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Escape to Costa Rica

April 28, 2017
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This Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4 (British TV) is the first of my 3-part series exploring my incredible journey around this stunning Central American country.

Why Costa Rica? This little country – the size of Denmark – is gorgeous. It has tropical rainforests, cloud forests, the deep and wild Pacific, the warm Caribbean, exhilarating rivers, violent volcanoes, indigenous people, Latino culture, surfers, cowboys…. and it’s the happiest place on Earth.

I am interested in how humans are changing our planet through our culture and technologies, and the effects of those changes on us. We’re living at an exceptional time. The changes we humans have made in recent decades have altered our world beyond anything it’s experienced in it’s 4.5-billion-year history. As a result, our planet is entering a new geological age that scientists are calling the Anthropocene, the age of humans. What will the Anthropocene be like? Will it be good or bad? I travelled around the world to explore this, and wrote a book about my Adventures In The Anthropocene.

Costa Rica offers us an window into a rather appealing version of our Anthropocene. This is a developing country that got rid of its military to instead fund a universal healthcare and education programme; that is growing its economy rapidly whilst also protecting its environment; and that consistently ranks top in the global happiness index. Pretty remarkable.

But what’s most remarkable is that a few decades ago, Costa Rica was a very different country. Poor, struggling with violence and caught in international drugs wars, this was once one of the most deforested nations in the region. A visionary president with courage and ambition helped turn it around. Now, an emphasis on nature and conservation means that Costa Rica protects more than 25% of its land and half of its coastline, it runs its national grid almost entirely (99%) on renewables, and vast tree-planting make it the only tropical country to have reversed deforestation. By 2021, the President tells me, the country will be carbon neutral.

This is a country that chose what sort of Anthropocene it wanted and set out to deliver it. An extraordinary and inspiring story obviously made for television!

Making a television series was not so obvious.

I teamed up with producers Brian Hill and Katie Bailiff at Century Films in London, who make beautiful documentaries about social and environmental issues – a perfect fit. We worked on an idea and presented it to Channel 4, where Ralph Lee shared our vision and enthusiasm and commissioned it to become part of a manmade planet season. So exciting!

Making TV documentaries takes a team of people doing long hours of hard graft to produce something that is effortless to view. Key to this magic is the director, and I lucked out with the formidable Irish bear that is Eoin O’Shea, who had the talent and creative ambition to take a rough idea (and rougher presenter) and produce a coherent 3-part narrative. The talented producer Holly Moy and veteran Bristolian Si Wagen, master of exquisite camerawork, also travelled out from London to San José with us. The rest of the team – soundman Erick Vargas Williams, production assistant Ana Lucia Arias and data manager Saul Garcia – were locals, helping keep the series a more authentic portrayal of the country.

It was hard work at times, especially as I travelled out with Nick and our 1-year-old and 3-year-old. There were plenty of sleepless nights (she’s only recently started sleeping through the night – hallelujah!), and times when I had to leave them for several days. Filming days were long and hard and stressful. I’m used to being in control of my work and my schedule, and it was difficult to relinquish that. But it was never boring, and it was never meaningless. It was often exciting, and a chance to explore an amazing country and people, and some truly fascinating stories with a team of brilliant fun people that have become my friends.

I hope you enjoy watching it.

 

 

 

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Meet the Author

October 12, 2015
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I was interviewed about my book by the BBC’s Nick Higham last week – you can watch it here.

And there was an interview with me in The Pool, on BBC online, and in Wired.

In the bleak midwinter

January 26, 2018
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January is always a miserable month in the northern hemisphere – and the selfish, backward-looking politics playing out across the world make this one feel especially bleak. If you too are stricken with weltschmerz (a general sense of gloom about everything), perhaps take heart in the knowledge that despite appearances, this is a much better time to be alive than at any time in our past. We are living longer, in better health, less violently and with more opportunity than before.

I’ve spent the past couple of years researching and writing my next book about our cultural evolution: the story of how we became this extraordinary species that now dominates our planet. It’s been a strange and difficult time to wrestle with ideas about humanity’s progression when society around me is regressing in many ways. Over the coming months, as I mould and shape my clumsy lumpen draft, I will take solace and inspiration from the ways we are improving our options in the Anthropocene. There’s been a steep rise in electricity production from renewables (which is getting cheaper every day), coupled with increased divestment in fossil fuels, for example. Energy efficient solutions, like LED lighting, are already making a big difference globally, and governments, businesses and individuals are now convinced of the need for sustainability.

Here’s me finding reasons to be cheerful (and concerned):

Not waving but drowning

January 27, 2017
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If, like me, you wake everyday with a stone of foreboding in your belly, check the news to discover the world is a little worse, and stumble through your day under the heaviest pall of despair, then you’re not having the best 2017 either – I’m sorry.

Is this a new Dark Ages, this deliberate political, cultural, societal regression?

I’m sure there have been a thousand analyses of how we got into this darkly farcical horror show – and I mean the Trump presidency and Brexit disasters specifically, rather than the continuing awfulness happening to people Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, etc etc – but to be honest, one of my few comforts at the moment is my social bubble made up of kind, intelligent people who are also appalled by this new “post-fact”, mean era.

So what hope, can I give? And, yes, there is always hope!

Even though these recent political changes in Britain and the US will hurt people (generally the most vulnerable) and local environments, around the world nations are already committed to developing clean energy, to environmental protection and conservation, to curbing pollution and recognising women’s and minority rights. Certainly there is a long way to go, but in general, poverty is going down, and there is ever greater recognition that we need to protect our shared environment. For example, China has just cancelled several coal power stations that had already been commissioned; globally, new power generation from renewables is now greater than from fossil fuels; the world’s largest marine park was protected in Antarctica last year by the EU and 24 countries. This momentum will continue, I think, in spite of anti-science policy in the US.

And, we should not overestimate the power of governments. They move slow and dull in a fast world. I have seen for myself countless examples of remarkable individuals, communities, organisations, and businesses that make an extraordinary difference to the everyday lives of others. In our networked, global world, such people can only have greater power.

Feel free to cheer me up with your words of hope and inspiration 🙂

 

 

Origins of human culture

December 7, 2016
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This was a fun programme to make on the origins of human culture for Discovery on BBC World Service – have a listen.

In the clouds

December 7, 2016
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I leave the family for a few days, taking a 5-hour drive into the central highlands. In time, the rolling fields of cattle pasture give way to thickening forest. The unpaved, potholed road curls upwards in ever tighter spirals, taking me 1300 metres above sea level, rewarding my lurching progress with brief bursts of breathtaking vistas across the Nicoya Peninsula to the gleaming Pacific beyond.

My rather cool lodging is a luxury timber ‘treehouse’, and from my stilted bedroom in the heart of the forest, I can see across the valley to Monteverde (the green mountain), the focus of my journey. The trees here are straight out of fairyland: dripping with epiphytes, lichens and bromeliads, festooned with orchids and blueberries, and strung with vines and aerial roots. Birds flit between branches and the forest hums and whirrs with insects. Monkeys jump in the canopy and, as I scan the branches for other life, I catch a magical sight. High in a nook between two larger tree limbs is a sloth, lying on her back with her baby lounging on her belly. As she shifts her position slightly, her infant wraps its arms around its mother in what can only be described as a sloth cuddle.

The problem is, I can see the sloths all too clearly. This forest should be obscured by cloud, wet, veiled in precipitation and far chillier than it is. In fact, I’m wearing a sleeveless top and admiring the dappled sunlight on a warm dry day. The researchers here tell me that they used to get 20-30 dry days a year; now they’re getting more than 100. This year, there have already been 120 dry days – make that 121, after today. Global warming is raising the cloud base, and the trade winds are now pushing the clouds and precipitation up and over the mountains here.

Cloud forests are special, very rare environments, and Monteverde is unique. This cloud forest here contains more than 3,000 different plant species alone, more than 10% of which are found nowhere else, and the highest diversity of orchids on the planet. Because of the particular conditions needed for a cloud forest to develop – altitude with atmospheric moisture – they end up being rather like island ecosystems, isolated from each other with a high proportion of endemic species. The mountains here also act as a barrier, separating the species of the Caribbean from the Pacific sides.

Thi is all changing, though. As the area warms and the clouds fail to condense on the huge leaves and fronds of this forest, the entire ecosystem is being forced higher up the mountain. Chasing it are lowland species of flora and fauna, once found far below the mountain, unable to cope with the high humidity and cold temperatures. I heave myself up into the canopy of a tall fig tree with a biologist who has placed sensors to measure temperature, moisture, wind speed and other parameters, hoping to understand the resilience of this fragile cloud forest. As I sit bird-high in the magnificent fig, the lack of cloud affords me spectacular views. But there is a heartbreaking poignancy in realising I am witnessing perhaps the final decade of an unparalleled forest.

Costa Rica holds more than one-quarter of its land under strict conservation. It’s what has allowed it to base the national economy on nature tourism. But for how long will this be viable?

 

Otto destruction

November 29, 2016
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We arrive in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, hours before a hurricane is forecast to hit the nation. The government orders the evacuation of vulnerable towns and villages, coastal communities are urged to seek shelter, and internal flights are put on a wait-and-see basis.

We decide to make the next leg of the journey by road, driving west through the highlands to the Pacific coast of the Nicoya peninsula. We rent a bungalow in a scrubby patch of jungle not far from a beautiful crescent beach near Nosara, and settle the kids into their new home.

When the rains are light or cease, we fill their days with jungle strolls and beach walks, listen to howler monkeys roar and watch them prance through the trees, find iguanas and humming birds, hawks and pelicans, and all types of insect. We eat tropical fruits, rambutan and tamarind, papaya and mango, pineapple and banana. We feast on hearty casados – plates of fish, rice, beans, vegetables and sauces.

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Further north, life is less idyllic. Hurricane Otto has smashed through the country from the Caribbean to the Pacific, the first tropical cyclone to cross the nation since records began, and the most southerly ever to hit Central America. At least ten people have lost their lives, with many more missing, and more than 3,000 remain evacuated. Flash floods washed away houses, roads and livestock. Some areas have been devastated, with more than a month’s rainfall pounding infrastructure in just a few hours. The cleanup will cost millions. People from around the country are pulling together to help with the relief effort – President Solis has declared three days of mourning for the victims. Less helpful are the morbid hurricane tourists, who are driving to the area to take selfies with destruction, adding to the chaos.

This hurricane was unusual. It was very late in the season, making this one of the longest on record, and it was the first to strike Costa Rica. Weather can be strange and unpredictable, but Otto also forms part of a recent trend in more intense tropical storms. The world’s oceans have absorbed the vast majority of the global warming that humans have produced over the past decades as we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As the oceans become warmer and more energetic, so do the storms they stir up. And as sea levels rise, these intense storms can do more damage to our human world – destroying our infrastructure, livelihoods and even our lives.

One of the reasons I have come to Costa Rica is to look at how this small nation is managing the challenge of producing energy we all need for economic and social development while maintaining its important natural ecosystems. What is already very clear, is that in these changing times – in the Anthropocene – we need to plan for unpredictable, violent weather.

Arrived in Costa Rica

November 24, 2016
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Went to sleep to the sound of gecko kisses; woke to the roar of howler monkeys. Wonderful.