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For Your Consideration: 'Surviving Progress'

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R. Wright, A Short History of Progress
Surviving Progress, a new documentary by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, is a bit of a downer ultimately. Although it opens with a whimsical touch, it too quickly devolves into the standard sort of preachy, end-of-the-world mode. "Increasing complexity" is part of human progress as we change as a species, the film claims, but we must not delude ourselves into thinking that all progress, or all change, is necessarily good. The film draws upon the ideas published in Canadian author Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress, and a rather charming opening sequence shows the reactions of a series of people to the question "What is progress?" There are bemused looks, sighs, and one excellent "um..." The viewer is likely experiencing the same emotion: we know that we are supposed to want and expect progress, but exactly what it means for us may be hard to define.

In extensive comments in the film, Wright outlines his idea of "progress traps," situations in which human advances lead to "too much progress." For example, prehistoric humans reach a level of hunting mastery at which they essentially wipe out the animals that used to sustain them. Extending this idea to the entire arc of human history, Wright concludes that "we have to confront the possibility that the entire experiment of civilization is, in itself, a progress trap." This thesis revisits ideas in his essay from 2000, provocatively titled Civilization is a Pyramid Scheme, underscoring the confluence of several world-wide trends. First is the problem of population growth: what will happen if all of China's population reaches the standard of living of Americans? Related are, in Wright's thinking, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the powerful interests of large corporations leading to the destruction of ecosystems, and the wrong-headed refusal of banks to cancel debts.

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Yes, you have heard all of this before. Wright marshals a lot of historical background, trying to trace why previous civilizations failed and what in our current situation might be analogous to those causes. Further evidence, or at least the impression of it, is provided by scientist Jane Goodall, physicist Stephen Hawking, writer Margaret Atwood, economist Michael Hudson, environmentalist David Suzuki, genetics pioneer Craig Venter, and energy expert Vaclav Smil. All of their contributions are charming and engaging, as are the many beautiful shots of glowing, pulsating cities and exotic landscapes (cinematography by Mario Janelle) and mini-profiles of everyday people from around the world. In the end, though, there is little concrete to focus on, and one may or not be convinced by the thesis that civilization itself is the source of our problems.

In the Washington area, this film is screening exclusively at Landmark's E Street Cinema, through Thursday only.

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