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McGill 31/03/2014 - 09:00AM

Guest Blog: A Review of SURVIVING PROGRESS

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This is an audience guest blog from filmmaker and former journalist Boyce Richardson, who regularly attends Cinema Politica Concordia & Cinema Politica McGill screenings. This post originally appeared on Richardson's own blog, and is republished here with the consent of the author.

The runaway, ever-changing technology of the twenty-first century is out of the control of the human beings who have invented it, who themselves have not changed in their basic characteristics for 50,000 years. This is the chilling conclusion that must be drawn from the stimulating, provoking film, Surviving Progress, first released in 2011, but re-screened this week to a mostly student audience by Cinema Politica McGill.

The film was made by a Montreal team of producers and directors, two of whom, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, the co-directors who devoted six years to making the film, appeared after last night’s screening to be cross-examined by the student audience.These two men who appear to be completely au fait with what is happening in the modern world, gave generously of their time, but were unable to sound other than extremely worried (not to mention depressed) about our prospects of recovering from the present disastrous trend of the human race to eat ourselves out of house and home, and were certainly unable to satisfy the demand of at least some of the students for an uplifting, positive and hopeful ending.

This film is “inspired by” the 2004 book, A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, a book that created such a stir when published that it won all sorts of awards, was transferred into the Massey lectures and created a sound basis for what seems to be the growing interest of people around the world in thinking about our problems from a global, rather than local, point of view.

Wright dealt with ancient civilizations and their collapse, which he said were caused when their inhabitants ran through their available natural resources. He wrote: “The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”

We all know that we are not heeding this warning, but instead are destroying the very air, water and ecosystems on which our survival depends in the long term.

It is not mentioned in the film, but a similar message was delivered in 1986 by the globally-respected McGill archeologist and anthropologist Bruce Trigger, who in a lecture on archeology, said we have entered a phase in human existence dominated by technology, that our current institutions and attitudes are incapable of dealing with the major issues, and that what would be required were the very qualities practised by paleo-hunters millenia ago --- such as tolerance, sharing, foresight, and the ability to participate in social groups and collective action.

This was prophetic, to judge by the lineup of “brilliant minds,” (as Mathieu Roy described them last night) who spoke in the film --- at least 20 of them from around the world and from every relevant scientific discipline.

They were interspersed with some wonderful images. In fact, the film’s opening was unforgettable: a huge chimpanzee with its baby came through a trapdoor into a small room where it tried to balance two simple L-shaped objects, one of which was skewed so that it would not stand up unless reversed. First of all, the image of these animals, their closeness to human beings, was rivetting: but when they failed to realise that they could have stood both objects up simply by turning the recalcitrant one upside down, the filmmakers were able to make an important point. One of their interlocutors, Daniel Povinelli, a Louisiana-based behavioural scientist,  said this experiment  indicated that only the human animal had ever had the capacity to ask,  why? And it was this capacity that led on to modern technology.  The next image was of a man walking in space as he worked on his space-station.

Some in the audience were obviously unhappy that the film was not more solutions-oriented, that it did not go into detail about how to solve the more urgent problems, like how to save the Amazon rainforest from destruction, or how to accommodate the growing demand of more than a billon Chinese that they should reach the level of consumption, and the standard of living of Western populations.  One of the men who spoke, Vaclav Smil,  a Czech-born, Manitoba-based  population scientist, said quite bluntly,”It is unlikely that the world can support one billion more people at the level of consumption of the United States."

But there is no doubt that is what the Chinese are trying to do, and we are in no position, morally, to tell them to slow down, having done the same thing ourselves in the past.

Victor Gao, American-educated director the China Association of International Studies, rammed the point home by saying that from 1840 until 1978, China had suffered humiliation at the hands of other countries, when, he said, Deng Xiaoping had  put the country on “the right path” towards capitalism (a questionable conclusion, in my opinion.)

Much of the argument and explication was about debt and how it has been accumulated, the facts being that as countries were unable to pay even the interest on their Western-borrowed debts, so they found they had paid off far more than the original loan, but all of it in interest payments, none of it in capital, a treadmill to destruction.

(One of the few illustrations drawn from the past in this film showed that ancient Rome, when it got into debt, was one of the few civilizations that did not cancel its debts; instead it invaded, stripped and destroyed its neighbours until the Roman civilization itself collapsed under its own environmental destruction.

One of the implications of making this sort of globe-embracing film is that it leaves large areas of importance out of the reckoning. Or, perhaps to put it another way, it begs its audience to go further. Two areas that struck me were that of education: I felt like asking if the producers did not think we had too much education, which could have stimulated a probing debate on a different but related subject.

Also politics was virtually unexamined, only Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush having been chosen to deliver a clip of their notably short-sighted view of the world.

The conclusion in the film leaned heavily towards a moral resurgence of some kind, as an imposition into the current state of greed, consumption and faith in market forces, emphasizing the importance of a moral dimension that has disappeared as religions (for all the noise they make) have ceased to dominate the way the world is moving.

As readers can see, all these are big questions.

To my mind, we are lucky to have people like Roy and Crooks who are concerned about these questions, and are willing to spend their time in opening young minds to alternative worlds.

 

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