When An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, the realities of climate change, while terrifying, felt remote. Back then, global climate change was something that would arrive if we failed as a planet to change our ways. In the eight years since the film’s release, our knowledge about the shifting climate has changed drastically. Scientists have increasingly recognized the extent to which all that carbon we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere has already inexorably altered the composition and quality of Earth’s ground, sea, and sky. The stratigraphic record stands—human tinkering will leave behind a distinct signature. The changes we’ve wrought will be writ large in the rocks beneath our feet. Accordingly, scientists suggest that we have moved beyond the Holocene, the geological era that began 11,700 years ago. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning Dutch chemist, floated the term Anthropocene—meaning the era of man—and it stuck.
In her fantastic new book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey Into the Heart of the Planet We Made, Gaia Vince, a former Nature editor, travels around the globe from South America to Asia to Africa and back again to see how we as a species are adapting, for both good and ill, to the changes we’ve caused. In the process, she paints an admirably cohesive picture of where our planet came from, where it stands now, and where, perhaps, it is headed.
Part science journal and part travelogue, Vince structures her narrative much like the massively popular BBC documentary series Planet Earth, focusing each chapter on an earthly biome, from mountains to rivers, forests to deserts. Unlike the series, however, she expands the list to include modern, manmade ecosystems such as farmlands and cities. The book covers enormous ground geographically, historically, and emotionally. Vince is intrepid, chasing wild tigers through the lush Indian jungle and descending into the bowels of overburdened Bolivian mines beside ghostly men high on cocaine. In less adept hands, this might be a confusing mess. But Vince manages to see big and small at the same time, tracing a cohesive and powerful narrative amongst the mayhem. At times, her voice feels didactic or redundant—she describes rivers as “self-contained watery worlds of animals, plants, and microorganisms.” But more often her language is detailed, sharp, and illustrative: “The earliest rainforests would be otherworldly to a visitor from today. For a start, they were silent. The resonant forest hum, the croaking, buzzing, chirping, whistling calls of frogs and insects and birds was absent—nothing flew at all, and the first canopies would rustle and shake only by the wind’s breath.” Any quibbles I had with Vince’s style were quickly eclipsed by her indefatigably rigorous reporting and the subject matter’s immense power.
The scale of some of Earth’s most pressing threats is almost unimaginable, and astonishing statistics come one after another: It took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of one billion, and just ten years to add the latest billion. Every year, more than 100,000 square kilometers of arable land is lost to urban development and desertification. The Amazon is being cleared at the rate of 1.5 acres per second. Humans kill around 1,600 animals per second for food. Coral reefs may be gone entirely by 2050. The Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by 2030—or 2015. Half of the Earth’s species may be gone by the end of the century. Some we never even knew existed. And so on.
Those kind of numbers might drive some into climatological nihilism. But Adventures in the Anthropocene is a project fundamentally driven by a flinty alloy of optimism and pragmatism. The book reads like a pendulum—no sooner have we heard the worst than Vince swings us back with potential solutions. At times, the onslaught of possible antidotes to global warming’s myriad ills feels overwhelming and undiscerning. In the first chapter alone, Vince touches upon wireless connectivity, M-Pesa mobile finance, the Arab Spring, clean burning cookstoves, and women’s empowerment.
Which of these solutions actually holds the power to stop the inevitable, to turn back the sands of time and raise the dead? All perhaps, or none. Most likely: some hodgepodge combination of the best ideas that, if we’re lucky, will buy us one century at a time. The nature and reality of climate change is compromise, and no solution comes without its cost. Building dams for hydroelectricity creates “clean” energy, but can ruin entire ecosystems. Wind power kills birds and uses wide swaths of land. Protecting large animal territories can bar native peoples from their traditional livelihoods, like the cattle grazing of Kenya’s Maasai. The more we learn about the Earth, the more we become acutely aware of our planet’s exquisite delicacy.
Accordingly, we are often (and perhaps, rightfully) squeamish about the thought of engineering our climate. But it is increasingly difficult to imagine a future where we do not. What’s more, Vince presents some very heartening options, like Klaus Lackner’s artificial tree, designed to soak up one ton of carbon dioxide a day. At that rate, ten million of these trees could remove 3.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year—about 10 percent of humanity’s yearly emissions. We would need 1,000 times that in real trees to rest carbon neutral. As long as the artificial trees don’t replace real ones, this could be a breakthrough.
The book’s most astonishing gleams of hope are not technological advances at all, but individual activists and innovators, many of whom use basic, analog means to combat and counteract the changing climate. In Ladakh, a Himalayan plateau in north India where glaciers are fast retreating, we meet Chewang Norphel, a brilliant, retired engineer who has managed to build “artificial glaciers” to ensure sufficient water for the region’s struggling farmers, using no budget and only the simplest materials. “It’s hard to describe what an extraordinary feat this is,” writes Vince. “In one of the most climate-change-ravaged regions, he has effectively conjured up water, doubling agricultural yields as assuredly as if he’d swooped in wearing a cape and stopped global warming in its tracks.” In the Maldives, we meet President Mohamed Nasheed, who is working tirelessly to enact costly but essential policies that will protect his people from being swallowed by ever-encroaching ocean waves. In Bolivia, we meet the monkey-saving Rosa Maria Ruiz, who has successfully campaigned to preserve millions of acres of Amazon rainforest, and survived assassination attempts. Notably, Vince largely chooses to focus on local leaders over outside experts, those with intense emotional stakes in the survival of their home communities. They are the book’s heroes.
Fundamentally, Vince takes the Anthropocene on its own terms. Her question is not, how can we return to the conditions of the Holocene? But rather, how can we make the new conditions work for us? Environmentalism is primarily seen as a method to sustain the best conditions for an ever-burgeoning human population. This approach leaves little room for sentimentality. “If we are to take a more intelligent, intentional, managerial role over life on Earth, rather than blundering through one trashed ecosystem to the next,” Vince writes, “then we have to accept the Holocene is gone now.” Briefly, she pauses to consider nature as something sui generis, worth valuing and preserving for its own sake. But she does not build a strong, substantial case for this, and quickly moves on to greener pastures.
But embedded in the pages of Vince’s narrative are the ghosts of those who won’t be saved. For most of Earth’s animal species, any technological breakthroughs will come too late. Entire civilizations will be washed away as well. Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, another small Pacific archipelago contending with rising tides, tells Vince, “We can see [our] islands disappear, tree by tree, house by house, into the waves. It is no longer a question of ‘if the sea levels rise we drown.’ It is already happening and we have reached the point of no return… We are talking about the loss of a culture that goes back perhaps 5,000 years, the loss of a unique language, with fairy stories and songs.”
In this sense, Adventures in the Anthropocene is, at its heart, a tragedy, in spite of all its technological starbursts. Though Vince spends little time lamenting what is lost, the facts speak for themselves. They are an elegy for a lost world. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 book about the inevitable consequences of climate change, she wrote, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” Vince writes with passion, but the real strength of her narrative comes in her powerful ability to synthesize such a wide array of stories into a cohesive moral whole. Brick by brick, she builds a holistic model of the physical worlds we’ve created and destroyed. She deftly links some of the world’s greatest horrors—the lives of miners worldwide, for example—with the slight transgressions and habits we take for granted, like our need for new cell phones. Her book is a much-needed clarion call for movement, with a handy map of potential solutions. To save the world, we’ll have to change it. If not us, who? If not now, when?
MADELINE GRESSEL is a writer and journalist currently based at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. Formerly the music critic for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, she now focuses on environmental issues and the criminal justice system.