Adventures in the Anthropocene – book review

What will geologists find in a thousand years time when they dig through the Earth’s profile? It will most likely be a collection of the telltale signs of human impact on the planet. This layer made up of plastics, discarded waste and a cocktail of unnatural chemicals is referred to as the ‘anthropocene’. And it is our capacity to be planetary-scale change agents that forms the central thesis of Gaia Vince’s book ‘Adventures in the Anthropocene’.

Adventures in the Anthropocene
Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince.

In particular, Gaia wants to find out how people, like those living in the Global South are dealing with the impacts of damage to the Earth’s natural systems through climate change, rampant deforestation, intensive agriculture, expansion of deserts and the extensive loss of freshwater. To find out, Gaia spent two and a half years travelling across forty countries such as Nepal, Peru, Tanzania and the Maldives to name a few.

The end result is a beautifully written book that blends Gaia’s own observations with scientific facts and the movement and colour of the communities she visits. Each chapter in the book is broken down into a specific ecosystem such as atmosphere, rainforest, desert and even cities. This not only helps Gaia focus on a particular theme, it also prevents readers from becoming too overwhelmed by the complexities and interconnectivity of the natural world.

The science is easy to understand and Gaia does a great job at maintaining a balanced view of the challenges and solutions. For example she does not shy away from presenting the case for controversial projects like hydroelectric dams and genetically modified food when it comes to addressing energy and food poverty. And in a surprise, she comes out in strong support for nuclear energy (while I disagree with her on this, I admire her bravery in admitting her stance).

One of the most endearing features of the book are the great cast of local heroes the author meets along the way. Indeed, the human stories and their low-tech, innovative solutions they come up with to overcome local challenges will fill readers with optimism and inspiration. Like Norphel (from Ladakh, India) who is helping his community secure freshwater for drinking and irrigation by creating artificial glaciers. By featuring people like Norphel in the book, Gaia offers the readers an intelligent counterpoint to the otherwise much depressing topic of the large-scale environmental degradation. It also serves as a second, underlying narrative of reminding the readers that humans are the cause of much of these challenges, but also offers the best hope at solving them.

Artificial glaciers
Artificial glaciers being built in Ladakh, India. The idea is to create artificial channels where water can freeze during the winter months. As the water melts over the summer months, it slowly feeds irrigation systems and wells. Image credit: Samten Choephel, 2017.

Some readers have criticised Adventures into the Anthropocene as being part travelogue and part science journalism. I disagree with this view. I think all great science writers need to understand the value and importance of being present in the field. At its core, science is about observations and that is exactly what Gaia did by visiting these communities. She made them more relatable than statistics, tables and graphs.

Where Gaia falls short though is in the epilogue where she writes about the world from the point of view of her son (who has now grown into an old man). Many readers might find this section out of place. Thankfully, it doesn’t affect the main story much. Overall, readers will find Adventures in the Anthropocene a great book to add to their collection. And if you are anything like me, reading the book made me fantasise about going on my own adventure to far off places in search of stories about people living with and rising above our environmental challenges. 

Paperbark Game – A love letter to the Australian bush

Developed by a Melbourne based independent studio, Paperbark is a game that follows a hungry wombat who is on search of food. The unique use of art and sound and a story showcasing some of Australia’s most iconic plants and animals makes Paperbark feel like a love letter to the Australian bush. For me, the game is yet another great example of how great videogames can be as a medium for exploring nature and the environment. Indeed, Paperbark made me feel lucky to live in a country like Australia that has such natural beauty. More importantly, it made me feel like packing my gear and heading out for a bushwalk.

In Paperbark, the player guides a wombat around as it searches for food. As the player explores the wombats surrounds, he gets to interact with a number of native plants and animals that are commonly found in the Australian bush. For some players, particularly, those who are Australian, the lomandras, paperbark trees and the kangaroo paws will be instantly recognisable. And so will the magpies, spoonbills, fairy wrens and blue-tongue lizards that the wombat comes across.

Paperbark Game - Wombat searching for food
Meeting other Australian locals as you explore the wombat’s habitat. Paperbark Game (2017).

One of the most beautiful aspects of the game is the use of sounds by the developers to bring the Australian bush to life. The low chirping of the cicadas, the calls of the magpies and fairy wrens, the croaking of the frogs and the loud laughs of the kookaburras will instantly transport players to the wombat’s habitat. Personally, I found these sounds to have a certain meditative quality to them. I also enjoyed the fact that the developers went camping in Victoria (to record the sounds) and hired an in-house ecologist (to advise on the appearance and behaviour of the animals and plants) to ensure that the game accurately captured the sights and sounds of the Australian bush.

Paperbark is more than a game. It feels like a digital, interactive and beautifully illustrated storybook. It takes its lessons from Australian childhood favourites like ‘diary of a wombat’, and Blinky Bill and reinvents them for a new generation of kids who will most likely grow up with ipads and smartphones in their hands rather than books. I personally don’t think this is too big an issue as long as developers keep producing games like Paperbark as I think that the wombat is not only a great way to connect children with nature, but children their parents as well.

Paperbark Game - Wombat searching for food
Beautifully illustrated Australian native plants brings the wombat’s habitat to life. Paperbark Game (2017).

Paperbark will make you smile and fall in love with the Australian bush all over again regardless of how old you are. A friend of mine who played a short version of the game in Melbourne last year was moved to tears. For me, experiences like these reinforce my views of just how powerful videogames can be when it comes to telling stories about nature. I would not be surprised if I found out that a conservation/environmental organisation was seeking a partnership with the developers. I hope that Paperbark gets a global audience so that people get to enjoy the magic of the Australian landscape. For many, this might be their first time and I hope it encourages them to visit and meet our iconic wildlife in person.

The Inner Life of Animals – Book Review

Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals is a book that delves into the examination of animal behavior and emotions. The author’s foray into the topic is simple – that if animals and humans are related on an evolutionary tree – then animals must also experience sadness, anger, grief, infidelity, happiness and greed. And just like humans, Peter believes that animals are individuals and therefore uniquely different.

The tone of the book is set in the introduction. Peter’s aim is to write in a manner that is simple to understand, free from scientific jargon so that the book is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

To substantiate his claims, Peter refers to scientific research such as those emerging from Penn State University on pain receptors in fish and research from the University of Seville into fish brain to name a few. Ultimately though, he draws much heavily from his own observations of animal behavior from his years of working as a forester in Hümmel, Germany where he lives on a farm surrounded by dogs, goats and horses. 

He talks about wild boar that have learnt to outsmart annual human hunters, to foxes playing dead to catch crows to Eurasian jays stealing food from other birds and squirrels eating baby birds in winter. His love for all living things knows no bounds as he even manages to make the life of a forest tick and the humble slime mould more palatable.

The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben (2017)

In many ways, the author manages to achieve his goal of writing a book for the masses. The chapters are short (some are only two pages long) and the book is very easy to read. Peter’s continued use of open ended questions invites the reader to continue shifting through the pages. He leaves enough breadcrumbs to make people stop and think back to their own interaction with animals (both domestic and wild) without forcing his ideas. In trying to explain the uniqueness of each animal, Peter also manages to inject each of his subjects with a healthy dose of personality.

Yet herein lies the problem with this book. Although some chapters are short, his examinations into each topic often comes across as vague. This has led to his book being criticised by some readers for anthropomorphising animals. I think that a deeper and more rigorous examination of the science would have helped alleviate some of this. In fact, I think that the different types of science should have been the basis of the book with his own observations being used to validate the research. Regardless, I think the book is a fine addition to any bookshelf and is a great compendium piece to his other book, the Hidden Life of Trees.

The Eternal Frontier – A short book review

Have you ever wondered what North America looked like sixty-five million years ago? Or how life on the continent recovered after the cataclysmic Chicxulub struck the landmass? These are the questions Tim Flannery – a prominent, Australian ecologist and environmentalist – seeks to answer in his book The Eternal Frontier (first published in 2001).

Flannery’s narrative begins when the asteroid Chicxulub collides with the Earth. Its destructive power annihilates the dinosaurs and virtually wipes the North American continental slate clean.  From here, he beings to introduce a range of cast and characters. First came the plants, the pioneers that colonised the continent. Then, over time came the giant sloths, direwolves, one tonne lions, mammoths, bisons and mastodons. While the North American continent takes centre-stage, Eurasia, South America, Europe and even Australia played a supporting role in the evolution of its biodiversity. We learn for example, that many species of birds that are currently found in North America are of South American origin, while many of its mammals originated in Eurasia.

After charting the ebb and flow of life on the North American continent, Flannery turns his attention to the arrival of the first nations people into North America. Their arrival (some fourteen thousand years ago), is the start of the ‘blitzkrieg extinction’ period – one where the large megafauna began to disappear due to hunting and the changes in land-use and vegetation structure. A similar phenomena took place in Australia, where the megafauna disappearance coincides with the arrival of the Aboriginal people. The North American ecological balance finally tips with the arrival of French, Spanish and European settlers. Today, mass consumerism has become “an economic machine that is eating the life of the continent” (Benjamin Franklin in The Eternal Frontier, pg. 351).

The Eternal Frontier Book Cover
The Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery

With his deeply imaginative writing coupled with forensic scientific examination, Flannery weaves a compelling and dramatic story. He punctuates the reader’s journey into this fascinating and deadly landscape with open ended questions, analyses competing theories and uses excerpts from journals and letters. He also provides a short summary of key ideas and developments at the end of each chapter help to keep readers on track. By the end of the book, readers will come to look at North America in a new light.

While Flannery takes his readers on a grand adventure, I think he is over ambitious in seeking to cover the ecological and evolutionary history of a continent that spans over sixty-five million years. I think that Flannery should have kept the focus on a specific time frame or chosen a particular event such as a conclusion to the story. This would have paved the way for a second volume, giving him more scope for a detailed examination. The continued introduction of new species of plants and animals also makes it confusing at times for the reader to keep up with the narrative and here, I think a collection of images or artist impressions would have been useful.

While the book is interesting, informative and imaginative, I think that some North American readers will not enjoy it as much, particularly, when Flannery forays into the impacts of humans on ecology and biodiversity. I think that his broad brush-strokes, perhaps justifiably, end up painting many of the human colonists of North America in a bad light.

Overall though, Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier is a worthy addition for anyone interested in the evolutionary history of the North American continent – and, indeed, the planet.

How did we get into this mess? A short book review

George Monbiot’s collection How Did We Get Into This Mess? covers a wide range of topics, including re-wilding, land-ownership, abortion, population control and even whale poo. Though these subjects are diverse, the actors that feature in them remain constant. They are the institutions such as governments and corporations whose systems continue to degrade our society. According to Monbiot, we live in the ‘Age of Loneliness’: an age in which connections to each other and to nature are being severed.

George Monbiot’s book – How did we get into this mess? Published in 2016

Monbiot’s frustrations are evident in each chapter and these frustrations are keenly felt by his readers. Throughout the book he challenges certain popular beliefs such as the notion that population growth is linked to environmental degradation. Eminent personalities such as Sir David Attenborough, Barack Obama, Charles Darwin and even the author himself cannot escape scrutiny. Indeed, Monbiot invites his readers to criticise his own actions when he discusses collecting, butchering and eating roadkill in front of a group of children, or his contentious support for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Monbiot’s book is simple to read and understand. His language and writing becomes more emotive in chapters where he talks about nature and wildlife. In these chapters, he also introduces words such as ‘landscape pornography’, ‘sheepwrecked’ and ‘kleptorenumeration’ to convey the level of environmental destruction he is experiencing around him. Overall though, some readers will find the book a little jarring because he jumps from one topic to another which prevents continuity and rhythm.

This book is not for everyone. Simply put, it is a collection of fifty short articles that have already been published as opinion pieces in The Guardian. By and large, the chapters focus on the UK which may not resonate with the wider audience. If you are new to Monbiot, then I would recommend that you start with some of his other work such as Feral. However, if you are already familiar with his writings then feel free to add this to your library, particularly if you live in the UK.

The Beak of the Finch – A short book review

In 1995, Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. As one of the most beautifully written books I have read on the topic of evolutionary biology, it is clear to me why Weiner won this accolade.

The Beak of the Finch – book cover

Weiner’s book follows Peter and Rosemary Grant – biologists, as well as husband and wife who have dedicated their careers for understanding evolution. Every year for twenty years, The Grants have travelled to Daphne Major, an island in the Galapagos archipelago in order to study the different species of finches that live there. The archipelago and its flora and fauna are significant in the field of evolutionary biology. Indeed, they may be regarded as the birthplace of this field of science. In 1835, Charles Darwin himself visited the Galapagos while travelling on the HMS Beagle. His observations and interactions with the plants and animals are thought to be the catalyst for his groundbreaking masterpiece The Origin of Species.

Peter and Rosemary Grant collecting data at Daphne Major. Image credit K.T.Grant – New York Times 2014

Over twenty years, The Grants, measured and recorded the sizes of the finches beaks as well as eating, breeding and nesting habits. Through Weiner’s evocative writing, the readers feel as if they are on the island alongside The Grants, experiencing their joys and sorrows as they spend months living rough to collect the data. The hand drawn sketches throughout the book by their daughter, Thalia Grant adds a ‘field-journal’ element to the book. Her drawing skills were honed while being home-schooled on Daphne Major by her parents.

The island of Daphne Major in the Galapagos. Image credit: Parer and Parer-Cook – New York Times 2014

The author does not ignore the significance of Darwin. Throughout the book, Weiner draws on Darwin’s own field notes, letters and quotes which provide valuable insight into how he developed the theory of evolution. So much so that it feels like the reader is having a conversation with the man himself. Neither does Weiner gloss over some of the weaknesses of Darwin’s theory, such as his belief that evolution is a slow process which manifests only after many generations.

Indeed in The Beak of the Finch, the data gathered by The Grants over the past two decades demonstrates that evolution can be a dynamic and rapid process. For instance, The Grants noted a shift in the average size of the beaks in the finches born after a severe drought or an intense wet season. Within each chapter, Weiner draws on a number of other researchers who are working with fish, moths and flies who have found similar trends to The Grants.

The reference to other research projects provides a refreshing break from The Grants and their finches as the book becomes repetitive in the middle with multiple references to the various species of finches on Daphne Major. Further, some readers have criticised Weiner for his foray into religion and philosophy towards the end of the book arguing that this inclusion is either unnecessary or superficial. Personally, I did not find this distracting as I think Weiner’s intention is to invite his readers to examine the relationship between religion and evolution themselves.  

Despite the criticisms, The Beak of the Finch is a fantastic read. Weiner writing style achieves a great balance between adventure, emotion and it serves as a masterclass for those interested in science writing. It is a book that I would highly recommend to anyone, particularly students who are interested in understanding evolution or as a gentle introduction to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species.

Blue Carbon – Kelp Forests

About a year ago, the world’s leading climate scientists published a report highlighting that the global community had roughly twelve years to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Twelve years isn’t much time to undo three decades of damage to the Earth’s atmosphere if we are to stay within the 1.50C threshold. With the window fast closing, many academics and organisations are looking for ways to rapidly and cheaply drawdown carbon. Large-scale tree planting has been identified as a cost effective and quick way to help achieve this and is now being actively promoted and embraced. 

While trees are important for helping absorb and sequester carbon (and a range of other ecosystem services), researchers have found that marine habitats, particularly, kelp forests, mangrove and seagrass beds also play a vital role in the global carbon cycle. In fact, these marine habitats can do this at a much faster rate (up to forty times) compared to their terrestrial counterparts. 

Kelp forests can be found along 25% of the world’s coastline. They grow in cold, nutrient rich and clear waters. In Australia, kelp forests are found from Sydney, around the southern coastline and up towards Perth (and around Tasmania). Kelp grows an average of two feet per day and can reach lengths of almost 30m and are often considered as dynamic systems because they can establish in new coastlines which have favourable growing conditions. They also provide critical habitat and nursery for a number of different marine animals such as fish, seals, otters and invertebrates. 

The rapid growth rate of kelp means that it is able to sequester carbon quicker than most land-based plants. According to the Blue Marine Foundation, kelp forests around the world currently absorb and sequester over 600 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. Once kelp reaches the end of its life, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean where it locks the carbon away in the sediments. 

Over the past few years, people have started to promote the farming of kelp as a great way to rapidly sequester atmospheric carbon. In Australia, one of the most prominent advocates has been Professor Tim Flannery. In my research, I have also seen concept designs of vertical floating farms deployed around the world’s oceans that are dedicated to kelp farming. Not only will this help with the climate change they can also be harvested and used in other industries like food, medicine, fertiliser and bio-fuels. Further, these floating habitats will act as nurseries for marine wildlife and help replenish local fish stocks. 

Sadly, like terrestrial ecosystems, kelp forests around the world are under threat. Coastal development, nutrient runoff and sedimentation of the water column and grazing by sea-urchins are some of the factors that are causing their demise. Prolonged heat-waves can also lead to the loss of kelp forests similar to that currently being experienced in Western Australia. 

For us to rapidly absorb carbon from the atmosphere to keep the world within the 1.50 warming target, we need to start protecting and exploring ways to expand kelp forests. Not only will this benefit the atmosphere, but also prove to be vital for maintaining ocean health, local fisheries and food security. Personally, I also think that it would be great to see more organisations talking about and advocating for kelp forests just as much as they are when it comes to tree planting.

A path to a more sustainable lifestyle

Lessons from World on the Edge by Lester Brown

By Erin Kiley

I just finished reading World on the Edge by Lester Brown which detailed a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis for combating the issues of climate change, water and food scarcity and overpopulation. It was both a hopeful and depressing read for me. The book itself ended on a hopeful note, concluding that ‘saving the world’ was possible for only a small fraction of current global military spending (and when I think about it, I’d much rather spend money on preventing these catastrophes then more submarines, given the living space in a submarine is quite cramped and won’t fit all of us once the seas rise). 

The depressing part for me was that the book was ten years old – with the deadline of 2020 for most of its proposed actions – and I don’t think we’ll make those deadlines. Rather than fall into a heap of despair, given my next chance to make a noticeable difference (the next federal election) was some time off, I decided to make myself a list of little things I could do to help the planet. 

One of the things on the list was share the list, so here goes:

  • Use reusable products wherever possible – from handkerchiefs, to tupperware, to steel razors, to Soda Streams and keep-cups;
  • Amp up my recycling efforts – turns out there are programs out there where you collect certain types of used products, post them for free and they get turned into new useful things. I’m thinking of starting a box at work. Plus I need to remember to google whether something should be donated before throwing it out (turns out even old toys and mattresses can be donated nowadays);
  • Volunteer to plant trees a few times a year – it’s a small time investment for a big difference. Plus it might be fun;
  • Upgrade to the most energy efficient appliances and light bulbs – and put a sign on my dryer and heater saying “use in emergencies only”;
  • Eat less meat (unfortunately, as I’m practically a carnivore)- especially beef and lamb;
  • If/once I own property – install renewable methods for heating water, general heating/cooling and energy generation;
  • Try growing some veggies / more herbs and consider a compost;
  • Buy my groceries from farmers markets rather than a supermarket a couple of times a month;
  • Look into banking and superannuation options that invest in renewables and not fossil fuels;
  • Reduce my water use – remember to turn off the tap whenever i’m not actively using it and install water saving fittings, etc;
  • Buy a bike and use it;
  • Choose the option in my car next door app that has it charge me a ‘carbon tax’ for using my own car;
  • Consider switching from paper books to e-books (and forego my long held dream of having a personal library in my house one day);
  • Pick up rubbish when I see it while I’m out and about and volunteer to clean up a water source occasionally;
  • Focus my donations on reforestation/environmental programs and measures to reduce population growth (literacy and reproductive health); and
  • Participate in discussions, protests and petitions to try and convince others that we really do need to act – and vote for the world, not myself, when the next election comes around. 

Early morning beach clean

It’s not everyday that one gets to start their workday with a beach clean up. But that is exactly how my day started. We met a group of volunteers and walked down to Whiting Beach, which is a ten minute walk from the bottom entrance of Taronga Zoo. to be perfectly honest, when I saw the beach, i thought we were not going to find much rubbish. From a distance the beach looked clean. 

Once the gloves and bags had been issued, we started to walk around. Only when I slowed down and examined the sand around me did I realise how wrong I was. There were small bits of plastic, glass, straws and styrofoam everywhere. They were hidden among the washed up seaweed, shells and caught against the edge of the sandstone. We also found a fedora and a knife during the clean up session. After about forty minutes, everyone emptied their bags on a large tarpaulin and helped sort and document the items for an ongoing, national citizen science program. One of the volunteers commented on how ‘confronting it was to see so much rubbish’.

Much of it comes from across Sydney Harbour. It’s a sad juxtaposition given just how beautiful the Harbour is. Some of the rubbish also comes from careless members of the public who use the beach and surrounding bushwalks. 

The lesson here are twofold. Even places that look clean from a distance tell a different story up close. And small acts, such as taking a few bits of rubbish and putting it in the correct bin matter. 

The Archipelago of Hope – A Book Review

Eighty percent of global biological diversity is found in indigenous territories. Indigenous people were and have been stewards of the land for thousands of years. Plants, animals, birds, flowers, fish, mountains, rivers and streams are all part of their creation stories and form the basis of traditional practices. In the climate change literature, indigenous communities are often portrayed as being on the front-line of dealing with the impacts of climate change, much like the people who live in the small Pacific Islands in our region.

The Archipelago of Hope by Gleb Raygorodetsky was an unexpected present from my partner and ended up being such a wonderful read. Indeed, it was a breath of fresh air through the books I have read this year.  Growing up in a remote indigenous territory as a young boy, Gleb spent much of his time with his father fishing and being outdoors. For the last two decades, he has worked closely with indigenous communities around the world on natural resource management and adaptation to the impacts of climate change. The trust and understanding between the indigenous communities Gleb visits and how he shares their stories is evident throughout the book.

Climate change is having a profound impact on indigenous communities around the world. Gleb shares stories about the loss of deer herding routes, salmon fisheries and glaciers. These climatic challenges are built on a foundation of historical forced assimilation of indigenous people into mainstream societies by governments, ripping communities away from their land and families. To make matters worse, the desire for economic growth continues to cloud policies and indigenous communities are still being torn from the land to make way for mines, infrastructure, agriculture and forestry operations. 

The book is accessible to a wide audience. For a book that is about climate change, it is light on scientific knowledge but heavy on traditional knowledge and stories. Readers will also find the book incredibly vivid and rich with narrative that brings the remote communities and their landscapes to life. From ice-fishing for salmon under the Northern lights in Finland to receiving guidance from a shaman in the Altai Mountains to meeting forest defenders in the Ecuadorian Amazon to learning about swidden farming in Thailand and finally to protecting ancient forests and streams in British Columbia. 

“The giant curtains of stella light rippling in the sky beneath the stars halt me in my tracks when, nice and warm, I head back to the cabin. The Northern lights are green, but the flashes of red along the edges of the aurora borealis give me pause” (pg 54)

(Reading this reminded me of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland)

I found Gleb’s book both sad and uplifting. Unlike other books in this genre, Gleb manages to balance vulnerability of indigenous communities to climate change with their incredible resilience. Instead of painting these communities as victims, he positions them as a group of people who are going to be best placed to survive. Key to this is the wealth of traditional knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. As such, Gleb argues that for any meaningful solutions to addressing climate change needs to include and incorporate indigenous knowledge and practices. To that effect, he offers a number of ways in which stronger, meaningful relationships can be formed with indigenous groups. 

I highly recommend The Archipelago of Hope. It is easily one of the most beautiful and insightful books I have read this year. It made me pause and reflect on how I can improve and work closer with indigenous communities. Perhaps more profoundly, it made me think about what traditional knowledge and practices I can learn from my own background as a Fijian-Indian-Australian who practices Hinduism that will make me a better global citizen. I highly recommend The Archipelago of Hope. 

“When we walk on this land, we do it slowly, with honour and respect and humility, because we tread on the dust of our ancestors” Levi Martin in The Archipelago of Hope (pg 249)

The Archipelago of Hope
The Archipelago of Hope – by Gleb Raygorodetsky. Definitely adding this to my favourite list in my book collection.

The Uninhabitable Earth – A book review

Last month Europe experienced one of the worst heat-waves on record. In fact, July was the Earth’s hottest month ever recorded. This led to ice-sheets in Greenland melting at a rate and scale fifty years ahead of scientific predictions. These days, abnormal weather events are becoming more and more ubiquitous. As David Wallace-Wells states in the very first sentence of his book The Uninhabitable Earth;

“It’s worse, much worse, than you think”

And I won’t lie. The Uninhabitable Earth was an incredibly tough book to read. The clarity with which the author paints the future we are headed for as the impacts of climate change gets worse is incredibly frightening. Even achieving the best case scenario of limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius still locks in decades of destructive climate disruption. 

For Wallace-Wells, we are headed for the “century of hell”.

Each of the first twelve chapters of the book focuses on a different aspect of the ‘cascading’ effects of runaway climate change. Some of the cascading effects include; a reduction in global food production, the increasing scarcity of freshwater, the movement of climate refugees and the economic losses as productivity falls around the world. As each system collapses, it will most likely lead to the collapse of the next system. One of the many ways that climate change has and will continue to manifest itself is through the increase in the frequency and scale of natural disasters. The human and financial costs of California’s Camp Fire, Hurricane Harvey and Cyclone Winston come to mind. As a volunteer in an emergency service agency (that responds after floods and storms), the idea that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘natural’ disaster is incredibly interesting.

If readers were hoping that the second half of the book was going to focus on solutions to the ‘century of hell’ then they are mistaken. The author’s examination of solutions to the existential climate crisis in The Uninhabitable Earth is limited at best. In-fact, he argues that many of the current solutions for reducing our carbon footprint is either under-developed and under-deployed. Wallace-Wells also points the finger at climate scientists for the current level of inaction. He argues that climate scientists have been too conservative over the past three decades when communicating the impacts of climate change at the risk of being labelled ‘alarmists’. I found this mismatched focus on threats vis-a-vis solutions somewhat confusing. 

However, I do agree with Wallace-Wells when he states that switching the world to low carbon technologies is the ‘low hanging fruit’. Unless we change our behaviour as a society when it comes to materialistic consumption, solving climate change won’t really matter. 

Instead of solutions the last few chapters of the book focuses on the fact that society will have to create new myths, identities, political ideologies, philosophical and religious beliefs to make sense of the century of hell. Some might become radical activists in the face of climate change while others might retreat into refuges and drift away from society. 

The Uninhabitable Earth was never meant to be an exploration of the science of climate change but rather an examination of what the future might look like for us. While a lot of information has been packed into this little book, much of it might come across as confusing for the readers. For example, some of the sentences in the book are half a page long and makes it difficult for readers to understand the author’s train of thought. 

Overall, I am unsure what kind of effect The Uninhabitable Earth will have on its readers. I for one felt disheartened and struggled to get to the end of the book. I suspect, there will be others who may not make it to the end of the book. If the author’s intentions were to scare his readers than The Uninhabitable Earth spectacularly achieves this. If however, his intentions were to scare his readers into action, then this remains to be seen.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells – book cover

Amazing trees from around the world

Trees and plants have played a central role in the last few books that I read. As such, I thought it would be interesting to do a small project to celebrate trees and plants from around the world. Some of them have lived truly spectacular lives and this is something we don’t often think about or take into consideration. Take Old Tjikko in Sweden as an example. It has stood for over nine thousand years. I couldn’t help but think of all the things these ancient trees and plants have witnessed such as the end of the last ice-age and the rise and fall of many empires. If anything, I hope their stories inspire us all to plant trees of our own. Maybe one of them will live for thousands of years and have its own stories to tell. 

Pando the Trembling giant

‘Pando the trembling giant’ is the collective name given to a grove of aspen (Populus tremuloides) growing in Fishlake National Park – Utah. The grove is made up of 47000 individual trees that is spread across a hundred acres. What is unique about Pando (Latin for ‘I spread’) is that the 47000 individuals are all genetically identical. This is because this particular species reproduces asexually by growing new shoots from its root system. Collectively, Pando weighs over six thousand tonnes and some believe that this makes it one of the largest and heaviest living organisms on Earth. Further, scientists think that the grove of trees could be upto 14,000 years old – making it one of the oldest as well. 

Sadly, 80% of the grove is under threat from grazing animals like deer and cattle. They eat the young shoots that are sent up by the root system. The grove is also susceptible to disease due to its lack of genetic diversity. However, as long as the root system remains healthy, it can continue on living for many more years. 

Pando
Pando looks truly spectacular with its golden brown leaves. I imagine that it would be an amazing place to visit. Wikipedia Commons (unknown). Reproduced from ati.com

Welwitschia mirabilis

The Welwitschia mirabilis is a desert plant endemic to Namibia and Angola. While it might not look like it but mirabilis (Latin for ‘wonderful’) actually belongs in the conifer family. The entire plant is made up of just two leaves and each leaf can reach lengths of up to six meters. Overtime, the leaves develop an aged look with fraying and discolouration around the edges. Some of the mirabilis plants have been found to be between 1000 and 1500 years old. The plant has a slow growth rate and has developed extensive root systems to help it survive in the harsh desert environment. Sadly, the mirabilis plants are threatened by a fungal pathogen.

Welwitschia mirabilis
Welwitschia mirabilis isn’t the prettiest plant to look at. It is hard to believe that the tangled mess is actually two leaves that have grown to look frayed and aged. Maybe this strategy is why it has survived for so long. Image credit (unknown). Reproduced from info-namibia.com

Methuselah

At 4848 years old, Methuselah, a bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) was until recently thought to be the oldest tree in the world. Methuselah can be found in the White Mountains of eastern California where it lives among a grove of other, almost as ancient bristlecone pines. Unlike the tall, sentinel-like Californian Redwoods, bristlecone pines grow twisted stems and branches. This is because their mountain habitat is exposed to strong winds. Park authorities have kept Methuselah’s location a closely guarded secret to protect it from hikers and souvenir collectors. In a bid to confuse enthusiasts, there are reports that the images of Methuselah in the public domain are not of the tree itself. The lengths that officials have gone to protect the tree is not surprising as the oldest tree in the grove was accidentally cut down by a researcher and park ranger (in 1967). 

The 4800 year-old Methuselah plant
This is a bristlecone pine tree that is thought to be one of the oldest trees in the world. This one can be found in the White Mountains in California. Image credit: Rick Goldwaser 2008 – Flickr

Old Tjikko

Old Tjikko is a Norway spruce tree (Picea abies) that is located in Fulufjället National Park – Sweden. Using carbon dating, scientists have worked out that Old Tjikko is 9550 years old (there is still some controversy surrounding the exact age of the tree). To put it another way, it is older than Jericho – one of the earliest settlements on Earth. Old Tjikko started growing at the end of the last ice-age when the snow and ice started to retreat from Scandinavia. And there it has stood. A lone, skinny spruce overlooking the valley, standing witness to some of the most remarkable moments in European history. Interestingly, unlike Methuselah you can visit Old Tjikko as part of a guided walk with park rangers. Like ‘Pando’, Old Tjikko will continue to grow as long as its root system remains viable and healthy.

Old Tjikko
Old Tjikko is a skinny looking tree that stands alone on exposed ground, surrounded by cold and wind. My friend and I are considering visiting Old Tjikko if we are ever in Sweden. Hopefully, it is still standing by the time we get around to it. Image credit: Leif Kullman (unknown). Reproduced from Boredpanda.com

Wilson’s tree stump

At an estimated 3000 years old, Wilson’s tree stump, a Yakusugi cedar (Cryptomeria japonica)  is thought to be one of the oldest trees in Japan. The stump is located on Yakushima Island which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is in recognition of the island’s ancient temperate rainforest which is globally unique. Because of the rainforest habitat, the island is also home to a rich collection of mammals and birds. Sadly, the tree was cut about 400 years ago so that the wood could be used to build a temple (the order to cut the tree was given by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. I couldn’t work out what actually happened to the wood). The size of Wilson’s stump indicates that the tree may have been the largest on the island. In fact, between 25 – 30 adults can fit inside the hollow and the top of the hollow is shaped like a heart. 

Wilson's Tree Stump
The view from inside Wilson’s stump. I hear the hike to get here is spectacular as well. Yakushima Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with lots of old trees. Image credit (unknown – 2016). Reproduced from Tokyo Business Today.

The Wollemi pine

Due to its ancient lineage, the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) is often referred to as the ‘dinosaur tree’. Fossil records from 200 million years ago show that the Wollemi pine grew all across Australia. As the climate changed and the continent shifted, the tree’s range became smaller and smaller. For many years, it was thought that the Wollemi pine had become extinct. That was until a ranger discovered a small population (of about 100 trees) in 1994 in a deep valley near Sydney. Even among the ancients, one Wollemi pine stood taller than the rest and it was quickly dubbed ‘King Billy’. To protect the hundred individuals, officials kept the location of the grove secret. They also began to propagate the trees and plant them in other locations in an effort to create an insurance population. Much like Pando and Tjiko above, the small grove of Wollemi pine were all found to be clones. For ten years, researchers and botanists worked hard to grow more trees and now, thanks to local plant nurseries, the Wollemi pine has slowly started to spread across Australia once again.

Wollemi pine saplings
Wollemi pine being grown in pots as part of the recovery program. These potted plants have made their way into local plant nurseries and are now slowly spreading across Australia once again. Image credit (unknown). Reproduced from the Royal Botanical Gardens – Sydney.

The Magna Carta tree

The Magna Carta tree is a saltmarsh mangrove (Avicennia marina) that grows on the property of a Queensland farmer. Recently he decided to have it carbon dated. The results indicate that the tree is 700 years old, which has also been confirmed by the size of its base. The farmer named the tree ‘The Magna Carta tree’ as it started to grow around the time of the Magna Carta. This makes it one of the oldest mangroves in Australia and amongst the oldest in the world. Sadly, mangroves around the world are often destroyed as they are seen as unpleasant ecosystems that are in the way of coastal development.

Magna carta tree
This is the Magna Carta tree which has been recently found to be about 700 years old. This makes it one of the oldest mangroves in Australia. I am glad that the farmer decided to have the tree carbon dated as it doesn’t look particularly old in the photo. Image credit: Brad Marsellos (2019). Reproduced from ABC News.

Miharu Takizakura Tree 

I wanted to finish on the Takizakura cherry blossom tree. This particular tree is located in the town of Miharu – Fukushima. In Japanese, its name (Takizakura) translates to ‘waterfall cherry tree’. Indeed, the delicate, pink flowers seem to cascade down to Earth from the heavens. Aside from looking beautiful, the tree is estimated to be about 1000 years old. It is considered one of the three most important and one of the biggest cherry blossom trees in Japan. In 1922, the Japanese government designated Takizakura a national treasure. The reverence that the Japanese people have for nature and trees is truly amazing. For example, in 2005, the locals protected the tree from damage during a snowstorm. They brushed snow off the branches and used wooden pillars to support the tree. Takizakura has also survived the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and nuclear meltdown. I found Takizakura to be a great symbol of the resilience of nature. Reading about this tree made me remember the trees I saw in Hiroshima that had survived the American atomic bomb.

Cherry Blossom Tree
The great Miharu Takizakura cherry tree. This is considered to be one of the most important trees in Japan. Look closely and you can see the wooden pillars that were erected to support the tree during heavy snow. Image credit: Takahashi Hiroshi (2017). Reproduced from Nippon.com

When the Rivers run dry – book review

I just finished reading Fred Pearce’s book “When the Rivers Run Dry”. Interestingly, as I was getting my thoughts together on the book to write this review, India’s sixth largest city, Chennai was making headlines around the world. Millions of people in the city have started to run out of water. Sydney, where I live has reintroduced water restrictions as dam levels have dropped below the 50% mark. Last year, it was Cape Town that narrowly missed ‘day zero’. Somehow, the book became a timely read and given the stories within it, I believe that Pearce’s work will remain salient for many years to come.

Satellite picture of Lake Puzhal in Chennai, India 2019
Lake Puzhal which supplies Chennai with water has shrunk dramatically in the last twelve months. The loss of water is due to a combination of factors such as population growth, poor mismanagement and changes to rainfall patterns due to climate change. Image credit: Copernicus Sentinel-2 Satellite via Maxar Technologies. Reproduced from Somini Sengupta New York Times 2019.

As I hinted above, water security is something that can affect people living in both developed and developing countries. And indeed, the whirlwind journey the author takes his readers through the book reinforces this. From the deserts of Africa to California, communities across the world are experiencing water stress. One that is increasingly getting worse. According to the author, much of this comes down to a perfect storm of mis-management, poor infrastructure decisions, reliance on intensive crops and climate change. Together, they have a significant impact on the livelihoods of people, causing socio-economic upheaval and environmental degradation. 

We see rivers, lakes and catchments as having defined boundaries. But this is often not the case. One of the more interesting themes in Pearce’s book is the geopolitical importance of freshwater. As the author points out, upstream countries can use lakes and rivers to hold neighbouring countries hostage. China, for example, is home to 50% of the world’s largest dams much to the dismay of the lower Mekong countries. China’s neighbours, India and Pakistan are engaged in a proxy war over the state of Kashmir, a gateway region to the headwaters of some of Asia’s mightiest rivers. 

Thankfully, the book is not all doom and gloom. As Pearce states, “water is the ultimate renewable resource”. As such the last quarter of the book is focused on solutions to help better manage our precious freshwater resources. Interestingly (yet unsurprisingly), the solutions lie with traditional water management practices that have been practised by communities for generations. Some of the methods readers are introduced to include; rainwater harvesting, using underground cisterns for storing water and reviving ancient canals for irrigating crops and perhaps a little controversially, using human sewage to irrigate crops. 

Artificial Ice water towers in Ladakh India 2017.
This was not covered in this book but I really like this idea and wanted to share it again. This is an initiative that was introduced in Ladakh, India. Water is used to grow these ice-towers during winter which slowly releases its water as the temperature heats up. It helps to irrigate the fields and provides a source of water to the local communities. Image credit: Sonam Wangchuk/Rolex Awards. Reproduced from Michael Safi, The Guardian 2017.

I found the book to be written in a manner that very much reflects the author’s experience and training as a journalist. He uses hard hitting facts and sprinkles interviews with locals and various experts throughout the story (a common journalistic technique is to front-load your sentences with information). I found each chapter to read more like a standalone (and long) investigative piece of writing. Some readers have commented that this interrupted the flow of the overall story but I did not find this too great an issue. Personally though, I would have loved to hear more about the people he met during his travels who are experiencing and solving the challenges of water security.  

Pearce also used a lot of impressive statistics throughout the book yet many of these were not referenced. I also found the author’s repeated use of ‘acre feet of water’ as a unit of measure a difficult to conceptualise. Finally, I think using photos would have been a great addition to the book as this would have allowed the readers to get a better understanding of the stories the author was trying to get across. Using photos also help break up the text and offers readers an opportunity to pause and reflect on what they have read.  

Overall, I recommend this book for those who are interested in water security and the state of this precious resource around the world. I also think that ‘When the Rivers run dry’ will be of interest to anyone studying geopolitics and future resource conflicts. For an environmental and international relations tragic like me, this book is a great addition to my collection. 

When the Rivers Run Dry - Book Cover 2019
Book cover: When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce
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