‘Surviving Progress’ Film Review: A Wakeup Call Just in Time for Earth Day

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Based on the bestselling book "A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright comes the amazing and informative documentary "Surviving Progress," written and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. Opening April 20 for a one-week run in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre, the film also opens Friday in San Francisco; Berkeley; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Lake Worth, Florida; Spokane; and Durham, New Hampshire, having already played New York.

Captivating in its visuals, "Surviving Progress" is a welcome and important contribution to Earth Day, and every day thereafter.

The film opens with chimp sounds over the title sequence. We then see a nondescript gray cell with two yellow, L-shaped blocks at the end. Two chimps enter, one a large adult, one younger, as the cell door opens. A simple conceit is introduced.

The chimps stand the blocks up, and then get a treat. If the blocks are misshapen and won't stand, the chimps will exhaustively try anyway. Conversely, in testing a child, he will stand up the blocks, and then, when they keep falling over, he will investigate. He will ask "why" they won't stand, and then endeavor to fix it. Chimps don't ask why; man does.

This thought process leads to invention, development, and technology. Technology is universally viewed as great progress for humans. But the renowned experts and thinkers interviewed for "Surviving Progress" ask the audience to take a moment, take a breath. They ask us to think about whether some of these technological developments might also have negative repercussions and fall into what author Ronald Wright calls a "Progress Trap."

Using stunning imagery reminiscent of "Koyaanisqatsi" and musical contributions by Patrick Watson and Michael Ramsey, "Surviving Progress" is brilliant in its non-partisan politics. Illustrative examples abound. For instance, during the Stone Age, humans created weaponry to kill off herds of massive animals, which then limited their food supply. Even in the Stone Age humans thought natural resources were limitless.

In economics, historian and former Wall Streeter Michael Hudson and economist Simon Johnson discuss how Rome was the first civilization to create a debt crisis. In earlier times, conquering rulers forgave debt so as not to destroy the lower classes. But Romans refused to cancel debts, creating a ruling society of oligarchs which still exists in many countries, including today in the United States via the powerful 1%.

It's no surprise that our environment is also assaulted from technological progress. Brazil's deforestation is seen through the eyes of Brazilian schoolchildren. It's also discussed with Brazil's former minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, and Raquel Taitson-Queiroz, an environmental police officer for IBAMA. But the film also talks with sawmill owner Enio Beata, who speaks of giving jobs to the people and blames international corporations and Brazil's senators, deputies, and colonels. Beata and his workers are just doing a task given to them.

The film is rich in thought-provoking views that describe these and other "progress traps." We need to limit our footprints, or even look to other advancements in science to curb critical, destructive issues. Among the icons interviewed are famed primatologist Jane Goodall; Stephen Hawking, who looks out to space for solutions; global energy expert Vaclav Smil; biologist and synthetic genomics expert J. Craig Venter; and the "Short History of Progress" author himself, Ronald Wright.

"Surviving Progress" is a crucial film for the very real discussion of Earth's shaky future.

For other Film Reviews by Lori Huck, check out:

'Footnote' Film Review: Fathers, Sons, Egos Run Amok in Scholarly Tale

Best Documentary Films of 2011

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