Deborah Oakley asks whether humanity can survive the onslaught of the humans.
“Humanity is no longer just another animal. In the Anthropocene, in this new world, we’re operating on a global scale; as a super organism,” said science journalist Gaia Vince, speaking at Imperial College London last month.
Our impact on the natural environment is such that we’ve precipitated a new geological era, the ‘Anthropocene’, defined by the indelible mark we are leaving on our planet’s oceans, atmosphere and ecosystems.
Scientists said this month that there is little doubt that we’re now in this new age, which began sometime in the mid-twentieth century. It’s an era marked by carbon emissions, acidifying oceans, the creation of new materials (such as plastics) and the loss of wildlife habitats and species. These changes will be visible in the geological record for millions of years.
We can’t change history, but the question now is how far human impacts will go -and whether we can turn things around fast enough to save our own species from extinction.
Trail of destruction
During her talk, Vince referred to the idea that we’re on the verge of the sixth mass extinction. And it’s not just other animals and plants that we’re destroying – our own habitats are disappearing too.
Researching her recent book, ‘Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey Into the Heart of the Planet We Made’, Vince travelled around the world to visit communities that are already suffering the effects of climate change.
She met people preparing to leave their homes built on low-lying land under siege from rising seas, and others living inland who face a similar fate as they are flooded following the construction of hydroelectric dams. She travelled to deserts that are sucking arable land dry as they expand.
Across the world, we’re plundering natural resources at an astonishing rate, seemingly blind to the consequences. Other species behave in similar ways, said Vince. Bacteria cultured in the laboratory, for example, will grow in number and consume the entirety of their resources to the point where the entire population will suddenly die out, or ‘crash’.
“Are we the first species capable of self-determination?” asked Vince. She said the key question of the Anthropocene is whether we humans have the self-awareness to take control of our fate. “How will we deal with the consequences of the Anthropocene we’ve created?”
Whilst we have a growing consciousness of our devastating impacts on the planet, some argue that the actions we’re taking seem disproportionately small. “Isn’t it just like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic?” asked a member of the audience. Such pessimism was appropriate, according to the straw poll that followed. Over half of the audience raised their hands in agreement that we, as a species, will not survive the next hundred years.
Adapting to the Anthropocene
Across the globe our cities are growing, farming practices are changing and tribal cultures are being lost. But Vince met people who are inventing ingenious and often incredibly simple solutions to adapt to the problems of the Anthropocene.
High in the mountains of Nepal, rural villagers have depended upon glaciers as their only source of water for hundreds of years. Winter snowfall feeds the frozen glaciers, which melt in spring and irrigate the sprouting crops of villages below. Now, warmer weather has turned these white hillsides into bare expanses of black rock. But Vince met a retired railway engineer who makes artificial glaciers. He builds stonewalls to create reservoir basins on shaded spots on the mountainside. Ice gradually builds up inside these reservoirs, then the melt water is funneled through stone channels to waiting farms.
Across in the Peruvian Andes, Vince saw men painting mountains white to reflect sunlight and cool the rocks to stop the precious snow from melting. “These are the desperate measures people are taking. Are we going to paint entire glacial ranges white? Unlikely,” said Vince.
Food is also in short supply, if we want to provide western-style diets for all. One solution would be to eat insects, suggested Vince, giving the example of people farming locusts in the middle of cities. She admitted that this may make our stomachs churn, but it’s important to consider such gut reactions. “Every time we think about the problems and possible solutions, we’ve got to think about social impacts as well.”
The audience was intrigued to hear about these imaginative, but often distant innovations. One guest addressed the room, suggesting that tackling climate change means tackling the ‘elephant in the room’: it’s down to us, as individuals, to make better choices and lead greener lifestyles.
This was met with the cynical jibe that in another hundred years, the phrase ‘elephant in the room’ may seem antiquated, in a new world missing so many species from corals and bees to tigers and elephants.
Deborah Oakley is a science writer, who also works at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre.