The Coming Collapse

Surviving Progress

Harold Crooks and Mathieu Roy (2011)

Film Review

Surviving Progress is based on Canadian Ronald Wright’s 2004 book A Short History of Progress and takes up where the book leaves off. The book’s main focus is the collapse of historic civilizations due to dangerous technological innovation. It introduces the term (originally coined by German economist Walter Kramer) “progress trap,” to designate technological innovations that have dangerous and unforeseen unintended consequences. An example used in both the book and the film is the case of the wooly mammoth – how new Stone Age techniques that vastly improved efficiency caused the species to become extinct.

The film, in contrast, focuses on our present “progress trap,” and the biological determinants that cause civilizations to produce progress traps. It features a broad range of experts in addition to Wright, including psychologists, geneticists, primatologist Jane Goodell, environmentalist David Suzuki, economist Michael Hudson and astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.

The filmmakers start from the premise that humanity has entered a final progress trap. In the past when civilizations collapsed, homo sapiens simply moved on and started new ones somewhere else. Our present civilization covers the entire planet, and this is no longer possible. The technologies we’ve devised over 200 years have become so ecologically destructive the coming collapse could easily spell the extinction of our species.

The case the Stephen Hawking, the psychologists, geneticists put forward is that our Stone Age brains are incapable of dealing appropriately with advanced technology – that the only conceivable way to prevent collapse is through some kind of human genetic engineering. I have a major problem with any hypothesis that blames the failure of capitalist civilization on human nature. In my experience, it’s not human nature that makes people into greedy, individualistic sociopaths, but an economic system that rewards people for being greedy and competitive and punishes them for being compassionate.

I also had a problem with the way the filmmakers left out half of humanity by designating male competitive behaviors as typical of the entire human species. As geneticist Bryan Sykes argue in Adam’s Curse, the Stone Age reptilian traits described in the documentary are extremely rare in human females (and most males for that matter). In fact, it’s extremely rare for women to commit violent crimes, become tyrants or start wars. (I will post a review of Adam’s Curse later in the week).

I found economist Michael Hudson’s contributions far more valuable. He talks about the role oligarchy, extreme inequality and ecological destruction in causing past civilizations to collapse. He gives the example of Rome, in which confiscation of public land by aristocrats led to rapid overgrazing and topsoil depletion. Two hundred years later Rome collapsed, owing to their inability to feed their empire.

10 thoughts on “The Coming Collapse

  1. “. . . that the only conceivable way to prevent collapse is through some kind of human genetic engineering” — because “technology” has solved so many of our problems, and not that the film’s premise seems to be in any way an indictment of misconceived technocratic solutions to issues that are anything but technocratic.

    Yes, the issue is mostly ‘cultural,’ and the dominant culture is ‘capitalistic’ and many other regressive things besides (racist, xenophobic, ethnocentic, patriarchal, and so on). This isn’t a ‘genetic’ issue. It is emminently social and historical though by no means simple.

    I would also argue that if it’s “… extremely rare for women to commit violent crimes, become tyrants or start wars . . .”, that, too, finds its roots in the social or cultural dimension, because the primary determinants of ‘human behavior’ are ‘cultural’ and not ‘instinctual’ in the sense of naked impulses inherited and unlearned, which isn’t to say that these neurological circuits are non-existent (or that a preponderance of a certain hormone might not underpin certain behavioral tendencies or impulses), but that they are overwhelmingly constrained, mediated and modulated by the individual’s social milieu(x). And to compound it all, we can “think,” and as a result behave in ways that contravene both our genetic and cultural inheritances. We are not merely culturally and genetically programmed, but can to a degree ‘re-wire’ ourselves, not to speak of being capable of creative (or destructive) spontaneity.

    Don’t know that I’ll watch the documentary. I’ve already read Wright’s book, and I’m already familiar with the viewpoints of most the interviewees mentioned. But if I do, basing myself on your review, it will only be to heighten my frustration at the seeming lack of cultural and political astuteness among our so called scientific vanguard.

    The fallen nature of human nature line to explain what ails ‘our’ civiliztion is a bit too simple and misleading an explanation — at least to my mind.


    • After reading Bryan Sykes’s The Curse of Adam, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that violence is possibly a combination of genetic and cultural factors, i.e. the unholy alliance between extremely high testosterone levels and the ability to accumulate unlimited wealth and power. I plan to post the review tomorrow.


  2. Don’t know what it is about Canadians, but they have a way of getting to the heart of matters. Survivng Progress is one of those too-rare, brilliant films that convey the truth of the human condition. Simon Johnson says bankers can’t stop themselves and are out-of-control financial oligarchs. David Suzuki says economics is not a science, and that calling the natural world “externalities” is “nuts!” Economist Michael Hudson lays out the historical model of international banking and wealth inequality. All the men and women who appeared, the director and producers, deserve credit for their conscientious roles in making a great documentary.


  3. Pingback: A Film About Dismantling Corporate Rule | The Most Revolutionary Act

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