People are incredibly familiar with one of the most dominant and invasive species on Earth: Homo sapiens. Humans continually test and alter nature to both the good and the bad of the planet.
Author Diane Ackerman explores this relationship in The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us, which is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Nine. Ackerman will discuss her work at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Nine’s CLSC Roundtable.
Ackerman is a previous CLSC author — her books The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story and One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing were CLSC selections in 2008 and 2011, respectively.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said it’s Ackerman’s perspective as a science writer that makes her a valuable guest at Chautauqua Institution.
“She’s one of those writers who can make science really understandable,” Babcock said.
Ackerman is incredibly prolific and intelligent, Babcock said, and she combines her interest in science and nature with her literary skill, which is not something that everyone can do.
Despite being about a tough topic, Ackerman’s writing is accessible. What Babcock found most resonant about The Human Age was the sense of optimism it represents.
“One of the interesting things about it is that it’s hopeful,” she said. “So many of the scientific books about our involvement with the environment are accurate scientifically, but this one is hopeful, and it’s based in science. And it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. It says we have some work to do if we’re going to be hopeful about our interaction with the environment, but I think it’s a good book to end the season with.”
It’s an idea that Ackerman fully owns up to. A changing world represents challenges, but it also presents opportunity — something she discussed in an interview with Jessica Hundley of Do More.
“There’s no doubt the world is full of complex problems,” Ackerman said. “Fortunately, complex problems require complex solutions, so it’s also a time of rare opportunity and creativity, in large and small ways for everyone. Never before have we been so dangerous to the planet and ourselves — but never before have we [been] so capable of working together on exciting solutions.”
It’s never a hard decision when it comes to inviting Ackerman back to Chautauqua Institution, because she seems to love the environment that it represents, Babcock said. She noted Ackerman has attended a few times even when she wasn’t a part of the season’s programming.
“She sees the optimism and the intelligence of this community, and I think that’s why she loves to come,” Babcock said. “I think it’s kind of a retreat for her. She likes the people here, and we like her.”
That admiration for humans and what they can do is something present in Ackerman’s work, something she commented on in her interview with Hundley.
“The innate beauty of nature inspires me — and the innate beauty of people,” Ackerman said. “The news makes it seem like we’re an evil species through and through, but most people aren’t like that at all. Altruism, generosity, empathy and compassion all play important roles on our emotional palette. We wouldn’t have survived the millennia without those qualities.”
It’s that belief and admiration in people and nature that propels Ackerman forward in her work, and what seems to give her hope for the future. In an interview with “The Diane Rehm Show” after the release of The Human Age, Ackerman said it’s important for people not to lose hope when it comes to the planet.
“We’re not powerless,” Ackerman said. “We’re not doomed. That kind of dismal mindset really isn’t going to achieve anything. We can have a big say in designing the kind of planet that we want and that we need to survive.”