The Holocene represents an era of geological time beginning with the conclusion of the last ice age. This epoch witnessed the rise and fall of every human civilization. It is characterized by its relatively warm temperatures compared to the previous epoch, the Pleistocene. This epoch, the Holocene, allowed life to flourish in its temperate climate. The warm weather making the struggle to live easier for most creatures. Humans thrived, explored, and our population grew steadily, as did our impact on the Earth.
The Holocene began 12,000 years ago and, it is argued, that it came to end around the latter part of the 18th century. At this time, humans began to put greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and our dominion over land and sea spanned the globe. Since the industrial revolution, a Great Acceleration has been underway and the impact of humanity on Earth is clearly noticeable. In 2000, Paul Crutzen, a renowned chemist, argued that as a result of humanity’s vast impact on the Earth, it was prudent and necessary to mark the end of the Holocene and begin a new geological epoch; one that took into account the incredible force of human existence on earth. He deemed this new epoch the Anthropocene, and argued that the impact of humanity on the Earth’s ecosystems had become too powerful to remain unmentioned.
The Anthropocene, or the Human Age, began around the end of the 18th century but was amplified greatly after the two World Wars in the 20th century. This is known as the Great Acceleration, a period of time during which a rapid increase in human activity occurred. For example, “it took 50,000 years for humans to reach a population of 1 billion, but just the last ten years to add the latest billion.” The explosion of the human population, along with the needs to sustain such a massive population, affected the Earth in remarkable ways. Our need to feed 7 billion people strains farmlands and fisheries across the globe. Our need to transport resources and ourselves puts more greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere than ever before in history. Our oceans are rising and becoming more acidic with each passing year. From Russia to Bolivia, our forests are being depleted. Deserts are expanding. We are experiencing the 6th mass extinction in our planetary history and it is estimated that 20% of plant and animal species will disappear in twenty years. And while there are certainly geological, atmospheric, and ecological factors that are contributing to these drastic changes in the Earth’s biosphere, there is no greater contributor to these changes than humans.
In her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Heart of the Planet We Made, nature and science journalist, Gaia Vince, travels to the far reaches of the globe in search of individuals and communities greatly affected by the rise of the Anthropocene. In the second chapter, Ms. Vince travels to Nepal, where she encounters a scientist, although he would likely refer to himself as a farmer, who has discovered a way to create artificial glaciers to support the all-important spring irrigation. Natural glaciers used to provide the essential water for irrigating the fields, but due to rising global temperatures, the glaciers have receded above the tree line on the mountain, and the only water that comes from them are small creeks.
Gaia travels to the Maldives to explore how its citizens are coping with the rising seas that threaten to sink the islands. She discovers that they are considering constructing artificial archipelagos, and are even in search of a potential new home for all Maldivians. The islands are expected to be completely underwater by the end of the 21st century, and to be uninhabitable years before that due to storms and flooding.
Her adventures in the Anthropocene yield interesting insights into how large swaths of humans are adapting to their changed environments. The book explores the most affected regions and uncovers ordinary people making extraordinary innovations to protect and maintain their homelands. Although some may read this and be filled with despair, Vince dismisses that despair in order to dispel the inaction which follows. Instead, she focuses on the hope that the stories of these communities inspire others in the world to take action to protect and defend the Earth. It may be easy to deny scientific assertions about global temperatures, ocean acidity, or climate change as a whole, but it is much more difficult to deny the stories and experiences of people dealing with the direct effect of humanity on the biosphere.
Ultimately, Vince argues that humanity has a greater role than all the other species that have walked the Earth. We have a responsibility, as thinking and loving beings, to protect the Earth and make it a habitable place for all species. Are we to ignore our impact on the Earth, and continue to plunder and consume resources without conscious thought of our power? Or are we to understand our place in the biosphere and take steps to protect the Earth for our future generations? I’ll leave you to decide your role in humanity’s, and Earth’s, future, and I hope that there are enough individuals out there who see that climate change isn’t happening. It’s happened.
Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey into the Heart of the Planet We Made was published in the U.S. by Milkweed Editions of Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is available for purchase at SubText today.