Agood example of a documentary that aims to inspire people to find solutions is Surviving Progress. This docu-essay is about growth and its damaging effects. It was written and directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks and was inspired by Ronald Wright’s book A Short History of Progress.

Wright’s ideas about progress are complex. In short, he argues that we are now in what he calls a “progress trap”, that is, in a development process that exceeds the boundaries of our natural resources – as previous civilizations disappeared after reaching this point. In his view, we are headed towards the same end.

Following his line of argumentation and adding more to it, Surviving Progress tries to cover an issue so broad that it becomes an argumentation roller-coaster. You feel sucked in and spat out after 80 minutes without much space for reflection. The film features world-renowned environmental activists from different fields, such as Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall and Steven Hawking. Without doubt it has the authority of the opinions of these globally recognized figures.

The film begins by discussing how we have strived so much for progress and growth that we have lost control over how much progress is good for us and how much growth we actually can support. Growth requires more growth to the point where developments are required not for their usefulness but only to keep growing. And on a planet with finite natural resources this is mathematically impossible. Nature’s regeneration capacities have a much slower rate than our rate of consumption –  thus we are destroying the habitat that feeds us.

The film argues that from an evolutionary perspective we are not evolved enough to handle the rate of change and technological development we have reached. It is beyond our natural capacities to adapt to change as quickly as the speed of our progress. Fair enough. Many of the arguments used are not new. They are serious and worth reflecting upon.
“Surviving Technology” by National Film Board
But, what I’m missing in this documentary is balance. That is an approach that puts growth in perspective with both negative and positive sides. If we are looking for solutions, it is important to know that growth took hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Growth created wealth for countries. It created jobs and opportunities. We need to understand what is gained and what is lost in the process of change and also what our role is in this process.

This documentary puts our entire existence into question and does this without a complex analysis. By nature, green issues are structural and so complex that it’s difficult to tackle every aspect involved in one single problem. But Surviving Progress doesn’t even try. The film is one-sided and presents only the negative aspects. Director Mathieu Roy said (Volkskrant, 21-11-11) that with this movie they mainly wanted to explain the mechanisms behind the problems and thereby inspire young people to come up with solutions. But a one-sided approach creates a one-sided solution, which is not in fact a solution. A more holistic understanding is needed and Surviving Progress offers anything but that.

A good example of a balanced documentary is LoveMEATender. This is the debut documentary of Belgian director Manu Coeman. The film is a comprehensive look at the meat industry and the social and environmental effects of meat production. In its line of argumentation, the director mixed filmed images, animations and the story of farmer André Pochon. Pochon remembers the times when eating meat was rare and special and analyzes the way the role of meat has changed in our lives. He shows how eating meat used to be rare and festive. But nowadays people eat it every day. This means that people eat too many proteins, which is  unhealthy for the human body. The consequences include obesity, cancer, diabetes and resistance to antibiotics.

In order for all our meat to be available nature is being polluted and animals doomed to suffer a miserably short life. About 18% of greenhouse gases are emitted by livestock and animal farming, more than from air and road transport combined. And the demand for meat is increasing as China and India show huge growth in demand. More than 200 million tons of meat were consumed in 2000 and this quantity is expected to double by 2050. The documentary shows that if this were to happen, it would be catastrophic for the environment.
The argumentation includes facts and figures in an easy to understand manner. The film is successful in creating a step by step, clear image of the problems involved in consuming so much meat. It puts meat consumption into historical perspective and shows the differences between industry and farming. And shows what can be changed.
On their website, the filmmakers said that most people are unaware of all the economic, ethical and ecological issues that consuming meat involves. They said that it is the goal of their film to inform and make people understand so they can change their mindset and behavior. If this is the goal, I think they did a great job pursuing it.

Without sparing the viewer any visual detail from the suffering the meat industry is causing, the film is not shocking or negative. It is a balanced film and makes viewers reflect without making them feel guilty. It presumes that viewers don’t know many things about meat production, which happens far from their view. The documentary invites them to decide for themselves who they want to be in the production chain.

LoveMEATender

The guilt-free approach to environmental issues might be a success formula. But guilt is not a constructive feeling. People don’t like to feel responsible for large-scale problems to which they feel they don’t contribute directly. Guilt doesn’t empower people to make a change. What Surviving Progress and LoveMEATender got differently and what differentiates them is their approach to guilt.

The way suffering is portrayed also makes a difference in viewer’s reactions. In general, there is a limit to how much human suffering someone can witness in a film. People can empathize with individuals or small groups. When the stories are too many and when the suffering is unbalanced and without nuance, there is the risk of compassion fatigue. This is the case with Bhopali, an American documentary directed by Van Maximilian Carlson. It tells the story of survival after the worst industrial disaster in history. In 1984, a Union Carbide plant leaked a toxic gas that killed thousands of people in Bhopali, India. The film shows the dramatic after-effects of this disaster and people’s fight for justice, even 25 years later.

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