In the 20-odd years since the end of the Cold War — and the start of the modern Age of Uncertainty it ushered in — nothing illustrates better the West’s descent into intellectual backwardness than the naturalistic oversimplification of social and political problems on display in films like Surviving Progress.
Like many films displaying schadenfreude at the human condition, this one begins with baffled primates. You know your intelligence is going to be insulted, and your role as a member of the most sophisticated species on the planet reduced to that of a mate-battering caveman, when they wheel out the chimps.
The premise of the film is that modern civilisation is nothing more than a ‘progress trap’, an argument put forward by the film’s main narrator, Ronald Wright, on whose 2004 book, A Short History of Progress, the programme is based. Through a combination of bold assertions about future societal/environmental collapse and an almost farcical reduction of human consciousness to what another of the film’s talking heads calls “50,000 year-old hardware”, we are warned that the human race is going to hell in a handcart. Furthermore, we lack the wherewithal to solve the problems, because we insist on approaching them with the same mindset that created them in the first place.
Game Over, Man!
The groundwork for the main conceit of the programme is laid early on, with a series of short, sharp inputs from an array of academics, scientists and authors.
After Wright kicks off, there’s Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist who opines that natural evolution has left our brains unchanged for a very long time, and consequently rendered us incapable of making long-term decisions about ourselves, our families or the planet.
Then there’s Daniel Povinelli, a behavioural scientist who makes the excellent point that what distinguishes us from apes is that, when faced with a problem, we ask ‘why?’ He then goes on to make this profound human trait sound more dangerous and barbaric than infecting your partner with AIDS.
Even author Margaret Atwood is wheeled on to show (by way of hand movements) that the planet is only so big, cannot be made bigger, and is therefore a limited resource.
We’re told that our insatiable desire for ‘stuff’, and our refusal to contemplate the possibility of extinction due to this desire, means civilisation as we know it is doomed and a sharpish return to a more sparsely populated planet is our only hope. We are at the end of a two-hundred-year-old “failed experiment”.
Naturally, the film would have failed to display a grip on the zeitgeist without some ‘bankster-bashing’ so goes on to argue that the rise of oligarchies leads to failure to cancel debt, and thence the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest etc.
Sympathy for the Devil?
I feel almost able to forgive Thomas Malthus, the 18th century scholar whose name has become synonymous with the idea of the human population outstripping nature’s ability to supply it with sustenance. He was writing at a point in history where the benefits of industrial upheaval and refinement of agricultural technique were still to be determined.
But what can possibly justify the same apocalyptic pessimism on the behalf of individuals whose very ability to travel the globe shooting films proselytising eco-apocalypse are predicated on the social and technological gains made during that same failed experiment?
It seems we are living through an age where the disparity between the dazzling array of possibilities on human radar screens and the inability of those in charge to deal with the perennial problems of Famine, War, Plague and Death has never been greater. New materials are discovered and developed every year, yet the scale of environmental degradation continues apace; racism and anti-gay attitudes are fading away in the West, while bigotry and intolerance is seemingly on the march again in the East. Brussels fiddles while Europe burns.
Neither Right nor Left but incoherence
Since the middle of the twentieth century, optimism and enthusiasm for the capitalist project (a.k.a. the failed experiment) has been waning among those who should be its natural supporters.
Through the experience of fascism and the holocaust to the end of the post-war boom in the 70s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the long-cherished notion that capitalism and modernity represented the pinnacle of human social organisation has crumbled and the Western establishment are now unable to cohere a valid defence of their system. The intellectual decline of the elite can be traced through the retreat into relativism within academia, along with the transformation of politics (with a capital P) into ideology-free managerialism in Western democracies.
Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, stripped of any moral direction and without a strong sense of what society stands for and where it’s going, civilisation seems defenceless against the intellectual barbarians at the gates (though I suspect these ones were always on the inside). The elite, now far more interested in celebrity lifestyle than civic achievement, no longer seem to believe their world is worth saving.
Given this context, Surviving Progress comes across as an elite groan of horror at the modern world; its pessimism and stench of moral decay carried like a meme through the thought-processes of 21st Century life.
Even so, the more it becomes obvious to Green thinkers that their paens to hair-shirt elitism are being largely ignored the harder they work to wrap their backwardness in a veneer of egalitarian concern. The constant references to the plight of the poor of the developing world, the horror of hunger and destitution caused by land-grabbing biomass corporations, sound like any you might find in a John Pilger polemic. However, for the narrators of Surviving Progress, the solution is never to raise the living standards of the poor to the level of ours — merely to reduce ours to theirs (or at least meet in the middle). Bringing about equality, in these terms, simply means beggaring everyone. Hardly radical or of great comfort to the poor, it’s the anti-capitalism of dickheads.
Of course once, concern for the world’s poor and oppressed would have been part of the political agenda of the left but since the left no longer exist as a social force the possibility of a real progressive solution is off the table and these concerns are now easily co-opted as a smokescreen for anti-development thinking.
In fact, far from being radical, the ideas on display in this film rehash much of what was considered laughably obsolete in past critical thinking. Certainly, twenty years ago, anyone stating that humanity was doomed to fail due to the physical structure of people’s brains would have been howled down as reactionary; the argument invoking, as it does, racist and anti working-class notions of ‘physiognomy’ and the shapes of certain people’s skulls.
Sounding the retreat
The results of the West’s intellectual retreat are visible in puffed-up conceits like Surviving Progress, a confection so shambolic and incoherent that its initial contributors couldn’t even define progress. It is particularly revealing that Vaclav Smil, a Canadian academic, attempted to make a virtue of having no answers to the problems he described, simply stating that we must all be prepared to make do with less.
There is no doubt that it will take a sizeable struggle to reconstitute a political outlook in the West that recognises and celebrates the gains of the past while establishing the kind of society where the potential of the future is fully realised. But until we do so, ideas like this will continue to be pushed as the only available solutions to our current ills.