The documentary Surviving Progress begins with a chimp trying to stand one of two wooden L-shaped blocks upside down. The other L-shaped block already stands on its head. The task is simple: If the chimp is able to stand its block upside down, then she gets a reward—a piece of fruit. But there’s a problem: The block’s head is uneven, and so, unlike the other block, which has a smooth head, it wobbles and falls whenever the chimp attempts to make it stand. The chimp tries and tries, and it fails and fails. She holds it up, and it falls; she holds it up, and it falls.
We are then told by a scientist that the chimp is unable to see that the problem is with the block itself. What she (the chimp is female and in heat) should do is examine the block to see why it will not stand upside down, but her mental grasp of this object (and any other object) is not strong enough to reach this understanding. A human child, however, could, after a few tries, figure out that there’s something wrong with the object, and examine it to see what’s wrong.
In the doc, the hairy hominid gives up and leaves with the L standing right side up—total failure. The doc then cuts to astronauts spacewalking above the International Space Station. Yes, this is 2001 in 2010. For humans to get this far, to get to space and see with their own eyes our turning planet and the star burning in the blackness of space, we needed to cross that line in the mind. But crossing the line has not been without serious consequences. Humans are at once the masters of the world and destroying every bit of it. We are in what the main talking head in the doc, Ronald Wright, calls a “progress trap.” Progress for progress’s sake. Progress that’s an illusion. Progress that’s actually its opposite: making things worse. Though this type of criticism is hardly original, the documentary isn’t dull. There is much in it (particularly in the China sections) that will hold your interest.