HBO recently adapted the first book in the four-part series for the small screen.
At a time when talk of our planet’s future is dominated by gloom, author and naturalist Diane Ackerman is optimistic. She sees reasons across the globe to be excited by human innovation, from India – where a project is underway to plant 2 billion trees along highways – to the lab of a Cornell researcher 3D printing human ears. Ackerman’s latest book explores the ways people are shaping the modern world, and argues for a new understanding of our relationship with the environment and our own bodies. Author Diane Ackerman on why she believes human innovation can save the planet.
- Diane Ackerman Naturalist and author of "One Hundred Names for Love", "A Natural History of the Senses", and "The Zookeeper's Wife".
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Ackerman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. She'll be back later this month. Humans have caused what author Diane Ackerman calls some planetary chaos, including climate change, that threatens our future. But she is nonetheless hopeful. In a new book, she explores our role in shaping the modern world and why we need to embrace human innovation as the dominant force of positive change on earth. Her book is titled "The Human Age," and Diane Ackerman joins me in the studio. Thank you so much for being here.
MS. DIANE ACKERMANIt's a pleasure to be with you.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation with comments or questions. Our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email at email@example.com, find us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Well, Diane, early in your book you list a series of questions that you say inspired you to write it. How did you come up with these questions?
ACKERMANI just have always been fascinated by the place where nature and human nature meet. And each seems to have an enormous effect on the other and today is certainly that kind of time. I looked outside and saw that for some reason the Canada geese weren't migrating but other animals were. And all of sudden children were playing only on screens. And I had begun to read that it was affecting the wiring in the brain and how the eyes were evolving. And I wondered, will children in the future be asking themselves who I am I, the way we used to, or what am I? So many of us have become cyborgs. We've added extensions to our senses in so many intriguing ways. We're just not the same creature that was walking around all those years ago.
PAGEYou know, not only -- you don't have to go back to ancient times to see some of these changes. You wrote a book in 1990 -- really, I think it was your first breakthrough book -- called "A Natural History of the Senses." And it talked about interaction with the world. And I wonder the degree to which our sensory grasp of the world has really changed just in that period?
ACKERMANIt's changed enormously, for the good and for the bad. For the good, we have found ways to extend ourselves into the environment as we never could before. Now we can ask ourselves what sort of sounds can we possibly pick up from the origins of time and across space? We can put on Google Glasses, for example, if we are surgeons and we can have help from another surgeon in another city. We can look down at the patient and there's a pair of hands moving in front of us, showing us where we need to be cutting and so on. I'm wearing glasses and so are you at the moment. But -- and we consider this perfectly normal. This now has become part of what is naturally human.
ACKERMANIt doesn't surprise us that human beings can move across the sky at 500 miles an hour, look at their palm and do calculations at speed. Look at things at a microscopic level. Hold up a little piece of plastic and look all the way across the valley and see a hawk. It's not just that these are majestic and extraordinary inventions, they have changed how we think of ourselves in terms of nature.
PAGEAnd yet if you think about humans' impact on nature, many of the things you're mentioning are positive, but I think a lot of people think about dire and negative impact...
ACKERMANWell, that's true, too.
PAGE...that Americans -- that not Americans, that humans have had on nature.
ACKERMANWell, that's absolutely true. It used to be that we adapted to the environment like all the other animals did and we left as little impact on the environment. Now, what we've done is create a human environment in which we've embedded nature. We are the dominant force of change on the planet. And for one mammal to be able to generally vex and bother every plant and animal on every continent and in every ocean, that is a level of niche building that really is unknown on the planet. I mean, think about it. We build concrete and steel nests up in the sky.
PAGEYou -- we mentioned the questions that you list early in the book. I wonder if you would read a passage for us that's really, almost at the very end of the book, where you talk about some of these issues and also reference the title of the book.
ACKERMAN"The title of the book is a translation of Anthropocene, which means the human age. I'm all for renaming our era the Anthropocene, a legitimate golden spike based on the fossil record, because it highlights the enormity of our impact on the world. We are dream smiths and wonder workers. What a marvel we've become. A species with planet-wide powers and breathtaking gifts. That's a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment.
ACKERMANThe name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on earth, what we may leave in trust to our children -- a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in? And how do we design that human made sphere?"
ACKERMANNow, one of the reasons that I'm asking this at the end of the book is because we already are designing the world. It used to be -- not very long ago, when I was growing up -- that we thought of ourselves as peripheral to nature. There was us and then there was the natural world. Now we're starting to understand that everything we do is nature and we have already touched every inch of nature. There is no pristine paradise wild, untouched by human nature, left. So then it becomes a question of what kind of nature do we want? We're already choosing the plants and animals that we want to share the planet with.
ACKERMANWe're creating invasive species by bringing in things that we like to plant. My roses are invasive, for example. My magnolia tree is invasive. Horses are invasive. We sometimes bring them in accidentally, like the boa constrictors that are taking over the Everglades. And then we have moral dilemmas that we have to face. Do we collect up all of the invasive species? Or do we allow nature to run wild and do whatever it's going to do? We've complicated the ecosystems enormously. We suddenly are at the top of the food chain and we didn't really do it in the usual way. We jumped line. We weren't stronger. We weren't faster. We weren't fiercer. We were mindier.
PAGEAnd so you write in your book that we need to rethink our attitude toward nature. To not think of nature as being something else, but of nature being us.
ACKERMANWe are nature. Termites build mounds. Humans build cities. But they are both nest building and they are both nature. Other animals have courtship feeding, including insects who have courtship feeding. We call it the dinner date, but it is the same really. And when we think of ourselves as separate from, better than, untouched by nature, we are bringing about our own doom. Because every part of us is intimately involved with every part of nature. We can only know the world through our senses. So we are constantly in relation to the rest of nature.
PAGENow tell us a little bit about the history of this word, the Anthropocene age, because it has actually a very specific past.
ACKERMANAnd it's becoming a very popular term. It's really gaining in velocity among the world's scientists. And it will probably be adopted formally in 2016, at which point all of the textbooks are going to have to be rewritten. And children are going to be taught a very exciting and maybe scary reality that, as I say, we are now the dominant force of change on the planet. We human beings have been walking around for about 200,000 years. But if you think about it, all of the wonders that we associate with modern life came about in the last 200 years. That has especially been happening at a mind-boggling pace in the last 100 years. And in the last 20 years, it's impossible to keep up with it.
ACKERMANBut, for example, when I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, that isn't just when cake mixes came in. It's also when the atom bomb came in. But it's also when frozen foods came in. It's when plastic came in. And yet one of the great signs of our age that will be left in the fossil record is plastic, little plastic tears, which is as far down as plastic degrades. They will find them with our tin cans and our new forms of matter and our degraded lawn chairs and all of the other stuff of our era. But they will also find that we took down a lot of the forests that covered the planet. and we started factory farming. And we reduced very complicated ecosystems to maybe three or four kinds of animal and three or four kinds of grain.
ACKERMANAnd they're going to marvel at what we were doing as a species. So a bunch of scientists through that what we really needed to do is change the name of the geologic era in which we live. It was the Holocene. But now we have become the force of change. And so they want to change it to the human age.
PAGEWe're talking with Diane Ackerman about her new book. It's called "The Human Age." She's a naturalist and author. She's written 24 books. She's talked about several of them here on "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will go to the phones and take your calls and questions. You can reach us at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at drshow.org. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Diane Ackerman. We're talking about her new book. it's called "The Human Age." And, you know Diane, I think a lot of people look at the world today, the natural world and say humans have really made a mess of it. They look maybe particularly at the issue of climate change.
ACKERMANYes, that's true. And it's so important that people don't lose hope. We still have a lot of things that we can do. Climate change is absolutely real, it's urgent and we all need to get involved. But we can slow it down. It's not going to happen overnight. It may take several generations. And we can't afford to be complacent, but we're not helpless. We're not powerless. We're not doomed.
ACKERMANThat kind of dismal mindset really isn't going to achieve anything. We can have a big say in designing the kind of planet that we want and that we need to survive. Now, I'm not, by any means, dismissing the risks that we face in the coming decades. But I really derive a lot of hope from stepping back and marveling at the human species, warts and all. We have been imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers. We've already proven that we can change the world. We didn't do a great job of it. Now we can change it again.
ACKERMANThink what we could do if we put our minds to it. There is a big climate revolution taking place, a sustainability revolution. There's a climate march going to happen. There's a climate summit. We all need to get involved and we can.
PAGEYou write about a project in India to plant a billion trees, a billion trees near highways.
ACKERMANActually it's 2 billion trees. I think this is wonderful. This is just one example of the great many that are taking place around the world because it is beginning to dawn on people A. that we have to do something right away and B. that countries and individuals can all make a difference.
ACKERMANThe prime minister announced that he is going to convert, transition all 400 million people to solar. And that he is going to plant 2 billion trees right along the highways. And if you think about it, the trees, of course, will be great for absorbing carbon dioxide, which they do through the leaves. And then they sequester it in the ground. But additionally, we've become a very urban species and we don't see a lot of nature. So this is a way for people to be reacquainted with nature as they're commuting. And it will provide wildlife corridors.
PAGEWell, you see a lot of places trying to -- and people trying to deal with the issue of climate change. On the other hand, you also see a debate, a political debate in this country, not so much a scientific one, but a political one about whether it's real, whether it's something human's need to respond to. What do you make of that?
ACKERMANThere are a lot of vested interests in the fossil fuels for financial reasons. There's no question about that. But do keep in mind that even Saudi Arabia, which you'd think would be using its oil, exports its oil. And it is switching to renewables because they are cheaper. Thank heavens solar and wind power are becoming much cheaper than anyone imagined. So that is wonderful. It means it's going to be easier to switch but it also endangers the prophets of those who are invested in fossil fuels. And yet that is what we have to do.
ACKERMANWe have to support the White House and the EPA in their desire to cap the emissions on the power plants. We have to reject the XL Pipeline delivering oil from the tar sands. And we need carbon taxes, not just because we want the money from the carbon tax but because if it becomes more expensive to use fossil fuels, they will -- the private companies will be more likely to switch to renewables.
PAGESubjects of great debate in this country, the idea of a carbon tax discussed early...
PAGE...and President Obama's administration couldn't get it through congress. The XL Pipeline issue.
PAGEIt is -- we're waiting for a decision from the administration on whether to go ahead. Let's go the phones and let some of our listeners join this conversation. Chad is calling us from South Bend, Ind. Chad, thank you so much for joining us.
CHADThank you for taking my call. I wanted to compliment Ms. Diane on her -- just her outlook of everything. It's so refreshing to hear someone who is just so positive and just -- she's used the word marvel several times. And I just -- I really respond well to that, so thank you.
ACKERMANThank you. You know, we get so much bad news in the media because, of course, that's what we're attracted to. And there's -- even the motto, if it bleeds it leads, but unfortunately that gives you a very lopsided view of humanity. And it makes you think that we are totally doomed and there's nothing we can do. And you just go into a state of paralysis. That's not true. That's not necessary.
ACKERMANI've lived through a lot of moral turbulence having to do with the Vietnam War and integration and women's rights and gay rights. And when people speak up and get involved we can change laws.
PAGEChad, thanks so much for your call. Let's go now to David. He's calling us from Hedgeville (sic) , W.V. Hi, David.
DAVIDGood morning. How you doing today?
DAVIDI just wanted to say I'm a little pessimistic because of human nature. We've had the technology to plan our families and whatnot since the '60s with the advent of the pill, but it seemed all that did was make women as irresponsible as men. And unless we can keep the world population down, which we had the tool there, we just need the will and get the religious groups from, you know, fighting it, maybe we have a chance. But global warming is real and it's a 30- or 40-year lag time between what we put in now and when the full effect is reached. So it's pretty hard to be optimistic but I'm glad you're trying.
ACKERMANWell, you're absolutely right that there are irreversible elements of global warming. It could very well be that the Greenland ice sheets, for example, will continue melting for a couple hundred years and that sea levels will rise. Think about what we've been able to do with our determination and creativity though in the last 100 years, in the last 50 years, in the last 20 years.
ACKERMANSo I believe that it's becoming increasingly more urgent around the world that we deal with this, and that the more developed richer countries are going to have to do the most. And probably help support the poorer countries, the ones who are also around the equator and more vulnerable to climate change. But that it is something that we're going to have to concentrate on as a species and work together on.
ACKERMANAnd in this digital revolution, one of many revolutions we're in the midst of, we have the ability to do that. We can be in touch with everyone. The digital culture brought globalization to us and an understanding that you could influence someone a world away. Climate change is teaching us a different kind of globalization, that we're not just intimately related to everyone else on the planet, we are intimately related to the planet.
PAGEDavid, thanks so much for your call. You know, you write about climate change and big developments in nature, but also about some incredible medical advances that affect our body. One of them is regenerative medicine which sounds amazing. Tell us about what you found there.
ACKERMANI'm fascinated by how our relationship with all of nature has changed, including human nature and the nature inside of our bodies. And so I went to visit a lab where they are 3D printing ears for transplantation. I held one in my hand.
PAGENow how does that work?
ACKERMANThey use what looks like an inkjet printer and it goes back and forth and it sets down the ink. But the ink in this case is collagen, live cells, anything you can turn into ink you can create 3D with. And that, I am told, will be the future of manufacturing, being able to -- one of the chapters is called Printing a Rocking Horse on Mars. Already we are using 3D printers to do remarkable things. But in this case they were tailor-making an ear for a child who had been born with a deformed ear. So it will make a huge difference to have one that will fit perfectly.
ACKERMANThey're working on other organs around the world. And there are going to be lots of complications in terms of human nature of course. For example, if you know that you can replace various organs, are you going to become more reckless? If you know that you can live longer because you're going to stay more active because your knees are going to be totally replaceable and so will your heart and all these other things, are you going to want to have children at a later age?
ACKERMANWe know now that, let's say, men who are taking Viagra, a very recent invention, are able to have children later in life but the children have very special health things. They tend to live longer. The telomeres in their cells are longer that determine the length of life. We don't know why that is. And they are more likely to have things like schizophrenia, autism and other ailments. So we are much better able to change the world and change ourselves than to understand it. We're going to have to do a lot more ethical thinking.
PAGEYou know, the last time you were on "The Diane Rehm Show," you talked about your experiences following your husband's stroke.
PAGEAnd I wondered, did that experience affect your research and your writing in this book?
ACKERMANEvery book that I've been working on has been a part of an ongoing effort to understand the human condition. And that is a kind of panoramic effort. So I -- for example, when I wrote about squirrels and the dark night of the soul in a book called "The Slender Thread," I happened to have a broken foot that wouldn't heal for a year. And so I captured all the squirrels in the backyard and gave them jewelry and studied them for a National Geographic squirrel project. But I was also volunteering as a crisis line counselor to side prevention at the same time. And all of the things combined to teach me about how we fit into nature, what kind of motives you see with other animals and with ourselves.
ACKERMANAnd the same is true with my husband. I saw that we -- the brain wires itself. It's not fixed at birth. It can learn at any stage of life. One of his strokes interfered with his language ability and that was very tragic, but his brain rewired itself to begin painting. He's at home now painting five, six hours a day. He's had a gallery show. He's -- the creativity had to come out.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls for Diane Ackerman. We're talking about her new book "The Human Age." Let's go to Beth. She's calling us from St. Petersburg, Fla. Beth, thanks so much for being with us. Beth, I think that we may have just lost you on the line.
ACKERMANI hope you will call us back and we'll take you. Let's go instead to Mike who's calling us from Cincinnati. Mike, hi.
MIKEHi. Great show and...
ACKERMANHi there, Mike.
MIKEHi there. And I'm as completely positive as you are about the future. And I actually have been so since 1967 when I speculated on the idea of what I called at the time the supersession of man. And the idea was to say supersession rather than take over by computers and sideboards. Because I believe that we would ultimately figure out how to replicate ourselves and use computers to do this. I didn't think it'd happen for 1,000 years, but I was always very positive about the idea.
MIKENow, of course recently Ray Kirshwild (sp?) has moved up this idea to our very near future, this whole idea of the virtualization of our existence. And he theorizes that we will essentially save the planet by this process and essentially removing our impact on the world. Now, I'm curious what you have to think about that idea.
ACKERMANYes, about whether the singularity is near or not.
ACKERMANI think that we may indeed have that happen. I don't think that's in our near future. I think in our much nearer future than we imagine we will have synthetic life forms, parallel synthetic life forms, computers, robots that can replicate themselves. Already I've been noticing that people have been able to invent robots with theory of mind, what we call empathy, who can figure out, place themselves in the shoes of a human and think, what would I do in that situation and so on.
ACKERMANI don't think it's a threat to us yet. I think it's going to be a fascinating new field of engineering. And maybe what will happen is that we will let robots do all of the stuff we don't want to do and that will allow us to use what humans do best, our most humane qualities.
PAGEYou know, I read an article in the Economist last week about the use of robots essentially as counselors, that people would tell them their troubles and get advice from them. And they found that they were pretty effective at doing this.
ACKERMANThey're very effective. I have a chapter in which there are two chat bots who are talking to one another, and it's exactly of that sort. And they just let them free run and have a conversation. It was very persuasive. It was funny. One of them was being snarky. One of them was asking, don't you want to have a body and the other one plaintively was saying, I do. You know, it was just fascinating.
PAGELet's talk to Jeff. He's calling us from Sarasota, Fla. Hi, Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFHi. Thanks for taking my call and a quick comment on the politics of global warming. I'd like to remind the listeners, it was Richard Nixon's administration that brought forth the EPA. And it was Ronald Reagan's administration that brought forth the idea of the carbon tax when they were dealing with acid rain. And I don't hear anything about that anymore.
JEFFBut quickly, I was an anthropology major in college and I had a professor who taught us that any species that developed an asset in their being that seemed an asset and it grew very quickly in a short period of time, and there was even a name for it, I can't recall, but that only eventually it led to the extinction of that species. And his theory was that the man's brain size had gone from 450 cc's of Australopithecus to 450 cc's of Cro-Magnon. And he had a theory that that kind of growth in the brain was going to lead to our extinction. And I was wondering what...
ACKERMANWell, what he didn't realize though at the time is that we were going to have peripheral brains that we carry around in our backpacks. And we used to have to store all of the information and knowledge about ways of doing things in our minds. And we got together in small tribes around campfires and shared the information and were able to collaborate and survive. Now we have electronic campfires. And we don't have to memorize it all.
PAGEThank you so much for your call. We're going to take a short break and then we'll resume our conversation with Diane Ackerman about her new book "The Human Age." We'll go back to the phones, we'll take your calls and we'll read your emails. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. With me in the studio, Diane Ackerman. We're talking about her new book, "The Human Age." She's written 24 books. They include, "100 Names for Love," and "A Natural History of the Senses," and "The Zookeeper's Wife." Her new book, "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us."
PAGEYou know, we've gotten a lot of comments on Twitter and Facebook asking you to return to the issue of overpopulation. Many of them have persistent pessimism on the future of humankind when they look at this issue. Should they?
ACKERMANI wish I had an answer for what to do about overpopulation because there's absolutely no question there are too many of us. We began as small tribes of hunter/gatherers. And ultimately we were small enough in number that we could just take the names of what we did for a living or somebody's son. Now, we live with teaming packs of us and yet there are so many that we feel almost anonymous.
ACKERMANIt's such a religious issue, as well as a political issue, and a question of resources. I have no single answer. My hope is, though, that people will bear in mind that now more than ever it's important to be doing humanitarian projects and making sure that we are able to take care of and feed people. And I'll tell you why. Because we've been discovering -- purely for selfish reasons, it is. We've been discovering something called epigenetics and that DNA doesn't tell the whole story, medically.
ACKERMANWhat your grandparents ate for breakfast can affect your health. If they were exposed to horrors or stresses, to war, to famine, all of those things tag the DNA and it is passed down with bad health effects not just to the children, but to the children's children. It's as if the body is saying, I'm responding to the environment. This is what you need to do to survive. And it gives it bad information.
PAGEAnd, yet, we also have unprecedented ways to go in and try to address…
PAGE…some of the problems that come from that history.
ACKERMANAbsolutely. We've never been more able to do that. So it's in our best interest -- even if you're not feeling humanitarian. It's in your best interest to help people survive because that -- in that way you will be having a good effect on the future generations. I went out with Interplast and volunteered with them. We can do many things.
PAGEAnd what is Interplast?
ACKERMANThey -- they're cosmetic surgeons who repair the faces of deformed children in the third world. And it, as you can imagine, totally changes the life of that child.
PAGENow here's a question we've gotten again from several of our listeners. They write -- many people -- they write wondering about small ways in which they can help improve the natural world. They can't solve global warming on their own. What are small things that any of us could do?
ACKERMANFortunately, there are tons of them. And when it comes to something as big as global warming, I don't think any one fix will do. We need systemic policy changes at the government level. We need renewable energy. We need widespread green building practices, all of that. But individuals can make a big difference. You can volunteer to help build a wildlife corridor. They're running through most major cities.
ACKERMANYou can bike and walk to work, instead of driving. You can use public transportation. It's really important, if you can afford to, to buy produce locally, preferably from an urban farm. You can get involved with Rails to Trails and community gardens. Pay attention to where your food comes from. That is a huge thing. The trucks have to burn fossil fuels to cart food in, heavily-preserved food in from great distances. You can look for volunteering opportunities that are near you that will help the local wildlife or the environment.
ACKERMANBut if you do that I suggest that you choose ones that will fill you with a chance to learn. Maybe get the whole family involved. Anyone with kids in school can have some influence on how those landscapes are used. Even if you have a backyard garden, you can. We need to support the president's plan for carbon tax, as I say. We need to stop exporting and subsidizing coal, which is very much behind stopping. Yes. It's going to be around for a generation or two, but we need to start to phasing it out now.
ACKERMANPlant trees. Here's something really delicious and wonderful that you can do. There are grassroots projects all over the world in which people are planting trees. Trees can make a colossal difference on the planet because they absorb so much CO2. And remember that nature isn't dead. We aren't helpless. So instead of sitting around and saying there's no use in doing anything, think positively. Roll up your sleeves and see what you can do.
ACKERMANI would even like there to be a VISTA AmeriCorps environmental program so that students right out of high school would be drafted to spend a year working for the planet. Nobody's really ready to go to college at that point anyway. And it would be a win, win, win situation.
PAGELet's talk to Odalys. He's (sic) calling us from Eustis, Fla. Odalys, you've been patient. Thanks for holding on.
ODALYSThank you so much. I'm so glad I tuned in today because I am an art teacher. I teach elementary. But -- am I quickly at my -- end of my lunch period. But I just want to say that it is so important for these messages to get into the classrooms and for the teachers to really bring kids' attention to these issues. This year I am teaching the kids -- I started out with why we're here, how we got here and the history really of how we developed. And I'm currently doing that because I really think that kids have to be refocused on the fact that they can be creative, innovative thinkers. And they're problem solvers.
ODALYSAnd the history of man tells us that we are. And I really feel worried about our future because we have less art in the classrooms, we have less humanity, we have, you know, all these issues with teaching about the environment or this or that. And I really feel that if our future depends on these next generations, they really have to become more and more aware of what's happening, and that the power that they have to make changes, you know.
ODALYSAnd I think the powers have to be that we no longer focus on letting all these politicians be the decision makers. And those who are at the top of that 1 percent -- the Koch brothers -- really, really frighten me. And so, you know, I'd like you to comment on that because it has to start in the grassroots, in the classrooms, I feel. And the more we do that, the more we're going to make our next generations aware of the changes that they can make that will be positive for our environment and for our society as a whole.
ACKERMANI'm so glad you called in. I agree with you a thousand percent. And I do offer some ways -- you can find me on Twitter, @DianeSAckerman. And I have a website. And I will try to help with suggestions. But I think it's, just as you say, really important that we teach our children that they are Generation Anthropocene. That they are the stewards of Earth and that they have the gifts, the creativity, the intelligence, the voice for shaping the world.
ACKERMANAnd the responsibility to make decisions, whether they're going to be hands on or hands off of various landscapes and ecosystems. We have a lot to answer for. We have certainly many, many sins, but our talent is measureless. And when we get together as large groups we can do great things. And I'm so glad you're out there teaching them.
PAGEOdalys, thanks so much for spending your lunch hour with us.
PAGEWe appreciate that. We have another caller, Diane, who asks, "Do you have recommendations for books or activities to get children interested in these things?"
ACKERMANWell, some of the things that I mentioned to be doing as families, kids love to do this kind of stuff. I like to give -- I like to take a pair of socks and roll them in seeds of like heirloom plants. And then give them to kids and tell them to run across the field. You can turn things into play. But in terms of recycling and reusing, a lot of kids have their own projects. And it's really wonderfully reassuring how responsible they are. They can get involved in cleaning up areas and doing Rails to Trails and growing things and learning about sustainability.
ACKERMANSome of the sustainability projects that are based on how animals do things are absolutely entrancing for kids, learning that buildings can have skin that breathes. They love that kind of stuff.
PAGEWell, you know, you do write several points in your book about architecture and building and about houses. And -- I'm not sure I can say this correctly -- biomimicry in…
PAGE…building materials. Tell us -- that is an amazing thing, where buildings mimic…
ACKERMANIsn't that great?
ACKERMANBut that is what now we're able to do. We're able to create what are called net zero buildings. They actually produce more energy than they use. So no more deadbeat buildings. They have essentially what are muscles that expand and contract, instead of an outer skin. And they are able to absorb the energy. We have windows that are absolutely clear, but are solar panels, that have been invented. In California, people who are remodeling and building are obliged to be doing it with sustainability in mind.
ACKERMANAnd that is something now that is really sweeping the planet. And we have to make sure that whenever we are remodeling something or building something that we go to every effort to make sure that it's going to be sustainable. There are big companies now who are discovering that it's just cheaper for them to do that. I think it's the Hyatt Hotel chain came out most recently and said that from now on every one they build is going to adhere to very strict green practices.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to Phineas, calling us from Harrisburg, Pa. Hi, Phineas.
PHINEASHi. I've got a couple of examples of how humans had decimated their environment in two different ways. One's in Yellowstone Park and one is in northeastern India, close to the China border. In that area of the world in India, they had decimated the landscape to the point where the monsoons would not soak into the land. It would just rush off of the land, whether it be a flood or not. And this guy looked around and he had a pick and a shovel and a wheelbarrow and he dug himself a pond, 10 feet deep, three acres big.
PHINEASAnd the dirt that he dug, he sent out on a berm on a V-shape going uphill to catch the water. Well, that attracted all his neighbors because now he had water. And he was able to, you know, grow fish and water his livestock and grow crops. And people, when they came to get the water, they said, well, heck, I've got a shovel, I can do that. And ponds begun -- began sprouting up all over the place.
PHINEASWell, all he wanted to do was, you know, have some crops and some water, but what happened is these ponds soaked into the aquifers and replenished the aquifers. And long dead streams began to bubble and then they began to combine and -- into streams. And then replenished the rivers. And from bugs and weeds to tigers and bears the entire ecosystem came back to life because hundreds of thousands of people grew ponds -- or dug ponds. And so this is a way that, you know, they didn't really see the big picture.
PHINEASThey weren't looking for the entire ecosystem to come back to life, but that's what happened. In Yellowstone Park the wolves had been poisoned and shot and trapped to the point where the deer could relax. And trees that were eight years old should have been eight feet tall, but they were three and half inch chewed-down shrubs. Well, that meant that the beavers, the pond makers, couldn't chop trees to make their dams and their lodges. And so 20 or 25 years ago wolves were reintroduced.
PAGEThat's so interesting Phineas. Those are certainly examples of…
ACKERMANThey're of how an individual can make a difference and set in motion a cascade that will be very, very helpful. And if you think about how we came about as a species and learned how to do things, it was watching one person figure out, you know, maybe look at an elephant track that had water standing in it and think, I could use one of those and make a bowl.
ACKERMANWe learn like this. And there are many humanitarian projects like that that are happening all over the world. The fleet in Bangladesh that carries boats during flood season, I think, is a wonderful example of that.
PAGEReally, the fundamental message of your book, which touches on many themes, is that people are not powerless, that there are things that can make a difference.
PAGEAnd you say --we said at the very beginning that you were -- this book was sparked by some questions that arose in your mind. And I wonder, were there any answers to those questions that just really surprised you, not at all what you expected to find?
ACKERMANWell, that's -- actually the answer to that is no because I wake up almost every day startled to be alive at all and be surrounded by everything that I see outside, you know, golden-shouldered parakeets and marine iguanas and prom dresses and jealousy and the whole spectacle of creation. So no, there were no -- there were no surprises that I didn't anticipate. I knew everything was going to be a surprise.
PAGEAnd you have written in such a variety of ways, poetry, non-fiction, fiction. What's your next book?
ACKERMANThe next book is a children's book about the senses of animals. And I will be an owl or I will be slime mold. Actually, being an owl, I'd be more than happy to do the whinny of an eastern screech owl for you.
ACKERMANYeah, you've probably heard them. But anyway, I love to take off my human skin and insinuate myself mentally into some other creature and think about how they might see the world.
PAGEI can see that with an owl, but with slime mold?
ACKERMANBut we are super organisms, too. So why not?
PAGEDiane Ackerman, thanks so much for joining us this hour…
PAGE…to talk about your new book, "The Human Age." She's a naturalist and author, a poet. She's written 24 books. We've been glad to have her here this hour to talk about her new one. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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