The New Liberal Apocalypse
Mourn the English language when conservatives oppose conservation and progressives hate progress.
The latter is apparent from two recent documentaries, “Last Call at the Oasis” and “Surviving Progress,” and the former is a central assumption of both films, at least based on their pedigree–Hollywood’s leading activist film studio and Canada’s national film board.
Each tries to make a convincing case for the dire state of civilization. “Oasis,” as the title suggests, is about water. It’s everywhere, the narrator says at the outset, but there’s not enough to drink due to shortages and contamination. Those problems are perennial throughout the Third World, but the movie’s main contention is that they will soon be a problem here.
“Surviving Progress” aims much higher. Says Robert Wright, whose Short History of Progress inspired the film, “We have to confront the possibility that the entire experience of civilization is in itself a progress trap.”
It’s a viewpoint that makes for good polemics — the New York Times called “Surviving Progress” a “doomsday documentary — but the movie fails to make a compelling case. Instead, its makers put civilization itself on trial, which is as pointless as taking a principled stand against plate tectonics. A reviewer for the Boston Globe called the movie a “slick jeremiad” and criticized its tone: “the title doubles as accusation. Progress is dangerous and requires survival tactics, just as a hurricane or avalanche does.” As the Washington Post clucked in a moment of blithe self-parody, “One percenters won’t like what ‘Surviving Progress’ has to say.”
The movie fails to describe what its makers mean by progress. Based on the subjects interviewed and some of their writings, one infers that they’re opposed to “cornucopianism,” the belief that advances in technology will be able to accommodate everyone’s needs ad infinitum, regardless of population growth. One interviewee, in a moment of candor, expresses his doubts explicitly by saying the world needs to reduce its population by one-third to a half.
This coldly anti-human perspective is why the film’s encounter with an entrepreneur from China’s up-and-coming bourgeoisie is so off-putting. Now that progress has given millions of Chinese some disposable income, many have chosen to spend it traveling the countryside. Since most don’t have cars, they rent them from people like the entrepreneur in the film for self-driving tours. That entrepreneur is a lot more favorable to modernity than most of the intellectuals featured in the movie and sees himself as something of an evangelist: “I’m like the monk, the master, I’m leading the members to the West, to find out the real meaning of life, to reach true enlightenment.”
Later in the film we’re taken to the man’s tiny apartment and introduced to his parents, who are less optimistic than he is. When his father starts to voice his concerns with the way things are, the man gets visibly agitated and tries to downplay his concerns. This is supposed to be a fable about the allure of consumerism or something, but there’s clearly more going on. For example, I’ve heard the Chinese government doesn’t like to be criticized. At any rate, it’s a compelling anthropological anecdote, but it doesn’t reinforce anything else that the movie is trying to say.
That task is left to a menagerie of think-tankers, professors, and activists from J. Craig Venter to Jane Goodall. Economist Michael Hudson is brought on to discuss the prospect of a modern-day jubilee, arguing that progress means the rise of the expectation that people pay back their debts, which is a tantalizing idea for liberals in the age of Occupy. No skeptical view of Biblical fiscal policy is offered. David Suzuki delivers the movie’s laugh line (at least, to viewers in the downtown DC indie movie theater where I caught the film), “conventional economics is a form of brain damage,” which I did not take to be an endorsement of the Austrian School. A San Francisco Chronicle review described the movie as “about as upbeat as a Paul Krugman column,” noting “as a viewer you have three choices: Prepare for doom, deny the movie’s conclusions or avoid this documentary.”
Readers disposed to the third route could find worse alternatives than the immodest comparisons made on the poster for “Surviving Progress”: “Koyaanisqatsi” and “The Corporation.” (Also, “Last Call at the Oasis” is like the agitprop version of 2007’s “The Unforeseen.”) Watch those instead.
“Oasis” lacks most of the big-think pretensions of “Surviving Progress.” There are more activists and fewer professors among its talking heads. More Erin Brockovich(-Ellis), less Stephen Hawking. Also, Peter Gleick, who made a pariah out of himself by duplicitously obtaining correspondence of the Heartland Institute and then resigning from the American Geophysical Union’s ethics task force. This film is more purposeful too, though it turns its only solution into a Jack Black-fronted joke.
The first half is mostly devoted to the water issues of the American Southwest, with Las Vegas and California’s central valley as main examples. The water level in lake Lake Mead will sink far enough to deprive the Hoover Dam of its ability to generate power in a mere four years, an interviewee offers. Swaths of the Southwest are in danger of dehydration, millions of parched people hang in the balance, and a solution is to be found in … recycled sewage?
Yes, the documentary’s big solution is the same as Singapore’s. Except as several municipal governments have found out, voters aren’t always keen on the idea. But since the only difference between most bottled water and tap water is psychological as well, why not go for broke and see if you can get people to actually buy the stuff. That’s what happens in the last segment of the film, an ad campaign for “Porcelain Springs.”
The studio that fronted the movie, Participant Productions, is the institutional embodiment of Hollywood mouthing off about things it doesn’t know much about. Sometimes the resulting proclamations are convincing, as in “Waiting for Superman” and most of “Food, Inc,” and sometimes they’re not, as in “An Inconvenient Truth.” Given the subject matter, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Hollywood’s latest falls into the latter category.
Both of these films employ conspicuous stylistic devices like the sewage-bottling experiment to end on an upbeat note despite their apocalyptic message, but neither is convincing. Water is posited as a wellspring of diplomacy because the Jordan River brings various traditional enemies into uneasy negotiations–the Middle East is offered as a model of peaceful cooperation. “Surviving Progress” is so down on humanity that it ends with a chimpanzee. If you fail to connect all the dots the movie has put down, primarily between cavemen overhunting and modern environmental and civilizational catastrophe, you’re like an ape that’s too dumb to ask questions about cause and effect.
The simplest message of both films is put forth by Vaclav Smil in “Surviving Progress”: “we have to use less.” Does anyone disagree, save maybe the Club for Growth? The complexities that follow from that assertion are the real bones of contention. How can we bring ourselves to use less? Erin Brockovich-Ellis has no delusions about the EPA’s effectiveness in the movie: she tells a roomful of Texans poisoned by hexavalent chromium that the agency is underfunded and nobody’s going to help them out. You can put all the faith in the world into environmental regulations but they don’t mean anything if the state is inadequately financed and inept. And that’s the problem: both movies seem to take the state as the epitome of social cooperation, an idea the alarmism of both movies serves. Telling people they should use less is very different from, say, prohibiting the sale of soft drinks of a certain size. And we already know what happens when the power of the state is mixed with nasty ideas about overpopulation.
Jordan Bloom is associate editor of The American Conservative.