Gaia Vince, a London, UK-based writer and journalist, left her editorial job seven years ago to embark on a journey to some of the planet’s most endangered locales, from melting glaciers to flood-prone islands. She’s been reporting from the frontlines of climate change and species extinction on her blog, Wandering Gaia.
In 2014 she published Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made to rave reviews, and went on to win the prestigious Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books last year. Gaia and I recently chatted about her book, our changing planet, and her enduring faith in human ingenuity.
You describe the Anthropocene as the cumulative, large-scale transformation of Earth by humans. Most of it — from climate change to mass extinction — sounds awful. What do you love about the Anthropocene? What can we love about it?
I love our inventions and our cultural innovations. We have created beautiful infrastructure from cities to bridges to sculpture. Monocultures are ugly in a lot of ways, and yet the necklaces of rice paddies carved into hillsides are beautiful. And look at our human lives: we live longer and in better comfort than at any time in our history.
In your book you describe a mountain community in Peru that has decided to paint white the black rock that had once been covered by glaciers — for practical as well as nostalgic reasons. What will you be most nostalgic about in, say, 30 years?
Coral reefs are the first ecosystems facing extinction because of us. As a diver, that’s heartbreaking. These are some of the most biodiverse and magical seascapes on Earth and the planet without them will be poorer by far. But the next three decades are important for the survival of some of my favorite iconic animals, including elephants and orangutans. I would be very upset if they disappeared in the wild.
According to your book and your writing elsewhere, we still have a chance to overcome the environmental issues we currently face. Where do you draw your own (cautious) optimism from? Are there moments when you lose or question it?
There are days when the bad news about our impact on the planet feels unrelenting and overwhelming, of course. But mostly I do not feel that way at all. We are an incredibly resourceful, adaptable species. Our entire history is an account of our triumph over adversity. Now we are facing planetary-scale problems, but for the individual these manifest as local issues. Around the world, people are trying to solve these problems. The biggest challenges in doing so remain societal: poverty, lack of information, and so on. But I am optimistic that we are meeting our challenges step by step.
We are an incredibly resourceful, adaptable species. Our entire history is an account of our triumph over adversity.
You describe humanity as an interconnected superorganism. Do you sense any anger in the developing world toward wealthier societies that get to enjoy all the benefits of the Anthropocene while outsourcing so much of its dirty work?
There is certainly some anger and resentment, but most people are not spending their time worrying about rich people, but rather trying to better their own situation and those in worse circumstances. Nevertheless, there is a clear imbalance and the rich world has an obligation to help the poor world to adapt to planetary change and to develop their economies cleanly.
The Anthropocene is not only an environmental phenomenon, but also a cultural one. Have artists caught on to its impact?
I saw a very moving exhibition a few years ago on glacial melt in the Arctic, called High Arctic, by United Visual Artists. It was an immersive experience about a rarely visited part of our changing world.
You’ve chronicled your travels around the world — the journey that ultimately led to the writing of your book — on your blog. How has your blogging evolved over the years?
I started my blog as a sort of aide-mémoire for my two-and-a-half-years journey — a travel diary — and also to generate an interactive readership who could advise me on places and people to visit on my travels. Once I returned, I had less to blog about and less time to do so, so I rather neglected my blog. But I do still return to it to post updates and writings that I think will interest my blog audience.
It is easy to improve your local environment while taking steps to improve the planetary environment.
If there was one thing you’d recommend people do (or read, or become mindful of) to make this an era of renewal and progress rather than one of disaster and extinction, what would it be?
The world is vast and it can seem that the problems are overwhelming. But just as the planet-changing force of humanity is made up of individual people, so too is the world made of regions, forests, neighborhoods, streets. It is easy to improve your local environment while taking steps to improve the planetary environment. Crowd-funded renewable energy projects, funding NGOs or companies that actively improve our world, or simply being more environmentally aware in our choices and decisions. All these things helped lead to a better outcome at the COP21 climate agreement in Paris last December, for example.