Martin Scorsese’s ‘Surviving Progress’

General / People / Places / Products / August 27, 2012

Martin Scorsese has produced a provocative documentary called “Surviving Progress” that explores the major “progress traps” facing civilization in the arenas of technology, economics, consumption and the environment.  It’s 87 minutes long, and jam-packed with arguments from visionaries like Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood and Stephen Hawking. They explore the kinds of traps that destroyed past civilizations and that lie embedded treacherously in our own. A+A recently interviewed the film’s co-writer and co-director, Harold Crooks, for two consecutive posts:

What was your role in developing this film?

Credit for realizing that Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress might make an interesting (and even important) film goes to Montreal producer Daniel Louis. Daniel optioned the book after hearing it broadcast as a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Massey lecture in 2004. He brought on a young French Canadian director Mathieu Roy, as well as the National Film Board, and also Mark Achbar (“The Corporation,” “Manufacturing Consent”) as an executive producer. And then Mark, with whom I had co-written the narration for The Corporation, proposed that Daniel engage me as a writer and ultimately to co-direct the film.

Why did you do it?

When Daniel called to see if I might be interested, I had yet to read Ronald Wright’s best seller. But there was no way I was going to pass up the chance of working with Daniel and his producer partner Denise Robert. Not only were they Oscar winners, but their company, Cinémaginaire, is at the heart of Quebec popular film culture. Added to this was yet another occasion to be involved on a project with Mark Achbar, one of the world’s documentary film greats – and not to forget, this was going to be a “once-in-a- lifetime” opportunity to collaborate on a film about the fate of civilization!

What are the film’s key messages?

At the heart of the inter-related ideas we set out to illuminate is the danger to civilization posed by what Ronald Wright calls “ideological pathologies.” These are self-destructive elite belief systems that Wright identifies as major contributing factors to the collapse of the Sumerians, Romans, Mayans and Easter Island. (Arnold Toynbee gives an even higher figure, linking the downfall of some 20 civilizations to such false belief systems).

We focus on the “ideological pathology” of today’s global civilization: the belief promoted by contemporary elites, most particularly in big banking, in limitless unregulated debt-based economic growth. In fact the film offers compelling testimony our species already may have begun – in the 1980s – to live off the capital – rather than interest – of nature. And we arrive at this critical point – where billions of “haves” already are devouring everything under the sun – and China has only just joined the West on the capitalist road.

Given all this, we have two key messages: one is that the “ideological pathology” of our time must be dethroned before it is too late; the other is one best expressed in the film by UN Champion of The Earth, former Brazilian Environment Minister and Presidential candidate Marina Silva. For Silva, a Chico Mendes colleague in her youth and recently named by Foreign Policy as “one of the top global thinkers for taking Green mainstream,” there are not going to be any grand technological fixes that come to the rescue of civilization, like the U.S. Calvary arriving in the nick of time to save embattled homesteaders in Hollywood movies.

Silva says:  “I think we have reached the era of limits. Although we are free, we must live within the limitations of nature.  It is impossible to defend [economic] models that cannot be universally applied because we would have to start from a premise that some people have rights and some don’t. Thus there is no technological problem, but an ethical one.”

Tomorrow: How ideology, psychology and finance interact with ecology.

For more on “Surviving Progress,” go to

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Mike Welton

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