A Tour of the Anthropocene in 55 Minutes (or Less)

Updated: 3 days ago

From Pucallpa to Lima

Ascent


It takes about 55 minutes on a mid-sized commercial jet to fly from Pucallpa, Peru to Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima. The juxtaposition of these two cities and the shortness of the flight encapsulates the fantastical nature of air travel: a passenger merely sits down in a climate-controlled metal tube and is transported from the humidity, dust, and intense sun (or driving rain) of small, provincial Pucallpa to Peru’s sprawling coastal capital of 10 million people. Cruising over the immense Andes mountains, time and space appear to compress. For just 60 US dollars and one hour, the traveler overcomes geographic barriers that shaped and divided cultures, languages, commerce, and colonisation for millennia in South America.


Sit with me in the Anthropocene's cognitive dissonance.

This 55-minute flight is a product of the Anthropocene — the present moment in which (some) humans are transforming Earth on the scale of the geologic forces. In its temporal and spatial immensity, ‘the Anthropocene’ is difficult to comprehend. I began to visualise it from 35,000 feet up, through this flight I took regularly while I was living in Pucallpa. From 2018 to 2020, I made the trip routinely, first as a master’s student investigating indigenous farmers’ practices and experiences with climate change, and then as an advisor for one community’s project to conserve and harvest medicinal plants and secure intellectual property rights.


I juxtaposed my vantage point from the plane with the perspectives of community residents. In stark contrast to traversing the entire country of Peru in 55 minutes on an airplane, reaching villages 60 miles up the Ucayali River takes six hours even in the ‘fast’ boats. These flights evoked intense cognitive dissonance as I reflected on the ease with which I glided away from Pucallpa over landscapes altered by human use and the disproportionate impact of my ability to burn jet fuel on the lives of others.


I invite you on my ‘tour’ of the Anthropocene. Sit with me in the cognitive dissonance that emerges when we witness the changes humanity has wrought and recognise that those of us on the plane are far more responsible than many down below.


Tour


In the first minutes, while gaining altitude, look at the expanse of green below. This is the Amazon, but it does not resemble the undulating, verdant canopies in Conservation International promotional videos. Rather, it is a patchwork of greens — the new green of re-growing forest; the dry yellow-green of pastureland; and the incongruous hexagonal black-green of palm oil plantations. The monocrop forests of palm seem to be expanding on all sides like an alien cancer — a symptom of the global addiction to this oil. Studies trace the story of oil palms: appropriated from West African homelands, made to consume the soils of other trees on land seized from traditional owners, and now present in 50 per cent of the products you buy, down to the questionable airplane snack in your hand.


To the south in our ascent out of Pucallpa is the sinuous, coffee-coloured Ucayali River. Snaking through the leafy patchwork, this river is wide, flat, and navigable, a highway for products and people as well as for the rich silt that nourishes thousands of small farms along its banks. The serpentine metaphor is appropriate for the Ucayali, which in local cosmovision is understood as the great mother anaconda who created the world. Indeed, the Creator-Mother river provides for the lives of all who inhabit its banks — from indigenous farmers to timber capitalists. Pucallpa is the end of any paved roads in the zone, so residents rely on the river highway to connect to the rest of Peru. Boats on the Ucayali River range from individual residents’ tiny peque-peque motorboats piled high with produce to sell, to the commercial passenger rápidos blaring club music as they skim over the water, to massive barges full of timber that always have right-of-way.


Yet, for all the benefits the river brings, living alongside the Ucayali also poses grave risks. Historical accounts show that predictable, yearly flooding replenished crop fields and triggered the production of native fruit trees and migration of wild game, ensuring ample food supply while riverine fields fallowed. However, the Ucayali too has entered the Anthropocene. Research finds that flooding now is dangerously unpredictable: the rains come too late or too early and fall in volumes that invade homes and sweep away dry-season crops. Inundated fruit trees die and fish and animals retreat upland, making the flood season now a hungry time for communities. To control floods and create passage for larger boats, the government of Peru initiated a contentious project to dredge over 2,000 kilometres of the Ucayali and three other Amazonian rivers.


It is only in the Anthropocene that a single species has the nerve to rearrange the trajectory of rivers.

Human modification is not new to the Ucayali. As researchers from McGill University point out, communities have for centuries constructed or expanded short-cut channels that alter its course. However, modification on this scale has not been imposed on the Ucayali before. Indigenous and environmental groups are attempting to protect the river from being further subject to the Anthropocene. Facing off, once again, with corporatised governance and politically-sanctioned colonisation of landscapes, they argue that prior consultation and environmental impact assessments were not conducted appropriately.


Craning to catch one last glimpse of the Ucayali winding away into the green, you are startled by the sudden steep land rising up ahead. The Andes rise 3,000 sharp meters out of the rainforest, a rocky wall of imposing sabers known as the cordillera — Peru’s spine. Age by human understanding is meaningless to these giants — not that the shortness of human lifespans stopped settlement among the burgundy rocks and wind-whipped altiplano grasslands. Our flight takes us over the former nation of the Incas, who followed the spine from the forested mountains of present-day Ecuador into the high plains of Argentina. We gaze down at tiny villages perched on soaring plateaus — communities so remote that the closest you are likely to ever come to them is whizzing by at 35,000 feet. The mountains rise so near to the plane that it is possible to marvel at the animals, people and vehicles traversing winding mountain roads.


Suddenly, the ground yawns open below, threatening to swallow the villages whole (a very real threat as the story of Cerro de Pasco shows). Inverted rings of excavated earth mark mines. In pursuit of copper, silver and gold, humans undercut Andean peaks. Perhaps some slivers of precious metals in the plane’s engine or your phone’s battery get to glimpse their place of origin as you pass overhead. The mountains are known in Quechua as tirakuna, ‘earth beings’ who connect in community with humans and all other beings around them.


Peruvian anthropologists Marisol de la Cadena and Guillermo Salas Carreño explain that, like the Ucayali for Amazonian communities, for Andean peoples the mountains are ancient and powerful forces. Local people witness the earth beings slashed open to extract their marrow and understand that the mountains are murdered by the mines that hollow out their bodies. Here, at the flight’s zenith, you pass through our tour’s nadir: a graveyard of the Anthropocene. Majestic peaks are turned inside out, because humans-as-geologic-force are consuming the bodies of the tirakuna and dismissing the human communities who speak their wisdom.

Gradually, the cordillera drops away below the plane. The colour pallet transitions from mountainous oranges and blues to shades of dust. Villages fade to tiny specks. Far down in the widening valleys new settlements appear, stacked up like many sandy Lego blocks left in a pile. Below are the outskirts of ever-growing Lima City, where new neighbourhoods of unfinished brick-and-metal structures and people searching for better lives seem to pop up daily in the paradoxically foggy-but-drought-ridden hills. Lima’s perpetual coastal fog slithers up the ravines, casting a grainy film across the city. At night, city lights illuminate the low clouds with an orange glow that may trick the traveler into thinking you’ve caught up with the sunset. It is an Anthropocene sunset — humans lighting the sky when the sky does not light the Earth.


The plane banks and breaks through the clouds. If the day is not too foggy and the sun is not yet set, cerulean ocean waves glitter below. We see towering penthouse apartments bending over Lima’s cliffs and beach-side highway known as the Costa Verde, ‘green coast.’ Here is the newest exhibit on our tour. The Costa Verde beaches that seem natural, only disrupted by a highway, are in fact just 40 years old. Government funding provided for rearrangement of the coast’s geologic architecture. Gravel and sand dredged from the ocean were packed along the water’s edge to build recreational beaches and Lima’s fastest highway. The cliffs, separated from their long-term eroding relationship with the sea, are smothered in netting and half-hearted vines in an attempt to keep firm their loose, rocky bodies.


It is only in the Anthropocene that a single species has the nerve to rearrange the trajectory of rivers, invert mountain peaks into craters, and demand the ocean never again touch the cliffs it spent millennia building up and knocking down.


Descent


Your jet descends into the fog, and seems to bump into the ground quite suddenly. Your eyes adjust to Lima’s moist gloom. Fellow travellers spring to their feet, jostling elbows and overhead luggage. As a window seat passenger, you sit still and continue to observe the Anthropocene. Air travel, itself, is exhibit A of our tour. The ability to fly — to traverse continents in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks — has given humans unprecedented command over geography.

Yet, those geologic barriers remain firmly in place for many people. Less than 20 per cent of people in the world have ever flown on an airplane. You and I are the Anthropocene’s elite. Air travel is one of the most greenhouse gas-intensive activities, and the impacts of those emissions are felt disproportionately by people who will never fly.


Each time I flew to and from Pucallpa, I reflected on my privileged 35,000-foot position. Getting to know people living along the Ucayali, I realised how the Andes continue to divide Peru: grandparents raising grandchildren going years without seeing their parents who work in mountain mines; teenage brothers trying to save just enough for one-way bus tickets to Lima where they can sell their hand-made necklaces and hopefully make enough for the bus ride home; an artist who would have a teaching job in Lima if only he could afford to travel back and forth while supporting his sick mother in Pucallpa. For most Peruvians, air travel remains an indulgence for the rich.


You and I are the Anthropocene’s elite.

To complete this tour of the Anthropocene, we hold in perspective the communities, livelihoods and cultures that are suffering and disappearing due to the environmental destruction and homogenising globalisation that are the cornerstones of this human geologic era. The deeply personal losses cannot be seen from 35,000 feet; neither can the intimacy with rivers and mountains that have enabled people to survive and adapt for generations. For those of us who are exempt from daily living alongside the Anthropocene’s frontiers, we must make tangible the massive, irrevocable changes to which we, the Anthropocene’s elite, make outsized contributions. This tour at 35,000 feet shows the Anthropocene through dissonant vistas: breathtakingly huge and ancient forms — forest, mountain, ocean — rearranged by anthropogenic activity, which, like all geologic forces, dwarfs tiny individual human lives. Yes, humans have always altered landscapes to meet their needs. But the alterations inflicted by palm oil plantations, open pit mines, chaotic urban sprawl, and airplane emissions are qualitatively different in their scale, their permanence, and their service to global circuits of capital rather than to human well-being.


Before you exit the plane, I invite you to sit in the cognitive dissonance for one more moment. Consider: what is your next exhibit on our Anthropocene tour?

Melaina Dyck is a climate change researcher focused on adaptation, nature-based solutions and environmental justice. She holds a Master of Environmental Science from Yale University and works as an Analyst with Climate Focus. Melaina thanks Amity Doolittle, Austin Bryniarski, Peter Ludwig, Jared Naimark and Zander Pellegrino for their insights in developing this article, and the many members of Peruvian communities who shared their knowledge and perspectives. The views expressed here are personal.


Art by Etta Stevens.