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‘Surviving Progress’ seeks solutions for a new human paradigm

“Surviving Progress” (2011). Expert Commentators: Margaret Atwood, Colin Beavan, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, Michael Hudson, Simon Johnson, Gary Marcus, Kambale Musavuli, Daniel Povinelli, Marina Silva, Vaclav Smil, David Suzuki, Jim Thomas, J. Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Ronald Wright. Directors: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. Writers: Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy. Book: A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. Web site. Trailer.

“Progress,” in all its forms, is something meant to be revered, cherished and worshipped, is it not? After all, where would we be without it? How would we solve our problems? Develop new technologies? Create a better life for ourselves? Indeed, could we even survive without it? But, then again, given the state of things today, might it be possible that we’ve got things backwards, that this same alleged savior is, in fact, the source of our current difficulties? Those are some of the heady questions raised and explored in the thought-provoking documentary, “Surviving Progress,” now available on DVD.

Based on author Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress, the film seeks to define what we believe constitutes “progress” and the ramifications that come with that outlook. Directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks take a hard look at all that entails from a variety of perspectives. And the results are, to say the least, troubling, especially since many of us fail to see what the real issues are, let alone how we might resolve them.

The filmmakers and their expert commentators contend that we’ve led ourselves to believe that “more and more of the same” is an inherent (and desirable) sign of progress, a view that’s held sway since the inception of the Industrial Revolution. Building more, making more and consuming more are the hallmarks of this perspective. And creating ever smarter, ever more clever gadgets to carry out the tasks involved in attaining these goals is one of the chief means of furthering the cause.

Sounds logical, doesn’t it? The problem, however, is that our blind pursuit of this goal has led us to the point of unsustainability, a developmental dead end brought about, ironically enough, by our own success and efficiency, what one expert in the film refers to as “a progress trap.” Evidence of progress traps can be found, for example, in contemporary social, economic and environmental systems that are seriously out of kilter. And, when the impact of such examples is considered collectively, they raise an even larger question: Is modern civilization itself a progress trap?

How did we get ourselves into such a state? According to several experts, it’s because we haven’t evolved much since the days of our ancestors. In the view of cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, “One thing to remember, of course, about the human mind is that it’s not that fundamentally different from, say, the brain of a chimpanzee.” Put another way, despite our ever-growing technological prowess, we’re not as advanced as we like to think we are. Indeed, in the words of author Ronald Wright, “We are running 21st century software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn’t been upgraded for 50,000 years, and this lies at the core of many of our problems.”

This is not to suggest that we’re nothing more than apes in human clothing; we have developed some attributes that separate us from our primate ancestors, most notably the ability to ask “Why?”, especially with regard to problem-solving matters. This skill is a definite advantage, too, as long as we ask the right questions and use our solutions for the right purposes. Regrettably, though, we might just as readily use this ability to ask the wrong questions and implement “solutions” that, wittingly or unwittingly, lead to the destruction of our own species. According to noted primatologist Jane Goodall, “Arguably, we are the most intellectual creature that’s ever walked on planet Earth. So [why], then, [is] this … intellectual being … destroying its only home?”

In large part, the answer lies with our own basic human nature, which, as noted above, several experts claim has not evolved much since the days of our Ice Age ancestors. Like those ancient humans, our outlook is still largely “reactive,” following the fight or flight response. We resort to short-term thinking to resolve the issues at hand, many of which genuinely require long-term solutions. While it’s true, for instance, that short-term solutions can work wonders in many ways (curing smallpox and the pasteurization of milk, for example, significantly reduced the incidence of illness and death), they can also cause unanticipated potential harm in the long run (fewer deaths brought about by the aforementioned solutions can contribute greatly to uncontrolled population growth and subsequent resource strain). And, when the effects of one such unexpected conundrum are compounded with those of others, it’s easy to see how things overall can quickly and easily get out of whack.

We’ve also allowed ourselves to become disconnected from nature itself. We no longer see the forest for the trees. And, in some parts of the world, like the Amazon rainforest, we can no longer see the trees themselves, for they’ve all been cleared by cutting or burning. The devastation wrought in this and other locales around the globe has placed us in serious environmental jeopardy. As author Margaret Atwood puts it, “Instead of thinking that nature is this huge bank that we can just … keep drawing on, we have to think about the finite nature of [the] planet and how to keep it alive so that we, too, may remain alive.”

Comparable calamities loom in the area of economics, too, resulting in severe imbalances worldwide, as seen in examples like the financial raping of the Congo. Such unchecked exploitation has led to socioeconomic crises, civil unrest and even open revolt in many countries around the world. And former financial world insiders reveal how deliberately impoverishing tactics have been employed in bringing about such results. According to economic historian and former Wall Street economist Michael Hudson, in financial terms, “progress has meant: ‘You will never get back what we take from you.’ That’s what brought on the Dark Ages, and that’s what’s threatening to bring [on] the Dark Ages again.” Or, put more starkly, in the words of geneticist and activist David Suzuki, “Money doesn’t stand for anything and money now grows faster than the real world. Conventional economics is a form of brain damage.”

With the growth of interconnected global systems, the foregoing problems are now seen on a worldwide scale. And, even though globalism has resulted in beneficial advances like better transportation and communications, it has also led to the establishment of a single, unified system of civilization. The problem with that, however, is that, if that single system collapses (as it well could), there’s nothing left to fill the void. This differs from the past, when the collapse of one society wouldn’t lead to the total fall of civilization, because other intact societies still existed to step up to the plate to pick up the slack. These days, that safety cushion is quickly vanishing.

Avoiding such an outcome again brings us back to the questions of how civilization became a progress trap and, specifically, how we allowed our basic human nature to make it so. To overcome this problem, we honestly need to acknowledge that we’ve come to the end of a failed experiment. In turn, we must also reinvent ourselves in order to survive, particularly by tapping into our innate problem-solving ability. This should be entirely possible, too; as Goodall asserts, when it comes to problem-solving, we humans do well when our backs are up against the wall.

However, whatever solutions we develop must of necessity begin with us, and not necessarily with any new technologies we birth, because such material solutions may also prove to be dead ends, just like those we’ve worked with in building our present progress trap. Technologies created with the same intent as those we employ to support the current paradigm will ultimately prove just as unworkable, even if dressed up in new guises. We must first and foremost change our thinking, and it begins with each of us. As Colin Beavan, writer/engineer/director for the No Impact Project, says, “Before I go around trying to change other people, maybe I should look at myself and change myself and keep my side of the street clean.”

Looking for ways to live sustainably is the key, a goal that may be difficult to achieve because we’ve allowed ourselves to become hijacked by the seduction of material culture; our faith in progress, as it has typically come to be defined, has almost become like a fundamentalist religion for many of us. What’s more, we need to realize that living sustainably doesn’t mean adopting a vow of poverty or having to “go back to the land.” Rather, it means changing ourselves so that we’re back in harmony with nature and spirit, a way of being wherein we can lead quality lives without doing ourselves in. In reaching that goal, we need to embrace a moral approach to things, not just a material or technological one.

Thankfully, the world seems to be waking up to these realizations, as evidenced by the growth in pursuits like spiritual quests, an attempt by many of us to re-center ourselves and to find our way back to our true being, one that transcends our current paradigm of living our lives like cavemen in modern garb. That’s encouraging, for the stakes involved in this are quite high: We must look for ways to keep the planet alive if we are to keep ourselves alive. The prospect of failure should be enough to mobilize us in this pursuit, too, lest we be filled with regrets. Indeed, as behavioral scientist Daniel Povinelli astutely – and ironically – observes, “If humans go extinct on this planet, I think what’s going to be our epitaph on our gravestone is ‘Why?’”

From a conscious creation standpoint, it should be plainly apparent that this film impeccably illustrates the philosophy’s core principle – that what we experience externally begins with us internally, namely, our beliefs, intents and overall worldview. These elements serve to shape the reality surrounding us. The fact that they have not changed appreciably in thousands of years is quite revealing, too, shedding light on why human nature has largely stayed stuck throughout that entire time, despite whatever technological progress we might have made in the interim. The directors are to be commended for drawing our attention to this issue, for such awareness is crucial to our evolution, if not our very survival, as a species.

While I agree with most of what the experts have to say, there are times, though, when I believe they overemphasize the notion of “limitation” in their opinions. To be sure, we need to give serious consideration to the question of conservation, especially where resources are concerned. However, by continually driving home the concept of “limitation, limitation, limitation,” the idea can begin to take on a life of its own, and the fallout from this could be the inadvertent promotion of limitations of all kinds – including thinking and vision, resources that we should strive to keep from restriction at all costs right now, particularly since they are likely to be our way out of the challenges we must face and address. Thinking outside of the box becomes much more difficult when we seek to fortify the walls of the box, even if we do so unwittingly. We would be wise to take such suggestions with a grain of salt and look to formulate beliefs that get us the results we want without undue, unintended impediment.

“Surviving Progress” presents its arguments in an orderly fashion, breaking down its core contentions in a logical, well-thought-out manner. Viewers are given concise, well-documented explanations of its principal points, clearly showing how the underlying questions – and not the superficial concerns – are the issues most in need of immediate, concerted attention. The film also features excellent production values, but then I wouldn’t expect anything less from a project on which acclaimed director Martin Scorsese serves as one of the executive producers.

A number of recent documentaries have attempted to do what “Surviving Progress” has done, but, in my opinion, with the possible exception of “I Am” (2011), none of them has accomplished their objectives quite as effectively as this offering has. Directors Roy and Crooks have made a solid case for their assertions, creating a sense of urgency but without fear-mongering. We would be wise to heed their message, too; the fate of our species – and our world – rest upon it.

Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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