Gaia Vince, broadcaster and writer
BY BEL JACOBS
There’s a moment in Channel 4’s series Escape to Costa Rica where presenter Gaia Vince visits a fish farm where a wild crocodile is running riot in the tilapia ponds. After much splashing about, Gaia and the team of croc handlers locate the culprit, secure it, take it back to the river and release it back into the wild.
The scene is unforgettable for two reasons. The first is that, in most other countries, the croc would have been shot. As Vince herself said in an interview with the Royal Television Society, “It was extraordinary for humans to decide these animals are worth saving, when they’re not even endangered in the country and they are threatening livelihoods and economic development. In Britain, we've killed anything slightly threatening because our livelihoods are much more important.”
It’s a poignant illustration of a mindset that has seen the Central American country become a jewel in conservation philosophy. Picture: Widecast.
The second reason the scene is unforgettable is Vince herself: crisp, intrepid, fearless even when she says she’s frightened, dealing with the crocodile with the same professionalism as a vet. Fans will recognise her voice from her 2015 book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made in which Vince and her partner Nick Pattinson undertook a two-year tramp across the planet, documenting both human devastation and ingenuity. The work has become seminal for experts and layman alike, winning Vince the Royal Geographical Society Winton prize for Science Books - making her the first woman writer to win the prize in its 28-year history.
Her approach signals a new pragmatism in conservation. The time to regret what we have lost is over, it suggests. “Will we learn to love the new nature we make, or mourn the old?” she writes. “Will we embrace living efficiently or will we spread out over newly ice-free landscapes? Will we eat new foods, plant new crops, raise new animals? Will we make space for wildlife?”
In Adventures, Vince profiles projects that try to answer those questions: two friends painting a mountain white in Peru, in an attempt to bring back the glacier that once made their valley habitable; the former fashion executive breeding Chinese tigers in South Africa; the fisherman tending the fruit garden he has built on a pile of garbage in the Caribbean.
Gerald McDougall's island off Belize is built on a pile of garbage. Picture: Nick Pattinson.
"Many of the things we in the West talk about happening in the future - climate change, species loss - are already happening to people. People are already facing them around the world and doing something about them,” she says.
"The West is much better prepared in lots of ways. But all it takes is a Hurricane Sandy or one of the climate disasters going through the southwestern states of the United States - Trump heartland - for us to be brought up to speed on what is happening [this interview took place before Hurricanes Irma and Harvey].
"We’re living in a state of denial, where we’re not preparing. We’ve lost enormous amounts of fresh water, a reliable climate, our soils are knackered. We have so many challenges and we’re only starting to become aware of these."
Not all the projects are the panacea their originators hoped they’d be; it almost doesn’t matter. "What I wanted to do was bring attention to these projects, whether they work or don’t," says Vince. "We all learn from failures as well as successes. Some are not applicable to other places or to being scaled up; others are. It’s through recognising that and drawing parallels and learning."
A large part of the blame for the environmental abyss we're staring into is the fault of the West’s voracious rate of consumption. “Consumption, in some places, is quite strange,’ muses Vince. “It’s unhealthy and a bit of a mystery to me. At the same time, the desire to have something that works better than what we had before is real, and part of who we are. As long as you’re not extreme, these are human desires. It’s unrealistic - and unhelpful - to look at things that are an anathema to human feelings and much more sensible to recognise what sort of humans we are and build the solutions around that - into design, resource extraction, etc - so that things have a longer life.”
Many place hope on technology. “We’re a technological species. That’s what defines us,” Vince agrees. “We make tools, we change our environment. That’s what’s got us into this mess but that’s what makes us incredible species that lives in a different way from every other animal. And yes, that’s part of the answer [but it] has to work hand-in-hand with social change. Tools are just devices; it’s how and why we use them.”
Solutions need to take place at many levels. "These are global problems and a lot of the decisions need to be on a national scale. But we don’t need to wait for governments to agree. We can individually become more aware and more active.”
Environmental protests in China are working. Picture: Wall Street Journal.
Germany is an instance of local activism’s impact on a national government; the country is phasing combustion engines in 20 years time. “Germany is pretty much the country that invented the combustion engine,’ says Vince. “So this is a remarkable step - and it’s not because of some maverick leader. It’s because of pressure from the German people who don’t want to live in a world defined by massively polluting fossil fuels.”
China, which is emerging into the 21st century, as a bold, admittedly unlikely, environmental pioneer, is another example. “People have tried to protest the Chinese government, a really repressive state, over the past 30 to 40 years. When it comes to human rights, people haven’t made headway so it’s telling that the only way activism has made progressive change has been through environmental protest. People don’t want to drink water from a river that’s turned green, [they don’t want soil that is completely toxic]. These are the messages the government is taking note of and trying to do something about.”
“The future of the environment is closely linked to social issues: how people get wealthy, how people develop,” she continues. “There’s a massive change in longevity, in access to water and electricity and all sorts of development needs have been met in the last ten years. That gives me hope. A healthy, not desperate population is more likely to take care of their local area and their environment in a positive way. Survival takes precedence over everything.”
Adventures in the Anthropocene wins heavily in imbuing stories about scientific phenomenon with human truth. In Trump’s world of science denial, this has a peculiar impact. ‘There are people who question really simple things about global warming - like the earth warming because there’s carbon dioxide there - but it’s a very simple physical process,’ says Vince. ‘The question should be how we deal with it, not whether or not the earth is warming.
Gaia, Nick and their children in Costa Rica. Picture: Channel 4.
“I never wanted to write an academic book,” she continues. “The idea was to provide narrative but to intersperse that with reality, with what’s really going on. I wanted to explain some of the more complicated stuff and to give context to what’s happening, what the processes are and what the history to that is so that we understand more about the changes happening to our planet and what we can do about them. They’re all human-caused and we’re human so they’re directly relevant to our lives and our future.
"Ultimately, some of these we might learn to love but others we might want to change back. The jury’s out on a lot of this. We need to decide what we want to do collectively with the landscape that we have on the planet.”