Surviving Progress – A Documentary to be Thankful For

Is it possible to make too much progress?

Since being back in the States, I’ve been dipping into the surprising array fantastic documentaries on Netflix (most of the other genres on “Watch Instantly” leave me uninspired).  But if I had to choose my number one documentary recommendation for 2012, it’s got to be “Surviving Progress.”  It’s a broader follow up to  “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary I bought as Christmas presents for as many people as I thought would care when it was first released (obnoxious?  yeah, ok, maybe.  But so necessary!).

It’s a close call . . . “2012: Time for Change” is perhaps more of a fringe perspective on how we’ve been progressing as a species, and how perhaps we should progress in the future.  And Dhamma Brothers is one of my personal faves because of its focus on meditation and internal development as a means to improve our world.

But today I’m grateful for the engaging presentation of “Surviving Progress” – incredibly well edited, funny, easily digestible, and chock full of mind-tickling segments:

  • An interview with Margaret Atwood (my favorite matron of dystopian prophecy)
  • A peek into the personal life of one man in the rising middle class of China
The nouveau middle class: capitalism on fast-forward
  • “A Short History of Debt” (pre-Roman empires were apparently much more forgiving in this department …)
  • Hurricane Katrina: how one former oil industry worker saved over 100 lives in his hometown
  • Both sides of the Brazilian rainforest debate, with on-site interviews
  • Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking’s take on where we are headed
From monkey to man to god . . .

Are we, as humans, operating an extremely advanced software on hardware that hasn’t been properly updated in 50,000 years?

(Shrinking brains in the last 5,000 years and Hawking’s theory on an ‘external transmission phase’ in our evolution may speak to an opposing case.)

If we now have the potential to create and alter life in a God-like way, do we require God-like ethics to support this power?



If you’re not into films and would prefer to read the 26-page transcript, the PDF is available online.


From the official website:

“Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.”

Surviving Progress presents the story of human advancement as awe-inspiring and double-edged. It reveals the grave risk of running the 21st century’s software — our know-how — on the ancient hardware of our primate brain which hasn’t been upgraded in 50,000 years. With rich imagery and immersive soundtrack, filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks launch us on journey to contemplate our evolution from cave-dwellers to space explorers.

Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, “A Short History Of Progress” inspired this film, reveals how civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by “progress traps” — alluring technologies serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. With intersecting stories from a Chinese car-driving club, a Wall Street insider who exposes an out-of-control, environmentally rapacious financial elite, and eco-cops defending a scorched Amazon, the film lays stark evidence before us. In the past, we could use up a region’s resources and move on. But if today’s global civilization collapses from over-consumption, that’s it. We have no back-up planet.

Surviving Progress brings us thinkers who have probed our primate past, our brains, and our societies. Some amplify Wright’s urgent warning, while others have faith that the very progress which has put us in jeopardy is also the key to our salvation. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking looks to homes on other planets. Biologist Craig Venter, whose team decoded the human genome, designs synthetic organisms he hopes will create artificial food and fuel for all.

Distinguished Professor of Environment Vaclav Smil counters that five billion “have-nots” aspire to our affluent lifestyle and, without limits on the energy and resource-consumption of the “haves”, we face certain catastrophe. Others — including primatologist Jane Goodall, author Margaret Atwood, and activists from the Congo, Canada, and USA — place their hope in our ingenuity and moral evolution.

Surviving Progress leaves us with a challenge: To prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end.


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