4 February 2019
I just finished reading Gaia Vince’s 2015 volume called Adventures in the Anthropocene. The book chronicles the new version of Earth that humanity’s actions have enacted, exploring all sorts of relevant topics including biodiversity, energy use, urbanization, human population, ocean pollution, fish farming, deforestation, architecture, solar radiation management, etc. It’s quite comprehensive. The book I’m familiar with that comes close in scope and subject matter is Earth Odyssey by Mark Hertsgaard (1999). Both books document the authors’ travels around our planet, seeing environmental change first-hand, talking to people on the ground. They are works of reporting. It’s been more than a decade since I read Hertsgaard’s book, but I remember it being pretty depressing as he documents one horrific issue after another. The section on chemical pollution in China was particularly shocking, at least in my memory. The tone in my memory is one of “we’ve messed it all up.” A lot has changed in the past 20 years though, and it’s certainly justified to do a new “Earth odyssey” in the context of the “Anthropocene” perspective. We should be grateful to Gaia Vince for making that happen! In contrast to Hertsgaard’s book, Vince’s reporting takes a different perspective: her book accepts that some of this change is permanent and inevitable, and we’re going to be living with it no matter what. Vince accepts that the Anthropocene is our reality, and has a more utilitarian attitude to coping with it. But her book is not a downer; descriptions of problems are interwoven with the stories of those who are countering negative environmental problems with innovative solutions or sheer perspicacity. Artificial glaciers, for instance, or electrified reefs (to encourage calcite precipitation), or extracting fresh drinking water from fog with clever net-like structures. It is a book that is infused with hope. This is summed up nicely in the epilogue wherein Vince imagines her own son reading the book in the year 2100, and reflecting on the world that he lives in then, and how it contrasts with the world in which Vince wrote the book at the start of the century. There are some terrific innovations in this imagined future (fusion reactors), and there are some sacrifices (ocean acidification, the loss of coastal cities like Miami and New Orleans). It’s a clear-eyed book in that regard. Historical examples such as the ecological transformation of Ascension Island are cited as precedent. Predicting the exact details of the world of 2100 is difficult, as who knows what game-changers are beyond the scope of our imagination at this point. The eventual reality may not match what she sketches out here, but it’s probably close enough to a hopeful, grounded vision of the future to be useful in guiding us. I did find some small typographical errors of geological details, but these were relatively minor, and I don’t think they are fatal to the overall reportage or argument of the book. It’s a useful contribution with some compelling anecdotes and juicy statistics. For instance, I learned that a quarter of anthropogenic methane emissions come from anaerobic microbial activity in the sediments accumulated behind large dams. One sixth of India’s electrical consumption is dedicated to pumping water for irrigation. Per capita U.S. meat consumption has dropped by 10% in recent years. Actually, given that it was published in 2015 (and thus the actual who/what/when/where/why details are about the years preceding that), and the pace of change in our modern epoch is so rapid, it’s probably suitable to do a new version of this book again. As with the frequent updates from the IPCC, every five years is probably good for a new, engaging global survey of how humans and the planet interact.