Will the destructive ‘human age’ be the end of all eras?

THE ‘Human Age’ is the name Ackerman gives to the geological present, not because we are living in it, but because of the impact we’re having on the world.

The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

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Diane Ackerman. £14.99

Just as geologists can ‘see’ what happened in the Ice Age, our human period on earth — a blink of an eye in geological time — will show the profound impact we have had on the planet.

Ackerman’s skill is to wear her learning lightly. She also makes her argument encouragingly, rather than finger-wagging about the mess we’re making of the environment. And she’s not writing for scientists, but for the general punter, so she uses homespun analogies: “Let’s fess up to being the interfering creatures we are, indefatigably restless, easily bored and fond of turning everything into amusement, fashion or toys … We’re also easily distracted, sloppy as a hound dog’s kiss, and we hate picking up after ourselves.

“Without really meaning to, we have nearly emptied the world’s pantry, left all the taps running, torn the furniture, strewn our old toys where they’re becoming a menace, polluted and spilled and generally messed up our planetary home.”

That’s the bad news. And certainly you do come away from Ackerman’s book armed with more statistics reminding us how our planetary pillage has caused thousands of extinctions. But if ever there was someone who believes in lighting the candle rather than cursing the darkness, that’d be Ackerman.

With the instincts of a magpie, she pulls her thesis along behind her, but the weight of it never burdens her so much that she doesn’t make time to stop, for stories to illustrate her point, but also for some fascinating detours.

One of the most memorable chapters concerns our relationship with animals, not least in times of war. She instances the U.S. Army Signal Core pigeon that carried 12 urgent messages in World War I, despite being shot in the breast and leg, and that was formally awarded the French Croix de Guerre. The one-legged body of Cher Ami is displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Somehow less touching is the story of Operation Acoustic Kitty, a five-year-long CIA plan, during the Cold War: a bug was implanted in a cat and an antenna concealed in his tail.

You just know the $5m masterplan won’t end well. The cat was released near a Russian compound, only to be rolled over by a car while crossing the street.

So Ackerman’s thesis is not advanced by every story she tells, but they are rarely less than interesting. Sometimes, her scientific zeal is taken over by her journalistic exuberance — the story mightn’t exactly fit, but it’s just too damn good to leave out.

Ackerman educates us about the planet, how we’ve been systematically wreaking havoc, and how we’re on our way to hell in a handcart unless we cop ourselves on.

Her easy and engaging prose makes room for lots of field-trips, where she meets people trying to make a difference.

She talks to a French man who adores plants and who radically reimagines what a house might be in which every room was a love letter to some kind of flower or foliage.

Ackerman visits a man who harvests at sea while replenishing and restoring coral reefs.

We hear about the wind created by vast lines of underground trains and how this is being channelled into energy for buildings overhead.

Rather than sobbing about the plants and animals falling into extinction, she writes about the inspirational projects to store the seeds of many thousands of plants, and the DNA of so many animals, in underground bunkers, so that someone might begin again if all goes south.

When it comes to whipping up food for thought, Ackerman is a master-chef.


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