Book review: Adventures in the Anthropocene - deadly age of man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2015, 10:41pm

Adventures in the Anthropocene
by Gaia Vince
Milkweed Editions

In her new book, science writer Gaia Vince lays out the damage human beings have wrought on the earth: polluted oceans, depleted stocks of wildlife, burned-out forests. The list goes on. And with global warming comes a host of new problems: climatologists announced last month that 2014 was the warmest year on record.

So, is it possible to fix the earth?

That's where Vince begins her real work, framing the question as a series of engineering problems: how will we find the water to quench our thirst, the food, the energy? And how will that be done without destroying what we haven't already degraded?

She begins with a summary of human history. Just 74,000 years ago, a super-volcano wiped out all but a few thousand human beings. From there, with our brains and our ability to control fire, we set out on a planet-conquering course. In just the past 150 years, particularly since the second world war, we have grown at a tremendous pace: a 45-year-old person today has seen a doubling of the earth's population.

"The same ingenuity that allows us to live longer and more comfortably … is transforming earth beyond anything our species has experienced before," writes Vince. "Welcome to the Anthropocene: the Age of Man."

Time and again, Vince shows that human beings have influenced the natural world to such a degree it can no longer self-regulate. The only way to correct the incursions we've made is with more of them.

Skipping from the Amazon to the Himalayas to the African plains, she documents the ways we've changed the earth, and how new geo-engineering projects may save us. It's an age in which we genetically modify foods to make them more nutritious, seed clouds for rain and paint mountainsides white to create glaciers. But these feats come with trade-offs: a mega-dam in Chile would provide much-needed power at the expense of a pristine environment.

Vince kicks off each chapter with a litany of facts, arming the reader with information before she takes a close-up look at a person or place on the frontlines of the environmental fight. Her reporting makes for the best reading as she meets Pacific islanders who are buying land at higher elevations to escape the rising ocean; an engineer in the mountains of northern India who has come up with a clever way to store water; and villagers in Peru painting a mountainside white to reflect the sun's energy back into the atmosphere as glaciers did.

The book's ambition to cover all of the planet's woes can leave the reader feeling overwhelmed at times as Vince speeds from one problem to the next, throwing out possible solutions. But Adventures in the Anthropocene is oversall a readable if somewhat superficial take of the planet's pulse. So can we fix things?

Time will tell if Vince's book acts as a guide to engineering ourselves back to health, or merely a list of steps that could have been taken.