Messing with nature

Last Updated 10 January 2015, 16:40 IST

This book is a brilliant commentary on the ways in which humans are shaping the planet. In the last 300 years or so, humanity has become the most inhuman force in the world.

We seem to have lost the unique bond with nature that other animals have, and all our inventions are leading to innumerable problems. Our greed for economic growth has destroyed the innate character of this natural world. As Diane Ackerman writes, “We may have not reshuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and re-drawn their outlines with cities, agriculture and climate change. We’ve blocked and re-routed rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land.

We’ve levelled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75% of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness”, denaturing vast tracts of our businesses and homes, and homogenising a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We have lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining.”

Diane Ackerman, an award-winning science writer, poet and naturalist, takes us on a journey of evolution and explores  the changes humans impose  on earth, thereby bringing destruction closer. In this well-researched book, she dives deep into various fields as diverse as evolutionary ecology, conservation of plant genetic material, 3D printing of ears, robotics, medicine and genome sequencing, and provides a glimpse into what the future holds for us.

Diane cites examples from across the world on innovations, changing this tide towards optimism. In the busy Stockholm Central railway station, engineers are harnessing the body heat of travellers to warm a 13-storeyed building. Villagers in Borneo are replacing their diesel generators with hydrogen ones.

Likewise, the citizens of Kalmar, a small city in Sweden, have shown that it’s possible to move to renewable energy sources in a big way. City-owned cars and buses run on biogas produced from chicken waste, sewage sludge and domestic garbage. The city has set itself a target to be off-fossil fuels by 2030. As emerging countries, caught up in the race for economic growth, try to ape the West, the book reminds us the need to incorporate sustainable technologies in the growth agenda and limit consumption of natural resources.

The book also makes us aware of the fact that there are people around us who think differently, like Saalumarada Thimmakka, and the rainwater harvesting evangelist, Vishwanath. We are more likely to dismiss their efforts as trivial when compared to a new green technological invention and adoption. We need to celebrate their efforts as well, and see them as icons to inspire others.

Will using green technologies solve global environmental problems, or, will adopting a simple lifestyle with fewer needs help the planet? Diane is a believer in technology and innovation to address green issues. The core message that she stresses in her book is that despite the destruction, humans also have an amazing ability to foresee and solve big problems. She is full of optimism and puts her faith in the ingenuity of the human brain to bring back the planet from the threshold of large scale destruction. Only the future will tell us if her premise is right.

(Published 10 January 2015, 16:40 IST)

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