Synopsis: We’re all familiar with the various ages such as the Jurassic and the Paleozoic, but have you ever heard of the Anthropocene? We meet a woman who has traveled around the world looking at how climate change caused by humans has transformed areas of our planet and how people are looking for creative ways to deal with the changes in lifestyle, agriculture and migration caused by these changes.
Host: Gary Price. Guest: Gaia Vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A journey to the heart of the planet we made.
Links for more info:
Gary Price: When we talk about the different geological periods in the Earth’s life, names such as Jurassic, Mesozoic and Paleozoic are familiar terms. But have you ever heard about the Anthropocene?
Gaia Vince: The Anthropocene is actually a geological term. You may have heard of the Jurassic and the Cretaceous… periods of time that came before other animals were dominant, such as the dinosaurs or where there was an explosion of life.
Price: That’s Gaia Vince, author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A journey to the heart of the planet we made.
Vince: Our era is similarly being dominated, but the animal that’s dominating is us – humans. Anthropocene actually means ‘age of humans.’ It’s a geological term, but it’s being taken over by everybody — other scientists, biologists and beyond that to artists and writers, even politicians are now embracing the term.
Price: Vince was fascinated by the idea that for centuries humans have shaped the planet through agriculture, urban landscapes and the use of fossil fuels – those things that we chalk up to progress. We now have to devise ways of living with changes to the earth that these innovations have wrought. So, she left her home in London and traveled around the world to see for herself how ordinary people were transforming their environments to survive and, sometimes, prosper. She visited the high-altitude desert country of Ladakh in northern India where glaciers are extremely important for survival and agriculture. Here, the glaciers were drying up because of climate change.
Vince: These people have developed farming techniques and different practices, in addition to Yak farming, that are heavily reliant on glacier melts at certain times of the year. It never rains there — very, very rarely does it rain. So when the glaciers melt it’s an absolute disaster for the people there. What happens is they end up migrating to join slums in the big cities of Delhi or Mumbai. That [farming] culture is disappearing. It’s a tragedy.
Price: The people of Ladakh haven’t given up, though. Vince says that she met a man in the area who decided to create glaciers using some pretty basic techniques.
Vince: This one guy that I met this man in his 70s, a retired railway worker from India, he decided that he wanted to do something about this. He came up with this ingenious way of creating artificial glaciers. He would dig out a depression in the shadow of one of these peaks where during the winter months the sun didn’t rise high enough over the peak to cast its heat onto this depression. Then he would create stone embankments and culverts in such way that any precipitation that did fall would be slowed down, would be channeled and kept in these protected areas and would freeze and become a glacier essentially. It’s very successful, but the artificial glaciers that he’s created, and there are more than 10 now in different villages, they don’t last the whole year. They’re certainly not a match for real glaciers in their thickness, in their duration, in their longevity, but they are something. They’re creating water; they’re creating irrigation juice for these villages and enabling them to continue living in their beautiful part of the world — this remote area, and people are coming back.
Price: Vince says that climate change in that part of the world is bad for glaciers, but it’s created an environment that the farmers there have exploited.
Vince: Because it’s warmer there, they are now able to grow a whole range of plants. Originally, they could only grow barley. Now they’re also growing apricots and different types of fruit trees and other grains. So they’re benefiting from global warming. At the same time, they found a way of geoengineering back something they’ve lost due to the way that humanity is changing the planet in the Anthropocene, in this age of humans. It’s amazing.
Price: Vince found a similar situation in the Peruvian Andes. Glaciers were disappearing, leaving little in the way of water for pastures, which support the all-important alpaca trade. They came up with an idea using the albedo effect, which is how the earth reflects the sun’s energy back into space.
Vince: Ice and snow is very white. They reflect the heat and that’s why glaciers manage to survive even in the midday sun in high up places because they’re very white so they reflect most of that heat away. But once that starts melting, once the rock, the black rock is exposed, the black rock actually absorbs the heat and it speeds up that melting effect, and so the glacier disappears very fast after that. So the idea is that they paint the black rock white therefore mimicking the glacier in reflectivity. That cools it enough to let any precipitation that lands on any snow to freeze and stay frozen because there is no black to heat it up. Then that perpetuates a sort of glacial formation. They’re going to install a little windmill to pump water up and let it course down this white rock face slowly and then it freezes overnight and then it’s melting at about ten in the morning but they’re getting there they say.
Price: Not only is water a concern, Vince says that human encroachment on wild lands is causing many animals to near extinction. She visited Serengeti National Park in Africa where the government is banning Maasai nomadic pastoralists from grazing their livestock to preserve the savannahs and the animals that live there. It’s a tourist destination, but at the cost of the Maasai culture. She wonders how long we can continue to carve out exclusive environments for animals at a cost to food production.
Vince: We’re living where our population is now approaching ten billion. Resources are limited, the climate is not stable, we need to produce a lot more food. Where are we going to do it? Are we going to turn the remaining wild places into farmland? We have to make a decision; we have to make a collective decision. If we are going to conserve species — a lot of people like elephants and don’t want them to go extinct in the wild — which species are we going to conserve? How are we going to do that? Are we going to provide spaces for them, like perhaps the Serengeti where farming is not allowed, where perhaps tourists aren’t allowed, where humans aren’t allowed at all, or are we going to start moving species to areas where they’re not so much in competition? Are we going to put elephants in the heart of Australia, for example? There’s a lot of space there; they have less competition from poachers and farmers, and so on.
Price: Vince says that no matter what we decide on in dealing with climate change, we need to do it soon and on a global scale. We also need to look at the long term when we decide what to do but, unfortunately, humans aren’t programmed to look very far ahead.
Vince: If we don’t take social issues and psychology of what makes a person into account when looking at how we deal with what appears to be an engineering problem or what appears to be an oceanographic problem, we’re missing a really key part of the equation. We won’t be able to solve it, yet our minds are built to think short term. We need to be able to work out how to survive just the next day, and so for us to think long term it’s very difficult. Look at how many people actually save and have good pensions — hardly anyone. So, for every part of this what we have to do is something decidedly unnatural for us — we do need to plan ahead. We need to think beyond the next few years — sometimes beyond our lifetime.
Price: It’s difficult for humans to do this, but not impossible. Vince says we’ve learned to do things that humans aren’t programmed to do because it benefits us and the planet in the future.
Vince: We’re keeping our population in check voluntarily. Most people are now choosing to have two or fewer children. We are making decisions that are unnatural. We do have this ability and we’re going to have to apply it. People are voluntarily becoming vegetarians. This is profoundly unnatural for our species as well. It’s because we are using our minds to think about either ethical issues or health issues. We now need to apply that to the other stresses on our planet. Whether it’s what are we doing to wildlife, the wild spaces, are we completely dominating them or do we want to protect them? If we do we need to curb our hunting, we need to curb our poaching, we need to curb our habitat destruction, our pollution — all sorts of things that are detrimental. There’s no big secret about where our planet’s few changes are coming from and why.
Price: Creating artificial glaciers and preserving land for wild animals are a start, but they’re a patchwork of solutions to a much larger problem. It’s the solution to the big problem of climate change caused by humans, and its repercussions that Gaia Vince says we need to address now. You can read about her travels and how people deal with the environmental challenges around them in her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene, available in stores and online. She invites listeners to visit her website at Wandering Gaia.com. For more information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. I’m Gary Price.