CANMORE – Bob Sandford has spent a lot of time watching and thinking about water.
Along the way, he has authored more than 20 books about water and its crucial role in Canada’s ecology, history and culture, and on climate change from regional and global perspectives.
In 2019, Sandford published not one, but two new books on water, both with Rocky Mountain Books, revealing a wide range of thoughts and perspectives.
In Rain Comin’ Down: Water, Memory, and Identity in a Changed World, Sandford shares a series of meditations on water through lyrical, sometimes humorous, and thought-provoking essays in which topics of literature, religion, mythology, cultural history and science merge like meltwater creeks flowing to form a pulsating river.
The inspiration for the book, and the title, he said, came from his wife’s band, an informal group of Bow Valley musicians called Vi’s Guys.
“These wonderful musicians have become a reed through which they sing themselves from grief to wholeness and joy,” Sandford said.
“It was their inspired company and enthusiasm for playing together that motivated me to keeping humming the words to ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain.’ The book came to me as a series of essay reflections on my life and my work.”
As chair for water and climate security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Sandford’s work involves translating scientific research outcomes into language decision makers can use to craft timely and meaningful public policy.
“What I tried to do with the book was to assemble a coherent understanding of the importance of water to our way of life out of very wide-ranging experiences that conclude with a warning concerning the very real threats the world faces in not listening to what water is telling us about our current and pending future, not just here but around the world,” he said.
Sandford’s second book of 2019, The Anthropocene Disruption, is something of a sequel to his North America in the Anthropocene, published in 2016, both of which expose the depth and substance of his professional work.
First proposed by a Soviet geologist in 1922, since the early 2000s the term Anthropocene has become widely used to suggest that Earth has now left its natural geological epoch – the present interglacial state called the Holocene – and is now in a state where human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of nature.
Through extensive research in the fields of geology, biology, ecology, atmospheric physics and other disciplines, scientists have arrived at findings that demand that we think about our planet in an entirely new way, Sandford said.
“The first is that the earth itself is a single system, within which the biosphere is an active and critical component,” he explained. “The system itself is created and sustained by biodiversity; the sum total of all life on the planet.”
The second realization is that human activities are now so pervasive and profound in their consequences that they affect Earth system function at a global scale in complex, interactive and accelerating ways.
“By way of its numbers and its needs, humanity now has the capacity to alter Earth system function in ways that threaten the very processes – biotic and abiotic – upon which humans depend,” he said. “We are moving into an era of conditions on Earth for which humanity has no previous experience.”
The book outlines some hard data: in only a few generations humankind has exhausted fossil fuel reserves that took hundreds of millions of years for Earth to create. Nearly 50 per cent of Earth’s land surface has been transformed by human activity with significant impacts on biodiversity, nutrient cycling, soil health and climate.
More than half the world’s freshwater is now directly or indirectly committed to human use. Concentrations of several climatically important greenhouse gases have increased to such an extent that they have altered the composition and behaviour of Earth’s atmosphere. Extinctions are occurring at such a rate globally that the function of the Earth system is at risk, and more.
He outlines how researchers compiled a “record of the trajectory of the human enterprise through a number of indicators” over the period of 1750 – the start of the Industrial Revolution – to 2000.
Looking at historical trends of human activity including population growth, total real gross domestic product, damming of rivers and others factors, they compared their effects on the Earth system including rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, average surface temperatures, increases in flood frequencies and loss of critical planetary biodiversity over the past 250 years.
Every trend revealed a gradual upturn between 1750 and just after the Second World War. After that, the human impacted accelerated.
“What they discovered was that the magnitude and rate in the growth of the human imprint on the planet began to skyrocket from about 1950 onward,” Sandford said. “The second half of the 20th century was utterly unique in the entire history of human presence on Earth.”
With that, The Anthropocene Disruption explains nine planetary boundaries – including climate change, nitrogen pollution and biodiversity loss – which, if disrupted, could lead to continental- to planetary-scale changes in Earth system function. A 2015 assessment concluded four of the nine have already been crossed, with others pushing closer to their boundaries.
Despite these realities, both of Sandford’s books conclude with a case for hope.
“We face vast challenges with respect to the decline of biodiversity-based Earth system function that can only be addressed through close global cooperation,” Sandford said. “Scientists can no longer remain silent. We must speak up. In this book we do.
“But it must be pointed out that ours is not just a story of alarm. Following water takes one back and forth in time, linking us to what Earth was like in the past, what our reality is now and how our understanding of water will shape our future. It is my hope that readers will gain a fuller appreciation of the beauty of the Earth system and a greater understanding of how water and climate are inter-connected, and how that interconnection affects the lives of all.”