________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number III . . . . June 30, 1995

The Bomb under the World Part One of The Human Race: A Species at the Crossroads.

National Film Board

VHS, 51 minutes, $26.95 Closed-Captioned. (Four video series set $99.00

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Duncan Thornton


The experiment of civilization has been a runaway success, but we now risk undermining our whole position as a species. Human beings are not an all-powerful life-form that's going to destroy the planet you know; we shouldn't give ourselves airs. We're simply another highly successful species that's approaching the point where the usual environmental controls kick in. And the usual environmental controls, I'm afraid, are quite harsh: mass die-offs are commonplace and extinctions are not unknown.

What we need now is a new kind of human being who's adapted to living in a global culture many billions strong. A global villager who can treat all the planet's people as neighbours. That's a tall order, but we human beings evolve by changing our culture. We can change the way we think and behave in mere decades. Which is just as well, because if we don't move fast, we will be very sorry that we ever invented civilization.

      In The Human Race, author and historian Gwynne Dyer, best known for his NFB-CBC series War, turns from examining the dangers of human conflict to the broader difficulties inherent in the simple size of the human population, in the way we organize societies, and in our relationship with the environment.

      In The Bomb under the World, the first video in the four-part series, Dyer takes India as an example of the consequences of the conquest of the developing world by Western-style consumerism. He opens with a metaphor that lurks beneath the rest of the film, growing more ominous all the time. We see the Bombay stock exchange in February, 1993, on a day when neither the film crew nor the traders on the chaotic floor (where India chases capitalist growth) knew that a terrorist bomb would explode within the hour, killing several people and destroying the exchange.

      It's an apt symbol of the dangers of the pursuit of progress -- cultural, economic, and environmental dangers -- that Dyer examines. While the West has managed to achieve a relatively happy and stable industrial society, as he points out, it was at the cost of two hundred years or so of Dickensian misery. Now that the vastly more populous developing world has committed itself to playing catch-up, what will the reckoning for the whole planet be?

      Throughout, the film moves deftly from personal stories -- a family of India's potter's caste, none of whose children will become potters (cheap, mass-produced containers are now available in every Indian village) -- to the larger story of how business is consciously creating a consumer culture in India through both old-fashioned advertising (an elephant-led parade), and sophisticated television marketing. And Dyer always returns to the larger questions: what the environmental and human cost of the change underway will be, in whose interests the change is happening, and what values are being lost along the way. Because the startling, unprecedented rate and planetary scale of that change make it easy to overlook the dangers it brings -- the "bomb under the world."

      The narration is thoughtful, and carried off in Dyer's usual personal, casual, and lucid style, and the visuals are constantly fresh and absorbing. India provides a wonderful setting for any film-maker, and the contrasts and changes the camera finds are striking and quickly paced (my favourite is the woman who carries a water vessel on her head in the traditional way, as she walks a path atop a giant water-pipe that brings water to the homes of India's wealthy class by very convenient but untraditional taps).

      Still, Dyer's subject is a mammoth one, and there are some frustrating omissions and simplifications. He treats the population shift from agrarian villages to crowded cities, for example, as a phenomenon of industrial capitalism, whereas in fact there has been a steady migration into cities from the countryside since at least the middle ages, simply because, for all their risks and misery, cities provide a chance to improve one's lot that the countryside does not.

      And it's odd that Dyer omits to consider that, on the whole, environmental trends in the West have been improving in the last decades -- if we can export our recent discovery of effective environmental regulation with the skill we've been exporting the doctrines of growth and consumption, we'll be well on our way to a solution.

      But the video is both engrossing and thought-provoking, and raises many questions that generally go unasked as we rush towards a Benetton world-culture.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364