Humanity's epic planetary facelift: Climate change, mass extinction and the uncertain future of life on earth

Salon talks to science journalist Gaia Vince about life on a transformed planet

Published November 15, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

  (<a href=''>Aleksander Bolbot</a>, <a href=''>stockelements</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Aleksander Bolbot, stockelements via Shutterstock/Salon)

The Anthropocene: Don't worry about trying to pronounce it. Don't even worry about whether or not geologists decide we've officially entered it. This is the Age of Man: the epoch of mass extinction, of rapidly acidifying oceans and of unprecedented climate change – transformation on a planetary scale, all of which we've brought on ourselves.

Gaia Vince, formerly the editor of the journal Nature and the magazine New Scientist and a current editor at the journal Nature Climate Change, has been seeing this all play out for years; for some added perspective, she took an 800-day trip around the world, encountering places where humanity’s influence on the planet is already abundantly evident – and where humans are trying to redirect that influence into something more favorable.

Problem-solving in the Anthropocene is a monumental task: If people aren’t moving mountains yet, Vince at least documents cases where they’re painting them, and, in Nepal, connecting them to WiFi. They’re creating artificial glaciers in Ladakh, using electrical currents to restore coral reefs in Bali and, back in New Jersey, trying to create artificial trees that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere much more effectively than their natural counterparts.

Vince, in other words, is an optimist. Or, to put it better, she believes in humanity’s power to change their world – for better or for worse. The problems of the Anthropocene may be dire, and they’re definitely unequal, she tells Salon, but we have innovation on our side.

Vince spoke with Salon about her book, "Adventures in the Anthropocene." Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows:

You don't delve into the controversy over whether or not we’re living in the Anthropocene. As you show, it’s very evident that humans are influencing the planet in all these different ways. But is there a certain advantage you've found to using that term?

For me and for a growing group of scientists, the Anthropocene is a recognized term to describe these planetary-scale changes that humans are causing. In terms of the geological definition, that’s going to be decided in 2016, so we don’t know yet whether it will be a geological term, but for me it makes sense just to describe it under a particular word. This is the Age of Man, just as we had, say, the Industrial Age or the Cretaceous Age or the Age of the Dinosaurs. For me, it’s just easier than using a sentence to say the same thing.

It also seems like there’s a little bit of a moral argument there: If we acknowledge that humans are influencing the planet it also means acknowledging our responsibility to do something about it.

Yes, that’s a moral viewpoint that you can take or not take. In terms of responsibility, it’s up to every individual to decide whether they feel responsible or not. For me, I think we certainly have a responsibility to the people who are alive now and who will be living in the future, who will feel the impacts and are already feeling the impacts of what we’re doing right now. We’re the only species that can have this big planetary-scale impact and that can change this, and at the same time we have to decide what of nature we think is worth preserving or not worth preserving.

It’s a very human-centric viewpoint, but we’re humans. Do we like elephants? If we do, maybe we should stop killing an elephant every 20 minutes, as we are at the moment. There won’t be elephants in 20 years, otherwise. In terms of morals, it’s not nice to kill elephants if we’re hurting them, but in terms of future generations, do we want to live in a world where there are no elephants? Do we want to live in a world where people are starving because we haven’t sorted out the way to grow crops? These are all things that I think we do have some sort of moral responsibility for.

People try to put a loaded moral value to the Anthropocene, and it’s a personal choice. We can decide what we want to do: We can be the best humans for the next generation or we can continue to blunder around. It’s a choice that we’ve got to make. I think there are lots of international and global conversations we need to be having which we’re not having at the moment.

We’re also dealing with this fact that some of us are influencing the planet to a much greater degree than others. The people you talk to in the book are the ones who tend to have less responsibility but who are also experiencing the effects of the Anthropocene right now. Did you encounter a lot of outrage about that?

Yeah, well, it’s not fair, is it? There’s a lot that’s not fair about this but again, I think it’s worth getting away from that whole discussion about that and moving to thinking about what we can do right now. Britain started a lot of this; we’re the ones that first dug up the coal and burned it, and we exported our Industrial Revolution across the world. We started all these colonies where we deforested and changed all these things. We started all this in Britain and it was followed in America and across Europe and so on. A lot of people in the poor world have had negligible effects on the climate and they are feeling the brunt of it.

You could spend a lot of time worrying about this, and it’s definitely not fair, but hand-wringing about that isn’t really, I don’t think, going to help solve some of the problems that these people are facing right now around the world -- disproportionately in the poor world, of course.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about some of the local solutions that you came across. What were some of the more innovative or promising things that people have come up with to deal with some of these problems?

Humans are really ingenious, and we do come up with solutions to our problems, and we’re doing it all the time. We don’t have to wait for the big multi-disciplinary approach from Stanford or Cambridge or wherever to be kicked into gear. People are already dealing with their problems straightaway.

There are all sorts of problems that people are facing right now. Climate change is having a daily impact on people because it’s making rains less reliable; monsoon downpours that have been able to be relied on for generation upon generation to do planting and harvesting, they’re now so out of whack that people don’t know when to sow and when to harvest. What that means is that people have to think about storage of water in a way they’ve never had to think about it before, perhaps. I’ve seen all sorts of interesting ways that villages are coming up with solutions to this, whether it’s social reorganization or different types of drip irrigation or coming up with underground storage of water and trapping what rainfall there is. The largest amount of water that humanity had, traditionally, has been stored for free in glaciers, and the glaciers are melting in the tropics. That’s a source of river water; it’s a source of water in some of the driest parts of the world. I’ve seen people who are trying to bring back glaciers that have melted, I’ve seen people trying to protect rainforests, trying to stop deforestation, stop hunting of species that are essential. All sorts of different techniques.

Some of these are transferable -- they might work in multiple geographic locations -- but at the moment there’s not much incentive to communicate how these are working and to coordinate a rollout. Or for other villages to learn how one place has used it and not necessarily copy the same thing, but learn from it, and so make an incremental improvement that caters to their particular situation. That is improving, and it’s already starting because of things like smartphones and because of better communication -- radios are available across the developing world and that’s helping with things like weather and planting and which seeds to plant. People get text messages telling them which agricultural tools to use, so communication is improving and that’s one of the ways the poor world can take advantage of a technology to improve the situation in a large region.

What about geoengineering on a larger scale? There’s a lot of controversy about whether that will ever be feasible. You describe some promising areas where people are working on that, but is there a limit to our ability to innovate ourselves out of these crises?

I don’t know. We are pretty innovative; we can try all sorts of things. We can go to the moon, so presumably... We can already make rain fall: people are cloud-seeding. In China they’re trying to get rain to fall in certain areas and I think they’ve tried it in California as well. We’ve got lots of ability to geoengineer and we’re doing it already; we’re warming the climate, that’s a massive amount of geoengineering.

Intentional geoengineering is a little different from what we’re doing now, where the climate warming is more of an unintentional byproduct of energy production...

I mean yeah, and that’s arguable in itself -- it may have been an unintentional byproduct maybe 100 years ago, but now that we know what carbon does and we’re continuing to burn it I’d say it’s not unintentional anymore. We’re fully culpable for the carbon dioxide we release and for the climate warming that ensues from it. I think we really are geoengineering. We’re changing the acidity of the oceans, and we’re basically doing it deliberately because we know perfectly well -- it’s very, very simple science -- what the effects of this are, and yet we’re continuing to do it because we’ve made the choice that this cheap, easy energy is worth the climate change that results.

That’s a societal choice that we’ve made. We could equally make the societal choice that, I don’t know, putting in reflective clouds to lower the temperature is worth the risks that that might entail. It might make crops grow more. These are all choices that we have to make; the thing is who’s making the choices and who’s experiencing the effect. That’s a problem, and we haven’t really had those decisions made yet. While we’re deciding, the simple physics means that the earth is already being geoengineered. We’re living in a different world already; this is already the Anthropocene. The climate has already changed. We’re already living in different circumstances where extreme storms are much more likely, where hurricanes and storm surges and erosion are much more likely, where drought is much more likely in certain places and floods are more likely in other places.

While we have to decide what we’re going to do about these situations in the future -- Are we happy to live like this? Or do we want to somehow roll it back? Or are we going to adapt? -- we have to, at the same time, adapt our everyday living to this changed reality. Are we going to carry on letting people rebuild houses in New Orleans when it’s bound to be flooded again pretty soon? Are we going to just step up the bill for the insurance? We have to make these decisions, and I think this is a really interesting time to be living, because this is a changed world and we have to face things that none of our ancestors faced with the same ability to do anything about it.

Watching those decisions being made right now -- I"m thinking of the attempts, globally, to reach some sort of agreement to reduce emissions, especially leading up to next year in Paris -- what’s your take on what’s going wrong there or what needs to change?

I don’t hold that much hope for the IPCC process. We’ve had a quarter of a century of that and nothing’s really changed in terms of that. I don’t bother going to them anymore. I don’t know if things are going to change there, but in the meantime, what’s going to happen, I think, is that we’re going to get more bilateral agreements, more national action. Just partly because the economics is driving it -- it’s becoming quite expensive to live in this way, with 20th-century energy systems and infrastructure in the Anthropocene. We have to adapt everything to this new world we’re living in.

Some countries are forging ahead, and they’re going to be the ones who don’t have to spend quite as much money, but everyone’s going to have to change sooner or later. Those countries and the businesses that are at the front of this adaptation are going to be the ones with the skills and everything already in place, and will find it cheaper than the ones who will have to play catch-up later.

I want to ask you a bit about the book’s epilogue, where you imagine the year 2100 through your son’s eyes. I found it very haunting -- you describe this world that’s powered by renewables, that’s in a time of peace without a lot of poverty, but with a lot of tradeoffs: the loss of biodiversity, of corals, and major conflicts leading up to it. Do you see that as an optimistic scenario for the future?

I am an optimist. I have to be, because I have a son and I’m very fond of people, and I hope to be alive for many decades to come. I try to be optimistic, but at the same time… That epilogue is just one tiny little view of what could happen. We can’t see into the future, but what we can see is the trajectory we’re going on. I try to be optimistic with that; I try to find a positive outcome in a world where there is a lot to be nervous about. A lot of things, we’ve kind of left it too late. Other ones we’ve still got time to turn it around, but are we going to be able to act in time? I don’t know.

And then there are game-changers that we don’t know anything about. We can’t see into the future, but some things could completely transform the whole of the Anthropocene. For example, if there was another Spanish Flu or some sort of epidemic that wiped out an enormous portion of humanity, that would completely change things; it would completely change everything. Or fusion power could happen; that could work, and then we’d have instantly cheap, available, carbon-free energy. We don’t know what could happen. I try to be optimistic.

By Lindsay Abrams

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