Over the course of barely two centuries, subsistence herding and farming societies tied to rainfall and the seasons have coalesced into a global society and interwoven economy. Amboseli, situated beneath the rising mass of Kilimanjaro in Kenya, gives a snapshot of the last vestiges of the Neolithic Age merging into the Anthropocene—a world in transition from nature shaping our livelihoods and culture to one in which we are molding nature for our own safety, comfort, and enjoyment—often with unknown and unintended consequences. The Anthropocene marks an extraordinary juncture in human history when thousands of years of differentiation in cultures, lifestyles, and languages are converging into a single entangled community.
In the early 1970s my first visit to California, half a world away from Amboseli, jolted all my expectations of America’s third largest metropolis, Los Angeles. My taxi from the airport ground to a standstill, blocked by an endless stream of traffic filling the Santa Monica Freeway bumper to bumper in both directions. An acrid blanket of urban smog stung my eyes, burned my lungs, and hid the iconic Hollywood sign up in the hills. What good do riches do, I wondered, if the price is clogged freeways and congested lungs? On university campuses where I had come to lecture on African wildlife, I was struck by the irony of Americans’ interest in African animals—many traveling to Africa to film lions, elephants, and the great Serengeti wildebeest migrations—while they did little to save their own: the bald eagle, the national symbol; the last of the country’s wolves; the endangered grizzly; and the plains bison.
Nearly half a century later pollution levels in Los Angeles and other American cities are down 90 percent—despite worse traffic jams, a surging population, and a twentyfold increase in gross domestic product. The bald eagle has made a comeback, the grizzly has been delisted as an endangered species, the wolf has been reintroduced to Yellowstone and is recolonizing the American Northwest, and the plains bison population has grown to over half a million from the mere few hundred that survived the greatest wildlife slaughter in history. California has become a hub for new high-tech industries, leading America in the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Most of the world has followed America’s fossil fuel path to industrialization. China, drawing on its vast coal reserves, is nearing America’s economic might, and Asia is following in the fast lane to development. Bent on catching up with the West, the rest of the world is tracking the well-trodden path of pell-mell growth, confident that the damage can be fixed later. But with populations and economies in the developing world growing much faster than they did in the West at peak industrialization, the cost to human health and the environment is now far too great to fix later. Dense smog blanketing Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities accounts for nearly a third of all deaths in Mainland China, almost as many as smoking. Beijing residents are no longer prepared to defer the costs when it means wearing gas masks to work and keeping their children out of school for days on end. China now deems the cost so great it has spent $350 billion in remediation and is investing heavily in becoming a world leader in renewable energy sources.
For all the progress the United States has made, its victory over pollution is far from won. To the contrary, it faces a far greater threat than ever from the by-products of its wealth heating up the atmosphere and oceans and destabilizing the global climate and hydrological and nutrient cycles. The greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels powering industrialization have raised the Earth’s thermostat, causing a cascade of changes seen in melting polar ice caps, receding glaciers, rising sea levels, and acidifying oceans. Summers are getting hotter, blizzards fiercer, hurricanes stronger, floods more frequent, and droughts harsher. In California, rising temperatures have deepened a decade-long drought, thinned winter snow- packs, evaporated reservoirs, dropped water tables to all-time lows, and taken a heavy toll on the Golden State’s fruit, nut, and vegetable farms supplying homes across America. Parched vegetation has sparked fierce wildfires, fueled by high winds, that flare up earlier in the season, burn hotter, persist longer, and destroy thousands of homes across the state. In December 2017, two hundred thousand people were evacuated from Ventura County north of Los Angeles as firefighters battled raging fires driven by the strongest Santa Ana winds on record. In 2018 California suffered the deadliest fires in its history. More than eighty-five hundred fires, driven by searing winds, killed eighty-six people, burned 1.9 million acres of land, destroyed eighteen thousand properties, and caused $14.5 billion in damages.
Is it possible to achieve a wealthy, healthy life without overusing resources and sullying our planet? Oddly, megacities like Los Angeles, New York, Mumbai, Lagos, Nairobi, Shanghai, and Beijing are, for better or worse, our new frontier and the best hope for saving our planet. Cities are the origins of our civilizations, the centers of power, the locus of the modern industrial states, and the epicenter of innovations. Despite their higher crime rates and stress, cities are the magnets for modern economies and communities seeking a richer life or escaping vanishing rural livelihoods.
In the new ecosystems we’ve created, achieving a healthy and satisfying life and saving other species will depend on re-creating the conditions that made us a superdominant species. We must draw on our emotions, morality, and empathy no less than on our rational mind and technical skills to forge universal agreements on our common future. I conclude that our unique human ability for large-scale cooperation and empathy can save nature—and ourselves.
From We Alone by David Western. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced by permission.
David Western, a pioneer of community-based conservation, is a former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and Wildlife Conservation Society International. He founded and chairs the African Conservation Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. His books include Conservation for the Twenty-First Century.