“Surviving Progress” is not a film for first dates or one where you can stuff your face with popcorn and walk out of the theater wearing a big smile and feeling pleased about the future of humanity. Quite the contrary, the film examines the economic, technological and environmental cost of “progress” in our modern, American society and offers a grim decree: Our contemporary technological advances are far outstripping our primeval brainpower, and as a consequence we are hurtling towards a catastrophic societal collapse.
The film opens and closes in a primate research lab where we observe two chimpanzees attempting to balance yellow building blocks, mimicking the very experimentation we are engaging in with the development of civilization. Despite its doomsday message, the film is an entirely engaging and stunning cinematic experience. The documentary is full of stimulating and eloquent interviews with such figures as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking and Colin Beaven, all of whom offer provocative insight into the meaning of progress, our human responsibility and the future of society. In addition to these interviews, spectacular cinematography documenting mega-cities, Amazonian deforestation, Chinese industrialization and Mayan ruins keeps the film continually enjoyable.
The documentary is based on Ronald Wright’s book “A Short History of Progress” and, like many documentaries tackling colossal issues, it only scratches the surface of this inspiration during its 86-minute running time. The film briefly chronicles the rise and fall of many great societies, notably the Romans, the Maya, and the Rapanui of Easter Island, and uses them as mirrors to gain perspective on our own society and the devastating repetition of history towards which we are rushing. It also explores the concentration of wealth and political power, and could be argued to be a summary of the most paradigmatic, the most distilled aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
If there is one thing “Surviving Progress” covers entirely and indisputably, it is that we are utterly and distressingly doomed. But please don’t let this scare you away from watching it; the film serves to engage in a conversation few in our society are willing to partake in and opens up discussion for the next steps we must take. There are no easy answers in this film, there are no “An Inconvenient Truth”-esque ending tips about taking shorter showers, joining Meatless Mondays, and planting trees. Rather, the film is consciously complex, provocative and thoroughly unsettling.