In 2015 Gaia Vince became the first woman to win the Royal Society's science book of the year prize for her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene. She spent two years on the road investigating how communities across the world are coping with climate change. Here, she shares the five best books on climate change and the Anthropocene – the geological epoch of man.
Before we go any further, can you explain the concept of the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene means “the geological age of humans”, and what it’s saying is that something dramatic is happening at the moment involving planetary change. We should be in the Holocene, the period that began when the glaciers retreated 11,000 years ago. These geological epochs come and go, they normally arrive or disappear due to big events like massive climate change, an asteroid impact, a super-volcanic eruption, something like that. Now scientists are saying something new has happened to the planet to completely change it, and that this has been done by humans. It has never happened before that a sentient being has consciously changed the planet. It’s quite something to get your head around, that a species could do that and that it’s us, and that we are having effects everywhere from climate change and extinctions to the drought that is causing the rivers to dry up and the habitat loss that’s causing the rhino to go extinct.
Your first book is Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by the author and journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, published in 2006. Can you tell me a bit about this book?
This is a fantastic example of a writer actually going to the scenes that she’s talking about. Most of the books dealing with climate change until that point were written by academics working in the field, who were trying to convince people that climate change was happening and why.
Field Notes was refreshing, a trailblazer, in that Elizabeth Kolbert actually went to communities that were being affected, that were on the frontline of climate change, as the book says. She talked to people about how their daily lives, their livelihoods and traditions, were changing. What that did immediately was humanize the issue. Rather than climate change being an abstract notion, something that we might have to deal with one day in the future, you read the book actually caring and realising that people are being affected by it now.
“These people really are at the forefront of this global change ”
Field Notes is quite a bleak book, actually a lot of the books I’ve chosen are pretty bleak, but it’s the first example that I read where I thought she’s taken a scientific subject, something that climatologists, oceanographers and perhaps ecologists have been talking about, and made it relevant to people. It’s also beautifully written, it’s almost a work of literature. She takes you to these places and it’s very immediate.
What kind of places did Kolbert go? Are there any particular stories that stood out for you in the book?
One of the examples was Banks Island in Canada, in the Arctic Circle. She talks to Inuit people living there, people whose livelihoods are completely changing. They can’t fish as they used to. They have no words to describe the new species that have migrated to their world as it warms, such as the robin. They’re suffering an assault, essentially, on who they are as people. Because once your identity is stripped away by living in a completely different climate—if you can’t wear the clothes you used to wear, if you can’t hunt the animals you used to hunt, if your entire lifestyle changes—then who are you really? These people really are at the forefront of this global change and that’s very memorable.
Let’s move on to your second choice, When the Rivers Run Dry, published in 2007. This is by another journalist, Fred Pearce, a consultant at New Scientist magazine. He’s talking about what’s going to happen if we run out of water.
When we think of rivers we think of these enormous forces that seem impervious to change by humans. They have always run their course and we might have extracted from them and we might have slightly polluted them but essentially they are these geographic forces that we can’t really change. What Pearce does here is to say no, that’s not true, we are in danger of losing something that is fundamental to human society. We have very limited freshwater, and almost all of it comes from rivers in some way. We’re either using groundwater or glacial water, and that’s normally carried in rivers, or water from lakes and reservoirs, and again these are normally fed by rivers. So rivers are essential to humanity. Pearce is talking about how we are killing our rivers, how we’re killing our water sources and what that means for people.
He again is someone who goes to the source—no pun intended!—of the stories that he talks about. He does proper on-the-ground reportage. He talks to people affected, for example in a small Indian village where people are extracting water much faster than it can be replenished, using new electric pumps for irrigation. They’re on a knife-edge, a catastrophe is about to happen, because the aquifers are running incredibly low and people’s need for water is growing. There’s huge uncertainty in this book about what on earth is going to happen in the future.
“We are in danger of losing something that is fundamental to human society”
He also looks at issues of damming. A lot of rivers are being tapped for hydropower but what does that mean for the people downriver, or the people upstream, who depend on the water? The conflict at the heart of this story is about unequal power and unequal rights to the water. Where communities develop and grow up around a water source, they depend on it for everything – for drinking water, agriculture, their animals and so on. If the land rights adjacent to the river or the river rights are taken and given to, say, a corporation that wants to plant a very thirsty crop like cotton, or to a hydropower facility, then it affects millions of people. And these people often have no say at all.
What are the consequences Pearce foresees if we aren’t able to conserve our water resources?
Agricultural collapse, human migration. They are quite profound.
Does he offer solutions or is the book simply a warning?
There are some examples of where water sharing has really worked, when all the players come to the table and a more equitable decision is taken. That happens rarely but where it does happen he’s there to report it.
Your third choice,Last Chance to See, was published in 2009. This is a collaboration between the author Douglas Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine. They are travelling around the planet, looking for the world’s most endangered species. How does that go for them?
This is a funny book, as you would expect from anything Douglas Adams works on, and it’s a book to treasure. It’s one of the finest examples, I think, of popular science writing. It’s got a really strong narrative. You want to turn the page, you don’t feel you’re reading it just to better yourself. It’s also a very powerful book. We’re talking about species—such as white rhinos in the Congo, giant Komodo dragons in Indonesia, and the bizarre aye-aye of Madagascar—that are about to disappear from our planet because of us. They are of absolutely no use to humans, yet this book makes us care about their fate. We feel that without them, the world would be a far poorer place.
The concept of this book is compelling – the idea of tracking down these species we may never see again gets straight to the heart, doesn’t it?
Exactly. The concept is obvious and it’s very compelling because these are all charismatic species. If they disappeared it might not have huge consequences for humanity, we’re not talking about honeybees going extinct, but what a shame if a species like the rhino were to disappear from our planet. This is a book obviously for readers but it’s also a book for writers of science to understand how to capture the imagination of readers. The science is very lightly put there but there’s enough to make it a science book. It describes the incredible efforts going on around the world by conservationists to save important parts of the natural world from ourselves.
There’s a real travel theme to your books so far. You clearly value books where people have done the legwork. They’ve gone to all of these remote places around the planet to bring those stories back.
Yes, to me the best popular science books are not just a synthesis of the research, you want to feel that the writer has something special to give you and something they have brought to you from around the world. The world could be as small as their room but it has got to be something original, something different, something they have thought about and experienced and can bring to you that you can’t necessarily get yourself. For me that’s what makes a good book. Any book, but also a good science book.
Let’s talk about your next book, which is The End of Nature, published in 1989 by the US environmentalist Bill McKibben. Why did you choose this book?
This is the fundamental environmental book. It’s either this or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
I wondered if that would be on your list.
I considered it, but much of the material in Silent Spring is dated now – although some of it isn’t, and the book absolutely drove environmental change. It was also written from a slightly different perspective, because it focused on pollution, particularly the way the overuse of DDT was killing birds. So I’ve chosen The End of Nature because it’s the fundamental book about the global planetary change that we’re undergoing. McKibben talks about global warming, extinction rates, pollution, all of these things. This was before anyone came up with the idea of the Anthropocene, so it really was before its time. It was a very early take on the concept.
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McKibben is saying that we are destroying nature. It’s interesting, but I don’t agree with all of it. For example, the book is very much about humans versus nature. But we are obviously part of nature, there’s nothing artificial about us in that sense. And we rely on nature for everything, to clean our water, and to provide our food, all our materials, everything. So we are of nature, but we also hold the natural world’s destiny in our hands at the moment. So there’s this antagonism, are we natural, are we not? McKibben doesn’t really address that but what he does say is that we are causing enormous amounts of damage to ecosystems around the planet, which we are.
McKibben is writing from a religious perspective. Does that change or influence his argument?
He’s Christian. Normally with a science book you don’t know if a writer is religious or not, or if you do it’s certainly not part of the writing. McKibben doesn’t make heavy work of this at all, but it is somehow infused in the writing so you are aware of it and he does explicitly say this in places. I think this makes him quite unusual. Most people writing in this field are either academics, physicists or biologists, from communities in which it is almost frowned upon to discuss your religious beliefs, or they are environmental journalists, who are almost entirely not religious.
For your last book we jump forward to 2012, with Our Dying Planet by the marine ecologist Peter Sale, who researches coral reefs. What do you love about this book?
It’s basically a eulogy – coral reefs are going to be the first ecosystems that go extinct. If you’re a diver like I am, that’s unimaginable. There’s nothing more beautiful, nothing more magical than being underwater with the brilliance and the otherworldliness of coral reefs. You don’t see that anywhere else on the planet: the colours, the diversity. And in, say, 20, 30 years it will be extremely rare and extremely difficult to find that.
The idea that our children won’t see coral reefs is really scary, isn’t it?
It is. As a child growing up partly in Australia I used to snorkel on coral reefs and already, when diving as an adult, I’ve never seen anything like I used to see back then. I’ve never seen anything like that brilliance and that expanse. The thought that it’s humans that have done this, that we might make an entire ecosystem go extinct, it’s shocking but it’s also a very profound change, something difficult to comprehend.
Apart from the sadness you might feel at coral reefs going extinct, they are extremely important to us. Sandy beaches are formed by coral. Reefs perform a protective function. They are the nurseries for fisheries. And they are the basis for atolls, so islands like the Maldives or Kiribati that are entirely made of coral reefs, what’s going to happen to them?
What does Sale think we should do?
His solutions are very prosaic. We need to emit fewer carbon emissions, we need to cut down on consumption. It’s not rocket science. None of the books I’ve chosen really come up with solutions apart from the fundamental ‘we need to emit less carbon dioxide’, which of course we do.
A few years ago you embarked on your own journey round the world to document what’s happening to our planet, and you write about your findings in your 2014 book Adventures in the Anthropocene. How did these five books influence you on that journey – and did you reach similar conclusions?
I’ve chosen these books because they are all well written and they all do the job of explaining the problem of what we’re doing to our planet. But I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to just report the terrible state of our planet, I wanted to look further ahead and say what sort of world could we have? I also wanted the book to be from a human perspective. Apart from When the Rivers Run Dry and Field Notes, none of these books really talk about the consequences for humans.
“A lot of people are suffering from the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, or pollution, but they aren’t just sitting there sighing and crying”
They’re laments for the nature that we’re destroying. And while that’s sad, of course, I’m most interested in what these changes are going to be like for people. Is it sad, and if so, why is it sad? And what’s actually going to affect us? How will these changes influence the crises we’re facing in food, resources, energy, and the big population we have? Where are we going to live? I also wanted to look beyond climate change and biodiversity, to encompass all of the issues of the Anthropocene, to see how they are related and see what people are actually doing about it. Because we are resourceful, ingenious, innovative, and endlessly adaptable. We’re capable of changing things for the better.
How were the people you met responding to our altered planet?
Everywhere I found people dealing with the changes. A lot of people are suffering from the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, or pollution, but they aren’t just sitting there sighing and crying, they’re coming up with solutions. I met a man who made his own island in the Caribbean out of garbage. That’s an innovative solution to the terrible problem of marine rubbish. I met scientists who are developing artificial reefs, and genetically engineering types of coral that can survive more acid conditions, or warmer conditions. I met islanders who are inventing all sorts of ways to nurture and protect their reefs in the hope of keeping them for longer.
Looking at the five books you’ve chosen, the overwhelming impression is of warning after warning with nothing really changing, nothing actually being done about the damage to the planet. But your perspective is more positive, that we can get through this somehow.
The books I’ve chosen have done an important job. They’ve told people that this is a big problem and needs to be sorted out. And perhaps the world is taking notice now. In December we had governments around the world agreeing to try and keep temperature rises below two degrees. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but it’s really symbolic that people are doing that. And it’s because of the warning sirens by these authors.
But for me it’s really important to give hope and optimism, and to report what’s actually happening. People aren’t just throwing their hands up and walking away. They are doing something about it. We are at a really important time now in our struggle against our own nature, and the coming decades are crucial. Can we change society for the better so that we live on our planet differently? Through a mixture of technological innovation, societal change and communication changes, I think we can come through this in a positive way.
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