Book Review: The Human Age: The World Shaped By Usby Diane Ackerman
Diane Ackerman is worried about us. We’ve polluted the ground and water; we’ve been responsible in some way or shape for most of the extinctions in recent history; we’ve changed the climate of the planet in actually perceptible ways. Ackerman is convinced we’ve had more of an effect on the climate than any other species in history. (Maybe more than any one species in history, but I think there might be several species of oxygen-producing, ancient bacteria that might argue that claim.) While the Blue Marble, the image of daylit Earth from space, has offered the last two generations of anthrops a shimmering base of speculation on our own intergalactic insignificance; The “Black Marble,” the image of the Earth at night is proof enough of our place in space. No man-made structures are visible from space? Have you checked the Las Vegas Strip at night?
Our progress is undeniable. We have unlocked the secrets of DNA, then froze samples from multitudes of species as a Doomsday scenario. We have created vertical aqua farms to maximize the amount of space we can use in an environment we never attempted to farm before (the ocean)–proving ourselves to be the ultimate agriculturists. We aim to create artificial intelligence capable of reproducing by creating its own artificial life. “They will have emotions…but they won’t necessarily be human emotions.” (Please get back into your chair, 19-year-old-Asimov-Fangirl-Self-From-The-Past; you are embarrassing us.) We can genetically customize almost any species. We have given iPads to orangs. Never before have we been so close to touching godliness. Undoubtedly, we are the best we have ever been. And yet, we are looking at a rate of climate change in which warm weather marches northward at a rate of 13 miles per year. That’s faster than the previous Ice Age! (Humans always have to be number one.) And with that northward movement goes all of the migratory species. We see birds and insects no longer inhabiting their natural ecosystems. We have hybrid plant species blooming recessive flowers and wild traits. Nature finds a way of wresting control (We’re number one–oh…)
Ackerman, however, does, at times (particularly in the chapter “Nature, Pixellated”), appear to suffer from the same malady that she criticizes. She laments the loss of “natural” experience for humans by watching unobtrusive live streams of animals and landscapes, despite the fact that human presence would be traumatic for the animals, yet she laments the human traffic in nature itself; she makes grand assumptions and judgements on the emotional well-being of college-age people, but doesn’t speak to college students herself (or even question the reliability and validity of the empathy studies she cites); condemns digital natives for becoming more myopic (though the intricate close-work that she claims is making us more myopic is required for the roboticists, geneticists, and microbiologists she loves so much); she wants greater digital access for plants and animals, but ignores the thousands of people in poverty who suffer from little to no access to technology in a world that increasingly demands that access. Ackerman unfortunately threads her narrative with much romanticization of prehistory, as if paleolithic man had no problems of his own to deal with.
Then again, she follows up this with an entire pun-based plant chapter, so I can’t be too irritated with her. “Picture your Boston fern home alone placing botanicalls.” (Ackerman, you spoil us.)
The scope of this book is wide, but it is by no means complete. I highly urge you to read it, however, and take note of why we are living in our own age. And what we can do about it so that we can continue to live in it: so that we can be its curators rather than its annihilators.
You can pick up a copy of The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman at your local independent bookseller or library right now! Here’s one!