The Drake equation is a way to estimate how many alien species might be out there in the Milky Way that we can hope to contact. The most critical number is the lifetime of a technologically advanced civilization, because the universe is 13.7 billion years, and if civilizations only last for 5000 years or so (we’ve only been technologically advanced, meaning able to communicate intragalactically, for about 100 years), there is little hope any alien civilization will overlap with us in time.
As I teach in my class, the lifetime of a civilization is nearly impossible to estimate. The only model we have is the Earth, and the lessons it teaches us are depressing. All civilizations in history (with the possible exception of the Chinese) have come to an end. In Jared Diamond’s book COLLAPSE, he examines what causes these societal downfalls and concludes that the most common reason is environmental: civilizations grow to the point that they can no longer feed themselves with the immediate resources at hand.
The documentary SURVIVING PROGRESS, based on the book A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS by Ronald Wright, takes this line of thought a step farther. Progress is generally good, they argue, but sometimes it can lead to “progress traps,” which result in catastrophe. For example, ice age hunters eventually got so good at hunting mammoths that they drove them to extinction. Some societies have collapsed when wealth got to concentrated in the hands of people at the top that the people lower down on the socioeconomic ladder starved and revolted.
SURVIVING PROGRESS talks to some of the top thinkers on the planet about the progress traps facing the planet now, the likes of Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking, David Suzuki, Craig Venter, Margaret Atwood, and more than a dozen others. The main problem is that there are 7 billion people on the planet, but a couple billion are using the vast majority of the resources. The planet can’t sustain it if the developing countries are brought up to the western standard. There isn’t enough oil for everyone to have a car. There aren’t enough fish in the seas. Meanwhile we’re doing potentially irreversible damage to the planet by clear cutting rainforests and pumping out greenhouse gasses.
But this is much more than some hippie jeremiad. From there the filmmakers probe deeper into the underlying causes of environmental exploitation, patterns from history, our economic system, corruption, even the forces that shaped our primate brains.
Making the stakes even higher is the fact that we are for the first time a globally interconnected society. No longer are there simultaneously hundreds of city-states competing with different economic models. There is effectively only one experiment running now, and a collapse could spell disaster on a scale never before seen.
So what can we do? Go to space? Stephen Hawking thinks we must, but there is no good habitable planet next door. Can we genetically engineer our way out? Craig Venter is trying to. Can we morally evolve? Can we learn to consume less? Colin Beavan wants us to learn to with experiments like the No Impact Project.
SURVIVING PROGRESS is easily my favorite film I’ve seen at this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival. In fact, it is one of the most thought provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen, and also one of the best looking. Interspersed with the talking heads are beautiful shots either backing up or illustrating the concepts being discussed, like factory production, deforestation, the mammoth hunt, and helicopter shots of cities, to name a few. It seems to have been filmed all over the world. Certain shots called to mind SAMSARA in their epic scope, but here they are in the service of an overarching narrative.
Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks (Crooks was a writer of 2003‘s THE CORPORATION) co-directed SURVIVING PROGRESS. I’m not sure how much of a hand he had in it, but it is fitting that Martin Scorsese, who received the American Riviera award last night at SBIFF, is one of the executive producers of the film. You can find out more and see the trailer at the movie’s official website. It is making the rounds of film festivals, and seems to occasionally be screening individual theaters on a tour of the US and Canada.