Take One Action 2012: Harold Crooks on Surviving Progress

Is civilisation doomed? The stakes don't get any higher than in Take One Action Film Festival's opener, Surviving Progress. The Skinny speaks to Harold Crooks, one of the film's directors, ahead of this UK premiere

Feature by Danny Scott | 07 Sep 2012

“Conventional economics is a form of brain damage,” states scientist David Suzuki in Harold Crooks’ co-directed new film Surviving Progress. Mapping our current economic, environmental and consumption-drunk madness to the rise and fall of previous civilisations, this suave, calm, visually stunning documentary raises the curtain on this year’s Take One Action festival. It shows the human race running 21st century software on our brains' hardware, which hasn’t been updated for 50,000 years. In short, we are going to crash unless we reboot our systems. And soon. 

Taking its inspiration from Robert Wright’s bestselling book A Short History Of Progress, Crooks and Mathieu Roy’s co-directed feature documentary shows how our fallen ancestors have repeatedly destroyed themselves through “progress traps” – enticing technologies or advancements with short-term gain precipitating long-term decline. They show how the self-made cluster-fuck we find ourselves enduring is no different from, say, the last days of the Roman Empire, only now we’re all in. As Crooks states, “previous civilisations have always been local civilisations…one could go down but the baton of civilisation could be passed on somewhere else on the planet. But now we are one global, interlinked civilisation…if we were to fall into the same progress traps as previous civilisations did, it would be catastrophic.”

Executive-produced by the goodfella of modern cinema, Martin Scorsese, Surviving Progress calls upon an impressive network of the world’s leading thinkers, including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall and leading economists to put forward a strong case, with added extra weight by an arresting visual aesthetic. Shunning voiceover, Crooks and Roy rely on expertly edited footage to show humanity’s achievements as both beautiful and absurd. As Crooks reflects, “Mathieu has a special gift for marrying visuals, sound and music, creating here a very unusual, meditative kind of space for audiences to enter into… with one film reviewer describing it as ‘Koyaanisqatsi meets The Corporation’.” 

This space is needed as there is enough raw material to digest in Crooks’ documentary to cause western audiences some discomfort. We learn, for instance, that until recent times it took thirteen-centuries to add 200-million more lives to the world’s population. Now it takes three years. Before the early 1980s this burgeoning population was living off nature’s interest, but since then, fuelled by rapacious consumption and growth, we have been eating into her capital. As Goodall says plainly in the film, “unlimited economic progress in a world of finite natural resources doesn't make sense. It's a pattern that is bound to collapse." 

With the rising economic power of China, Crooks sees our appetite as far from satiated. “What fascinates us about China is that in becoming the world’s workshop and embracing growth as an economic model we are now one single growth-driven system. The “special significance” of this is that global capitalism is revving up its engines as we near the planet’s carrying capacity.”

Visiting China and Brazil, Surviving Progress admirably doesn’t rely solely on the talking head but uses its feet to venture into China, the Congo and the Amazonian rainforest on a dangerous foray to the frontline of the logging wars. “It was only after a long and arduous negotiation that we were permitted to travel with IBAMA [Brazil’s environment enforcement agency] to Colniza in Brazil. Only after arriving did we learn Colniza was, at that time, the country’s murder capital. Of course, this explained the presence of military assisting the lightly-armed IBAMA, whose efforts to monitor and curtail deforestation always have the possibility to provoke outrage.” 

The press reaction in North America has also been similarly unpredictable with high praise tempered by complaints of the film’s depressing future vision and lack of proffered solutions. But through his measured, fluid arguments Crooks comes across as more optimistic than that. “Am I an optimist or a pessimist? I always answer this question by quoting the mid-20th Century Italian philosopher who talked about the 'pessimism of the intellect' and the 'optimism of the will.' But there is no question our current dominant economic ideology is failing us badly and our world is going to have to be radically re-imagined.”

One of Surviving Progress’ reasons to be cheerful is the power of the internet, lit up in an animated sequence like the nervous system of humanity. For Crooks, the documentary is his contribution to this “growing global consciousness.” 

“The 20th century’s great anti-capitalist experiments taught us little about creating a sustainable, advanced civilization. In this sense such a world remains to be invented. And it begins with each of us working, according to our own strengths, to participate in what has been called the 'meme war', or battle of ideas to shift Western minds away from an ideology that makes corporate profit the measure of all things. Surviving Progress is our humble contribution to this war.”

Take One Action kicks off 21 Sep, 8.15pm with a screening of Surviving Progress at Filmhouse. Surviving Progress also screens 22 Sep, 3pm at GFT.

Harold Crooks will be in Scotland for Q&As following the screenings in Filmhouse and GFT.