There is a scene in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi where the protagonist talks of a sign his father, a zookeeper, had painted on a wall. The sign reads, “Do you know which is the most dangerous animal in the zoo?” with an arrow pointing to a curtain. When the curtain is pulled aside, a mirror is revealed, proclaiming the visitors – humanity – as the most dangerous animal in the zoo.
And not just in the zoo, but on the entirety of the planet, as Gaia Vince too reveals in her award-winning book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. In probably one of the most important books of our time (I recommend wholeheartedly that everyone should be made to read this book), Vince has contrived to show us, with no holds barred, exactly what we have done and are still doing to this planet of ours, the only planet we have to live on – both the good and the bad. Humanity could very well be the destroyer of our planet Earth – but if we choose to, we can also be its saviour.
Let’s start first with – what is the Anthropocene? It’s the term coined by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen for the newest epoch in our planet’s timeline, the time we are living in right now. The Anthropocene has come to mean the new period where humanity is the driving force behind the changes on the planet. It is thanks to human activities that the planetary temperature is rapidly warming up, that ocean currents are shifting, glaciers are melting at an extraordinarily swift pace, once mighty rivers are rerouted and drained to create hydrodams, the oceans are becoming more acidic (and in consequence, less biodiverse as the acidic waters kill off the coral reefs upon which numerous species of fish depend for their habitat), deserts are pushing further into savannahs and forests, and more and more animals are being pushed towards extinction, thanks to hunting, land clearing, mining and various other human activities.
Vince, who is news editor at the science journal Nature, spent two years travelling around the world visiting the various sites where people are either destroying or trying to preserve the natural world in the Anthropocene. It is a journey that has taken her high into the Nepalese mountains where a man is creating artificial glaciers in an effort to solve the water shortage issues that have come about from the rapid disappearance of natural glaciers. It is also a journey that took her deep into the stifling hot (and dangerous) darkness of a Bolivian mine where impoverished miners are exploited and exposed to fatal diseases just to earn a few dollars. She’s visited Bangladesh and Maldives, both countries that are rapidly losing more and more coastline to the rising oceans each year (it is predicted that by 2030, Maldives would be so completely flooded by the ocean that it would be uninhabitable). She’s visited the Amazon jungles where mining and timber companies are making swift inroads into the ancient forests, so fast that researchers have speculated that by the end of the 21st century, mean broadleaf tree coverage in the Amazon could be reduced to as little as 10% of what it used to be, with the resulting area a savannah in some parts and desert in the other.
Scary stuff, indeed. But is it all just fear-mongering? Not so. (By the way, for anyone who still remains a climate change sceptic, I highly recommend reading both Jared Diamond’s Collapse and Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene. It is indeed truly terrifying what we humans are doing to the only planet we live in and how so many of us still find it hard to believe that climate change is real, mainly because we happen to be privileged enough not to see or feel its effects just yet. But by the time we do actually feel the results, it may well be too late for any of us.
And yet it’s not all bad news. In the midst of her travels, Vince also sees extraordinary acts of human innovation and attempts to preserve what is left of the natural world. This includes a German scientist’s invention of artificial trees to collaborations between richer nations to pay poorer nations not to deforest or mine their lands for short-term economic wealth to a Caribbean man creating whole islands out of rubbish and scientists’ efforts to build artificial coral reefs. The only question is: are these innovations efficient enough and cost-effective enough to keep up with the rapid destruction humanity is incurring on our planet?
It is to be hoped that they are. Otherwise, the alternative result is indeed a scary thing to contemplate. Like most others, my main knowledge of climate change and humanity’s impact on the planet has long been limited to vague news reports on the latest science research. But after reading both Diamond’s Collapse and Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene, I began to understand far better why scientists are filled with such an urgency over the fact that we must do something now if we want to save the planet we are on, not just for future generations but for our generation. Still don’t believe me? Then read Vince’s book – and then get back to me.