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Surviving Progress: Civilization as a Ponzi scheme

2.5 out of 4 stars


The World Is Coming to an End! is the message of Surviving Progress, an NFB documentary everyone should see, but few will easily endure.

It's not robed crackpots delivering the bad news, alas. The film is based on British Columbia archeologist-historian Ronald Wright's 2004 Massey Lecture (later a book) – an address arguing that our 10,000-year experiment with civilization is … well, a Ponzi scheme.

Filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks amass an impressive witness list to support Wright's thesis. Martin Scorsese is an executive producer. Margaret Atwood, Vaclav Smil, in excellent form, Jane Goodall, David Suzuki and Stephen Hawking are interviewed.

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Only Hawking tosses us a lifeline: If we can just last the next 200 years, we should be okay.

Our problem? Well, you've heard it before, but perhaps not with such prosecutorial flair. Wright advances his worrying thesis with a neat, devastating allegory: When stone-age man learned to kill great woolly beasts with spears, it was good for the tribe. Food was plentiful. Eventually, we learned to stampede herds over a cliff, killing thousands. Even better – all-you-can-eat ribs.

But it was only better for a while. Great woolly beasts soon disappeared.

We all now live and work too close to the edge, Surviving Progress argues. In a segment on how the free-market system liberated the U.S. economy in the 1980s, we see former president Ronald Reagan on Wall Street, championing unfettered deregulation.

"We're going to turn that bull loose," Reagan intones. "Hurrah," brokers shout, breaking into sustained applause. And the film cuts to Deng Xiaoping, then leader of the Chinese Communist Party, waving a 10-gallon hat – like he's part of the same cattle drive.

And in 2008, those rampaging bulls went over a cliff, ruining the world's economies.

Surviving Progress provides a fascinating sidebar on modern China. We follow tour guide Ming Chen leading a caravan of tourists on a sightseeing tour, extolling the virtues of private enterprise from the front seat of a plush, modern Chinese car. Later, the tour guide repairs to his home, where his father, a professor, suggests prosperity has come at a cost.

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A fight breaks out as the son berates his father for opposing progress. It's a fantastic documentary "capture" – a culture undergoing growth pains in real time.

Only problem is we never actually hear what the old man has to say, because we're soon off to another "speed trap," Wright's term for the mirage of progress – bigger, faster, easier … look out, cliff! In the course of 86 minutes, we go from underwater to outer space, from China to the dwindling South American rain forest, from Wall Street to chimpanzee observation rooms.

We talk to a dozen worried experts who throw out fascinating sound bites:

"We're essentially stone-age hunters running 21st-century software – our knowledge on hardware that hasn't been upgraded in 50,000 years."

"Money now grows faster than the real world."

Filmmakers Roy and Crooks would appear to be in such a hurry to hit all Wright's talking points that they leave the listener in a daze. Wait, wait, how is it I'm essentially a stone-age hunter again? And please, Hawking, let's have a couple survival hints for the tricky 22nd century.

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Though often fascinating and beautiful to look at, Surviving Progress falls into the adapting-a-book-into-a-movie trap. Trying to do too much too fast.

At times we feel like we're speed-dating prophets of doom, with only five minutes to spend with every oracle.

Surviving Progress

  • Written and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks
  • Featuring Ronald Wright, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, Vaclav Smil, David Suzuki and Stephen Hawking
  • Classification: G

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