In Paris, flowers, butterflies and birds live on the exterior of the Quai Branly Museum, a cultural destination that doubles as a natural ecosystem. A garden stuffed with breathing plants in the thousands, and soon to house frogs and lizards as well, climbs the building and purifies the surrounding air.
At Stockholm’s central railway station, 250,000 commuters a day lend their body heat to a 13-story office building nearby. Most are probably unaware that they are part of green architecture rigged up by Swedish engineers: The rail station’s ventilation system grabs the travelers’ natural heat, using it to warm water in underground tanks that is then channeled to the office building, which in this way meets one-third of its fuel needs.
Initiatives such as these, Diane Ackerman writes in her fascinating new book, “The Human Age,” are “transforming our cities from grimy energy guzzlers into dynamic ecosystems.” Ackerman considers these and similar efforts timely as, motivated by equal parts wonder and worry, she takes a hard look at anthropogenic climate change as it affects other animals.
The Human Age, the current geological epoch that scientists formally term the Anthropocene, was named in recognition of our species’s “unparalleled dominion over the whole planet.” Hand in hand with our astonishing scientific and technological progress since the Industrial Revolution and the first significant fossil-fuel production goes the havoc our species has caused. “The world is being ravaged by record heat, drought, and floods,” as Ackerman puts it. Wildlife demographics have changed as a direct result of our world-tampering: Some scientists say that, by 2100, half the world’s plants and animals will be extinct. Meanwhile, birds’ biological clocks tick faster in cities than in the country, and coyotes are likely to roam those cities, seeking food as we encroach more and more on their natural habitat and experiencing newly close encounters with us.
In the face of these changes, some more alarming than others, Ackerman offers a cross-cultural tour of human ingenuity. It’s inspiring to read about the Bangladesh climate-change activist Mohammed Rezwan, who equipped a fleet of boats with the Internet, solar panels and videoconferencing capacity. Allowing people to counteract the grim effects of the floodwaters that result from melting Himalayan glaciers and that strand thousands of families every year, the boats became schools, doctor-staffed health clinics and libraries.
On our own East Coast, fisherman Bren Smith cultivates a vertical ocean garden in Long Island Sound. An advocate for environmentally sustainable fishing, Smith takes Ackerman out on the water. “Think of it as 3D farming that uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species,” he tells her. In seasonal rotation, Smith harvests kelp, seaweed and mussels, while taking oysters, clams and scallops year-round. A key to this system is the anchoring of oyster beds in kelp, a process meant to calm the surges associated with storms like Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. A seaweed-based type of “ocean vegetarianism” is an idea worth exploring, too, Smith thinks.
Beyond climate change, energy and our food system, Ackerman offers her readers a wild hodgepodge of mini case studies that include rewilding animals now extinct, evolutionary robotics and nanotechnology. We meet the curators of the Frozen Ark Project in England, where the DNA of 48,000 individuals from 5,438 species is stored and where whimsical visions of saber-toothed tigers brought back to romp through the British countryside are discussed (along with, one hopes, the ethics of such genetic manipulation). We encounter robots that are learning how to infer what other robots are thinking or possibly about to do, and learn that microscopic devices called nanobots and beebots may soon drift through our bloodstream, aiming to treat cancer or other diseases directly at the site of trouble.
Ackerman jumps the gun a bit in reporting one bit of good news, claiming that “nearly all” chimpanzees held in U.S. biomedical laboratories “are finally being released to animal sanctuaries.” While the U.S. government announced last year that it will retire all but 50 out of 360 federally owned chimpanzees from laboratories, this plan hasn’t yet gone into effect.
A more sustained issue is that Ackerman’s signature poetic style of writing, featuring adjective- and metaphor-choked sentences, too often obscures rather than enhances her content. What does it mean to suggest that with 3D printers, “researchers will be able to mix molecules together like a basket of ferrets and see how they interact”? Readers may feel sorry for a single sentence forced to bear the weight of “island-perched village,” “salt-white cottages,” “rain-rattled windows,” “sea-spying porches,” and “wind-worn trees and gardens.”
The strengths on show in “The Human Age” do make navigating the thick prose worth the effort. Facing head-on the trauma we cause to our planet is a grim task. The optimism Ackerman conveys shouldn’t lull us into complacency, and she does not mean for it to. Her words invite us to feel the hope she feels: “We can become Earth-restorers and Earth-guardians. We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices.”
THE HUMAN AGE
The World Shaped by Us
By Diane Ackerman
Norton. 344 pp. $27.95