“Anthropocene!”, “Anthropocene!” – the word is all over the place. “We are living in the Anthropocene age…Politicians and scientists have had their say, but how are writers and artists responding to this crisis?” – British academic and travel and nature writer Robert McFarlance wrote in the Guardian in April 2016. “I would go further and add that the Anthropocene presents a challenge not only to the arts and humanities, but also to our common sense understandings and beyond that to contemporary culture in general.” – Indian-American author Amitav Ghosh observed more recently in October 2016.
I cannot think of a better introduction to the subject than Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made (2014) by Gaia Vince (@) – a British journalist, broadcaster and author specialising in science, the environment and social issues. Part science journal, part travelogue, Adventures in the Anthropocene was the Winner of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books in 2015.
We live in epoch-making times. Literally. The changes humans have made in recent decades have been on such a scale that they have altered our world beyond anything it has experienced in its 4.5 billion-year history. Our planet is crossing a geological boundary and we humans are the change-makers.
Geologists are calling this new epoch the Anthropocene, recognising that humanity has become a geophysical force on a par with the earth-shattering asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes that defined past eras.
Earth is now a human planet. We decide whether a forest stands or is razed, whether pandas survive or go extinct, how and where a river flows, even the temperature of the atmosphere. We are now the most numerous big animal on Earth, and the next in line are the animals we have created through breeding to feed and serve us. Four-tenths of the planet’s surface is used to grow our food. Three-quarters of the world’s fresh water is controlled by us. It is an extraordinary time. In the tropics, coral reefs are disappearing, ice is melting at the poles, and the oceans are emptying of fish because of us. Entire islands are vanishing under rising seas, just as naked new land appears in the Arctic.
In short, humans have significantly altered the physical, biological and chemical processes of planet Earth. Alterations have led to success in many areas of our lives – communication, mobility, healthcare. But then so have challenges multiplied. Gaia Vince left her desk job in London to travel the world to see for herself how are human beings, rooted in their local communities, coping up with the changing planet.
The book, divided into ten parts – (1) Atmosphere, (2) Mountains, (3) Rivers, (4) Farmlands, (5) Oceans, (6) Deserts, (7) Savannahs, (8) Forests, (9) Rocks and (10) Cities – is an account of this extraordinary journey. As Vince globe-trots – goes from the Himalayas, to the Amazon, to Patagonia, to drought-hit African lands and deltas of South-East Asia, she remains bold and balanced.
Her practical vision of a “shared future” has stayed in my mind. More than once, she advances the following view:
…as we try to negotiate a path between the competing demands of the natural world and our human world, we’d do well to remember that, in truth, there is only the one living world.
Learn more in this video where Gaia Vince talks to the BBC’s Nick Higham about her book:
Featured: Bolivian salt flat by User “Patrick Nouhailler”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr