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Powerful New Documentary Links Ecocide to Capitalism’s Crisis

Film Review: Surviving Progress

“Unlimited economic progress in a world of finite resources doesn’t make sense… it’s bound to collapse,” asserts primatologist Jane Goodall, one of the interview subjects in Surviving Progress, executive produced by Martin Scorsese. “…There are these strong vested interests: ‘we must have business as usual’… the arms manufacturers, petroleum industry, pharmaceutical industries.” The conservationist who became world famous for observing chimps also asks: “How come… this so intellectual being is destroying its only home?”

To answer Goodall’s question, this documentary takes the gloves off, anchoring environmental crises in what the Occupy movement sees as the struggle of the 99 percent against the 1 percent. Like 2003’s The Corporation — which Progress’ co-director/co-writer Harold Crooks’ also co-authored — this documentary is a hard-hitting critique of capitalism, tying eco-catastrophes to an insatiable, profit-driven economic system.

Surviving Progress is based on Ronald Wright’s bestselling book A Short History of Progress. Onscreen the author declares: “Progress has become a sort of faith… like the market fundamentalism that has just crashed and burned.” Following a news clip of ex-President George W. Bush ballyhooing the economy, saying he’s “an optimist,” Wright likens the capitalist creed to “religious delusions that caused societies to crash and burn.”

Economist Michael Hudson traces the history of debt and the “concentration of wealth in the hands of those at the top of the pyramid,” explaining how this oligarchic process led the downfall of empires, from ancient Rome until today. As an image of deforestation appears onscreen, Hudson proclaims: “They’re cutting down the rain forest… turning it into a hole in the ground to repay the bankers. That’s their business plan… That’s the global financial system … You can relate the destruction of the rain forest in Brazil to the Wall Street and London financial sectors.”

And he should know: When Hudson worked for Chase Manhattan his specialty was looting the Third World. (He was a balance-of-payments analyst of Third World debt for nearly fifty years, from Chase Manhattan in the 1960s through the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in the 1970s, to Scudder Stevens & Clark in 1990, where he started the first Third World sovereign debt fund.) Hudson also notes: “The oligarchy would rather annul the right of the bottom 90 percent to live than to annul the money owed to them. They’d rather strip the planet and shrink the population than give up their claims. That’s the political fight of the 21st century.” Geneticist David Suzuki adds, “Conventional economics is a form of brain damage… So who cares whether you clear cut the forest? Cut it down! ...Economics is so fundamentally disconnected from the real world.” 

Ex-IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson echoes these sentiments: “The bankers can’t stop themselves. It’s in their DNA, in the DNA of their organizations, to take massive risks, to pay themselves ridiculous salaries and to collapse.”

So how does our worldwide civilization escape what Wright calls its present “progress trap”? Synthetic biologist Craig Venter, who partners with Exxon Mobile, offers bioengineering, rewriting genetic codes and redesigning DNA as solutions — but, as Mary Shelley warned in 1818, this didn’t work out too well for hubristic mad scientist Victor Frankenstein.

Brazil’s ex-Environment Minister Marina Silva says, “The problem isn’t technological, it’s ethical.” Environmental policewoman Raquel Taitson-Queiroz, who protects the Amazon from loggers and polluters, suggests a tantalizing approach. Energy expert Vaclav Smil advocates lower consumption rates in developed nations. Suzuki presents an alternative vision of economics as “the web of life.” Basically, the documentary implies that expropriating the elite’s overconsumption and redistributing it to the 99 percent is part of the solution.

Although it doesn’t focus on climate change, Surviving Progress is essential viewing. It’s among the best eco-docs since 2006’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth. The interviews and archival footage are spliced with cinematically splendid close-ups revealing the wonder and splendor of a natural world that we must save — along with ourselves. Onscreen, physicist Stephen Hawking implores us: “If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy we should survive and continue.”

 

Surviving Progress opens April 6 in N.Y.; April 20 at L.A., S.F., Berkeley, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.  

 

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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