How do you write a popular book about the Anthropocene? The task of describing the Earth as it enters a new geological age—one in which humans have knowingly caused irrevocable damage—sets its own demands. The unique attributes of climate change defy the human imagination as questions of scale, both spatial and temporal, work against the professional writer’s desire to visualise, dramatise and personalise.
For Gaia Vince, former news editor of Nature and online editor of New Scientist, the challenge was to go beyond the daily headlines, statistics and entrenched arguments between campaigners and corporations. To do this, she left her desk in London and set off on “a quest” that took her—over 400 pages—from Colombian slums and Bolivian mines to Nepalese mountains and Rwandan highlands. The brief she set herself for was simple enough: “to discover whether our species will survive, and how.”
“Adventures in the Anthropocene”—the fourth book to be discussed in the Anthropocene Reading Group—stands out from the others as the first that might be taken to the beach. Vince’s intrepid reportage has won her generous reviews and the Royal Society Winton Prize for science books, and it’s easy to see why. Nearly every page throws up an arresting fact, whether it’s the scientists predicting that palm trees will appear in the Antarctic (something similar used to grow there 55m years ago) or the desert beetle that condenses fog on its corrugated back and then does a headstand to drink it.
Vince divides the bulk of her quest into 10 chapters (forests, deserts, cities, etc.) each of which follows a similar format. First come several italicised pages giving the long-distance view. “As Earth cooled,” she writes, evocatively, in “Oceans”, “it rained for thousands of years.” Then the reader catches up with Vince somewhere enviably remote—a tiny airstrip or a mountainous path—as she meets a local guide. These gatekeepers to far-flung communities introduce Vince to the two faces of the Anthropocene. The first is a problem that’s been brought about by climate change or resource scarcity. The second is an ingenious scheme to turn that problem around. The set-up for the “Mountains” chapter is characteristic: “I’ve come to Ladakh,” Vince writes, “to meet a remarkable man who is taking on the global-warming challenge and winning.”
The remarkable man in question is 74-year-old Chewang Norphel, also known as the Glacierman, whose Kashmiri community was threatened by the glaciers disappearing, the irrigation systems drying up and the harvests failing. Norphel’s masterstroke was to divert the “waste” winter water that never gets used into shallow pits where the water collects and re-freezes. Later in the year, when it’s most needed, the water melts. So far Norphel has built 10 artificial glaciers, providing water for 10,000 people. The strength of Vince’s book comes from these bittersweet pairings: on the one hand, the sheer degree to which climate change has already affected the lives of many communities around the world is shocking; on the other, the canniness and determination of the responses is uplifting.
Take Lima in Peru, the world’s largest desert city after Cairo. Its nine million inhabitants are dependent on water from the shrinking glaciers of the Andes. What Lima does have is a thick grey fog that hangs over the city from May to November. Large nets now condense the fog vapour and harvest the raindrops from the wet air. Time and again, the techno-optimistic response testifies to the power of adaptation and small-scale geoengineering. But these are, of course, individual responses to collective problems that lie deep within the global economic system. As the indefatigable Vince crisscrosses the continents, her adventures raise more and more concerns: isn’t the camera facing in the wrong direction?
The book is subtitled “A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made” and the “we” pops up frequently. As we warm the atmosphere. We need to radically rethink. If we are to restrict. We’d do well to remember. We will have to decide. But no “we” is identified. Certainly the “we” who might be seen as culpable for the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere over the last 250 years remains uninvestigated. A journey to the heart of the Anthropocene might have taken a more politically minded reporter into the boardrooms of Sinopec, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil.
The reader’s admiration for Vince’s note-taking grows from chapter to chapter as she stands a few metres from a Bengal tiger or crawls on all-fours along a passageway in a silver mine. In an Amazon rainforest, she remains coolly Darwinian: “We become, on entering, just another piece of flesh wandering around for anything to take bites out of, inhabit or incubate eggs in.” But the journalistic and scientific objectivity that’s on display here—her twin lenses of investigation—comes at a price. Without any self-reflection, the journey can only go so far.
A good deal of the information that’s presented is extremely bleak, but the tone remains brisk. As Vince leaves the Mekong River she admits the knowledge that in a few years’ time it will no longer be navigable makes her momentarily sad, but nostalgia is “a pointless sentiment”. There are no details given about how Vince first made contact with any of her guides, or how she got to any these places, or what her partner, Nick, who travelled with her and took the photos, thought of any of the sights. Why, in this context, does the detached authorial stance feel wrong?
At some point, a reporter setting out from London needs to acknowledge the long and intricate relationship between capitalism, colonialism and rising levels of CO2. She is going to be awkwardly aware of the historically complicated narrative around climate change and the size of her own carbon footprint. It’s not possible for any of us to stand on the outside of the Anthropocene which is why a journey into this subject needs to recognise the messy compromises and complicities that come with it.
More subjectivity would have entailed another kind of journey—a deepening critique, perhaps, of the political systems and social structures that lead to the problems that Vince reports on. Such a journey wouldn’t just salute the Davids around the globe who are standing up against Goliath-sized problems. It would acknowledge that the “we” that is so readily invoked in these pages turns out to be Goliath. That kind of quest necessitates—as true quests do—a turning inwards. The adventurer re-evaluates the society from which she has departed, and to which, having seen things that few others have experienced, she returns with new insights. These adventures, then, don’t represent a journey to the heart of a terrible dilemma. They are more like travels round it.
Robert Butler is a postgraduate researcher in the Geography Department of The Open University.