With Diane Ackerman, Author of 24 books including her latest New York Times bestseller The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us
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Steve interviews poet and writer Diane Ackerman, author of two dozen highly-acclaimed works of poetry and nonfiction, including New York Times bestsellers The Zookeeper’s Wife, A Natural History of the Senses, and Pulitzer Prize Finalist, One Hundred Names for Love. Her latest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, covers a range of interesting insights on humans having become the single most dominant force of change ever to walk the Earth.
Anthropocene Era: The Impactful Last 200 Years
As Diane Ackerman explains it, humans have been walking this earth for about 200,000 years, but nearly all of the wonders that we identify with modern life have come about over the past 200 years or so, with human adventure accelerating at a mind-boggling pace over the past twenty years to where we have completely transformed the planet.
To register this unparalleled impact and draw attention to issues such as ocean pollution and global warming, an international coalition of scientists proposed the term Anthropocene Era (the Human Age) for the past 200 years. For instance, Diane has met many scientists who’ve told her that their field didn’t even exist when they were in college, 20 years ago, such as 3-dimensional printing of cartilage, knees, spines, and trachea with live cells, which could soon become available for transplants.
With such advancement, notes Diane Ackerman, author of The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, comes great ethical responsibility, too. For instance, is it okay to engineer the perfect child and is it safe to mix species?
Diane acknowledges that humans have created a lot of planetary chaos, but believes humans are imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers, with enough talent and technology to be able to curb negatives such as climate change so that it doesn’t get worse. She’s also forgiving and sees humans as an intrinsic part of nature and its creative processes (just as termites create mounds, humans create cities, she says).
Is Man Smart Enough?
Steve plays devil’s advocate and wonders whether we’re actually smart enough. In support, he cites Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire, who laments the lack of diversity in the plant kingdom which is now controlled by man.
So is man smart enough to match nature’s comprehensiveness and genius? asks Steve. Diane Ackerman believes humans are up to the task but acknowledges that we are at a self-created fork in the road and need to choose wisely.
The Age Of Innovation
Steve moves the conversation to the positives and wants Diane Ackerman’s views on some of the innovations that we’re starting to see. She starts with intelligent robots that can create other robots that can think for themselves and do things more efficiently than humans. She sees robots as, potentially, a parallel life form, one that almost certainly will evolve because there are so many engineers working on them all over the world, but doesn’t believe we have any reason to fear them.
She speaks of cross-species interactions, including an orangutan at the Toronto Zoo who has an iPad, can Skype on it, and do a lot more to communicate with humans.
Focus On Sustainability
In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, Diane Ackerman talks of companies focusing on sustainability ideas with innovations such as a device called the Soccket—a soccer ball with a pendulum inside—that transforms the ball’s kinetic energy to battery power that can provide three hours of light for every 30 minutes of play and a train station in Sweden harnessing the energy of travelers passing through to provide one-third of the needs of an office building close by.
Diane Ackerman acknowledges the negative impacts of humans on our world but is clearly an optimist who believes human ingenuity will help us innovate our way out of peril, into a better world. Let’s just hope she’s right!
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Steve Pomeranz: Diane Ackerman is amazing. Author of 24 books and numerous prestigious awards. A description of her accomplishments would truly take up the entire time I have with her today. So, with that said, I have asked Diane to join me to discuss her latest and perhaps most thought provoking book, at least in my opinion, entitled The Human Age:The World Shaped By Us. The Human Age explores how the human race has become the single dominant force of change on the whole planet. Even to the point that scientists are calling this the Age of Humans. More on this right now with author and poet, Diane Ackerman. Hey, Diane. Welcome to the program.
Diane Ackerman: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Steve Pomeranz: The Human Age, the Anthropocene era as it’s called, describe this to us in detail.
Diane Ackerman: Well, people have been walking on the earth for about 200,000 years, but if you think about it, nearly all of the wonders that we identify with modern life has just come about in the past 200 years. And, in the past twenty years, the human adventure has been accelerating at a mind boggling pace, and we have completely transformed the planet. So an international coalition of scientists has decided that we’re having such an impact, one that is absolutely unparalleled, and so we should really change the name of the era in which we live to the Anthropocene, which as you say, translates as The Human Age. This will draw more attention to what we are doing, not just in terms of climate change, but with the oceans and factory farming and all different ways that we’re changing the planet.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, there’s so much to discuss here. This last 20 years has been … the rate of acceleration has really been mind boggling, and I think surpasses the ability of most of us to comprehend it. Is the rate getting faster? The rate of change of acceleration, is it actually accelerating?
Diane Ackerman: Yes, it is. Absolutely. I’ve met so many scientists who’ve told me that their field didn’t even exist when they were in college 20 years ago. For example, a gentlemen I met who is 3D printing with live cells. He can print out cartilage, ears, knees, spines, tracheas, and there are other people in his field who are printing out organs. That’s what they’re working on, and they’re very, very close to having those available for transplant and that was something that was just unheard of. Engineering never meant this kind of engineering, but it does now.
Steve Pomeranz: Many scientists now, especially in the healthcare field, can go into viruses, find places to put molecules to stop the virus from replicating. To me, that seems as truly a miracle. Is that something that they could do five or ten years ago?
Diane Ackerman: No. It is miraculous and with this kind of extraordinary ability and creativity, of course, comes great ethical responsibilities, too. Yes, we all want to be able to genetically … we want to change the DNA of, let’s say, kids who are born with terrible illnesses, but do we really need to have tomatoes that have the genes of salmon in them? And is it safe to mix species like that? These are things we’ll have to think about.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, I want to get into the downside of all of this a little bit later. I want to just try to speak about what is happening and look at some of the positive aspects of it before we get into that. However, you do write that Homo sapiens are a meddlesome creature.
Diane Ackerman: (laughs) Yes, we are.
Steve Pomeranz: We can’t help ourselves. We must overtake our domain, and we must control everything that we see around us, and this has good implications and bad implications. Some of the better implications right now are actually a negative implication when we talk about climate.
Diane Ackerman: Let me just interrupt though and add that, yes, that’s true and climate change is very, very serious and urgent, but it’s essential that we don’t lose hope and that we stay optimistic. Because even though we’ve created a lot of planetary chaos that we didn’t really mean to, human beings are imaginative, strong-willed problem solvers. We have enough talent and technology to be able to curb climate change so that it doesn’t get worse. That’s what the key scientists are saying about it, and we have the resources and compassion to help the most vulnerable people in the world adapt while we’re busy curbing things.
Steve Pomeranz: However, we seem to be exposed to the negative images of the things that are happening in the world that are difficult and are worrisome. That negative image, is that closer to the truth of what is actually happening to us or is that just a microcosm based upon the media’s ability to sell newspapers?
Diane Ackerman: Well as you know the credo of the media is “if it bleeds it leads.”
Steve Pomeranz: Right.
Diane Ackerman: And there’s no question that is what the media features, a lot of gloom and doom, and also a lot of environmentalists have been talking that way for a long time, too. There was this misunderstanding that nature was separate from us. That nature was pristine, a kind of paradise that we were polluting or that we needed to keep clean, but now we’re starting to understand finally that we are nature. Everything we do is nature.
Termites create mounds; we create cities. Other animals have courtship, we go on dinner dates. But we all are nature, and we’re learning through recent medical revelations that that is true even on a microscopic level. That we have ten times as much bacterial DNA than we do human DNA and that all of our little micro-parts are constantly in conversation with he world around us all the time. That’s a good thing. It means that we can, for example, change the bacteria—the good bacteria in somebody’s tummy—to help them fight illnesses, or we can learn how to turn certain genes on and off, flipping little switches, so on. That’s good, but we do have to become aware of the fact that nature includes us. We’re not the same creatures that we used to be.
Steve Pomeranz: I just wonder whether we’re actually smart enough, and I want to give you an example here. Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, laments the lack of diversity in the plant kingdom now controlled by man, he uses the apple as his example. Seeds planted from a particular apple do not produce an apple tree of the same type, so you have to actually graft the one apple tree to another to get the same. So what happens, basically, is every seed has a unlimited amount of opportunity to create a different kind of apple. The bottom line here is that nature has this way of creating this immense diversity; whereas, today, we only maybe have three or four apples that are popular because, commercially, they’re viable. Is man smart enough to be able to match nature’s comprehensiveness and genius?
Diane Ackerman: I think so, but it’s something that we were not aware of for a very long time. We didn’t get into this predicament on purpose. We have to remember that it’s something that we did accidentally, and now we’re at a great turning. We’re at our own fork in the road; we don’t know what the future is going to be, but we know that we control our own destiny, our own legacy, and we control what plants and animals are going to share the planet with us.
So, for example, there are doomsday vaults where they keep seeds from heirloom crops because, as you say, especially for commercial reasons now, big companies like Monsanto only want to sell certain seeds that they’ve created that are not fertile—so that farmers will have to go back every year and keep buying them—but that has to change and, in the meantime, vaults are keeping store of all these seeds. I went to visit a wonderful place in England where they are storing the DNA from the world’s animals.
Steve Pomeranz: The frozen arc.
Diane Ackerman: The frozen arc, yeah.
Steve Pomeranz: So it’s a picture with great disparities, it seems to me. On the one hand, you’ve got technology with the promise to improve lives and the world around us, but, on the other hand, it seems to be fraught with danger as well of us getting it wrong.
Diane Ackerman: That’s absolutely true, but, as I say, we are relentless problem solvers and we relish big adventures. Climate change is attracting unbelievably clever minds and unorthodox ideas. I don’t think any one fix is going to do, and we’re going to need policy changes at the governmental level and renewable energy-replacing fossil, and lots of individuals doing whatever they can. But, if you go online or in my book, you also will find examples of so many individuals out there making a huge difference.
For example, one of the best things people could do is simply plant trees. Trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, and they do lots of other wonderful things. So, the Prime Minister of India is planting 3 billion trees along the highways. The trees will take in the carbon dioxide and store it safely underground, but it will also, this project, employ three hundred thousand people who are out of work. It will provide wildlife corridors because our cities have been driving some animals extinct. We’ve been building over their normal ranges. Not least of all, it will help people remember that they are embraced by nature on their commute to and from these big cities into which we are now all moving.
Steve Pomeranz: The book is The Human Age. The author Diane Ackerman. If you want to find information about a person who has written about so many subjects, is a poet, as well, this is definitely someone that you should investigate. Diane Ackerman is her name and this particular book is The Human Age and it’s one of twenty-four. As far as I know, there may be a twenty-fifth on the way knowing you.
Diane Ackerman: (laughs)
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s talk about some of the innovations that we’re starting to see. Robot sapiens is one. What are those?
Diane Ackerman: Yes. I went to visit a gentlemen who is a pioneer in the field of intelligent robotics. He is creating robots that can create other robots, that can think for themselves, and he is one of a great many people who are doing this. That may sound a little scary at first, but robots are also going to be immensely helpful for us before they get to this stage where we have to start worrying about are they going to compete with us. They’re going to serve us in wonderful ways. Just this year there was invented robots that perch on billboards and absorb smog. There are so many ways that they can be used to make our lives better, and so that’s one of the things that he’s exploring. Now there will have to be ethics committees, no question about it.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, Isaac Asimov, I think it was, came up with the rules. The robot rules in iRobot. I think it was Isaac Asimov. (By the way, you remind me of him in terms of the way that you can cover so many topics and you’re so prolific, as well.) But the 3 rules of robotics: That they always serve man; that they can’t hurt man, and so on and so forth. That’s what you’re talking about.
Diane Ackerman: I am indeed, and there’s no question they are designing robots that, in time, will have very strong emotions. They won’t be human emotions, and when I learned that I said to the roboticist, “Are we talking about traumatized robots?” Oh, my God. You don’t want that running around! We are also talking about a parallel life form, and it is one that almost certainly will evolve because there are so many engineers working on it all over the world, but it’s not something that should scare us for anything in the near future.
Steve Pomeranz: In the interest of time, I want to talk about another one here that scientists are launching, an interspecies internet. I was taken to a TED talk, actually, Peter Gabriel spoke and some others. So tell us a little bit about that.
Diane Ackerman: Well, my book is kind of hosted by an orangutan that I met at the Toronto zoo who has an iPad. He can Skype on his iPad which is more than I can do. They are giving this technology out to other intelligent animals. They’re not as intelligent as we are, but orangutans, for example, have the smarts of a human 3-or-4-year old. They want them not to be bored. They want to enrich their lives, and so they are giving them these things. Dolphins are being trained to use underwater touch screens and, as you say, Peter Gabriel and some other people would like to offer them the same possibility, not force them, but if they want to communicate with others of their kind or to communicate with humans.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, it seems so far fetched, but, in this age of change, it doesn’t seem impossible or ridiculous anymore.
Diane Ackerman: No, it really doesn’t, and it is now becoming so profitable for companies to be exploring these new areas that I think we’re going to find more and more of it. It’s also becoming very popular for companies to decide to focus exclusively on sustainability ideas. I just …
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, we’re definitely seeing that.
Diane Ackerman: I just read one that I love where they’re producing something called Soccket. All they’re doing is making soccer balls that have a pendulum inside, creates kinetic energy. If a kid plays with the soccer ball for half an hour, it will provide light for three hours, and they’ve been handing them out in villages in Africa.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, isn’t there a train station—I believe, it’s in Switzerland—which is harnessing the heat of all of the travelers passing through, the energy rather, to heat about one-third of the needs of an office building close by?
Diane Ackerman: It’s in Sweden and, absolutely, they are doing it. They are finding brand new ways to harness energy. The idea of renewable is changing. The idea that an energy company would only be interested in fossil fuels is changing. Unless you think of us as fossil fuel. So, for instance, yes, as trains go by they can spin windmills to create energy. As human beings walk by we give off, each person, one hundred watts of heat. It can be collected and used to heat water that is then pumped in pipes across the street to heat an office building. There are just so many possibilities now that engineering students—I’m at Cornell, I see a lot of this going on here—are thinking now that they’re going to get out into the work place and they’re going to have really fascinating jobs and they’re going to be able to support themselves really well, but they’re going to be working for the planet.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, Diane, we could go on and on and on, but, unfortunately, we are out of time. To my listeners, get this book. It will change your thinking. My guest Diane Ackerman. The book is The Human Age:The World Shaped By Us. Thanks, Diane.
Diane Ackerman: Thank you so much.