I heard Diane Ackerman speak at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium three weeks ago about her latest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us. Geologists have decided that the impact of human beings on other species and on the planet itself, especially in the last 200 years, has been significant enough to warrant a new era in geological time – the Anthropocene (human) age. The name will become official in textbooks in 2016.
Diane Ackerman is a poetic and prolific writer (24 books to date), especially when writing about the natural world, including A Natural History of the Senses, and The Moon by Whale Light. Her interests are broad: One Hundred Names for Love about her husband’s recovery from a devastating stroke, Alchemy of the Mind about the brain, consciousness, and identity, and The Zookeeper’s Wife the New York Timesbest-seller and true story of the curators of the Warsaw Zoo saving the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees during theNazi occupation of World War II by hiding them in the animal’s empty cages.
Ackerman’s broad interests continue in The Human Age:climate change, endangered species, the urbanization of the entire world, the greening of buildings and the re-wilding of urban areas, the implications of the human genome-epigenome-microbiome (every human body contains 10 trillion microbial cells compared to one trillion human cells) the development of nanotechnology, 3-D bio-printing of living tissue -blood vessels, nerves, muscles, heart valves, corneas, vertebrae and windpipes,the U.S. Navy’s decision, after 50 years, to replace its dolphins trained to detect underwater mines with robotic drones, DNA banking ofthousands of plant species for future recovery.
In The Human Age, Ackerman reports with irreproachable accuracy and poetic beauty the seriousness of the impact human beings are having on the planet, on other species, even on ourselves.
On the planet:
“Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamed up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thicksediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface – preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.
“Even the clouds show our handiwork. Some are wind-smeared contrails left by globe-trotters in airplanes; others darken and spill as a result of factory grit loosed into the air. We’ve banded the cros, we hybridized the tress, we’ve trussed the cliffs, we’ve dammed the rivers. We would supervise the sun if we could. We already harness its rays to power our whims, a feat the gods of ancient mythology would envy.
“At every level, from wild animals to the microbes that homestead our flesh, from our evolving homes and cities to virtual zoos and webcams, humanity’s unique bond with nature has taken a new direction. Without meaning to, we’ve created some planetary chaos that threatens our well-being. Only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna, foragers and hunters of small game. The Anthropocene Age recognizes for the first time our unparalleded dominion over the whole planet. How had we become such a planetary threat?”
On other species:
“When it comes to Earth’s life forms we’ve been especially busy. We and our domestic animals now make up 90 percent of all the mammal biomass on Earth; in the year 1000, we and our animals were only 2 percent.” Humans have deliberately or inadvertently shifted animal and plant species all over the globe, sometimes with disastrous consequences to native species and human health.
And we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction, losing between 17,000 and 100,000 species a year. “We know the exact causes of this extinction, having created them ourselves – climate change, habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, big agriculture, acidifying the oceans, urbanization, a growing population demanding more natural resources.”
Even on a milder scale, As more and more people live in cities (2/3 of the world’s 10 billion people by the year 2050)more and more wild animals – deer, birds, foxes, skunks, raccoons – find shelter and food supplies more easily in urban environments than in the plowed and pesticided countryside. [I now hear wild turkeys in the morning and coyotes at night regularly in my neighborhood.] The impact goes beyond sharing the environment and increasing road kills. Ornithologists in Munich found that the biological clock of city blackbirds is speeding up compared to their country cousins. Their workdays start earlier, they adopt a faster pace, work longer hours, and rest and sleep less.
Because Americans spend so much time every day focused on the small screens of their digital devices, without enough counter-balancing time looking up at hills and trees, re-setting their vision with the long perspective, the shape of their eyeball is changing, not in evolutionary time but in a matter of a few decades. One third of Americans are now near-sighted; 95% of students in Shanghai are near-sighted.
But Ackerman spends most of the book guiding us through wildly out-of-the box, creative solutions that already exist or are being diligently researched:
“Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.”
* Harnessing the heat generated by commuters in a Paris subway station to heat the station and apartments in a nearby social project. Similarly, 250,000 commuters in the Stockholm subway provide the heatfor the 13-story Kungsbrohuset office building a hundred yards away.(Through these and other measures, Sweden has reduced its dependency on oil by 90% in the last decade.)
* Biomimicry: designing an office building whose outer skin resemble the porelike stomata of leaves and provides all the energy it needs.
* Farming vertical forests of kelpon the continental shelf for biofuel. A study by the Department of Energy estimates that growing nothing but kelp in an area half the size of the state of Maine could generate enough biofuel to replace the use of oil as fuel in the entire United States.
* Vertical gardens up the walls of hospitals, banks, police stations to bring fresh air and serenity to staff and patients/customers/prisoners alike. (Research shows that even ten minutes of exposure to nature in a park improves cognitive functioning over walking through a downtown area or a shopping mall.)
* Hydroponic gardens at the McMurdo research station in Antarctica, where researchers who winter over 6-months of continuous darkness can still enjoy 3,600 pounds of spinach, Swiss chard, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers grown thereannually.
* As climate change is creating more volatile weather, scientists are discovering ways to whisk silver nanoparticles into a solar-powered water filtration system than can be mounted on a small boat to purify water for drinking from theturbid river it floats on.
* Scientists are developing a water bottle that can harvest water from the air and refill itself, to be used in third-world regions where fresh water is scarce.
* Bangladesh, one-third of it covered in floods every year from monsoons and the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, is providing shallow bamboo barges to brings classrooms, medical clinics and internet services to remote villages.
* Re-wilding urban areas through rails to trails, wildlife corridors, and rooftop gardens.
[I experienced re-wilding while teaching at Momentous Institute in Dallas, TX last week. Klyde Warren Park is a 5.2 acres public park built in 2012 over the Woodall Rogers Freeway in downtown Dallas. The park offers plenty of walkways, fountains, and greenery, along with live music, an imagination playground, tai chi, yoga, zumba and ballroom dancing classes, a lending library, and a putting green. Nestled near the opera house, the symphony hall, the art museum, the park is a beautiful oasis among the highrises for thousands of office workers during the week and as many thousands of families on the weekend.]
* Using emerging technology from molecular genetics to regress adult animal skin cells into pluripotent stem cells capable of morphing into any type of cell in the body, sometime in the near future to “de-extinct” an entire species.
Ackerman doesn’t provide an answer for every question, but she does raise the important questions and suggests ways to begin looking for answers.
Exercise in Stepping into the Anthropocene Age
I suggest contrasting the NASA videos of the earth as a beautiful Blue Marble (1972) with the more recent images of the Earth illuminated non-stop at night, the Black Marble (2012). There’s beauty and awe in both images; there’s also the possibility of awakening to the massive impact of human beings on our planet, and perhaps inspiration to find one’s own passionate cause for bringing committed action to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene.
“Forging a new geological era, we are an altogether different kind of animal from any the planet has ever known, one able to reinvent itself and its world, and manage to survive, despite more twists and turns in daily life than any creaturehas ever had to juggle. We inhabit a denser mental whorl than any of our stout-hearted ancestors. We’re in the midst of a majestic Information Age, but also an ingenious sustainability revolution, a deluxe 3D revolution in manufacturing, a spine-tingling revolution in thinking about the body, a scary mass extinction of animals alarming signs of climate change, an uncanny nanotechnology revolution, industrial strength add-ons to our sense, a biomimicry revolution – among so many other “new normals” that we sling the phrase daily.
“As we wade into the Anthropocene, we’re trying to reinsert ourselves back into the planet’s ecosystem and good graces. Unlovely as the word “sustainability” maybe, it’s sashaying through the media, taking root in schools, and hitting home in all sorts of domiciles, entering the mainstream in both hamlets and megacities. We’re undergoing a revolution in thinking that isn’t a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, nor is it a back-to-the-land movement of the sort that became popular during the Great Depression and again in the 1970’s. We might sometimes resemble startled deer in the headlights as we face Earth’s dwindling resources, yet at the same time we’re opening a door to a full-scale sustainability revolution. Our fundamental ideas about house and city have begun evolving into the smarter, greener matrix of our survival.”