What Does History Say About Climate Change in Scotland?

By Hanieh Khakpour

7th May 2022

(Photograph: Living Proof)

The documentary, Living Proof, traces the roots of the Scottish climate crisis to the pages of history to find if we are able to adapt to ensure a healthy and sustainable future for generations to come.

Emily Munro, curator of the Moving Image Archive at the National Library of Scotland in Glasgow, has had a journey to history through archive footage and photos to find the roots of the climate crisis in Scotland. The result was directing a documentary named “Living Proof: A Climate Story” in 2021, which reveals the role of the demand for energy, industry, and growth in shaping the environment in Scotland.

This historic journey seeks to find out if climate change has been inevitable and what will be the future of Scotland and our planet.

Therefore, Living Proof, a co-production between the National Library of Scotland and Film Hub Scotland, starts in post-war (the 1940s) and reviews the milestones in the trend of industrialisation. 

(Living Proof Trailer)

The summary of this film has been brought up. Living Proof focuses on the post-war period in Scotland, from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s. Events and individuals glimpsed in the film include:

  • Tom Johnson (Secretary of State for Scotland 1941-1945) announcing his hydroelectricity scheme
  • Hydro-electricity workers; an early wind turbine on Orkney (1955)
  • CND protest marches (the 1960s and 1970s)
  • The new Rothes ‘super-colliery’ (1962)
  • Nature footage from Rùm
  • MP Robin Cook at the Torness anti-nuclear protest in May (1978)
  • The construction of the Murchison oil rig (1979)
  • An educational film on renewables (1976)
  • The island of Flotta being used as an oil terminal (1977)
(Photo: Emily Munro)

This film has used special music from Louise Connell, Brownbear, and Post Coal Prom Queen, which strengthens the sense of the film. 

Living Proof has been screened in different events in Scotland; the last time was in the National Library of Scotland at Kelvin Hall last week and we spoke to Emily Munro, writer, director, and producer of this documentary.

* How important do you think actions such as documentation are to raise public awareness about the topic of climate change? 

There are a growing number of excellent documentaries which aim to communicate the impact of climate change and environmental destruction, or which interrogate corporate power and the basis of growing economies. The big, high-profile films which have large scale distribution, including on streaming platforms and TV, can help to push forward awareness of the scale of the challenges we face, as well as potential solutions. My film is small, perhaps a bit niche (given that it’s made using Scottish archive footage), but I hope that it still speaks to people about the issues in a way that doesn’t patronise them or make them feel helpless. 

* What was the reaction of the audience after watching your documentary?

The audience’s reaction to Living Proof has been positive. I was expecting people to feel depressed by the footage (and some viewers have acknowledged that as a valid reaction), but I’ve also been surprised by the number of people who said the film made them feel hopeful. I suppose there is that tension in the film between the corporate narratives and those who resisted capitalist control, and also the evidence from the start, looking at Scotland’s hydroelectric schemes, that it is possible to achieve change quickly and on a large scale provided there is the political and economic will to do so. 

* What do you think about the impact of these actions or measures, that try to show the crisis of climate change, on the macro decisions of the government or large companies’ owners?

Films (and other forms of cultural production such as books) can be helpful in promoting an agenda to politicians. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring is a great example of this. But they aren’t on their own going to change anything.

 More important is what we do as democratic citizens.  We use our voices and our organising power to spread information and to ensure politicians and shareholders are held to account and genuinely represent our views. It is tempting right now to think that we have no power. It certainly feels that way for various reasons. But there are places where local organising is making a big difference, for example, in the lives of workers and for the protection of local environments and ecology, so we need to hang on to that as well as to the importance of international solidarity. Particularly in the global north, we also probably don’t realise how significant our own economic power is collectively, and we need to get better at using that to the planet’s advantage.

(Photograph: Emily Munro)

* History and the past must be the guide to the future. To what extent can this documentation of Scotland’s Climate Story lead to better decisions to save Scotland from the destructive effects of climate change? 

What I’ve tried to demonstrate with the film are two key points. Firstly, for far too long we have been preoccupied with the idea that there is a direct correlation between living standards and economic growth. As we know, that is not always the case. There are always people left behind, especially if we step outside the confines of the nation and start to examine the sphere of the world as a whole. Secondly, I wanted to show that there are routes out of the situation we find ourselves in right now. The first is political pressure, which can come from all sorts of places, but without this absolutely no progress will be made. Another route out is through thinking about the function of society. The film shows, I think, very clearly how climate change is a problem created by modern societies driven by ideas around productivity and economic growth. Money and technology alone won’t fix that. Substituting one kind of status symbol (for example, the motorcar) for another (the electric vehicle) won’t get us close to where we need to be. We need to change how our societies operate and shift the focus of value away from money toward another standard to find a clear and definitive way through.  Easy enough to say, not so easy to achieve. 

* Do you think the trend of changes in Scotland, especially industrial change, was inevitable? Was there another way?  

Nothing in history is inevitable. There’s plenty that could have been done to address environmental degradation and pollution many decades ago but wasn’t. The reasons for lack of action have been, by and large, political and economic. That is to say, so long as people with power profit from the exploitation of nature and, in particular, extracting fossil fuels (and so long as people who make profits hold power), we won’t have a society that respects the natural environment.

 The evidence offered by science that these practices are damaging has been building since Victorian times but clearly, money speaks a lot louder than peer-reviewed articles!  We’ve seen over the twentieth century in particular (though it began hundreds of years before that) a series of crises – public health, famine, economic depressions, war – which have driven industrial and technological developments. Some of these have been valuable but many others have been the conduits for harmful colonialist and neo-colonialist behaviours which benefit the richest in the world at the expense of the poorest. The question now is: are we capable of understanding the climate and biodiversity crisis in all its troubling vastness and complexity? If so, we have to accept and encourage minor lifestyle changes and major shifts in our collective behaviours. Those who have power, whether economic or political, need to share it and attitudes to those we share the planet with – human and non-human – need to be based on active empathy and support, not merely sympathy.

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