The consensus in the scientific community is that we are in an age where human activity has had a defining impact on our environment. This is being taken seriously by many sectors of our society, such as the insurance industry, the intelligence community and the military. Welcome to the “Anthropocene.” This somewhat ungainly term has been adopted by many to define our current geologic age, the time period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Naming this period is an attempt to reframe our way of seeing the natural world, to bring to light our impact on it and our responsibility towards it.
Earth Day was originally proposed by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in reaction to a devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara, California — a very concrete example of human impact on the environment. So for this Earth Day, April 22, it would be fitting to read some books about our impact on the natural world and what we can change about it.
“Living in the Anthropocene” (Smithsonian Books, 2017) is a collection of 32 essays by leading thinkers exploring the idea of the Anthropocene from scientific, anthropological, social, artistic and economic points of view. Each explores not only the ways we have changed the environment, but also our potential responses to those changes.
As the cheery title implies, “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books, 2019) examines the effects of climate change coupled with continued inaction and argues the end results will be much worse than we think. The reader is taken on a tour across the globe, from places that will become merely inhospitable to those that will become outright uninhabitable and illustrates the crises that await us: food shortages, refugee emergencies and a profound transformation of our culture and politics.
In “The Water Will Come” (Little, Brown and Company, 2017), Jeff Goodell explains the risks that rising sea levels pose to coastal cities. This book combines scientifically grounded studies with on-the-ground reporting to describe what the author calls a “slow-motion catastrophe” for ports and low-lying cities. He investigates some complicated engineering possibilities to stem the tide and offers some more pragmatic solutions as well.
Science writer Diane Ackerman explores “the world made by us” in “The Human Age” (Norton & Company, 2014). The book covers wide-ranging subjects in an attempt to reconcile our destructive capacities with our extraordinary ability to be inventive problem-solvers. Ackerman’s curiosity and versatility as a writer make her the perfect author to chronicle our impact on the earth and examine its implications.
Clive Hamilton is a professor of public ethics from Australia who wrote about the possibilities of geoengineering as a solution to climate change in “Earthmasters“ (Yale University Press, 2013). In his new book, “Defiant Earth” (Polity, 2017), he argues that humans are now at the center of the world and this reality calls for “a new kind of anthropocentrism,” in which we act responsibly and find a way to live on a planet we have made more unpredictable.
“Coming of Age at the End of Nature” (Trinity University Press, 2016) is a collection of personal narratives by young writers growing up in the reality of climate change. The idealism of youth can be found in these works, but so, too, are bitterness and a sense of betrayal. These writers feel they have been saddled with a crisis by previous generations.
In the face of all the human-caused damage, signs of resilience can be found in nature. In “Darwin Comes to Town” (Picador, 2018) urban ecologist Menno Schilthuizen shares how our man-made environments are altering the evolution of plants and animals. Schilthuizen takes the reader to different urban environments around the world and studies how the flora and fauna adapt to their extreme conditions. Some animals are adapting quickly and reveal a surprising flexibility, offering a glimmer of hope.
Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson makes an impassioned argument in “Half-earth” (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016) that the best way to stave off the mass extinction of ourselves and other species is to leave half of the planet to nature. He suggests in detail how this can be accomplished while maintaining a good quality of life for humanity. His skill as a writer, passion for the subject and firm grasp of the scientific data make this a compelling book about how to approach this era.
Part of the idea of the Anthropocene is to encourage humanity to take responsibility for our impact on the planet rather than just reacting to the unintended consequences. One way to prepare is by reading to absorb information and explore possibilities. If these books and similar titles interest you, be on the lookout for the library’s Book Bike at Columbia’s Earth Day celebration on April 28.