We are Devo: Surviving Progress ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 21, 2012)

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In Man’s evolution he has created the city and

The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance

And I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle

-Ray Davies

This just in! Our brains haven’t changed much in 50,000 years. “We’re running 21st Century software on 50,000 year-old hardware,” observes one of the interviewees in a thought-provoking documentary called Surviving Progress…and like anyone who witnesses the perennially absurd behavior of Homo sapiens on the nightly news, I am inclined to agree. Right out of the gate, co-writer-directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks drive that point home with an illustration that doubles as clever 2001: a Space Odyssey homage.

An adult chimpanzee enters a white booth containing nothing but a table, upon which lay two “L” shaped blocks. The chimp spots a primatologist researcher in an adjoining room, on the other side of a clear partition. The chimp can also see that the primatologist holds a nice piece of fruit, so it puts its arm through a hole in the partition. No treat is forthcoming. The chimp assesses the situation. It picks up one of the blocks, rights it into a standing position, and again reaches through the hole. Nada. Aha! After righting the second block, the chimp gets its treat. Is this “progress”? Cut to NASA footage of an orbiting space station. Is this progress? Can mankind have its banana now?

Before tackling such a loaded question (and patting ourselves on the back for being so much “smarter” than monkeys), we first need to define our terms. What is “progress”, exactly? Luckily for us, the filmmakers have come fully armed with an impressive and diverse team of learned specialists: physicists, anthropologists, scientists, environmentalists, futurists and economists. Surely they can shed light on a question like, “What is progress?” Cut to a montage of positively stymied experts. Uh-oh. This isn’t a very thought-provoking documentary so far. Maybe if we offer them a nice piece of fruit?

Not to worry. Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress (the book that inspired the film) pops by and sets up the premise for the ensuing 90 minutes. Humanity’s progress, he posits, has historically been measured by its ever-accelerating “forward” motion. Which is all fine and dandy; that is, until you begin to consider the “cost”. And we are not necessarily talking money.

For example, there is “natural capital”. As scientist/activist David Suzuki observes in the film, “Money doesn’t stand for anything, and money now grows faster than anything in the real world.” He’s right. You can always print more money, but Earth’s resources are finite, and according to one interviewee, up until  1980  (right about the time that the world’s most populous nation, China decided to start playing “catch-up”), we were getting away with “living on the interest”- all for the sake of progress. But today, we’re blowing through our inheritance, as it were. And if we’re not careful, the human race  will be in the poorhouse.

Not that the filmmakers are using China, or environmental concerns, as the whipping boy. This is but one example of what Wright identifies as “progress traps”, which could be compromising the future of our planet as a whole. In fact, what makes the film so unique and compelling is how it connects the dots between cultural anthropology, predictable patterns of human behavior, accelerated depletion of Earth’s natural resources, lopsided distribution of the world’s wealth, and most importantly, how all of the above have repeatedly factored into the collapse of previous civilizations.

While dire warnings abound, it’s not all gloom and doom. Stephen Hawking suggests that if we can shepherd the planet through the next 200 years without destroying it, we could flourish for a very long time (barring, one assumes, a big catastrophe like an asteroid hit).

The motifs and subtexts of the visual narrative (beautifully photographed by Mario Janelle and well edited by Louis-Marin Paradis) reminded me of Godfrey Reggio’s (wordless) 1982 film meditation on the price of progress, Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi Indian word meaning “life out of balance”). I have not read his book, but some of Wright’s on-camera observations about the negative effect of accelerated change recall those of Alvin Toffler, whose 1970 bestseller Future Shock gave us the nickname for the  phenomenon.

So while the concept isn’t new, it’s presented in a fresh manner, packing much insight into 87 minutes. Besides, we could use more reality checks like this, and would all do well to remember the film’s money quote, which Wright says he saw scrawled on a graffiti wall:

Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

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