The opening of Surviving Progress, a doomsday doc in the guise of a dynamic cine-essay, openly, if somewhat clumsily, quotes 2001: A Space Odyssey: An ape in a lab fumbles around with a pair of plastic letter L’s. As it starts to figure out a way to use them in a matter that would betray its intelligence, the film cuts to footage of a spaceship. But, as hinted in the title, progress isn’t always positive. Advanced hunting amongst early man helped contribute to the extinction of some of the animals they were pursuing, points out author Ronald Wright, who cites that as an example of what he calls a “progress trap,” where solutions for short-term goals often also prove short-sighted, resulting in long-term catastrophe.
This concept forms the genesis of Mathieu Ray’s and Harold Crooks’ doc, which goes on to argue that humanity is currently the victim of a series of progress traps, where little of what we have is sustainable. This isn’t news, and though starting off with a specific plaint, Surviving Progress quickly and furiously expands, turning into what feels like a greatest hits comp of every apocalyptic doc. Globalization, the economy, global warming, overpopulation, nuclear weapons, the IMF—all these subjects have been touched upon elsewhere, not only in greater depth but with higher alarmism.
Oddly, the latter is one of the aspects that makes Surviving Progress more tolerable: it still holds out hope. Or at least it’s more calm. Ray’s and Crooks’ filmmaking, evenly divided between interviews and striking imagery, is serene and introspective, only borrowing a couple moves from Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi). Ditto the talking heads, even as they point out, for example, that should our global civilization fail, there are no other significant ones to take its place, as there were following the demise of Rome or Babylon. Or at least the hugely impressive roster of experts it rounds up—including Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood and, briefly, the sound of Stephen Hawking’s computer—remain unusually sober, at worst resigned to the fate they see as inevitable if no one enacts serious change. There’s even traces of a perverse satisfaction should they be proven right that civilization is little more than a failed evolutionary experiment.