Sleepless nights bring on drowsy days, and for those experiencing this disorder because of heightened concerns about global warming, awakening in the middle of the night, screaming, there is a remedy, read Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene –A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made- Milkweed Editions, 2014.
Gaia Vince, the former editor of the journal Nature Climate Change, the news editor of Nature and online editor of New Scientist, left her professional life in London to travel the world in search of answers to what is really happening and what people are doing about it.
Her book is a masterpiece on two counts. She adeptly explores human interference in the climate, but she also discovers human ingenuity at work on the frontiers of radical climate change. Remarkably, the very people most impacted by global warming / radical climate change are adapting in the most ingenious ways imaginable. Herein, there are lessons for the developed world. People on the very edges of modern-day civilization are coping, inventing, and realizing a future in the face of tremendous odds against them. Hers is a wondrous, remarkable, but heart-rending story.
Gaia’s spectacular writing skills bring the reader face-to-face with life in the bush, in the desert, in the mountains, all across the planet very similar to a real life experience, and of course, it is real life experience because she takes the difficult journeys that few dare consider.
She travels to Ladakh, India, the highest plateau of the state of Kashmir, at nearly 10,000 feet elevation where she meets a man known as the “Glacier Man,” named Chewang Norphel, 74-years-old, who is fighting back against anthropogenic global warming’s melting away of nature’s glaciers, which formerly provided his community drinking water and crop irrigation: “So far, he has built ten artificial glaciers since he retired as a government engineer in 1995, and their waters sustain some 10,000 people,” (p. 54). A photo of one of Norphel’s artificial glaciers follows p. 146 in her book. It is a marvelous example of low technology overcoming nature’s worst nightmare, radical climate change.
As a preface to Norphel’s absolutely remarkable, beyond the imagination, situations, Gaia gives an overview of the world’s ice, bringing into focus the challenges faced by people, like Norphel. The World Glacier Monitory Service reports that, on average, since 1970, almost every single glacier in the world has retreated by 14 meters (46 feet). These behemoths are the “water towers for most of the world,” providing irrigation, drinking water, and hydro power as well as serving as headwaters for some of the world’s most important commercial rivers, like the Lancang, the “Danube of the East,” in China, where Chinese scientists claim 70% of the headwater glaciers are already gone, Wang Guanqun, ed., Glaciers on China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Melting Fast due to Global Warming, China Weekly, Global Edition, (xinhuanet.com), Oct. 21, 2011.
Back in Ladakhi, global warming has disrupted lives at a disquieting rate, as anthropogenic warming of the region turns mountain colors from white to earthen. Within lifetimes, residents have watched entire glaciers disappear; only the very tops of peaks remain white. Moreover, equally disruptive, the tiny, small precipitation that does fall has become erratic, unpredictable, not like the old days when they could plant crops according to the rhythms of nature regularly bringing a little rainfall to supplement the ever-present glacial water from days of old. Those days are gone, as radical climate change has altered nature’s course.
Heat is felt everywhere on the planet, in the Anthropocene, the world’s deserts are growing as a result of global warming increasing the Earth’s surface temperatures; the water evaporates much faster. Desertification degrades millions of hectares of arable land every year. Fighting back, China is building a giant green wall, a tree belt, hoping to stop the Kubuqi Desert from spreading east, the front line of the huge Chinese Dust Bowl, the world’s biggest dust bowl. Fifty years ago, portions of this same eastern desert area were grasslands, growing crops, raising cattle and sheep. Today, windstorms from the Kubuqi send plumes all the way across the Pacific to the U.S. West Coast.
“Northwestern China is on the verge of a massive ecological meltdown,” Lester R. Brown, The World’s Biggest Dust Bowl: China is Losing the War on Advancing Deserts,” The New York Times, August 13, 2013.
Gaia travels to Lima, Peru (pop. 9 million) to see how people in the high desert are coping with desertification. Lima receives less than 1.5 centimeters (1/2 inch) of rain per year. It is the second largest desert city in the world. Over the years, the city has relied upon the Rimac River for its water, fed by glaciers of the Andes. More than 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers are in Peru. However, since the 1970s, two-thirds of the glaciers supplying the Rimac have disappeared, melted away into the fabric of anthropogenic global warming. Nowadays, Lima, a city of 9 million, frequently experiences water rationing, and at times turning on the tap brings nothing at all. Nine million people!
On the outskirts of Lima two million migrants live in poverty, and it is here in the community of Bellavista, a shantytown, where people have few, if any, material goods, a man named Javier Torres Luna is fighting back against the ravages of desertification.
Javier is attempting to reforest the sand dunes, but there is no rainwater! However, during the months between May and November of every year, the area experiences very high humidity, a thick, grey fog perpetually hangs over the city. It is because of a thermal inversion. Fortuitously, fog is a cloud of water vapor.
Luna captures the water vapor. He has erected a series of large nets to harvest drops of water. The nets condense the fog vapour into liquid water. The California redwood tree, the giant Sequoia, does the same, realizing about one-half of its water from fog.
Luna’s nets catch the water vapour, which flows thru pipes into a sand filter into storage tanks. The water is used for drinking, washing, and irrigating tree saplings. Within four years, the trees will trap the fog and produce self-sustaining run-off that will replenish ancient wells for the first time in 500 years, ever since the Spanish conquistadors cut the old forest for timber.
One after another, Gaia’s personal experiences bring forth remarkable stories of human ingenuity, fighting back against anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, “an extinction event” haunts her pages: “Extinction is actually a natural and common phenomenon – of the roughly 4 billion species estimated to have evolved on Earth, 99% are gone – however, the extinction rate is usually balanced by the evolution of new species. The current, human-caused extinction is happening so fast that evolution cannot keep pace. … the current rate is 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate, putting it easily on a par with the so-called ‘Big 5’ mass-extinction events,” (p. 239).
It’s casually easy to read “the current rate is 1,000 times,” but it is nearly impossible to fathom 1,000 times. Consider this, the edge of the solar system is 1,000 times farther away than Pluto. The point is: A thousand times anything is huge; for example, multiply one’s salary by one thousand.
What if humans are changing the natural rate not 1,000 times but 10,000 times faster, as suggested as a possibility in Gaia’s book?
For example, the Galapagos archipelago: “In the past 150 years – within the lifetime of one of these big old tortoises – the islands have experienced the greatest and fastest changes in their 5-million-year history….” (p. 252). That looks like it could be 10,000 times!
Speaking of rapid change: “… as we head into the Anthropocene, rainforests are being cleared at a rate of 1.5 acres per second, with deforestation penetrating even the interiors of the last remaining virgin rainforests,” (p. 267). That’s 57,600 acres per day or 21,024,000 acres per year.
Twenty-one million acres per year is considerable, the consequences: “The world’s biggest and, arguably, most important remaining rainforest, the vast tropical Amazon, which sets the climate and rainfall patterns for the entire continents, is now under such threat that scientists fear it will switch to savannah, and then desert, within decades,” (p. 267).
“Within decades” is very rapid depletion of the rainforests, which “set the climate and rainfall patterns for the entire continents.”
The Future – 2100
Gaia’s The Epilogue: The Age We Made is the final chapter of her wonderful, intriguing well-written book. She leaps ahead to October 10, 2100, introducing her son Kipp, who is 87-years-old in 2100, and she describes the world around him. Her description of the world is full of surprises but also meets some expectations. However, decidedly, very decidedly, the world has changed a lot, really a lot… read the book!
Maybe you’ll sleep better knowing that human ingenuity is alive and well amongst people in the most remote corners of the world, where few elect to travel, other than Gaia, who undertook one perilous journey after another to the far reaches of our planet, where modern society’s influence is reduced to anthropogenic climate change.
Postscript: “Nothing, however, compares to the scale and speed of our planetary impact since World War Two… Known as the Great Acceleration… It took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last ten years to add the latest billion… But the Great Acceleration has been a filthy undertaking,” Gaia Vince, author.
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at email@example.com