Adventures in the Anthropocene
A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made
By Gaia Vince
Milkweed Editions Copyright © 2014 Gaia Vince
All rights reserved.
Earth's Great Aerial Ocean, the churning sky of gases that gravity hugs to the planet, is the breath of life that ignites this unique speck of the universe. Breathe in, breathe out: the atmosphere is vital to life on Earth. It is an organ of the living biosphere – a great pulsating body that recycles the breathable air, regulates the temperature and climate, and protects us from the hazardous meteors and deadly cosmic and ultraviolet rays of space.
The atmosphere extends for an indivisible one hundred kilometres, and is invisible except through its meteorological moods that reveal clouds of water vapour or falling snow, electric flashes of lightning or the blush of a sunset.
The swirling currents of Earth's aerial and terrestrial oceans interact to create our planet's many weathers and different climates, and these dictate the conditions for life. Perhaps the most significant of these global weathers is the Hadley Cell, a pattern of hot moist air that dumps reliable rains on the lush equatorial belt, generating the planet's highly biodiverse tropical rainforests and swamps, while leaving parched deserts to the immediate north and south. The impact of this system can be seen from space as a sharp delineation of green to brown.
But life on Earth also dictates the atmospheric condition and its weathers. The world's first atmosphere was hydrogen and water vapour – it took around 2 billion years for the gas of life, oxygen, to pervade the air, courtesy of the early photosynthesisers. Those ancient blue-green algae, which survive today as unremarkable-looking stromatolites, used energy from the sun to make sugars from carbon dioxide, in the process releasing oxygen as a waste product.
The continual breathing of Earth's living organisms, from tiny ants to massive trees, depletes the atmosphere's oxygen and replaces it with carbon dioxide and water vapour. During daylight hours, especially in the summer, this respiratory exchange is offset by the photosynthesis of the world's terrestrial and oceanic forests of trees and algae. The various feedbacks between biota and air have created an atmosphere of roughly 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen with the remainder being a mix of noble gases, carbon dioxide and traces of others.
It is into this intricate relationship that humanity has stormed, adding enough warming gases to the atmosphere to shift the delicate equilibrium of the past millennia and change global climate for centuries to come.
The atmosphere acts as a blanket against the unimaginably cold temperatures of outer space, and the main gas responsible for these cosy conditions is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is invisible because sunlight passes straight through the molecule. However, it is opaque to the infrared rays that heat travels in, so, like the glass in a greenhouse, it warms the air. Sunlight travels unhindered through the atmosphere until it hits the surface of the Earth. If that surface is very reflective – like a shiny white glacier – then most of the rays will bounce straight back as light. But if the surface is dark – like black rock, soil or ocean – then this energy is absorbed as heat, which radiates into the atmosphere as infrared rays that can't pass through the carbon dioxide. In this way, heat gets trapped bouncing between the atmosphere and the Earth, warming them both and sustaining life.
We know from fossil records that the planet's climate has swung between tropical prolificacy that saw metre-long insects, and ice ages that killed off the majority of life forms. These catastrophic big freezes were the result of massive events like meteor hits or supervolcano eruptions that filled the atmosphere with so much dust that sunlight couldn't penetrate to the planet and killed the animals that produce that all-important carbon dioxide. At such times, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped as low as 160 parts per million (ppm) molecules.
For the past half a million years – the world into which humans evolved – the carbon dioxide concentration has hovered between 200 ppm (during ice ages) and the comfortable 280 ppm of the Holocene. Historically, the main fuel humans used was wood, emitting the same amount of carbon dioxide that the tree absorbed during its growth. But in the Anthropocene, the vast majority of our energy comes from burning fossil fuels – emitting the huge stores of carbon dioxide from plants and creatures that died millions of years ago. As I write this, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are 40% higher than pre-industrial levels – 400 ppm – the atmosphere is warmer, more energetic and holds more water, giving rise to more extreme weather. Scientists are saying that there is no longer such thing as 'normal climate', by which they mean what was normal for the Holocene.
We are also using the atmosphere as a repository for other gases released during combustion and for a range of other pollutants, including refrigerants that attack the ozone layer high in the stratosphere that protects us from UV rays.
And, in the Anthropocene, the atmosphere has also become humanity's global voice. Just as visible light can travel through the air, so can sound, radio waves, and microwaves, enabling instant communication by radio, telephone and Internet. The atmosphere is as transparent to the human-generated pulses in the satellites it hosts as it is to the sun's vital energy, and allows our species to traverse the globe virtually in seconds.
In 1932, King George V became the first monarch to deliver a Christmas Day message by radio to 20 million listeners from Britain to the outposts of the empire. In a script written for him by Rudyard Kipling, he addressed 'men and women so cut off by the snows, the deserts, or the sea, that only the voices out of the air can reach them'. The atmosphere of the Anthropocene is now full of these 'voices out of the air'. Imagine if we could see the beams emitted by our radios, laptops, televisions, mobile phones and other devices. For almost all of the planet's 4.5 billion-year history, the atmosphere has been lit solely by extraterrestrial flares, like suns or meteors, or by electrical storms. Now, the skies are infused with artificial lights of different wavelengths as our devices communicate with each other and with us. And that's just in the invisible spectrum. In the visible spectrum we have lit up our world so brightly that towns and cities can be seen from space at night and, for city dwellers, the stars fade into oblivion.
Satellites enable us to look down from space at our home as no eye has done before. The same cameras show us in unprecedented detail just how much we are changing our world. Using the Internet, we can pool our shared knowledge and intellectual resources to solve new problems, to cooperate in different ways and to transcend the geography of our planet to inhabit a virtual room no matter where we are physically.
The atmosphere has also become a playground for our aerial adventures, a medium for rapid and direct long-distance travel around and beyond our planet into space. Humans can now journey from London to Sydney in less than a day. We can trade between communities within time frames that allow fresh blueberries to be picked by a human in South Africa and eaten by another hours later in London.
Our technological invasion of the skies has allowed us to communicate across our species in a way that no other life form has. The atmosphere is un-ownable, common to all Earth-dwellers – it gives life with the first breath and life is extinguished with the last. In this chapter I look at how our changes to the atmosphere will help decide how societies develop over the coming decades.
I meet Mahabir Pun outside the tiny airstrip in Pokhara, some 200 kilometres west of Nepal's capital Kathmandu. He is a shortish fellow in his mid-fifties with an inflatable ball of a stomach and thick black hair that emerges at extraordinary angles above his square face.
'Gaia, come. Come!' he says urgently, setting off ahead of me at a rapid pace and agitating his hair further, so that it stands wildly up on one side.
As I trot along behind him, people gather to watch the unusual spectacle of the pale, sweating foreign woman dressed for Arctic exploration with a bulging backpack following a local guy in light cottons and open sandals.
A political demonstration earlier in the week has led the Maoist government to impose a military-enforced curfew in the area, banning all vehicles including motorbikes, buses and taxis, so Mahabir has had to walk several kilometres to meet me. But here, as in every other place that lacks functional governance, people are resourceful. Casting a sly look around, Mahabir motions for me to get on one of two motorbike taxis, while he takes the other, and we speed off.
Pokhara is a lake town, shimmering within a halo of mountains. It is closest of anywhere in Nepal to achieving the new prime minister's promise of turning the country into the 'Switzerland of Asia'. Enticing cafés and shops crowd the lanes beside the lake. Brightly clad clusters of men, women and youngsters gather at a little jetty that delivers worshippers to the pretty Buddhist temple on an island a hundred metres away. Women wearing saris are knee-deep in the lake dousing rainbows of laundry and shampooing their long black hair. Fish leap clear of the surface and birds circle overhead looking for snacks.
Rising above the town is the oddly shaped peak of Fishtail Mountain, whose sheer granite sides point a geological finger into the blue sky. It is mid-December in the Himalayas, there should be ice on this lake and snow descending far down the mountainsides. But only the highest peaks are white; pink flowers bob at head height on green stalks that sway in the sun. We stop and I remove another fleece.
The picture-postcard prettiness includes some less appealing details, I begin to notice. A fetid slick of vibrant green run-off from the town's cafés and businesses is discharging raw sewage and some sort of oily pollutant directly into the lake. Dirty, poorly clad children are poring over discarded plastic and other solid waste littering the banks – while I watch, one boy walks a few metres away, pulls down his shorts and defecates at the lake's edge. Looking upwards, I see that the quaint country homes lining the street are in fact filthy dilapidated mud-floored shacks, offering little protection or comfort for their large families. We're a long way from Switzerland here. And this is one of the most improved parts of the country.
In trying to grasp the enormity of the development task facing the poor world at the beginning of Anthropocene, Nepal is a good place to start. Sandwiched politically, culturally and geographically between two of the world's fastest emerging economies, Nepal has avoided following either the Chinese or Indian model for national growth and slid further into decline. It is one of the ten poorest countries, with more than one-third of the population living below the poverty line on less than $0.40 per day and half of children under 5 malnourished. Around 90% of Nepalis live in rural areas, many depending for survival on subsistence plots too small to support them, with little or no access to electricity, clean water, sanitation, education or health care, and national shortages of everything from rice to kerosene. More than a decade of Maoist insurgency and civil unrest has wrecked the economy and crippled infrastructure. Nepal has been incapable of even basic governance over the past few decades, and relies on an army of aid charities to avoid mass starvation – the number of NGOs in the country soared from 220 in 1990 to more than 15,000, now contributing around 60% of GDP.
Desperate times? A century ago, most people in Switzerland lived in similar conditions to this, and were even less likely to reach their fiftieth birthday.
Around the world, 40% of people (2.8 billion) have no access even to a communal toilet, which is a major factor in the 2.4 million deaths every year from diarrhoea. About 80% of illnesses are caused by faecal matter (people living without sanitation can ingest as much as ten grams of faecal matter a day). If Nepal is to make the leap in development that Switzerland made, it will need to grow its economy to make similar social investments in health, education and infrastructure. Nepali women will be able to do laundry at the push of a button, freeing up time for education and income-generating activities. Nobody will be using the public lake as a toilet. By 2048, it's predicted that the average income earned by a person in Asia will be dollar for dollar equivalent to that earned by someone in the United States. The question is how they are going to get there in the changing conditions of the Anthropocene, and without exacerbating the environmental challenges humanity faces. I've sought out Mahabir to discover how humanity's recent exploitation of the atmosphere is being used to smooth that path.
It is a five-hour tortuous drive to the tiny town of Beni ('the place where two rivers meet'), in a Toyota that dates from 1973, as the driver tells me proudly, giving the chassis a fond slap that causes the side panel to reverberate and almost detach from the rest of the car. The threadbare re-treads skid and swerve in and out of potholes along a narrow road that disappears alarmingly into gorges on either edge. We're chasing sunset, but it wins, plunging us into darkness for the final, hair-raising hour of the trip.
We overnight in a spartan hotel – made of timber, like all of Beni's buildings – and set off again at first light. There is no road to Nangi. Reaching Mahabir's remote mountain village involves a full day's hike up near-vertical paths, and it's not long before my pack is straining at my shoulders and my legs complaining at the unaccustomed exercise. In an age where I'm more used to judging distances by the time it takes to travel them by car, plane or other oil-fuelled transport, it's quite an adjustment to talk in journey times of hours or days by foot.
My laced-up hiking shoes are stifling in the sun. Mahabir had warned me that we would be trekking at altitude where there was likely to be thick snow at this time of year. 'Tonight freezing, tomorrow night more freezing,' he tells me cheerfully, as I eye his open flip-flops. Until recently, everyone in his village went barefoot, he says. Even in the snow? 'Yes, of course. But now even the poorest person has sandals.'
The ascent is immediately steep and continues so for nine hours. Every time the path diverges and I hopefully query it, the answer comes emphatically from below: 'Up, up.' It is with a certain satisfaction that I notice Mahabir starting to look a little damp and taking rather longer than before to plod up this interminable stairway.
It is beautiful, though. Vultures spiral up from below us on thermals that take them high into the eye-watering blue. The mountains seem to grow vaster as we climb and I start to experience 'peak mirage' – each time we approach a peak, the path unfurls higher and the peak recedes further up. Children often draw sky as a stripe of blue high above the grounded green of domesticity. It feels as though every step is taking us closer to piercing that blue, penetrating that mysterious space where men have placed angels and gods.
The atmosphere is vast and unknowable, but as familiar to us as it was to our distant ancestors. Who has not lain under a tree and taken pleasure at how the phantasmal wind shivers its leaves, or delighted in the puffs of clouds cruising by, or peered at night through the breathable air to the stars beyond. Until recently, only winged creatures could transcend our planetary home and explore the three-dimensional Great Aerial Ocean of the atmosphere. The closest we earthbound humans got was through arduous climbs like this, ascending slowly and painfully through the clouds to taste the chilled, thin air beyond. It wasn't until the end of the eighteenth century that hot-air balloons carried men high above the sod, giving them a bird's-eye view of our home and enabling direct travel between destinations 'as the crow flies'. Now that we can dance through the atmosphere with our toys and technologies, we can achieve a truly global perspective on our natural and artificial worlds, and perhaps even reconcile the two. Satellites orbiting the planet can allow us to track tagged marine and land mammals, measure forest loss, and compare Arctic ice coverage over decades. We can measure the transition from Holocene to Anthropocene in real time as the planet changes. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince. Copyright © 2014 Gaia Vince. Excerpted by permission of Milkweed Editions.
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