Not every human advance is a snare, according to Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress. But some new techniques can lead to something the Canadian author calls a "progress trap" — a development that's ultimately more harmful than helpful.
Wright's book, based on a 2004 lecture series, is the foundation for Surviving Progress, a provocative if scattershot documentary from directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, who wander off topic more than once as they introduce myriad other voices. These include chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, astrophysicist and author Stephen Hawking and DNA mapper J. Craig Venter. Sometimes, these people don't seem to be part of the conversation Wright began.
Also on hand is Margaret Atwood, who participated in the same lecture program four years later. Her talks led to Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, another book that inspired a documentary. (It's due later this month.) Among the other Canadian commentators are environment professor Vaclav Smil and ecologist and science journalist David Suzuki.
The movie begins with chimpanzees and their problem-solving abilities. A chimp struggles to balance an L-shaped block that looks just like another one, but is weighted differently. Chimps, we're informed, don't ask, "Why?"
Humans do, Wright says, or at least can, yet human technology has outstripped mankind's "hunter-gatherer mentality." The quandary is illustrated, if not always illuminated, by fast-mo footage of cities, traffic and construction.
Environmental degradation is the film's primary concern. The directors undertake field trips to the Congo, where colonialism and war led to plunder; Brazil, where sawmill workers clash with deforestation activists; and China, where a new bourgeoisie, ominously, wants the same toys Europeans and North Americans already enjoy.
Burgeoning China is embodied by a man who leads driving tours of the newly open country for newly affluent car owners. In a revealing moment, he shushes his father when the older man, a college professor, raises the issue of pollution.
Wright's book emphasizes ancient civilizations, notably the Maya and the Romans. Since his study was published, the near-collapse of the world economic framework has offered new examples of a progress trap. So Roy and Crooks devote much of the movie to recent free-market misadventures, with cameos by Ronald Reagan ("We're going to turn the bull loose") and, of course, the IMF and World Bank.
Suzuki gets off a one-liner — "Conventional economics is a form of brain damage" — and economic historian Michael Hudson discusses the history of debt forgiveness. Civilizations that don't reset the system periodically, he says, are doomed to rule by a decadent oligarchy. Speaking too quickly for all his points to register, Smil provides some of the most pungent commentary.
No one from the Club for Growth appears to counter the arguments for conservation and restraint, but the movie does allow a range of opinion on some subjects. Venter extols the possibilities of genetic engineering, which activist Jim Thomas calls "a progress trap par excellence." And there's a diversity of opinion on the gap between human and chimpanzee intelligence.
After nearly 90 minutes of human folly, though, Surviving Progress can't very well conclude with a tribute to mankind. So, to end on a hopeful note, the movie turns to a chimp.