I am impressed.
I am impressed by the sheer scale of changes happening in our living environments. And I am impressed by the skill with which Gaia Vince made these these vast and mind-bending changes comprehensible and human-sized.
The Anthropocene is of course the geological epoch defined by humans’ impact on the world around us. It is the time when the species Homo sapiens sapiens made its mark on the geologic record; a time distinguishable in the earth’s crust from the one that came before (the Holocene) for all eons to come.
As a scientific concept, its precise definition is naturally under scrutiny by geologists: can we really confidently talk about an “epoch”, and if so, what would mark its beginning? As a more general-purpose concept, however, its reality is undeniable, and its image powerful.
This book is about the Anthropocene in the general-purpose sense: it seeks to document the changes that have occurred in recent times, are occurring and are about to occur, and what these changes mean for the people living in the places affected by these changes.
There are two ways of describing these changes: through numbers, such as “Humans mine around 8 billion tonnes of coal each year,” and through the personal stories of those who’ve lived the change. An accomplished science writer, Gaia Vince knows it is the latter type of description that will be best remembered.
This is why she set out on a multi-year quest for stories: her Adventures in the Anthropocene. She went from villages in the Nepalese mountains, to dams on the Mekong river, near-inundated islands in the Pacific, and fields with new crops in Uganda; she visited tribes like the Turkana and Hadzabe whose lifestyles are threatened, walked through shantytowns, cloud forests and deserts alike; she talked with victims and visionaries; in short, she travelled the world and made it come to life.
The reason I am so impressed with Gaia Vince’s achievement, is her balanced tone, her neutrality.1 Amidst topics that are sources of fierce polemics she succeeds in keeping her cool: describing where others have condemned or praised. Part of her descriptions naturally include calling certain living conditions miserable, or certain ideas helpful, if that is what they are.
And equally natural is that she’ll have carefully selected precisely whose living conditions, and which ideas, to discuss. That’s what any accomplished non-fiction writer does. But she certainly does it in a very fair-minded and balanced way. Her choice of topics betrays a real — and realistic — concern for disappearing biotopes, acidifying oceans and other rapidly changing ecological circumstances, a genuine care for degrading soils, dwindling resources and other rapidly changing social circumstances, and an optimistic understanding of people’s capabilities to organise mitigations and solutions, be they technological in nature or other.
In short, she is open to the reality that is the Anthropocene.
Since we live in the middle of it, the Anthropocene is all about change. Climate change2 is the best known of the global changes underway, but by no means the only one — maybe not even the one with the most drastic impact on our children.
The sixth mega-extinction is also a biggie: “[W]e’ve [already] lost a third of wild vertebrates just since 1970.” “The current rate of extinctions is estimated at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate.” “More than 95% of the weight of all the land vertebrates is now made up of humans and the animals we’ve domesticated.”
Forests the world over also stand to change forever. The whole Amazon rainforest, all currently remaining 5.5 million square kilometers of it, amazingly, might be savannah and desert in as little as a few decades. Oceans are acidifying, their inhabitants are being depleted, islands nations are disappearing. Rivers the world over are being dammed, diverted, straightened, and more.
Farmlands are degrading, while populations are rising and becoming more affluent. A chemical process invented as recently as 1909, the Haber-Bosch process, is now a crucial component to feed billions – while the normal nitrogen cycle is totally out of whack.
We’re mining astonishing quantities of stuff, literally moving mountains as a matter of daily routine. “We now move more rocky materials through mining and other extractions than do glaciers and rivers combined.”
And we’re building cities like never before. “A million-person city will be built every ten days over the next eighty years.” They may offer our best hopes of humanity ever getting to grips with so much change at once: