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.