An era-defining investigation of how growth occurs in nature and society, from tiny organisms to empires and civilisations, exploring the pitfalls of the drive to go big.
MOST environmental documentaries concentrate on the environment. Most films about climate change focus on people tackling the crisis. Living Proof, assembled and edited by Emily Munro, a curator of the moving image at the National Library of Scotland, is different.
It is a film about working people and their employers, about people whose day-to-day actions have contributed to Scotland’s industrialisation, its export of materials and methods (particularly in the field of offshore oil and gas) and the associated environmental impact.
Collated from an array of public information films and promotional videos from the 1940s onwards, and set to a contemporary soundtrack, Living Proof is an archival history of what Scotland has told itself about itself. It also explores the local and global repercussions of those stories, ambitions and visions.
Munro is in thrall to the changing Scottish industrial landscape, from its herring fisheries to its dams, from its slums and derelict mine-heads to the high modernism of its motorways and strip malls.
Living Proof is also – and this is more important – a film that respects its subjects’ changing aspirations. It tells the story of a nation that is trying to do right by its people.
It will come as no surprise, as Glasgow prepares to host the COP26 global climate conference, to hear that the consequences of those efforts haven’t been uniformly good. Powered by offshore oil and gas, and a redundancy-haunted grave for a dozen heavy industries, from coal mining and shipbuilding to steel manufacture, Scotland has a somewhat chequered environmental history.
“Much harm has been done to the planet in the name of doing what is best for the people”
As Munro’s film shows, however, the environment has always been a central plank of arguments both for and against industrial development in Scotland. The idea that people in Scotland (and elsewhere) have only now considered the environment is nonsense.
Only towards the end of Munro’s film do we meet protesters of any kind, deploring the construction in 1980 of a nuclear power plant at Torness, about 50 kilometres east of Edinburgh. Munro is less interested in the protest itself than in one impassioned speech that completes the argument begun in the first reel (via a public information film from the mid-1940s): that much harm has been done to the planet in the name of what is best for the people who depend on it, both as a home and a source of income.
This, indeed, is where we began: with a vision of a nation that, if it cannot support its own people, will go to rack and ruin, with (to quote that 1943 information film) “only the old people and a few children left in the glen”.
Living Proof critiques an economic system that, whatever its promises, cannot help but denude the planet of its resources, often at the expense of its people. It is all the more powerful for being articulated through real things: schools and pharmaceuticals, earth movers and oil rigs, washing machines and gas boilers.
Reasonable aspirations have done unreasonable harm to the planet. That is the real crisis elucidated by Living Proof. It is a point too easily lost in all the shouting. And it has rarely been made so well.
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