Since the turn of the millennium, geologists have been debating whether they want to proclaim a new geological era, an “Anthropocene”. Even if this term is hardly mentioned in Nathaniel Rich’s new book, it is aptly used to describe what the author reports on when he speaks of contaminated groundwater, straightened rivers and melting glaciers, writes of a planet whose condition is no longer conceivable without the influence of the human species.
“Second Nature” is the original title of the volume with reports by the US journalist, in the translation his German publisher added a little religious pathos: “The Second Creation – How Mankind Changes Nature Forever”.
In the introduction, Rich takes his readers to a California beach called Glass Beach, formerly a garbage dump, now a tourist magnet. Billions of polished shards sparkle in the surf, many day trippers can’t help but pick up a handful of them. But in doing so they are endangering a newly created biotope that has long since adopted the glass ceiling as a protective roof.
The beach is only a stable habitat as long as it is a landfill, which is why conservationists call for its continued littering. The message is clear: there has long been no nature without humans and preserving it means intervening in it in a clever way. The way back is blocked forever.
This also applies to the human body, which absorbs synthetic substances when breathing, eating, drinking or putting on make-up. According to Rich, it’s an estimated 85 for men and almost twice that for women — per day. Some can never be broken down, including PFOA, a highly carcinogenic chemical that was simply discarded into the environment by its manufacturer. The company has thus installed a distinctive mark for the North American population. All US citizens carry the substance in their blood.
Nathaniel Rich, born in 1980, achieved great fame with his international bestseller “Losing Earth”. He talked about the years 1979 to 1989, when the dangers of man-made climate change were already known and scientists and activists in the USA were about to take decisive steps to reduce greenhouse gases. The warming of the earth could have been reduced to a small extent at that time. But the heroes of this story could not stand against the industry lobby, saving the world was postponed.
One reason for this was the lack of public pressure. The greenhouse gas threat was not discernible and therefore remained diffuse. But even clearly visible signs can be deceptive. In a hill town north of Los Angeles, residents suddenly spotted yellow spots in the sky. Its origin was a gas depot from which methane escaped for months.
The leak contributed as much to global warming as nearly 2 million cars did in a whole year. But that hardly played a role in the discussion about the catastrophe. Instead, residents of the area complained of nausea, nosebleeds, headaches and sore throats. Rich suggests that her symptoms may have been psychosomatic; it was not the gas that made her ill, but her fear of it. Because methane itself is not toxic for individuals – but it is for humanity as a whole.
The protection of the environment today therefore presupposes a kind of exegesis of the eponymous second creation, an interpretation of the signs of a process that homo sapiens has started and whose control he is now struggling to control. “People need images, they are calibrated to look for visible evidence of invisible dangers,” writes Rich, defining his journalistic program in the process.
He transforms scientific research, lengthy lobbying and legal processes related to nature and consumer protection into tales of indomitable lawyers, passionate researchers and desperate conservationists.
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He finds an ally in the Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac, who in 2000 started a debate about the genetic modification of living beings with the presentation of a shimmering green rabbit. But above all in that of the Japanese marine biologist Shin Kubota. After work, he acts as a karaoke star and sings about his fascinating pet: Turritopsis.
This jellyfish does not die, at the end of its life cycle it turns back into a polyp. Kubota is convinced that by studying the species itself, humanity will attain immortality. And yet he steps on the brakes. Man is not mentally ready. In order to earn immortality, he must first learn to love all other life on this planet.