly off-putting and, to me, feeling inconsistent. However, whether through design or clever editing of footage, each speaker and their topic leads fluidly into the next, never lingering overlong, providing variety without juggling parallels.

Occasionally the filmmakers flirt with gimmickry: the repeated dead air moments when defining the word “progress”, a rhythmic montage, and footage of a stock market underscored by a circus tune. The production is at its best in the visuals, with expansive and vibrant cinematography, gorgeous aerial flyovers, land- and cityscapes backed by an ambient musical score. It even includes some modest successful effects, including a wooly mammoth stampede, and an animation describing our physiological evolution.

I thought to myself partway through, “This feels like a better version of Payback”, which was odd because, moments later, Atwood appeared for the first time. Here she summarized her work more succinctly than in her own film. Not only that, but I felt more questions raised were answered or addressed, including suggestions for the most important: what can we do next?

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Rated G

87 minutes

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