Ah, we humans, what have we wrought? Essayist and naturalist Diane Ackerman (author of A Natural History of the Senses, The Zookeeper’s Wife and many other books) tackles this musing—and not merely rhetorical—question in The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, examining what geologists are calling our current epoch, the Anthropocene, or Human Age.
This is serious ground, but Ackerman treads it with her customary graceful, imaginative and witty prose, infusing this manifesto-like look at the positive and negative impacts human beings are having on the planet with realism—and optimism. “Today, instead of adapting to the natural world . . . we’ve created a human environment in which we’ve embedded the natural world. . . . Without meaning to, we’ve created some planetary chaos that threatens our well-being,” she writes.
Ackerman avows, however, that she holds enormous hope for man’s future: “Our new age, for all its sins, is laced with invention.” And, true to her statement, the author takes us on a breathtaking tour of our “sins,” our successes and the incredible work and explorations that are shaping a new vision of life.
Five impressively researched sections frame our Anthropocene impacts (with considerable focus on climate change); discuss the innovations that might ameliorate those impacts; enumerate man’s interaction with (read: manipulation of) and influence upon nature; outline the intersection of our technological advances and nature; and explore our mind-boggling tinkering with the human body and psyche.
Ackerman’s immense knowledge of the natural world and her poetic and ethical sensibilities embellish an incredible journey that shows us orangutans playing with iPads, oceangoing farmers experimenting with mariculture, a botanist-artist who fashions living, breathing walls of plant life in cities; a project that puts animal DNA on ice for the future; and the newest work in the modeling of human body parts (3-D printing) and in epigenetics.
Who, what and where will we be as we lurch onward in this human-driven age? Perhaps all depends upon our ability “to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere?” Spoiler alert: This book ends optimistically, but with a caveat: “We still have time and imagination . . . and a great many choices. . . . [O]ur mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable.”