Last night I caught Surviving Progress as part of the Environmental Film Festival at Yale running this week until April 15. The documentary is by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks with interviews with geneticists, economists, primatologists, financial analysts, and scientists regarding “business as usual” and if our conceived and applied economic systems are sustainable. The premise of the film is that our brain circuitry, as a species, hasn’t evolved for over 50,000 years, and that our genetic make-up is based on short-term, “fight or flight” gratification, gain, and survival tactics that don’t take into account, say, living beyond the age of thirty-five and together in enormous, high-consumption communities with increasingly scarce resources—whether these are land, clean water and air, food, or fuel.
The film is based on a book by Ronald Wright called A Short History of Progress. Wright posits that we are caught in “progress traps”—similar to the ones chronicled by Jared Diamond in Collapse—and that the falls of Rome, Easter Island, and the Mayan and Anasazi civilizations may be linked to an obsessive belief in “more” equating with goodness and progress. The film picks up where Wright’s book ends, turning its lens on the roads to extinction we deliriously pursue on auto-pilot: growing middle classes with spending power; increasing demands for comforts and luxuries; the self-serving myths of the self-made man as enlightened redeemer propagated by a zealous idolatry of advanced capitalism and its accompanying deforestation, mining, and overpopulation; and finally, my hobby-horse, the pursuits to meet the very real demand of individual and immediate needs (food, shelter, clothing) at the cost of a community, state or nation’s long-term health and wealth. One of the problems that the movie asserts is when this scenario inverts and these individuals are not those living hand-to-mouth and dying by the millions across the globe from the ills of poverty, but those few who claim the property titles of most of the land, make most of the money, sashay in the highest echelons of society and hold key political offices, and take the highest risks to make even more money regardless of consequences—that is, when a democracy becomes an oligarchy. As one commentator mentioned: “When those at the bottom are starving, those in power lose legitimacy.” Does any of this sound familiar? Global economic downturn? Bail out the banks? Occupy Wall Street?
So, what will we do???? Run for the hills? Move all New Yorkers to Kansas? Bio-engineer our survival??? One-child policies???? Move into outer space??? (If this last sounds starry-eyed, I would be too: it comes from Stephen Hawking whose automated voice accompanies footage of being tossed about an anti-gravity chamber by a bunch of astronauts—hello! Toss ME, Mr. Armstrong!) Several speakers in the film talk about expanding the “moral horizon” of economic systems—linking economics and ecology with ethics. Perhaps this sounds high-minded, but in a discussion that followed the screening with co-director Harold Crooks and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Scholar at Yale who holds joint appointments in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the Divinity School, Tucker mentioned that a slew of world leaders and economists held a conference at the UN (see here too) just last week to determine new indices for reorienting economies to meet the needs of the majority—and not add to the coffers of the already engorged one-percent (Google “Gross National Happiness + Bhutan” and you’ll find a flurry of links). In today’s New York Times op-ed piece, David Brooks describes a rift between the agendas of two economies, divided along US party lines, that is similar to the ones articulated and proposed in Surviving Progress. Economy I is the privatized, unregulated, and brutally efficient bull market; Economy II is slower, without a do-or-die breathlessness, that produces less money but more jobs, and meets the needs of more American people. Can Economy I subsidize Economy II? That might be cool. We’ll see. As Jane Goodall offers, when our backs are to the wall, we are pretty creative problem-solvers. Can we create a global ethics? Can we meet the needs of the very poor and shrink the consumption patterns of the very rich?
While the movie assumes that we indeed are confronting a global ecological crisis and certainly there are those who do not see a kind of “peak” oil calamity at hand, the ideas the speakers discuss are funny, compelling, complex, and also contentious. There is much talk about “controlling” our future and DNA, and the salvation of rationalist models to meet the needs and desires of almost seven billion people on a finite Earth. But as China and the former USSR demonstrated in the twentieth century, this isn’t how life works. Economics is not rational—as I love to carp, and yet I haven’t heard many address this seriously. Economics is based on the ever-shifting and quixotic platform that is human discourse and environmental conditions. These aren’t externalities, but the actual stuff of being alive: love, water, curiosity, thrills, interest in newness, nostalgia for oldness, resentment, greed, and all the other benign, malignant, apathetic, compassionate and autonomous factors that make up people and planetary systems.
Is it possible that temporary, short-term tactics are exactly what will navigate us out of the mire? Can a string of these pressure points and responses create a more equitable global society? One such example came in last night’s “short” shown before the feature about a man named Jack Sim, a.k.a. Mr. Toilet, who advocates for and builds compost lavatories in impoverished communities.
Also on this week’s schedule, among others, are Colin Beavan, ‘No Impact Man,’ The Island President, and Big Boys Gone Bananas!* following Bananas!* This is not Woody Allen’s 1971 farce, but Fredrik Gertten’s exposé of an employee-driven court case against Dole and Dow Chemicals on the use of pesticides on banana plantations. Speaking of food production, I intend to go to tonight’s screening of Eating Alabama—I don’t hold a deep desire to grind my own corn meal, or, at least, not as often as I like to eat corn bread, but a chicken and some bees are a homestead fantasy for sure.
From the festival’s website:
“The Environmental Film Festival at Yale (EFFY) has become the premiere student-run festival for environmental films. The 4th annual EFFY showcases the arts through incisive, cutting edge films that raise awareness of environmental and related social issues. We aim to facilitate meaningful discourse and spark action and innovation throughout the Yale community and beyond.”
Plus, these are FREE screenings! Check out the links and previews—and if you’re in the New Haven area, say hello, or keep a look-out for local showings.