Robyn Williams: We're giving you two new special words in today's program, both beginning with the letter a: 'amplituhedron', and now 'Anthropocene', the human era of our Earth. It took Gaia Vince on a world quest to see what your impact has really been like on the globe and what you are doing to make it lighter. Her book, published this week, is called Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made.
Gaia Vince 原英国自然杂志编辑。
Gaia Vince: Well, I was the news editor at the journal Nature, and I was working at my desk and receiving every day, every hour almost, reports from scientists and so on telling me all sorts of amazing and extreme things about the planet. And I was looking out of my window in Kings Cross in London, and I thought what am I doing just reading about these places, I want to go there, I want see what it's really like. Because it occurred to me that something quite profound was happening and at a very short timescale within the time that I can look back and say 10 years ago it was very different to this in so many places. So I set off. I booked a one-way ticket to Kathmandu.
I heard of a story that looked quite interesting, a man in the Pun hills in Nepal and I thought, well, I'll start there, I'll look him up. So I went on a trek into the hills to find this guy, this completely amazing, amazing man who was using home wi-fi to connect these very remote villages. Where he lives, the village really did stop at the edge of his mountain, there are no telephone lines, there is no electricity, there is no piped water, this is a remote village, and there are hundreds like that all over the world. And so for these people, the 20th century has barely happened.
But this person managed to connect, using a home wi-fi kit, his village to the next village to the next village, all the way to Kathmandu. Well, once you can do internet telephone, Skype conversation with someone in Kathmandu, you're connected to the world because that's the nature of the internet. And that's something really profound that's happening actually in the Anthropocene is that the village doesn't stop there at the perimeter, the whole world is your village in a way, but in a very profound way.
Robyn Williams: It's like bicycles in 19th-century Europe.
Gaia Vince: Exactly, it's very much like that. So if you look at the way that the human gene pool 基因库 has changed, we have more than half of the world's population now lives in cities and that's another big, big Anthropocene signal, that people are no longer living in remote places, they are all living in cities, and so they are mingling, the gene pool is mixing. And it's something that was observed when bicycles were brought into Europe, that the villagers were merging and that the gene pool was changing. It's now happening on a global scale. So a lot of local changes that we've observed over the last 200 years in places like Europe are now happening on a global scale and that's really changing our planet.
Robyn Williams: Was the man in Kathmandu surprised to see you?
Gaia Vince: He was, because he didn't get a hold of my email, even though he has internet, for some time, and so it was a bit of a surprise visit, but it went very well.
Robyn Williams: Going back to your planning of the trip, did you just set off and just improvise place to place to place? Did the journal Nature pay for you or did you do it on pocket money?
Gaia Vince: I quit the journal Nature, I left because I wasn't sure how long I was going to be gone. I rented out our house for six months, and I paid for my way around as a journalist writing articles, doing the odd radio piece for the BBC, and it carried on. It went to one year, then it went to two years, and then after two years and four months I thought it's really time to go home now. And after that actually I carried on doing the odd trip for the book.
Robyn Williams: Tell me about some other places you went to.
Gaia Vince: Okay, so I went to another place in the Himalayas, in Ladakh, beautiful Ladakh, a little corner of Kashmir, a very Tibetan corner, where because of climate change they are losing the glaciers. And glaciers, they are incredibly important because it is actually a high altitude desert, so they rely on glacier melt during the spring time to irrigate whatever crops they have.
So another remarkable human being, and this is a story of so many remarkable individuals, truly amazing, a 70-year-old man who is a former railway engineer who lives up there has created artificial glaciers, which work. So he makes this kind of depression in the shadow of the mountain which is fed by winter water, and he slows down the rainwater in various ways using stones and culverts and so on. And then he creates basically an artificial glacier which freezes over during the winter period and melts just at the sowing season, so it's perfect. And he's made a few of these around the mountains, and the villagers love him, he's like a rain god. He's pretty amazing.
Robyn Williams: And you went to Australia as well.
Gaia Vince: Australia is one of those unique places with incredible natural resources. Most places with amazing mineral resources and so on are still like that because they are very, very poor and they are developing, and the big problem is that because they are very poor and because they don't have the regulatory framework and so on and often corrupt governments, big companies, other countries are coming in and raping the soil, they are taking away literally the soil in agricultural land grabs and they are taking the timber, minerals, the oil, and ruining those countries, whereas the richer countries have got their own framework, they've got very good environmental standards.
But Australia is in this unique position where it does still have the resources and yet is destroying them anyway. So it's a tragic story but it could still turn around. I mean, Australia is very famous for its Great Barrier Reef, and yet the first ecosystem probably to go extinct on our planet will be the coral reefs because they are being hit by this triple whammy of warmer climate, warmer oceans, acidic oceans which means they can't keep their algae which feed them, and by pollution, dredging, Australia is just building a new coal port in a very sensitive area. So Australia is very unique in that way.
Robyn Williams: Any good news, any good places you came across who are doing it right?
Gaia Vince: Yes, there are, there are plenty. There are plenty of communities that are learning. If you look globally actually we've never had so many areas under protection, so many areas being conserved. There is an international awareness now that biodiversity is important and people are trying to conserve that. I mean, if you go to a country like Costa Rica, for example, which is poor and yet which has recognised the importance, the monetary value but also the social value of keeping intact wildlife. It's very encouraging, and lots of places are doing that, lots of communities are now starting to own their own forests and to make money in a less destructive way. I am optimistic.
Robyn Williams: So you can actually make a quid and preserve this biodiversity you talk about, it's not one way or the other, you don't have to go back to the Stone Age to look after the nature around you.
Gaia Vince: Absolutely you can. If you look at the Amazon for example, selective logging is very important. I mean, the Amazon is a really, really interesting example because the government took deforestation very seriously there because the Amazon is actually on a knife edge. If it loses any more trees due to drought it could actually tip the entire ecosystem over into a savannah-like desert even. So it's very important, not just for the local people and the country, but it's also very important for the planet because it's the lungs of our planet.
So for example there are different ways of building hydro dams and different ways of exploiting the minerals beneath the forest, and there's some very controversial dams, like the Belo Monte for example which is being proposed there. But there are also some examples of places where they have done it really well. So there's a mine in the middle of the Amazon jungle, but instead of building a road there…and every single road into the Amazon is marked by a halo of 50 kilometres squared of deforestation, so it's really destructive. Roads are some of the most destructive ways of exploiting minerals. So they've actually not built a road, they are using the river to transport out…I think it's oil, it's either oil or gas that they are bringing from there.
So actually there's a tiny little pocket in the Amazon which has been deforested for this plant, very, very small and insignificant really, and I would say that's an example of how other people could do it, and it costs very little more, but the benefits are huge of not chopping down those trees.
Robyn Williams: When you went back to the journal Nature and you saw various scientific friends and you told them what you'd put together as a general picture of what human beings are doing with their entire planet, if you like…I know it sounds like almost a cliché, the planet we live on, we are thinking of it for the first time as an entity…what was their reaction? That you were being somewhat hippy-ish or that you were being genuinely scientific in your quest or what?
Gaia Vince: You know, I think the importance of a first-hand account is that you've got those scientific findings which are generally from either field trials or from small localised areas and you're putting that together with people's experience of living on this planet that you're talking about, and I think you get a broader, more holistic view of how we are living.
And you were saying that we are looking at the planet differently as this one planet. Well, I think we should also look at our species differently. We are not just a species, we are this big, giant super-organism called humanity, Homo omnis, if you like, and that's the problem. It's not you or I individually changing the atmosphere or using concrete for our house or whatever, it's the fact that so many of us are doing it in such an organised, orchestrated way…
Robyn Williams: Like a bunch of termites.
Gaia Vince: Exactly like that. If you watch how termites completely transform a landscape, military-style, we are doing the same thing, and we are doing it to the whole planet. It's quite extraordinary, it really is.
Robyn Williams: My final question is about really the reception people have, the ones who are not so much educated, who really are hit with this scientific dichotomy. You know, here is the normal way they do things, they want to look after their house, they want to feed the kids, they want to cope with life, which is difficult enough, and then someone turns up and says; Hey, science, take notice! Do you think people are taking notice of science? Do you think they are willing to be receptive about what after all is the evidence about the place that they live?
Gaia Vince: I think it's very difficult because on an individual level you feel that you are very small in this enormous big problem and that what you do to lead your life has very little impact. You know, if I use recycled toilet roll, is it going to change the forests? Or if I use some embossed royal paper it's going to have no difference. But what we need to do is start thinking as a super-organism. We need to start thinking about how we can transform this being.
We are now in the Anthropocene, we are very much living 20th-century lives. We're not in the 20th century, we're in a completely changed epoch. It's a fundamental difficulty to get your head around because our agriculture, our cities, our vehicles, everything, our entire energy system is built for a completely different epoch, it's built for the Holocene, for a time of plenty when we were a less numerous species, when the resources were plentiful, when we didn't have to worry about trashing the oceans because they were a massive, massive big pool of water that we could throw whatever we wanted in. Now we're realising that that's not true anymore, we are this giant species which is transforming the planet, and we need to recognise that, we need to become more self-aware, and we need to redesign the way we live for this new epoch. We need to think about how we produce energy and food, and it's going to be fundamentally different. It doesn't have to be worse but it has to be different because it's not sustainable how we are doing it at the moment.
Robyn Williams: Fortunately we have the sophisticated political systems to face the challenges and to do what's needed. Gaia Vince's book is called Adventures in the Anthropocene, and is published this week. She is the former editor of news for the journal Nature.
Some of those points Gaia Vince made just now are beautifully illustrated in papers just published in the journal Science, that's of 6th June. One is called 'Humanity's Unsustainable Environmental Footprint', and comes in part from Thomas Wiedmann at the University of New South Wales. The other paper is on the Amazon and the heroic difference Gaia Vince talked about, slowing deforestation through public policy. The ideas, you see, are based on evidence.