Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made
(2014) looks at humankind’s impact on Earth at the dawn of a new era scientists call the Anthropocene, or Age of Man. Whereas the shift between geological periods in the past resulted from events outside of our control, the impact humans have had on the atmosphere as a result of our carbon emissions has caused dramatic planetary change. Vince explores how the human ability to innovate and adapt that led us to this point might also be the key to saving us.
Vince sets the stage, telling of the staggering impact humankind has had on the planet in this new era Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen dubbed the Anthropocene. The state of the planet’s atmosphere, landscape, and climate used to be determined by geology, but now, it rests with the actions of humans. While the origin of the Anthropocene is generally traceable back to the Industrial Revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, says Vince, in reality, the effect humans have had on the world has been evident since World War II. Known as the Great Acceleration, the planet underwent several drastic changes in a short time period, including a population explosion, medical advances, globalization, revolutions in technology and communications, and mass production.
Extinction, according to Vince, is actually a naturally occurring and quite common phenomenon. Of the approximately four billion species that are estimated to have evolved on Earth in its history, 99 percent have gone extinct. However, the rate of extinction is typically balanced out through the evolution of new species. The human-caused extinction currently underway is occurring so quickly that evolution cannot keep up. The rate is now 1,000 to 10,000 times greater than the natural rate, easily giving it the same weight as the “Big Five” mass extinction events that have occurred in Earth’s history.
Vince then hits us with more sobering facts that put this notion into perspective. For example, humans use four-tenths of the land surface on the planet to grow food, and three-quarters of the planet’s fresh water is under our control. The rate at which the planet’s rainforests are being cleared is 1.5 acres per second. Furthermore, it took human beings 50,000 years to reach a population of one billion, but we have added one billion more people to the population in just the last ten years. Furthermore, Vince states that the large tortoises of the Galapagos archipelago can live to be 150 years old, and within one of these tortoises’ lifetimes, the islands have undergone the fastest and most dramatic changes in their five-million-year history.
From here, the author describes her journeys as she treks through Asia, South America, and Africa, from mountains to deserts to forests, in search of individuals at the forefront of the fight against the devastation human beings have inflicted upon the planet.
Vince takes a moment to provide an overview of the state of the planet’s ice. The World Glacier Monitory Service has reported that since 1970, on average, nearly every single glacier on Earth has retreated by 46 feet. Glaciers provide drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower, and they are headwaters for some of the planet’s most important commercial rivers.
Vince travels to Ladakh, India, the highest plateau of Kashmir at almost 10,000 feet in elevation. There, she meets seventy-four-year-old Chewang Norphel, who is combatting the effect anthropogenic climate change is having on nature’s glaciers, which used to provide his community with fresh water and allowed for crop irrigation. Since Chewang retired from his career as a government engineer in 1995, he has built ten artificial glaciers, whose water sustains roughly 10,000 people.
Vince then turns to desertification, explaining that the planet’s deserts are growing as climate change causes Earth’s surface temperatures to rise, making water evaporate much faster. Each year, this degrades millions of hectares of arable land. In response, China is constructing a massive green wall of trees in the hope of stopping the Kubuqi Desert from continuing to spread east. As little as fifty years ago, some of the area that is now desert used to be grasslands used for growing crops and raising sheep and cattle. Now, windstorms from the Kubuqi Desert send plumes of dust all the way across the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the United States.
In Nepal, the author meets Mahabir Pun, a man looking to transform the villages of his tribe using Wi-Fi connectivity. In the Maldives, Vince meets the country’s president, Mohamed Nasheed, who is so well known as a leading political voice on the topic of climate change that he once held a cabinet meeting underwater in the hope of bringing attention to the issue of rising sea levels. The grasslands of Africa find Vince visiting a group of Hadzabe tribesmen, whose way of life is under threat. In the lowlands of Bolivia, the author meets Rosa Maria Ruiz, who is waging a war against the rampant hunting and trafficking of wild animals.
After providing evidence of the way human beings’ capacity for developing and using technology has driven us to the current point of environmental degradation, Vince gives encouraging example after example of how this capacity is allowing us to attempt to adapt to and overcome the damage we have inflicted on the planet.