Living Proof

Living Proof is a documentary comprised of archival footage from the post-war years through to the 1980s, tracing the causes that led to the climate crisis.

The documentary filmmaker never makes an appearance, nor adds any voiceover, the material is allowed to speak for itself. And speak it does. Comment by the filmmaker seems unnecessary when the archival film speaks so directly to the audience.

It is basically composed of 4 promotional films for the up-and-coming industry of the moment. It’s basically Coal! Steel! Oil! Fuck! It ends with organised resistance to the nuclear power industry and the emergent modern green activism movement.

For a documentary which every audience member in 2021 can see is about climate change, the notion of climate or environment is almost totally absent in the majority of the film. Obviously because at the time it was almost entirely absent in the concerns of those pushing for industry. So in a way this film is as much about the negative space of what’s not being talked about, as what is.

Watching only lightly edited industry promotional films from the midpoint of the last century might seem like a bit of a drag, were it not clearly marked into chapters, each moving forward in time. And it’s striking how identical the message is every time. Someone with an authoritative accent comes on and says, “Scotland is underdeveloped! It has so much potential! Have you not noticed that everyone here lives in a state of poverty? This will end with New Industry TM. New Industry TM will make all your lives better. Work for the men. Goods for the women. Children with clean modern living and a future to look forward too. A better world is waiting for you with New Industry TM.”

And it’s amazing how those people in poverty needing lifted up by work, they’re there decade after decade, industry after industry. And at the end, they’re in an even worse position than they were, because not only are they in poverty, but the planet which sustains their lives is roundly fucked.

Of course it’s horseshit. But, even watching it in 2021 and knowing that, you feel the emotional draw of the message. Coz God, don’t we all wish there was something coming down the line that was gonna solve this shit, make our lives better. A little hope is an addictive thing. Standing in the middle of a pandemic, in a world where wealth inequality has never been so extreme, and a few narcissists at the reins of capitalism are about to ride the earth into an early grave, I actually felt envy at the people who were naive enough to fall for this.

The last film-chapter picks up where the first one began, in the Highlands, describing it as a wasteland, desolate, and empty. It is mind boggling conceit how someone could look at life growing in every direction and be like, “This is empty”. But almost half a century on, the same patter is trotted out, for what is essentially the same project that was supposed to save us last time around. Only now, with allegations floating about that it’s having a devastating impact on the planet, the upbeat optimism is touched with a wistful shrug of “Who knows what the future will bring? Who’s to say what the impact will be?” Although by that time, they knew very well what the impact would be because it was already happening.

The thing this film reminded me of most was the Jeanette Winterson book Stone Gods. It’s a novel comprising multiple smaller stories set on various planets, each focusing on two lovers meeting at the end of the world. Each time the apocalypse is self-inflicted, and each time the scenario restarts with a different incarnation of the More Corporation. Each time More learns and adapts and finds a new way of pushing constant consumption to lead to a different kind of demise. Living Proof’s rolling roster of heavy industries is just like that.

A trip through archival footage might not be for everyone, but I found Living Proof to work really well at telling the story of climate change in a way that brings it close to home, and that reminds us that this environmental problem is really a problem about people.

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