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Surviving Progress

Tying together problems of overpopulation, pollution, consumption, global warming, industrial development and more, "Surviving Progress" offers a cinematic wakeup call so cogent and non-didactic even Tea Partiers would be hard-pressed to shrug it off.

With:
With: Ronald Wright, Mark Levine, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Kambale Musavuli, Vaclav Smil, Colin Beavan, Michael Hudson, Jane Goodall, Chen Ming, Chen Changnian, J. Craig Venter, Raquel Taitson-Queiroz, Gary Marcus, Daniel Povinelli, Margaret Atwood, Simon Johnson, Enio Beata, David Suzuki, Jim Thomas, Stephen Hawking.

Tying together problems of overpopulation, pollution, consumption, global warming, industrial development and more, “Surviving Progress” offers a cinematic wakeup call so cogent and non-didactic even Tea Partyers would be hard-pressed to shrug it off. (Not that they’re likely to see it, of course.) This fine globetrotting, Canadian-produced docu inspired by Ronald Wright’s tome “A Short History of Progress” kicks off its U.S. theatrical release April 6 in New York, with other cities to follow. Grassroots outreach to concerned citizen groups of various stripes would be a big help in accessing auds who might think themselves already oversaturated on environmental issues.

Wright’s thesis is that the Industrial Revolution, enormously successful in creating First World pockets of great wealth and material comfort, is a failed experiment, and we’re at the end of it. And now that other nations like China and India want their own overdue turn at manufacturing prosperity and raised living standards, we’re discovering that the past 200 years already used up much of the Earth’s limited credit in what had seemed an infinite account of natural resources. We’ve confused progress with more of the same, only to discover that now creates serious problems.

These include humans exhausting soil and other elements that effect life from the bottom up; the fact that “market fundamentalism” — a belief that the unregulated market will solve all problems — tends to encourage crippling debt rather than self-sufficiency among poorer countries; the reckless privatization of “public domain” properties like rainforests and oil deposits, which in turn forces residents to choose between joblessness and their own environmental well-being; science’s dangerous attempts at “taking over evolution” via changing genetic codes; and much more.

“Progress” does a remarkable job weaving together these and many other big ideas in a crisp, coherent, easy-to-take fashion that somehow never becomes an informational overload. It’s certainly helped in that regard by a stellar cast of articulate and authoritative interviewees who know how to make a sound bite count, including primatologist Jane Goodall (noting human beings as the only species capable of terminating its future by destroying its own habitat) and physicist Stephen Hawking, who puts things in a grand context, saying, “If we can avoid disaster in the next two centuries, we should be safe.”

The message is as simple on the surface as it is complex in detail: Less must be the new “more” if mankind is to survive. That requires a basic moral/systemic rewiring already fiercely opposed by many.

Helmers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks (officially billed as co-director) take care not to distract from the docu’s seriousness with too much conspicuous eye candy. But there’s still a terrific diversity of illustrative materials here, from man-on-the-street interviews around the globe to footage from NASA as well as Werner Herzog’s indelible Kuwaiti-oil-fires portrait “Lessons of Darkness.” Tech and design contributions are first-rate.

Popular on Variety

Surviving Progress

Canada English, Portuguese dialogue

Production: A First Run Features (in U.S.) release of a Cinemaginaire and Big Picture Media Corp. in association with the National Film Board of Canada presentation. (International sales: NFB, Quebec.) Produced by Gerry Flahive, Daniel Louis, Denise Robert. Executive producers, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Mark Achbar, Betsy Carson, Silva Basmajian. Directed, written by Mathieu Roy, Harold Crooks, based on the book "A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Mario Janelle, Jean-Pierre St. Louis, Dany Racine, Mark Achbar; editor, Louis-Martin Paradis; music, Patrick Watson, Michael Ramsey; sound (Dolby SR), Louis Piche, Claude Lahaye; Joao Godoy, Philippe Scultety, Marcel Chouinard; sound designer, Christian Rivest; re-recording mixer, Gavin Fernandes. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival (Documentary), Feb. 1, 2012. (Also in 2011 Toronto, Vancouver film festivals.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With: With: Ronald Wright, Mark Levine, Robert Wright, Marina Silva, Kambale Musavuli, Vaclav Smil, Colin Beavan, Michael Hudson, Jane Goodall, Chen Ming, Chen Changnian, J. Craig Venter, Raquel Taitson-Queiroz, Gary Marcus, Daniel Povinelli, Margaret Atwood, Simon Johnson, Enio Beata, David Suzuki, Jim Thomas, Stephen Hawking.

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