"Things that start out to seem like improvements or progress, these things are very seductive; it seems like there's no downside to these. But when they reach a certain scale they turn out to be dead ends or traps. I came up with the term 'progress trap' to define human behaviours that seem to be good things, seem to provide benefits in the short term, but which ultimately lead to disaster because they are unsustainable. One example would be - going right back into the old stone age - the time when our ancestors were hunting mammoths. They reached a point when their weaponry and their hunting techniques got so good that they destroyed hunting as a way of life throughout most of the world. The people who discovered how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made real progress. But people who discovered that they could eat really well by driving a whole herd over a cliff and kill two hundred at once had fallen into a progress trap; they had made too much progress."
- Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress
A 2011 documentary produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks (The Corporation) called Surviving Progress was aired by the BBC over the weekend and for the next week is available on BBC iPlayer to UK residents (others can try here). Drawing on a wide range of interviewees including David Suzuki, Stephen Hawking, Margaret Atwood, Marina Silva and Jane Goodall the 82-minute documentary was inspired by a book by Ronald Wright called A Short History of Progress and investigates the reasons that our attempts at progress are sometimes tragically short-sighted. Are our attempts to catch more mammoth doomed to failure? Thought-provoking and beautifully if sometimes indulgently shot (with Scorsese as producer, I don't think they were short on money), the conclusion packs a slightly larger punch than the usual five minutes of feel good "we can change the world", though is still likely to leave you frustrated and wanting more. Two personal highlights are the rant by Vaclav Smil (starting at 69:40) and the great one-liner from David Suzuki: "Conventional economics is a form of brain damage." (which appears at the end of a speech starting at 53:45.) The final shot is nicely ambiguous, though to appreciate the full implications, you have to watch from the start. I doubt you'll regret doing so.