By Grant Jacobs 06/07/2016


Adventures in the Anthropocene

Gaia Vince

Vintage 2014. ISBN 9780099572497.

390 pages of body text, excluding illustrations, end notes and index.

Adventures in the Anthropocene is an investigative travelogue of responses to the challenges posed by human alterations to our plant, including climate change. Her book offers a broad-ranging perspective of the impacts of the Anthropocene prefacing her visits to those working at the coal-face in many remote locations around the planet.

Cover-Adventures-in-the-Anthropocene

The title in part springs from the idea that we have entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. Geological ages are long spans of time characterised by particular changes on a planetary scale. The Holocene is the present geological age that is coming to an end.

The Anthropocene is the age of men.[1]

Few species have changed the planet as a whole. One instance would be the oxygen-producing micro-organisms (e.g. ocean-living cyanobacteria) that altered the atmosphere to contain sufficient oxygen that it supported a new class of life, aerobic life. (You might argue the direct effect was mostly on the atmosphere, but the consequences in time would be global.)

Another example would have to be what humans have done to the planet, especially since around 200 years ago. I’ll let you read her book for that story, but suffice to say that we’ve changed just about everything.

This book isn’t an ‘explainer’. It’s not going to sit you down and tell you how things are. It just gets on with telling you it’s story.

Each chapter opens with informal, fast-paced overview of the focus of the chapter: farming, waterways, mountains, forests, deserts, cities, etc.

The introductory piece done, the main section of each chapter are the result of an extensive journey around the world visiting individuals committed to the challenges in front of them.[2]

My view of the book? The travelogue aspects appealed the most. Bear in mind that is coloured by that I’ve been throughly distracted with the planning a long trip of my own trip, then the early stages of the trip itself. There’s also that as a biologist, while the overviews offer interesting examples the underlying theme of the connectedness of the activities didn’t surprise me — it’s what biologists would expect — but these overviews will be excellent (and essential) for non-scientists.

Her scope for the science is very broad.

To give a little of the idea of the scope covered, among the things she mentions are climate-related issues, GMOs, reduction in meat consumption as an ecological issue, movement of minerals long distances by wind, the effects of road development, desertification, solar energy,[3] fossil water,[4] fog nets, and much more.

I like the idea that a good sign in a book is it letting readers ruminate about things the book has touched on. That’s true of Adventures in the Anthropocene.

She notes in chapter two how mountains have layers of climates as you travel up in altitude, and how species have moved up with warming conditions, with species near the summits “stuck” with no further height to move to. I couldn’t help wondering throughout the book if an issue is that unlike many (most) species present-day humans tend not to move, but rather try to alter their immediate setting. (Perhaps some nomadic ancestors might have done so?)

Similarly, tipped off by the book I’ve written a little of rivers in the Anthropocene — one of her chapter themes — that I hope bring to the blog soon.

One project I’d never heard of was the Great Green Wall, to create a fifteen kilometre wide tree belt running 7000 kilometres from Senegal through to Ethiopia and Djibouti. There’s apparently a similar project in China.

Vince doesn’t try to tell you what you should think about each issue. It’s clear what her own point of view is, but you’re free to head where your thoughts  lead you.

The topics are too broad for me to critique formally, but the science appears to be well covered. I lack the background to do a formal criticism justice. I’d like to think that the judges of the Royal Society of London’s Winton Prize for Science Books (2015) thought the science well-covered: they judged the book to be the best for the year.

Where points in the face-paced introductory material might want to be explored, there are extensive end notes leading to further reading if the reader is so inclined.

I’d recommend this book to those with an interest in the planet, or those with a mix of travel and science interests (like me).

Footnotes

It’d have been excellent to have some science-related theme for my own travels, but after a little searching nothing appealing emerged. Of course, most things have already been done, and very well done at that. Gaia Vince’s book is original in that sense – something quite hard to do, and I suspect a reason for her book’s success. (Ideas welcome. I do have smaller science-related things I’d like to do, just no overarching theme.)

  1. Sorry. I’m playing on Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit there. Perhaps avoiding the literary reference, Gaia Vince refers to the Anthropocene as the age of humans – which is also more appropriate scientifically. But I like movie references.
  2. I won my copy of the book in a competition asking how many countries she visited in writing the book. I won’t give the number away, but it’s a lot.
  3. I’ve seen a little of the popularity of solar power in Germany and more recently in Denmark as I’ve cycled. It’s common to see a roof entirely covered in panels, as well as ‘solar farms’ occupying fields.
  4. My initial thoughts on people tapping fossil water is that it seems as unsustainable as using coal, and perhaps even sillier.

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