The picture shows grounded fishing boats lying on the bottom of what once used to be the fourth largest lake on earth. The surrealistic landscape looks strange to say the least: if the boats were not there, one might think it is an image of a dessert. Unfortunately, the results of human interventions in the natural environment look inhumane far too often. Since the start of the Great Acceleration in the middle of the 20th century, often considered as the beginning of the Anthropocene, one could have witnessed a large number of man-made natural disasters around the globe. It is the Aral Sea, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island that make one believe in the worst-case scenarios for the planet’s future and cast doubts on the ability of humans to shape their activities meaningfully and responsibly – a matter of the utmost importance in the “Age of Man”.
The Aral Sea has shrunk by 90 percent since the 1960s when the Soviet Union Water Diversion Project was started: “What was once a vibrant, fish-stocked lake is now a massive desert that produces salt and sandstorms that kill plant life and have negative effects on human and animal health for hundreds of miles around” (the Time magazine). Although it might be wrong to separate humans from nature and make them appear the dominant “species” on earth, the example of the Aral Sea clearly demonstrates how irresponsible human behaviour towards the environment can destroy the whole ecosystem.
At the same time, the case of the Aral Sea can serve as a vivid example of “the problem of scale”, which is one of the key points in the Anthropocene debate. Sadly, a top-down decision-making, as in the case of the Soviet-type central planning, often disregards the possible negative impacts on the local communities, leaving them alone face to face with the disastrous consequences. Is it fair that ca 60 million people living in the Aral Sea region have to suffer from throat cancer, anaemia, tuberculosis and other serious diseases caused by the toxic dust and polluted water from the drying lake?
The Anthropocene as a concept is concerned not only with the past, but also with the future. Nowadays, in the face of climate change, the international community actively discusses the pros and cons of employing geoengineering technologies including solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. Whereas there is some hope that these large-scale projects might “save the planet”, there is also space for a lot of doubt associated with humanity acting as one. The Aral Sea disaster reminds us about the potential danger of deliberate intervention in the Earth’s environmental systems and the importance of the human dimension as far as environmental action and policy-making is concerned.
NASA Earth Observatory
Aral Sea abandoned boats photograph courtesy of Ismael Alonso, Copyright 2011.
NASA permits the use of their imagery for educational and informational purposes.
Cruz, G. 2010, May 03. Top 10 Environmental Disasters. The Aral Sea. The Time Magazine online.