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Surviving Progress (2011)

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Humanity's ascent is often measured by the speed of progress. But what if progress is actually spiraling us downwards, towards collapse? Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, A Short History Of... See full summary »

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Ronald Wright ...
Himself - Author, A Short History of Progress
Mark Levine ...
Himself - Group Leader, China Energy Group
Robert Wright ...
Himself - Author, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Marina Silva ...
Herself - Former Minister of the Environment, Brazil
Kambale Musavuli ...
Himself - Friends of the Congo
Vaclav Smil ...
Himself - Population Scientist & Author, Global Catastrophies and Trends
Colin Beavan ...
Himself - Engineer & Author
Michael Hudson ...
Himself - Economic Historian & Former Wall Street Economist
Herself - Primatologist
Ming Chen ...
Himself - Self Driving Club Tour Guide
Changnian Chen ...
Himself - Professor & Chen Ming's Father
J. Craig Venter ...
Himself - Biologist & CEO Synthetic Genomics
Raquel Taitson-Queiroz ...
Herself - Environmental Police Officer, IBAMA
Gary Marcus ...
Himself - Cognitive Psychologist & Author, The Birth of the Mind
Daniel Povinelli ...
Himself - Behavioral Scientist


Humanity's ascent is often measured by the speed of progress. But what if progress is actually spiraling us downwards, towards collapse? Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, A Short History Of Progress inspired SURVIVING PROGRESS, shows how past civilizations were destroyed by "progress traps" - alluring technologies and belief systems that serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. As pressure on the world's resources accelerates and financial elites bankrupt nations, can our globally-entwined civilization escape a final, catastrophic progress trap? With potent images and illuminating insights from thinkers who have probed our genes, our brains, and our social behaviour, this requiem to progress-as-usual also poses a challenge: to prove that making apes smarter isn't an evolutionary dead-end. Written by Producers

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Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up




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Release Date:

23 March 2013 (Japan)  »

Also Known As:

Survivre au progrès  »

Box Office

Opening Weekend:

$4,161 (USA) (6 April 2012)


$47,139 (USA) (22 June 2012)

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Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
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User Reviews

A jeremiad that could use some specificity
25 May 2012 | by (Philadelphia, USA) – See all my reviews

This liberal feel-good (or feel-bad) documentary, adapted from a book by Ronald Wright, makes the case that our society is a kind of bubble that may soon burst. Specifically, Wright argues that modern humans have fallen into a "progress trap." As with ancient hunters who became so adept at slaughtering mammoths that they killed off the source of their wealth, we have become so adept at exploiting natural resources that we are exceeding the capacity of Earth to regenerate them. He gives 1980 as the date when we began to do this on a global scale, although the film echoes people like Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, whose warnings of catastrophe began 40 years ago and proved, at least, premature. It's not quite clear why 1980 is the key date, but perhaps it's not coincidental that that's when Ronald Reagan was elected. That's also when the United States began to experience an increasing concentration of wealth that continues. The film implies, not entirely correctly, that this is a phenomenon everywhere. Economist Michael Hudson links wealth concentration to the fall of the Roman Empire and says "that's what's threatening to bring in the Dark Ages again."

Only the fiercest anti-environmentalists would deny that the explosive growth in output and wasteful use of resources in the last decades brings challenges with it. But to declare, as the film does, that a phenomenon that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in Asia since 1980s is a "failed experiment" is at best premature and overstated. Geneticist David Suzuki broadly criticize economics, which is "not a science," for ignoring pollution and other societal costs. "Economists call these externalities…that's nuts." However, plenty of economists, including Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman, have written about the problems of externalities. Suzuki seems to disparage the profession for having created the very term. Repeatedly, the documentary argues by such assertion, rather than proof, wielding very little empirical data. A detour to Brazil provides some detail about deforestation, but, generally, I longed for more specificity.

To be fair, proving such a bold thesis is well beyond the purview of a feature-length documentary. Wright's book, which I have not read, dwells more on past civilizations than our current one. Given that it's far easier to explain the past than predict the future, perhaps the directors, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, should have followed that path. Alternately, they might have deeply delved into some specific areas where the negative effects of human activity are undeniable. There's a lot of talent on hand here—the talking heads include Jane Goodall, Stephen and Hawking, and authors Robert Wright and Margaret Atwood—and building a film around any one of them might have been better than giving each a few sound bites. One participant, writer-engineer Colin Beavan, actually made his own film about his and his wife's experiment in non-consumption. Though based on a gimmick, Beavan's No Impact Man: The Documentary nonetheless seriously grapples with the idea of conservation in a more concrete (and entertaining) way.

The positives of the film include some nifty time-lapse simulations and the opening and closing segments, in which gorillas trying to solve a logic problem. (This sort of ties into the idea that our brains have not evolved too far beyond that of apes, so we're lousy at anticipating long-term consequences.) But the most worthwhile portion of the documentary is the one about solutions, which includes the expected warnings (by Beavan and others) about the need to conserve but also interviews with geneticists, notably Craig Ventner, about the possibility of generating artificial organisms to repair damage or even improve upon human physiology. Like everything else here, it's quite speculative, but since the turf is less familiar, also fascinating.

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