Surviving Progress

by Tiggered

Surviving Progress is a 2011 Canadian documentary that asks - and answers! - some serious questions

Do you believe in progress? Do you think it's a blessing, ever widening our horizons and allowing us to climb higher and higher mountains? The official party line seems to adhere to this vision. Progress is good. It helps us live happy lives. We should always want more, strive for more, produce more, consume more.

Or should we?

The creators of Surviving Progress disagree. Progress is not something we should strive for, it's something we need to survive - and no one can tell for sure whether we'll manage.

Surviving Progress is not entertaining, nor is it optimistic and positive. It does not dazzle with special effects, features no superheroes. Instead, it broadcasts the message that really needs to be heard if we are to survive this thing called progress.

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Exhausting resources in the name of progress

What happens when we run out of resources to chew on? Contrary to the popular opinion, disseminated by lovely little dream-books like The Secret, the Earth is not limitless. There is only so much space available. Only so much of arable land, rainforest, oil, you name it. Once you exhaust what's there, you end up with nothing and no amount of wishful thinking or visualisation can change it.

As Margaret Atwood, one of the 'talking heads' in Surviving Progress, vividly illustrates, the Earth is only this big and no bigger. We can't stretch it. Human population is growing at an insane rate but land fit for human habitation is not. Natural resources are finite. Once we use them up, we can have no more. What then?

We don't seem to care. Apres moi le deluge.

Surviving Progress names 1980s as the time when we started to dig into the Earth's resources with the unprecedented, unsustainable speed. You can haggle about the date, but there's no escaping the fact: right here, right now, we are consuming more than we can afford.

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Progress in the rise and fall of civilisations

Surviving Progress is based on a book by Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress.

Released in 2004, the book was accompanied by a series of lectures to live audiences and radio broadcasts. It was a great success in Canada, winning numerous awards for non-fiction publications and spending a long time on the best-sellers list.

From what I could gather from online sources (no, I haven't read the book - yet!), it focuses on the past more than on the present. It analyses ancient civilisations such as Sumer, Easter Island or Rome in search of a growth/collapse pattern. Eventually (and by what means I cannot say) it arrives at the same conclusion as the documentary that it inspired - too much progress is dangerous to civilisations.

Surviving Progress does not really dwell too much on the subject of past empires, it focuses on the present and possible future. I think this adjustment was a very smart move. Rise and fall of civilisations is a matter far too complex for a relatively short documentary to tackle.

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A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress

Progress and wealth distribution

Our society is seriously divided into 'haves' and 'have nots'. There's nothing new in the division itself, but over the last few decades the 'income gap' grew to monstrous proportions. It is now a chasm. If you, metaphorically speaking, look down this abyss, you can see clouds floating by far below. To quote a very decent BBC article from August 2012,

'...the bottom 40% of Americans, own 0.3% of the wealth; 0.3%, almost nothing, whereas the top 20% own about 84% of the wealth."

Yes, I know that 'America' does not equal 'world', but it's the best example of a country where capitalism rampant was allowed the free rein, and we are all headed in this direction. With today's currents, we'll get there sooner or later.

Surviving Progress takes 10% as the number of the 'haves'. You can argue about the figures, but you can't really deny the other claim that the documentary makes: the 'haves' do not want to let go of their spoils. They'd rather see the remaining 90% 'removed' than share some of their wealth (I'm quoting here, as accurately as I can remember).

True, and scary too.

It is difficult to remain optimistic when one looks closely at the current wealth division. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. It can only go on for so long, because sooner or later, when pressed hard enough, even slaves rebel (history confirms this trend again and again). I don't particularly wish to live through a revolution (much less to die in one), but the 'haves' don't seem in a hurry to disarm the bomb through peaceful means.

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Included in Surviving Progress:

Would you say that growing financial inequality is a sign of progress?

If this is progress, could I please remain backward?
Ragtimelil on 09/29/2012

I'm looking for that one little acre where I can keep some chickens!

Progress trap

The term 'progress trap' was coined by Ronald Wright and it is often mentioned in the documentary. It means, roughly, an idea/invention/system arrived at through and in the name of progress that proves harmful or dangerous in the long run.

Think of nukes (if the threat of total annihilation cannot persuade you, I don't know what can). Think of fossil fuels and the environmental disaster that's part of the package. Think of industrial-scale farming and soil erosion, etc. etc.

Moral of the story: blessings of progress can too easily turn into curses.

The traditional solution to problems caused by progress is to come up with even more advanced technological solutions to overcome them. Which, no need to add, arrive with their own set of side effects, which requires even more technological progress to... You get the picture. The vicious circle gets into even higher gear.

We might want to re-think the whole procedure.

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Solutions - how can we survive progress?

Unlike most 'doom and gloom' documentaries, Surviving Progress actually suggests some solutions to problems it describes (albeit you have to wait almost until the end of the movie to find the reasonable ones).

If creators of Surviving Progress are to be believed, George Lucas (he of the Star Wars) once said there are only two ways for humanity to survive as a species: either we find another planet to colonise before we completely destroy this one, or we use some of the technology we so cherish to change our very nature.

I am a big fan of Star Trek but I don't think we stand a chance of conquering space in any meaningful way any time soon. Not much hope in this solution.

Changing human nature does not appear an easy task either. Evolution is a slow process. Biologically we didn't change that much within last 50,000 years (according to the movie's stats). We might ask our biologists and geneticists to try and speed the process up but... One, you never know if they'd succeed, even if they tried. Two, playing God (and I'm using the term in the most secular meaning possible) is not a safe game. We might end up worse off than when we started. I might be wrong, but I believe genetic engineering of homo sapiens is just another progress trap on the horizon.

Either way, 'ordinary' people don't have much influence over space exploration of genetic research. There must be something that we can do on the human, everyday level. Is there?

Oh yes.

Surviving Progress suggests one simple way of if not solving, than at least alleviating our problems:

Consume less.

I couldn't agree more.

Human beings really don't need ipods (or any other sophisticated gadgetry) to function. We don't need designer bathrooms (as explained in a wonderfully passionate monologue by Vaclav Smil towards the end of Surviving Progress), cars with monstrous engines, new outfits for each days of the year etc. etc.

Market creates artificial needs through advertising and we are only too willing to believe that tons of junk on sale are truly necessary. It doesn't take a genius to question this. Everyone can look around at his or her possesion and ask - do I really need this? How much real value does it bring to my life?

It seems that the old question 'to be or to have' has only one sensible answer.


Will limiting consumption be enough to survive progress?

Updated: 04/08/2013, Tiggered
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Tiggered on 02/19/2013

Yes, but personal choices are only a part of the picture. Big business, industry and cultural conditioning are the main culprits here I think. I don't expect everyone to be enlightened, but those who should know better choose to make money instead of improving the world. What does that say about our species?

katiem2 on 02/19/2013

I'm someone who's concerned for the blatant dis-concern so many have for their every day practices that are harming the world around them. I find it both lazy and self absorbed. It speaks volumes of a person. Oh don't get me started. :)K

Tiggered on 10/06/2012

Yes, and it gets only worse, doesn't it? Let's produce more to solve problems caused by over-production, hooray!

Sheri_Oz on 10/06/2012

I agree with what you say here and I am so distressed to see how many people stay trapped in the consumerism cycle.

Tiggered on 10/01/2012

Same here :)

2uesday on 10/01/2012

Thank you that in itself is inspiring to have a comment valued. I find it difficult to listen to the news as it makes me feel at a loss that so much is being lost in the name of progress. There is so much that you are saying that my gut feelings echo. I have found that for me there is more benefit and happiness in growing something or making something than from a shopping spree.

Tiggered on 10/01/2012

I think that's what the makers of Surviving Progress meant when they talked about 'progress trap'
Ah, shuffling papers! I can see material for a whole new whizz here. You got me inspired, 2uesday :)

2uesday on 10/01/2012

Progress is sometimes or maybe often is an illusion. Real progress happens when things change for the better. The modern world often reminds me of the fairy tale called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'. Money that could be spent on improving the things that are needed is frequently spent on shuffling piles of paper from A-B and debate. Landfill is full of things that others would consider a luxury item.

Tiggered on 10/01/2012

Yes, beware of fashion victims ;) I think we have advertising and media to thank for this, although it would probably help if people (kids, mostly) started using less technology and more brain

dustytoes on 10/01/2012

It is the mindset of people that is destroying the world. Who needs five iPhones? The latest technology will continue to be built upon as long as people will wait in lines for 5 days to get the first ones. People have lost the ability to think for themselves. Instead they follow the crowds like lemmings -eventually off a cliff.

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