Surviving Progress – Montreal filmmakers ask documentary-question: will more be too much?


“Humanity’s ascent is often measured in terms of progress. But what if progress is actually spiraling us downwards towards collapse?” – IMDB


March 1st, 2012
– Montreal Filmmaker Mathieu Roy has directed and former Montrealer Harold Crooks, now based in New-York, has co-directed a real-time look at technology and progress in our world. Through documentary-style narration and the perspectives of numerous talking heads – including Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, and David Suzuki – the film attempts to define the causes and to what effect our modern networking and machinery is influencing our natural habitats and personal abilities to develop ourselves.

The documentary is based on Ronald Wright’s multi-media presentation:  A Short History of Progress (2004) – which was published as a book, simultaneously to being aired in a five-part speaker series on CBC Radio and in conjunction with a lecture tour in five major Canadian cities.

Wright uses the term “progress trap” to refer to innovations that create new problems for which the society is unable or unwilling to solve, or inadvertently create conditions that are worse than what existed before the innovation.

More specifically, we have to first identify between progress in two separate and distinct developmental areas – Human Values – the depth of what we can agree on with others in regards to societal norms, and Technology – which permits an increase in efficiency in getting what we individually want.

When technology progresses faster than human values – then the application of new technology will not create progress – this is what is holding us back, this is what is called a “progress trap”.

The book by Wright is an examination of the meaning of progress and its implications for civilizations and citizens – past and present. The film by our two Montrealers, with Martin Scorsese in tow as executive producer, gives depth of perspective from relevant figures on the theories outlined in the book. All tied together in a smoothly edited, visually and auditorily stimulating package – Ah, the progress technology has made!

The testimonials in the film, which include global perspectives from North America to China, refer consistently to civilizations which made progress in their development of technology, but not any progress in its use.

This seems to be because the vision of these societies was not simultaneously developed so as to see new possibilities technological breakthroughs allow; instead their focus remained on how to apply new technology within the framework of the old system. Any increase in production efficiency of the old system, without matching upgrades in distribution, delivery, or capacity – this causes the entire system to become unsustainable.

Not just in terms of where we are today, but also in the long-term – can Capitalism co-exist with Environmentalism? It would be unsustainable if our economic system was not workingly functional or compatible with our habitat and eco-system – it wouldn’t mean our economic system was necessarily bad or dysfunctional in theory, it would simply mean that the system is not going to sustain us here, faced with the realities of our habitat and eco-system. For us, these elements of life are very real and not “externalities”.

So could this be how progress can prevent progress? Or, as Roy asks on his Facebook page: “If technology is the answer, what was the question?”

The recent book Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism by Montrealer Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi broached this exact subject. Travelling as car-less Pedestrians throughout various cities of the United States, the cities themselves designed specifically for car use by a culture whose technology progressed faster than its human values did, our Canadian tourists found themselves in cities with no sidewalks or walkways, stoplights at intersections that were timed to change based on car flow and didn’t give the pedestrian adequate time to cross the street, restaurants with no eat-in facilities so pedestrians would have to get serviced via the drive-thru window, the interesting list of experiences continues throughout the book. These are all examples of what happens when cities and civilizations fall into the “progress trap”.

If a society is going to base its urban planning on a car-culture, then it must ensure that every citizen has access to a car. Simple. But to not take into account the needs of pedestrians and car-less citizens while maintaining a society where as many as half its people do NOT have access to a car, this is a failure to extend the distribution of resources to adequately match the vision that technology (in this case car-technology) allowed.

Surviving Progress, the film, has been the subject of much discussion since its release – specifically because of the importance of the topic it covers. We have to understand that the more strained our relationship with our natural environment becomes, the more pressing the issues of sustainability are going to become. And, as a planet, we are clearly on the path to that breaking point.

So, in what will surely become one of the most relevant discussion subjects of the next decade at least, feel free to reference the film by our Montreal contingent and to share the perspectives presented in the film with your friends and colleagues. Your network will avoid falling into any “progress trap”!



Tariq Jeeroburkhan is an independent content provider based in Montreal who can be reached at . His blog is