Future Footprints

Rob Nixon in The New York Times:

BookFor the first time in history, a sentient species, Homo sapiens, has become a force of such magnitude that our impacts are being written into the fossil record. We have decisively changed the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the rate of extinction. We have created ­new atomic isotopes and plastiglomerates that may persist for millions of years. We have built mega­cities that will leave a durable footprint long after they have vanished. We have altered the pH of the oceans and have moved so many life-forms around the globe — inadvertently and ­intentionally — that we are creating novel ecosystems everywhere. Since the late-18th-century industrialization that marks the Anthropocene’s beginnings, humans have ­shaken Earth’s life systems with a profundity that the paleontologist Anthony Barnosky has likened to an asteroid strike. The Anthropocene — the Human Age — provides Diane Ackerman with the subject for her 24th and most ambitious book. Ackerman has established herself over the past quarter of a century as one of our most adventurous, charismatic and engrossing public science writers. Since her 1990 breakout title, “A Natural History of the Senses,” she has demonstrated a rare versatility, a contagious curiosity and a gift for painting quick, memorable tableaus drawn from research across a panoply of disciplines. “The Human Age” displays all these alluring qualities, as Ackerman delves into fields as diverse as evolutionary robotics, urban design, nanotechnology, 3-D printing and biomimicry. The book simultaneously raises unanswered questions about the politics and ethics of the Anthropocene idea.

…We learn that at Stockholm’s Central ­Station engineers are harvesting the concentrated body heat from 250,000 daily commuters to warm a 13-story office building nearby. We learn how research into what the biologist Joshua Lederberg describes as “the menagerie of the body’s attendant microbes” is altering assumptions about the multispecies being that we habitually call the self. We hear about brain scientists measuring the evolutionary impact of the online life, not least on our Google-corroded memories. We hear how, as humans are precipitating the planet’s sixth extinction, we are also producing unheard-of synthetic “species.”

More here.