Documentary explores historical costs of 'surviving progress'

by Sharon Abercrombie

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True or false? Our current ecological crisis is a completely new development in the history of humankind -- a situation only 200 years old, a nasty byproduct of progress fostered by the Industrial Revolution. 

If you voted “true,” that’s just a bit false. It’s not the whole story.

To get the full picture, take a gigantic leap back into time beginning with the Old Stone Age. Those ancestors content to kill just two mammoths instead of one were still behaving sustainably. But the ones who took the shortcut approach by driving entire herds over a cliff, were eventually defeated by their own “progress,” running out of a major food source for their lunches.

Another leap forward brings us to ancient Rome*, when people, propelled by out-of-control economic policies, became terribly busy wrecking everything good and beautiful around the Mediterranean locale. Its imperial policies eventually led to ecological problems, which contributed to the empire’s downfall and the Dark Ages.

Are you surprised by these stories? There are plenty more of them cited in the mind-blowing documentary, “Surviving Progress” a 2011 film directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, and with Martin Scorcese among its executive producers.

“Surviving Progress” tells us where we’ve been and where we are going ecologically as a species. It warns that the outcome for us and the rest of the planet will be disastrous unless we melt down the edges of our Ice Age mentalities with an expanded, inclusive moral consciousness.

The film’s website describes it as recounting “the story of human advancement as awe-inspiring and doubled-edged,” one that “reveals the grave risk of running the 21st century’s software – our know-how -- on the ancient hardware of our primate brain which hasn’t been upgraded in 50,000 years.”

Translation: Many people still don’t “get it” that the planet has finite resources with no back-up emergency resources.

I highly recommend this powerful documentary for summer spiritual televiewing (A complete transcript is also available on the film’s website). “Surviving Progress” features authors, environmentalists, historians and economists and includes such notables as David Suzuki, Ronald Wright, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking. Activists from the Congo, Canada and the United State complete the cast.

Viewers will come away with their own particular memories, but one of mine was the realization that ancient Rome became an early prototype for our current economic system -- the wealthy minority at the top of the pyramid versus the rest.

In those days, it was the custom for Sumer, Babylonia, Egypt and other countries to occasionally cancel their debts when they became too unwieldy. This policy created a clean slate so that societies could start afresh.

Rome, however, did not approve of such mercies, instead waging war with kings unable to pay their debts, explained economist Michael Hudson. Like plagues of locusts, Roman legions stole gold from the temples and public buildings, stripped cities of their waterworks, and created a desert from the land.

“A debt is a debt,” became the Roman calling card. Egalitarian lands, where peasants formerly had access to public land, were taken over by the lords and generals. This move helped to create widespread homelessness, the creation of slums and ecological problems.

Canadian author Ronald Wright, whose book A Short History of Progress inspired the film, explained that erosion became a serious problem, “so bad that some of the Roman ports silted up with all the topsoil that got washed down from the fields into the river.”

Archeologists in Italy have been able to measure the degradation caused by Rome’s fall, said Wright, adding that they also discovered “how it took a thousand years of much reduced population during the Middle Ages for fertility in Italy to rebuild.”

Of the saddest portions of the documentary are scenes from the Brazilian rain forest, burned and clear cut by logging companies. At one point, the camera closes in on a half standing tree, with a lone dying insect, struggling to hang on, trembling, shaking and trying to figure out what has just befallen it.

Meanwhile, back at the lumber mill, families speak of the necessity of such work in order to feed themselves and their children. Viewers might wonder why these poor people have their backs against this kind of destructive employment wall, and why no other jobs are available to nourish both humans and their rain forest home.

Economist Michael Hudson states that rain forest destruction is directly tied into the Wall Street and London financial sectors. When Latin American countries in the early 1980s could no longer pay their debts, the International Monetary Fund advised them to sell off their water and oil rights, forests and subsoil mineral resources.

The tragedy of these policies are ongoing -- and not only in Latin America -- and have led to widespread poverty, hungry families, polluted water and joblessness.

David Suzuki, the Canadian geneticist, blasts this kind of economic system, saying it is “not based in anything like the real world.” Rather, he says, “it’s life, the web of life that filters water in the hydrologic cycle, it’s microorganisms in the soil that create the soil that we an grow our food in. Economists call these externalities … that’s nuts!”

My television had barely cooled down from playing this film when the press reported Pope Francis addressing some of these terrible disparities during his mid-June interview with the Spanish daily, La Vangardia.

“The economy is moved by the ambition of having more,” he told the newspaper. The pontiff also observed “we are in a world economic system that isn’t good … we have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”

Francis also spoke of “discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore,” ones which “sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money.”

As I read the pope’s words, and thought back to scenes from “Surviving Progress” one of Pete Seeger’s songs, “Where have all the flowers gone?” surfaced in my heart.

“Oh, when will they ever learn?” goes the refrain.

Francis and the producers of “Surviving Progress” are singing the same refrain.

The author Wright adds his voice to their chorus, when he faces the camera and reflects:

“I think what we’re up again here is human nature, we have to reform ourselves, remake ourselves in a way that cuts against the grain of our, our inner animal nature and transcend that Ice Age hunter, that all of us are, if you strip off the thin layer of civilization.”

He concluded: “It’s up to us to prove nature wrong, in a sense, to show that we can take control of our own destinies and behave in a wise way that will ensure the continuation of the experiment of civilization.”

[Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the Roman empire's chronological history. The empire was established in 27 B.C. and would eventually fall in 476 A.D.]

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