The Human Age, Diane Ackerman’s new book, examines remote and telling corners of the world we’ve shaped, and in it she projects into the future some of the effects of our major inventions and blunders. Among other curiosities, she introduces us to Budi, an iPad-wielding orangutan, and takes us to a regenerative medicine lab where she turns over in her hand a 3-D printed ear (“solid, yet bendy as a dried apricot”). Rest assured that the honored American author, poet, and naturalist remains optimistic that Homo sapiens will endure and prevail. Who better, then, to pose three questions about our interactive experiences on this small planet?
1. Our portrait as individuals will exist, for a while at least, in books and photographs and videos, to be sure. But to know us as a species, far-future humans will need to look to the fossil record of the planet itself, and what they find will be nothing like the things geologists find today.
When we talk about Earth’s geologic eras, say the Age of Dinosaurs, we expect to find fossils, whether it’s the toothless maw of a T-rex or a tiny seafaring trilobite’s marimba-like ribs. But that’s not true for the Age of Humans. Bones are rare fragile relics. Instead, we’re now salting the fossil record with postindustrial curiosities of all sizes, ones that won’t dissolve quickly like flesh and bone. Future geologists will ponder our seams of plastic teardrop beads (the final relics of an era smitten by plastic’s polymorphic possibilities, from syringes to PVC pipes to faux-wood Adirondack lawn chairs).
In the rock strata, they’ll also find shimmery veins of aluminum soft-drink cans, the crumpled steel legs of skyscrapers, insoluble wads that once served as electronic innards and chemical powders, and a bizarre new kind of plastic-fused rock. They will find not our bones but our residue. And a lot of it. Unlike all the other species on Earth, who leave sparse telltale signs of their presence—footprints, bones, burrows, etc.—we Homo sapiens shed an extravaganza of “technofossils.”
What did you add to the fossil record today? The plastic from a six-pack or a water bottle? A midden of candy wrappers, plastic bags, and orange juice bottles? Did you drive your car? If so, you’ve changed the weather by a whisker, and that, too, will ultimately add to the patterns in the rock, a legacy of our meddling from deep sea to outer space.
2. When does the world start whittling your personality and casting your fate? At birth? In the womb? At the moment of conception, when DNA from your mother and father fuse, shuffling an ancient deck of genetic cards and dealing out traits at random from Mom or Dad? Long before womb-time, it would seem: much further back, before your parents’ courtship, even before their parents’, in a crucible of choices, daily dramas, environmental stresses, and upbringing. Our genome is only one part of our saga. The epi-genome (pattern of genes that have been turned on or off) is another. The birdlike microbes singing in the eaves of the body are yet another. Together, they’ll offer future doctors a greatly enriched and highly personal view of the terra incognita inside a patient. That’s already beginning. In the process, sometimes loud as headlines, but more often silent as the glide of silk over glass, how we envision our own “nature” is subtly changing.
What we do on a whim, a season’s hardship, our diet, being drafted—all can change the genetic destiny of our future children and grandchildren. So, where will their life story really begin?
3. Climate change is a chaos we didn’t intend but must stop immediately. Fortunately, we have the know-how to slow it down, and many countries are revamping how they manage, and imagine, the climate.
When it comes to reaping energy from the eye-scalding powerhouse of the sun, for instance, we’ve only begun to explore its promise of beneficent fury. The sun reaches into the mumbling corners of our private universe, spurs growth, sheds light on all our episodes and exploits, transfigures daily life. Its edible rays feed the green plants on land and sea, which animals graze upon, and we dine upon in turn, and so it quivers through our blood. It’s only in death that our long conversation with the sun ends. Other elements in our world may trace their origin to lesser luminaries—the gold we mine, for instance, to a sparkling bombardment of asteroids 200 million years ago. But the sun’s breath made all of life possible. You’d think that would be enough for one species of upright ape, but we rack our sun-smelted brains to find newer ways to capture and enslave the sun to power the rest of our lives. We’ve been exploiting it whenever we’ve burned fossil fuel—really a form of buried sunlight—to warm ourselves and power our empires. The Industrial Revolution always was about solar power. Today we’re just skipping the second-hand part and going straight to the wellspring of that fuel. Wood, coal, oil, and gas were only intermediaries after all, and using them was a sign of our immaturity as a species.
At long last, solar energy makes sense financially; it’s no pricier than fossil fuels. And it’s wonderfully portable, powering everything from spacecraft to rural ovens. In Turkey, donkeys clad in lightweight solar panels carry the Internet to distant farmers. One day soon, instead of underwriting the fossil fuel industry, governments will use that money on Sol power, and fossil fuels will be a bygone madness. If only we could step through a time portal and see how future Earthlings will live amid a phantasmagoria of technowonders that are as commonplace to them as ours seem to us. What sources of renewable energy will they have mastered? How will they corral the wind and drive the chariots of the sun?
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