Surviving Progress (First Run Features, NR)

surviving 76These talking heads love to speak in metaphors, anecdotes, and grand generalities while carefully avoiding constructing any kind of a useful argument.


survivingprogress 2012

Surviving Progress is the kind of film engineered to make the people most likely to buy a ticket feel very good about themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they used to say on Seinfeld, except that marketing feel-good eye-candy as an intellectually serious documentary is false advertising at best, and counterproductive at worst. Instead of providing anything in the way of new ideas or even in-depth treatment of old ideas, Surviving Progress is content to be the world’s longest book trailer.

That book would be Ronald Wright’s 2004 A Short History of Progress, which was a bestseller in Canada. I haven’t read the book, but if this film is any indication, it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Lots of big ideas are dutifully name-checked by a crew of talking heads, most annoyingly the author himself (if there’s a prize to be awarded for authorial self-satisfaction, Wright gets my vote), but also Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, and David Suzuki, among others.

Unfortunately, these talking heads love to speak in metaphors, anecdotes, and grand generalities while carefully avoiding constructing any kind of a useful argument. For instance, when Simon Johnson, a former IMF economist, says, “It’s in the DNA of bankers to take massive risks, to pay themselves ridiculous salaries, and to collapse,” is he making a serious biological argument (that somehow certain people have genetically evolved in a way that makes them ideal predatory bankers), or just adding a scientific term to a very ordinary thought, to make his phrase more quotable? Obviously, I vote for the latter, in which case it’s a singularly unhelpful comment (but it sounds really good, doesn’t it?).

Here are some of the “big ideas” in Surviving Progress—stop me if you’ve heard them before: There’s not much difference between the modern human brain and the Stone Age human brain, or for that matter, between the modern human brain and the chimpanzee brain. The earth can’t support its entire population at the level of consumption that is currently common in the United States. Some people really like money and don’t care what they do to get it, whether it’s dictators in developing countries who get away with stealing international aid and stashing it in Western banks, or rich people in industrialized countries who manipulate the political system in ways that help them get richer.

I suspect Surviving Progress is trying to capitalize on the popularity of TED Talks. Thankfully, not everyone in this film wears a black turtleneck (although Wright does), but they’ve definitely caught the vibe of intellectual masturbation supported by prestigious speakers (most of the “experts” who get to speak in this film are white men from rich countries—and why am I not surprised?) and a first-rate technical package.

I find Surviving Progress particularly disappointing because I’m in agreement with its general point of view. The problem is that, while talk is cheap, coming up with solutions for real problems is hard work. Even worse, the kind of change needed to address the issues raised in Surviving Progress could seriously disrupt the comfortable middle-class (or better) lifestyle that I’m guessing is enjoyed by most of the potential audience for this film. Most disappointingly, after an hour of doom and gloom, Surviving Progress abruptly changes course in the final third, suggesting that it never had the courage of its convictions in the first place. | Sarah Boslaugh

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