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The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

Review

The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

Much of the current environmental discussion is divided along constructed ideological lines that seem to pit human society against nature as two very distinct categories. In THE HUMAN AGE, Diane Ackerman reframes the subject by asking us to rethink not just the relationship between humanity and nature, but also the idea of nature itself. Her concern in her latest book is the place of humankind in the “natural world” and how, because we are an intrinsic and inseparable part of it, we shape nature to meet our needs and desires, and it shapes us in return.

"Though we have come to expect dire news and doomsday prophecy regarding the natural world and the life of the planet, and though we often bemoan the excesses of technology, THE HUMAN AGE, while addressing those concerns, is not a pessimistic book but instead a hopeful one."

THE HUMAN AGE is chock full of interesting ideas as Ackerman explores the Anthropocene, or “human age,” from the brief history of our species and our recent rapid population growth to the changing face of the planet because of our actions, and from problems of environmental changes and disasters to solutions like solar energy, wind farming and mariculture. Ackerman shares facts, insights and thoughtful speculation on issues facing the planet and its inhabitants garnered from her extensive travels and probing conversations with experts of all stripes. And, time and time again, her narrative returns to Budi, a seven-year-old Sumatran orangutan living at the Toronto Zoo; allowed to play with an iPad, Budi generally prefers not to. He gives THE HUMAN AGE an interesting perspective on ideas regarding our reliance on technology and its effects on culture, and further blurring the line, as Ackerman asserts, between “natural” and “unnatural.”

These ideas are presented at a rapid-fire pace, moving quickly from example to example to illustrate larger concepts. Sometimes this works really well, and Ackerman's pace and flow are successful. At other times, though, it is all a bit overwhelming, and readers don't have much chance to absorb what they have read before setting off in a new direction. Ackerman's problem of having too much to say isn't the worst kind of problem to have in nonfiction, but it doesn't often allow her the opportunity to give readers the beautiful and compelling descriptive prose she is so very capable of. Still, when the fascinating science couples with her exuberant and powerful writing, there are wonderful moments in here.

This is a book focused on big and interesting questions (“What about us? Are we natural anymore? How can we be when we've morphed into superheroes?”) about evolution, transformation, human history and culture, relationships between earthly species, adaptation and survival. While caution is not unwarranted, Ackerman is excited about possibilities and lessons learned. And readers will be both charmed and convinced by her solid arguments concerning our part in nature and the importance of a paradigm shift away from old ways of thinking about nature as something outside of or apart from humanity.

Though we have come to expect dire news and doomsday prophecy regarding the natural world and the life of the planet, and though we often bemoan the excesses of technology, THE HUMAN AGE, while addressing those concerns, is not a pessimistic book but instead a hopeful one. “We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers,” she writes, “What a marvel we have become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That is a feat to recognize and celebrate.”

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on September 19, 2014

The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us
by Diane Ackerman

  • Publication Date: September 10, 2014
  • Genres: Nature, Nonfiction, Social Sciences
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393240746
  • ISBN-13: 9780393240740