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This issue of the IAE Newsletter
is the last in the Education for Student’s Futures series of newsletters.
Education for Students’ Futures
Part 22. Diane Ackerman’s Book, The Human Age:
The World Shaped By Us
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
I met Diane Ackerman in 1991 through her book A Natural History of the Senses
, and I was instantly smitten. She's a superb natural sciences essayist who describes in The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us
(2014), her most recent of many books, how our body/brain systems take
in and understand our planet. She further warns of the dangers of not
wisely caring for it.
She obviously isn't the first to eloquently raise an alarm. Rachel
Carson did it with Silent Spring
in 1962, focusing on the
effects of insecticides and pesticides on songbirds. In her newest
book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us
, Ackerman pretty much focuses on everything our progeny will eventually ask us to explain. And that's a bundle.
Welcome to the Anthropocene Era
The earth's environmental history is divided into ages
based on which organism dominated (e.g., Cenozoic = post-dinosaur).
Humans are currently the dominant species in the world, so Anthropocene
Era is now used for our current era. The human population has grown
rapidly in recent years, quadrupling during the past 150 years to over
seven billion. This despite the suggestion of the renowned biologist
E.O. Wilson that the growth of organisms during the 20th century was
more bacterial than primate.
Our technological tinkering has given the earth a low grade CO2 fever
that we need to attend to before it gets far enough out-of-hand to
destroy us and other creatures on earth. The earth doesn't need us
since it existed billions of years before we arrived, and it could
continue long after us. The future shards of our existence might well
remain as geological layers of plastic and metal.
Humans are resourceful, as recent advances in science and technology
demonstrate. Ackerman describes several intriguing proposals, such as
shifting a lot of farming from land to ocean. The issue isn't how to
protect the ocean and marine life, but rather how we can correctly use
the ocean to help support us. She suggests three-dimensional ocean
farming as an intriguing concept (http://www.thimbleislandoysters.com/1379-2/
). Although many people aren't used to eating kelp, we've adapted our diet many times over many millennia (http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/09/18/its-safe-eat-kelp
More than half of the world's population (and 90% in Argentina) now
lives in cities. Ackerman suggests that we should begin to focus on
what's called Reconciliation Ecology, the co-existence of humans with
nature, inserting plant and animal life wherever possible within dense
urban areas. We should consider replacing manicured lawns with small
gardens, sod roofs, rooftop gardens and hydroponics—and perhaps moving
chickens, rabbits, and pollinating bees from farm to city.
Buildings could become living organisms, producing as much or more
energy than they use. For example, imaginative Zimbabwe architects now
use procedures that are similar to what termites developed over many
millennia to regulate the temperature in their towers. With limited
sunlight the Swedes have become leading innovators with solar energy.
Add wind power, recycling of wastewater, getting energy from burnt
garbage, updating building codes, and other innovations and they've
reduced their oil dependency by 90%, trimmed CO2 by 9%, and reduced
sulfur pollution to pre-WWI levels.
Burning coal, oil, and wood as fuel is like burning sunlight. The shift now should be to use other properties of sunlight.
Nature as Natural
What's natural? Plants and animals have adapted to the
environment that we've developed. For example, urban blackbirds become
active earlier in the day than rural blackbirds. The urban animals in
several species that were studied have larger brains than their rural
counterparts. Successful animals are those that can best tune to the
available environment, and for some that's the complex urban
environment in which humans predominate. My neighbor's cat comes
over to our house every day at about the time we eat, and we usually
give her something. We recently discovered that she also goes to
another neighbor an hour later when they eat. How does the cat know
when the two of us will eat? If you're an urban cat, what else do you
have to remember?
We've now created a hybrid environment in which our needs/wishes rather
than natural forces determine the environment. We transport plants and
animals from one environment in which they fit into another environment
in which they become invasive since the new environment lacks their
former regulatory controls. A single predator inappropriately
introduced into an environment can eliminate or change many species.
We've further affected our environment through an oil and coal-based
dependence that's changing our climate. For example, about half of the
305 North American bird species now winter an average of 35 miles
farther north than they did 40 years ago. Arctic ice is melting, some
parts of the U.S. now have several inches of rain in a few hours, and
the Southwest is experiencing a severe drought. Our climate is changing.
What should we do about this problem in a democratic society in which
individuals and groups have opportunities to present their often
biased perspectives? For example, Ackerman reports that a
foundation is currently freezing reproductive cells and eggs of species
facing extinction, and using DNA analysis to possibly restore Mammoths
who died in eras in which its DNA froze. That may seem
laudable, but do we really want to restore plants and animals at some
later date, after their preferred habitat no longer exists?
Most Americans say that they favor conservation, but does that mean
that we want well-tended, visitor-friendly national parks;
hiking-friendly Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails that extend for
thousands of miles; or huge wilderness areas that discourage visitors
and prohibit logging, grazing, or farming?
Moving Beyond Nature
Our tool-making capabilities are moving us indoors, away
from the nature we formerly experienced. As a ten-year-old put it, "I
like to play indoors because that's where the electrical outlets are."
Nearsightedness has increased
young peoples' visual focus today is more tuned to a nearby screen than
to the wider outdoors. The novelty and convenience of our increasing
digital environment is replacing our biological environment, now
typically experienced via screened reality or animation.
We now have two selves, our physical self that emerged over many
millennia and our virtual online self that's present even when we're
absent—a self we constantly maintain so that people can contact us when
we're not available in person, a self that allows us to interact with
what's going on anywhere while we remain here. Interactive computers
emerged about 50 years ago. Further, within the past few years,
interactive social systems have revolutionized society and many of
Advanced robots are probably next on the technological agenda. The
development of artificial life will follow artificial intelligence.
It's already well on its way from science fiction to technological
reality. Some are concerned that we won't be able to control robotic
behavior, seemingly forgetting that we also can't control human
behavior. If robots take over much of the work that formerly occupied
human life, will that free us up to become a different kind of humanity
that's not dominated by physical work?
The 3D printing revolution has moved beyond simple printing towards
object construction. 3D printers are in their beginning stages and the
3D printing of some human body part replacements is now occurring
Humans have long incorporated false teeth, hearing aids, artificial
hips, and contact lenses into their bodies. I have a cow aortic valve
to replace my own failing heart valve. Should we also think of clothing
and shoes as early human skin prosthetics? Wars are terrible, but they
tend to enhance the development of technology.
At the atomic level, we're living beings who are composed of nonliving
parts. In addition, 90% of a human body is composed of bacteria,
viruses, archaea, and fungi. Only 10% of the cells in our body are
actually human. We share our human ecosystem with 10,000 species of
microorganisms. We're thus not lone, autonomous individuals but are
perhaps a bit of us and a consortium of microorganisms (that can often
Ackerman concludes her exploration of our planetary era with the
suggestion that we are an altogether different kind of animal than any
the planet has known before. We've been able to reinvent the world to
fit our wishes. We've survived, despite facing more challenges
than any other animal. We currently inhabit a much more complex mental
challenge than did our ancestors.
Her challenge is simple: Don't blow it with an over-riding sense of self-importance.
Beyond Ackerman: Emerging Educational Challenges
What challenges confront educators? Some might suggest
that the next generation has more than enough issues to solve, or at
least to begin a search for solutions. To work effectively in finding
solutions, young people will need to experience a very different kind
of education from what is now being offered. The informal and formal
education they receive should help prepare them to become responsible
adults who can work with other adults to address global problems.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all important parts of schooling.
However, understanding global sustainability and how our quality of
life depends on it can and should be thoroughly integrated into our
Futurists such as Rachel Carlson and Diane Ackerman are basically
educators who need to reach the huge audience of the earth's
population. Such visionaries can inspire us, but they'll need the
entire educational system to take a strong leadership role.
A top-down approach works at the world, national, and state levels. A
bottom-up approach works at the school, community, and city grassroots
levels. The hundred-year-old expression "think globally, act locally
" captures the essence of using both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
If you want to go back still further in time, remember Benjamin
Franklin's statement at the signing of the Declaration of Independence,
"We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang
Ackerman, D. (2014). The human age: The world shaped by us. New York: Norton.
Ackerman, D. (1990). A natural history of the senses. New York: Vintage.
Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His two most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007,
Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit five books based on the IAE
newsletters. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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