Category Archives: Anthropocene

Water 2019: new edition, new problems, new solutions

More of the same but worse, plus chaos

As swathes of England are flooded and parts of Australia burn, the 2019 edition of Water: Life in Every Drop introduces key ideas of water ecology and sustainable development. These ideas are essentially unchanged since 2008, when the last edition was published. The stories I tell and their implications for our relationship with water remain true, and the need is now even stronger for ecological thinking to shape our laws and constitutions. I have weeded the book for anything that seems misleading on current reading, and in the process I updated it. Lake Baikal in Siberia is now more threatened by pollution, for example, and there are many more people living around Lake Naivasha in Kenya. These reflect general trajectories, as does the rising power of China, but for water, ecosystems and climate the position can be summarised as ‘more of the same but worse, plus chaos’.

Meanwhile, many forebodings have been fulfilled. The consequences of global heating are hard to anticipate in detail as they involve turbulent systems, but some predictions are spot on. Many thousands of wild species are sliding into extinction each year, the sea is rising, atmospheric and oceanic currents are wobbling, multi-year droughts are grinding down large parts of Australia, North America and southern Africa, heatwaves are killing people in Europe and India, and lethal wildfires are raging with unheard-of ferocity in unexpected places. Every new year is breaking records for mean global surface temperature, and savage storms are taking heat and water from warmer oceans and slamming into unprepared coastlines. And all this follows with precision the expected path of a biosphere newly-loaded with greenhouse gases released by the actions of humanity.

It was recognised in 2016 that human impacts mean that we are now living in a transition to a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which will be clearly visible in future sedimentary deposits that are rich in plastics and poor in fossil species. The Anthropocene succeeds the gentler Holocene, which followed the end of the Ice Ages 11,700 years ago. Our cities and farming systems depend on Holocene conditions, so there is now real concern that humanity will die out during this transition, along with most other life forms. We have the sense that nature is serving us a very clear warning and that something major has to change, or else. And we’re also running out of time. The melting of the Arctic Summer sea ice, which for decades has been absorbing surplus solar heat trapped on Earth by an enhanced greenhouse effect, is a particularly worrying trend that seems to be heading for zero in about 2030. After that, all bets are off.

Local water, local heroes, 2019

But we should remember that there are thousands of brilliant efforts by small groups all over the world — an aquifer or catchment restored here, a neighbourhood preparing against disaster there — multiplying everywhere but invisible to big government. These grass-roots actions must be validated and supported, networked and replicated, until they condense into a new Zeitgeist in which we all suddenly realise that of course we must pay attention to ecology, of course we must protect the web of life, and ask ourselves why else would we have minds, spirits and communities?

And meanwhile, we should also remember:

  • that there are thousands of cities and hundreds of states and provinces that are getting on with ecologically-positive action regardless of what their national governments are doing;
  • that some small countries are declaring ‘peace with nature’ and halting or reversing deforestation, extinction, and greenhouse gas emissions, with Costa Rica, Nepal, Bhutan, New Zealand, Iceland, East Timor and Portugal all springing to mind; and
  • that many corporations now see their assets as dangerously exposed to ecological risks, with their managers, shareholders and regulators struggling to forge new rules, often encouraged by potent divestment campaigns.

The future, if we can but imagine it …

This is all great stuff, and because it was starting when I wrote this book I began Chapter 10 with a visit to the year 2085: ‘The biosphere, having been saved…’ While it is easy to be discouraged if you look only at big governments and the big picture, hope is to be found hidden in the undergrowth where local actions, local heroes, and small countries are the green shoots that will one day replace the deadly old system. In the process, we’ll have to accept that the rules of ecology apply to everyone, always and everywhere, but that we have the intelligence, compassion, will and freedom needed to rebuild a world that is good for everyone — born and unborn, weak and strong, human and non-human.

Physics, astronomy, evolution, governance

There are other challenges for the imagination here. They include background themes, such as the astonishing physical chemistry of water itself (Chapter 1) and the presence of water on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system and beyond (Chapter 2). Also, the origins of the ‘tree of life’ (Chapter 2), and the influence of human adaptation to coastal environments, in which foraging in water helped to shape our minds and bodies (Chapter 3). And the EU’s Water Framework Directive (Chapter 9), which is now seen as part of a global drive towards green ‘experimentalist’ governance, where local heroes meet, teach and make friends with national and international institutions.

Ocean plastics and acidification, wildlife collapse, water shortage

Meanwhile, some topics in the book have been publicised and popularised to the point of common knowledge and general interest. They include the following.

  • Plastic in the oceans (Chapter 4) is choking, entangling and poisoning sea life, and is an inevitable consequence of making non-biodegradable materials for everyday use by everyone in an exploding population on a small planet. To solve it we will have to phase out the use of such plastics through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the debris.
  • Acidification of the oceans (Chapter 2) is eroding the web of aquatic life that sustains most of the biosphere and is an inevitable consequence of burning fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, which dissolves in water to make carbonic acid. The current rate looks set to make the oceans more acidic than they have been for 65 million years. To solve this, we will have to phase out the burning of fossil fuels through effective regulation and/or taxation, while also cleaning up the air by capturing the greenhouse gases that have already been released.
  • Collapse of wildlife numbers and diversity (Chapters 2, 4 and 9), by more than half since the 1970s, is an inevitable consequence of feeding and enriching humans by replacing most natural ecosystems with artificial ones and then spraying poisons over everything. To solve it we will have to deploy environmental education, community ecosystem ownership and benefit sharing, payment for ecosystem services, ecological restoration, organic farming and other effective arrangements in millions of locations, while also protecting natural ecosystems and wildlife populations through effective regulation, and systematically closing down and cleaning up all sources of agricultural, industrial and urban pollution.
  • Critical shortage of fresh water in urban areas (Chapters 6, 8 and 9) is an inevitable consequence of not paying attention to where water comes from, not managing catchments properly, and not charging users enough to pay for these things (while also, often, being an inevitable consequence of rising sea levels and drought induced by global heating). To solve it we will have to establish ecosystem protection, ecological service payments and restoration arrangements in upstream locations, while investing in public water systems that guarantee adequate water for all at affordable cost, solving the climate change problem if we can, and managing humanely the evacuation of unviable cities where we have to.

Learning to survive

Some of the changes that face us during the birth of the Anthropocene may well be manageable, but only if our adaptive skills can be informed by ecology and applied effectively. The key issue is whether we can adjust our ways of life to make it in our new global environment. Building an informed awareness of water, and the life it bears in every drop, has to be a key starting point.

© Julian Caldecott

Same old ape, same old ecology

In the Lent 2018 issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, Professor David Runciman argues that democracies cannot fail exactly as they did in the 1930s, since we now “live in a world that is much richer, older, more peaceful and more networked” than existed then.  This may rule out ‘back-sliding’ to a “time when strongmen ruled the Earth”, but leaves open the possibility that our democracies will instead be hollowed out from within by “heartless, conscienceless, super-capable” corporations and/or machines, using algorithms of power and process that we “lack the power to understand, never mind resist”.

This is all very well, but two questions follow. First, do the new forms and scales of human society truly imply an altered nature, or are we collectively the same old ape driven by the same personal and small-group motivations and vulnerabilities that we always were, easily confused and quick to prejudice, regardless of some extra memes and technologies? And second, does our apparent insulation from nature mean that we can actually afford to ignore the rules of ecology, or do we continue to depend utterly on food, water and environmental security provided by ecosystems that we are systematically destroying, regardless of some extra gimmicks and the reassurances offered by our elites? I suppose what I’m saying is: ‘yes!’ to a study of recent history and the social import of new technologies, but also ‘yes!’ to a much fuller understanding of deep history and ecology, without which the future may be both a surprise and a desolation.  Runciman’s new book (How Democracy Ends) sounds like essential reading.

© Julian Caldecott