Rose Colored Glasses

The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us
By Diane Ackerman
WW Norton, 2014, 344 pages

Diane Ackerman knows how to work the English language. The author of two dozen books – including a memoir, literary non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books – Ackerman has a preternatural gift for tricking words into revelations. Reading her latest book, The Human Age, I found myself again and again underlining phrases that combined unusual beauty and intelligence. Sometimes these flashes of brilliance come in the form of minor observations, like her description of a Burmese python having “a mind like a dial tone.” More often, her lyricism serves to make larger points. Meditating on the view of Earth from space, Ackerman writes that our cities at night are “humanity’s electric fingerprints on the planet, the chrome-yellow energy that flows through city veins.” Civilization, she says, has “tattooed the planet with our doings.”

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It’s a shame, then, that these prodigious talents are used to put an overly optimistic gloss on humanity’s fraught relationship with the environment. Too often the poetic language seems to just polish difficult truths. Ackerman’s lovely turns-of-phrase sound great, but they can also come across as glib. By the end of this wondrous, frustrating book, I got the feeling that Ackerman had mostly succeeded in putting a fresh coat of paint on an old idea: the notion that because of our amazing attributes, we humans are destined (or is it doomed?) to inherit Earth.

Ackerman’s subject is the relationship between human civilization and wild nature in the Anthropocene, or the Age of Man. Ackerman doesn’t quibble with the idea of naming a geologic epoch after ourselves – “a legitimate golden spike based on the fossil record” – and instead grapples with the scientific, political, and psychological implications of this bewildering time in which human technology has eclipsed natural systems. If we now dominate the planet to such a degree that everything is an artifact, the question becomes: How we can we best conduct ourselves so that other living creatures are also given some space and freedom to thrive?

To try to answer that question, Ackerman takes the reader on a globe-spanning, kaleidoscopic journey through natural history, environmental history, cutting edge science, and twenty-first century design. The Human Age is, essentially, a book-length essay – an attempt to plumb fathomless depths – and it has all the charms of the essay form. The book is smart, witty, conversational, digressive, and anecdote-driven. We get orangutans playing with iPads, biologists working on de-extinction, chemists exploring the frontiers of nanotechnology, architects creating buildings with living walls. In Ackerman’s telling, our adventures in the Anthropocene are all very charming. The human species, she insists, is ready to leave our awkward adolescence and arrive at a new stage of maturity in which we will exhibit more grace toward the planet’s fellow inhabitants.

I appreciate Ackerman’s optimism; God knows environmental writing has more than its share of Cassandras and Jeremiahs. But her attitudinal course correction seems like an overcorrection. It’s not that she’s blind to civilization’s impacts on the environment; we’re “far better at tampering with nature than understanding it,” she acknowledges. Rather, she lets enthusiasm get the better of skepticism. “We … problem-solving humans don’t have to be parasites … we have the technology, the understanding, and the desire to become ecologically sustaining symbionts.” Maybe. Hopefully. But I couldn’t shake the sense that Ackerman is wearing rose-colored glasses.

As other critics have noted, Ackerman’s willful optimism is probably fueled, to some degree, by her position of privilege. It’s relatively easy for a wealthy, semi-famous, white woman from the US to declare that a “warmer world won’t be terrible for everyone.” In her conclusion she recommends that, as an exercise in awareness, we should “pay loving attention to such common marvels as … afternoon tea and cookies.” Tea and cookies? What about the hundreds of millions of people just trying to avoid starvation and dysentery?

I’m sorry to be so harsh. Ackerman is clearly a deep thinker and a sensitive writer, and this book – despite its shortcomings – is the most thoughtful treatment of the Anthropocene to date. But in the end it disappoints. To navigate this brave new world will require, above all, clear sight uncompromised by illusions. In that respect, The Human Age fails to deliver.

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