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Book Title: The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us|
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Reader ratings: 7.6
The author of the book: Diane Ackerman
Date of issue: September 11th 2014
ISBN 13: 9780755364992
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 896 KB
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Narrated by Barbara Caruso who also narrated Sue Hubbell's books Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs & Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones. This book is very much in the same vein, often almost poetic yet filled with facts & interesting tidbits.
I really liked how she frames our current age in the eyes of a researcher from the future studying what is left behind after a geologic age or two. What fossils will we leave? What strange chemicals & materials will be found in layers of rock? It's a good perspective to take since ours is typically so short.
As she points out, a long time to us is an eye blink in geologic time or even that of many types of plants & animals. Trilobytes died out a quarter of a billion years ago & yet thrived for as long. By comparison, human-like beings have only been around for a quarter of a million years with modern, sentient humans for roughly a fifth of that time. The Industrial Age is only a couple of centuries old & it's during this time when we have changed the planet as much as the other great extinction events in the 4.5 billion years of Earth's history.
She's of the opinion that technology got us into this mess & it should be used to get us out of it, although she doesn't state it as directly as Asimov did. She gives a lot of great examples of new or maturing technologies that are minimizing out impact on the environment. Some were new to me, especially some in exotic locales, but few were explored in any depth which was a problem at times.
She didn't do very well at robotics & AI, but did a great job with genes, epigenetics, & our microbiome. All of which combined to ask some great questions about how we define humanity, self awareness, & intelligence. I think Harrari does a better job in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, but she asks the questions in a warmer way than he did with his algorithms.
Her travels gave her a great overview of the world which helped the wandering style of the book. She covers a lot of range, but is definitely but is definitely best when sticking to softer subjects. There were some great insights & even funny moments. I forget the context & the exact wording, but she said something about as the great sage put it, "Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it." which about had me rolling. I never thought of Cole Porter in that way & tend to hear Joan Jett doing "Tank Girl" or see the chorus scene anyway.
She gets too humanistic at times. One quote was something about 'rabies knows anger & rage better than we know it ourselves'. Attributing volition or knowledge to diseases is ridiculous. It really undermined an otherwise great presentation on just how much bacteria can steer our thinking. She used Toxoplasmosis example, even extending it beyond the rat-cat cycle.
She has a tendency to use numbers to make a point without putting them in perspective & even suggests incorrect correlations such as when she compares solar energy station outputs with that of others. Storing energy in sufficient quantity is still very difficult & inefficient, so comparing it directly to stable power sources doesn't work without a lot of qualifications. She provides none. She ignores the danger of promoting industrialization & subsequent colonization in marginal areas like the Nevada desert, too.
Her description of the Swedish Solar Stirling Engine Plant had me thinking it was far better than a little research showed it is. It makes me wonder just what the ROI is on any of the schemes she promotes such as gathering the heat of commuters from subway stations.
ROI is ALWAYS a consideration. I've looked into alternative energy sources for my own farm & wouldn't mind paying a little extra to help the environment, but the last time I looked at wind turbines, it would have been a ridiculous investment of time & money. I can't afford to lay out $10,000 & only see a $2500 return in 5 years.
Her views on living with wildlife are idyllic at best. In dealing with pests & invasive species, she's unbelievably naive. She mentions collecting 1,000 pythons out of the Everglades in a decade, says there are an estimated 30,000, tells of one with 86 eggs, & yet makes it sound as if eradicating them is a possibility. Seriously? She didn't mention New Zealand's issues with rats, Australia's with rabbits, or ours with Gypsy moths. Hasn't she read Silent Spring? While we've gotten a little better, government attempts to eradicate pests are often far worse than the pests themselves.
Heck, our government is the reason we have a lot of the pests in the first place. Multifloral rose was actively planted by Federal mandate to halt erosion after their half-assed assessment assured them it wouldn't spread by seed. They only tested with 3 species of birds, all of which had gravels, though. Song birds don't, weren't tested & wound up being perfect Johnny Roseseeds. Not only do they prep the seed by dissolving the protective skin, but deposit it with fertilizer & moisture when they poop.
Her idea that large crop farming is hampered by crops which can't reproduce 'naturally' or patented seeds is ridiculous. There's very little natural about how wheat has stayed ahead of wheat rust nor should there be & seeds have been patented for over a century. Her use of the 'organic' label as something good is silly. Bt is used on organic corn, just not engineered in. Some of the 'natural' chemicals allowed are far worse than their manufactured counterparts & lack the quality controls. While she has a lot of company in her belief, I expected better from her. She needs to spend less time traveling to exotic locales & spend a little more time at home with local farmers & research what the 'organic' label really means.
Overall it was an enjoyable look at the Anthropocene epoch, if one that lacked some critical details & played a bit loose with facts. Considering the territory she covered, that was inevitable. She asked some good questions & showed a pretty balanced view overall. I'll give it 3.5 stars & round up to 4, but with a warning not to take everything she says at face value.
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Read information about the authorDiane Ackerman has been the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in addition to many other awards and recognitions for her work, which include the bestsellers The Zookeeper’s Wife and A Natural History of the Senses.
The Zookeeper’s Wife, a little known true story of WWII, became a New York Times bestseller, and received the Orion Book Award, which honored it as, "a groundbreaking work of nonfiction." A movie of The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain and Daniel Brühl, releases in theaters March 31st, 2017 from Focus Features.
She lives with her husband Paul West in Ithaca, New York.
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