Science writer Diane Ackerman was tethered for years to the colossal task of nursing her novelist husband Paul West back from the massive stroke he suffered in 2003, detailed in her 2011 book, “One Hundred Names for Love.” Now, in “The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us” (W.W. Norton, 352 pp., $27.95), she takes almost delirious flight once again in a ferociously inspiring, mind-expanding survey of Planet Earth and humanity’s central place on it.
Ackerman certainly doesn’t overlook the devastation, possibly irrecoverable, that 7 billion people have visited upon the land, sea and air of our blue marble of a planet. Or the distance we’ve created between ourselves and the natural world, quoting, for example, this fourth-grader from San Diego: “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” But Ackerman’s focus is really on the sheer elasticity in our thinking, even in our physical bodies themselves, as evidence of hope in resolving our dilemma before it’s too late.
And so she zooms in on guilt-stricken 39-year-old Bren Smith, who, after decades spent earning a living at what he calls “the worst kind of industrial fishing, ” works a small patch of ocean off the coast of Connecticut to create a verdant, vertical ecosystem that includes oysters, periwinkles, and an abundant food and energy source that could play a huge role is saving us all: kelp.
Ackerman shoots us to Paris’ Quai Branly museum, where architect Patrick Blanc has created in that bracing northern climate a living, oxygenating facade of plant material: “touchably soft, rich with scent, atwitch with birds,” as the author puts it. Blanc is but one of an army of architects creating stylish exterior landscapes that pull carbon dioxide from polluted urban settings while helping to warm buildings in winter and cool them in summer, saving untold millions of dollars in energy costs.
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Then she takes us to the remote Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, some 800 miles from the North Pole, where, on behalf of participating countries worldwide, the Norwegian government’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault preserves millions of backup seeds from more than 4,000 plant species at near-zero temperatures. A comparable vault has been created by England’s Nottingham University that stores the DNA of 48,000 individuals from 5,438 different animal species.
Yet while Ackerman reveals these and other inspiring human efforts, readers might stop dead in their tracks at the discoveries Ackerman shares on robots, which are learning things we don’t necessarily want them to learn, or remember. She examines 3D printing, in which an organ can be built upon a scaffold of sugar, the sugar being rinsed away upon completion, and the resulting spaces used for blood vessels. And, truly mind-blowing, she ponders what it means to be human at the cellular level. After all, she tells us, we are less a human than a walking host of microscopic entities, from viruses to bacteria to DNA collected randomly from other humans.
“When I look at my hand now, I scout its fortuneteller’s lines,” she writes, “and the long peninsulas of the fingers, each one tipped by a tiny weather system of prints; I see it whole, as one hand. But I also know that a tenth of what I am seeing is human cells. The rest is microbes.”
So if we can begin to open our minds to the discoveries we humans continue to make about our planet and our wondrous selves, maybe there’s hope of envisioning the patchwork of solutions needed to save us.
“Our mistakes are legion,” Ackerman writes, “but our talent is immeasurable.”