'Progress' a refreshing look

A clip from the documentary, Surviving Progress. (HANDOUT)

A clip from the documentary, Surviving Progress. (HANDOUT)

Jim Slotek, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:31 PM ET

Those of us who see a lot of docs are fed a steady stream of doom. Our food is killing us, corporations are impoverishing us, toxicity surrounds us, and the very planet is on the verge of, well, you get the picture.

So from its description, you can be forgiven if you feel like you've seen Surviving Progress before. Like a doomsayers' version of Marvel's Avengers, it boasts a veritable pantheon of professional Cassandras who are not necessarily wrong about our species descending to a self-created Hell, but whose message sometimes gets reduced to white noise.

We're talking the likes of David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking and Jane Goodall, none of whom are likely to be heard singing "the sun'll come out tomorrow" (unless it's a brutally crushing sun, melting the ice-caps and dooming future generations).

While retaining a sense of alarm (and trotting out every threat in the first paragraph of this review and more) what differentiates Surviving Progress from most doomsday docs is its attempt to address the other side of the equation -- why so many people are able to put their fingers in their ears and go "la, la, la" when faced with unpleasant facts.

Imaginatively conceived and filmed (with such eye-catching footage as a time-lapse satellite view of urban lights and brushfire encroaching tumour-like on the Amazon rain forest), Surviving Progress is wrapped around a 2004 Massey Lecture by Canadian author Ronald Wright (A Short History of Progress) that ties together human-caused disasters as disparate as the fall of the Roman Empire, the starvation of Easter Island and the 2008 market meltdown.

To put it simply, it posits the notion that as a species, we literally can't see the forest for the trees. We can deduce danger, but unless it's right in front of our noses, our still Cro-Magnon brains find it difficult to take seriously.

Or as Wright says, "We are running 21st century software, our knowledge, on hardware that hasn't been upgraded for 50,000 years. And this lies at the core of many of our problems."

In a sly nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Surviving Progress opens with apes wielding primitive tools. In this case, it's in a lab, where a chimp and a toddler both encounter an easily identifiable hitch in a simple puzzle. The toddler figures it out, sees the puzzle is unsolvable and discards it. The chimp, meanwhile, seems unable to break a learned behavior.

If we are indeed caught in a self-destructive feedback loop that dooms us to ignore signs in our determination to stay on the wrong road, Surviving Progress at least opens a few hopeful (and sometimes fanciful) doors a crack.

These come courtesy of some colourful personalities, including "urban zero impact" guru Colin Bevan, and Human Genome Project researcher J. Craig Venter, who cheerfully suggests the solution to our problems might be to genetically improve ourselves.

While the latter might prove even more worrisome than runamok climate, at least it's food for thought. And in an ironically overpopulated documentary genre, it's a fresh approach.


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