Book Review – Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

DianeAckerman

By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

Which of our prized inventions, garbage, and everyday objects will remain, hundreds of years from now, to tell the great story of our civilization? What will future geologists think about us, as they paw through these (largely plastic) “fossils”?

The Human AgeThese are just a few of the questions that nature writer, poet, and memoirist Diane Ackerman explores in her 2014 book, “The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us.” Writing in her characteristically poetic prose, in chapters dealing with everything from weather to robots, Ackerman reports and ruminates on the concept of the Anthropocene—the idea that we have entered a new phase of geologic time, an era of intense human impact on the more-than-human environment.

I recently finished the book, after having heard Ackerman speak locally last fall as part of the Utah Humanities Council Book Festival. If you missed seeing Ackerman last fall, you can catch her this week at the Environmental Ethics Symposium at Utah Valley University, in Orem, where she will deliver the keynote address at 11AM Wed. March 18. The focus of this year’s symposium is “Ethical Dimensions on the Human Environment,” and the event is free and open to the public.

In both of my encounters with Ackerman, in person and on the page, I was excited by her enthusiasm and faith in humanity’s capacity to solve problems related to climate change. However, I was also skeptical of her untempered optimism, and I was disappointed that her praise fell much heavier on actions that mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change, rather than on those which humbly attempt to slow its tide.

Throughout the text, Ackerman meets with experts and innovative thinkers, explores green engineering feats, praises cradle-to-cradle design, and laments the loss of a sensory relationship between humans and their more-than-human surroundings. She demonstrates consistent faith in human ingenuity, particularly via technological innovations; yet, she ends the book with refreshing humility, acknowledging that our bodies are hardly our own—rather, that each of us is an interdependent colony of tiny, hard-working microbes.

During her talk, Ackerman reiterated this belief in the importance of conviviality—the idea that humans exist only in relation to the plants, animals, and other organisms that surround us and, indeed, comprise our own bodies. She said that because humans are so deeply intertwined, physically and behaviorally, with the rest of the cosmos, people need to get on board with the cyclical way that nature works. “We’re just dumping things,” she said. “We need to think more the way that nature thinks.”

During a question-and-answer session at the end of her talk, Ackerman responded to audience skepticism about her faith in human—and particularly, technological—solutions to environmental crises. She noted that while much of the human-caused damage to the planet is irreversible, collective action can still have beneficial effects. She said that she senses in the general population a “bizarre low-level depression” regarding the inevitability of climate change—a depression that can lead to inaction or paralysis. “There’s nothing gained by scaring people to the extent that they think there’s nothing they can do,” she said. A self-identified natural optimist, Ackerman said that she herself does not feel “doomed or helpless.”

“The Human Age” is more a work of poetic ruminations than of hard-hitting analysis, and it treads the thin line between human optimism and human arrogance. It’s worth a read, however—for a dose of Ackerman’s tender and poetic language, and for its courage in highlighting the good-vs.-bad paradoxes of anthropogenic environmental impacts.

When asked, “Who is the book for?” Ackerman answered, “For anyone who wants to learn more about what it means to be human.”

Hilary Smith is a graduate student studying Environmental Humanities. She is a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Resource Center. 

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