Reading Group Guide

  1. Book ImageThe Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

    Diane Ackerman

    As Diane Ackerman writes in her brilliant new book, The Human Age, "our relationship with nature has changed…radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad. Our new epoch is laced with invention. Our mistakes are legion, but our talent is immeasurable."

Watch: Diane Ackerman Discusses The Human Age

Discussion Questions

  1. In The Human Age, Diane Ackerman explores the myriad ways in which mankind is harnessing, transforming, and preserving the power of the natural world. Do you think the many astonishing developments she describes are “natural”? How do you define that word? Has your definition changed since reading this book?
  2. What do you think of the proposal to change the name of the current geological epoch to “the Anthropocene”? If you’re in favor, when do you believe the “human age” began—with the birth of agriculture, industrialization, nuclear fission, or at some other point?
  3. Ackerman describes the “slow-motion disaster” caused by climate change that is threatening the Yup’ik tribe in Alaska. Who, if anyone, should be responsible for helping them? Is this a local, national, or international issue?
  4. Invasive flora and fauna are spreading, and biodiversity is declining worldwide as a result. Ackerman describes arguments for and against capturing pythons in the Everglades and shooting deer in suburban woodlands. Which viewpoint resonates with you? Do you think it’s our duty to “restore balance” to these ecosystems, or should they be left alone to evolve and recalibrate?
  5. Ackerman writes that she isn’t sure why “we choose to domesticate cataclysmic violence” by giving human names like Sandy and Katrina to raging, devastating storms. Do you find the practice comforting or disturbing? Do you think it affects our perception of the storms? What other natural elements do we personify, and to what effect?
  6. How do you explain that we now revere the wilderness as a kind of sanctuary when, as Ackerman reminds us, early-nineteenth-century writers often described it as grotesque or evil? Do you see our impressions of it changing again in the future?
  7. While our lifestyles contribute to the unraveling of fragile ecosystems, we humans care deeply about other species—even abstractly about some we’ve never encountered firsthand. Where do you think this feeling of kinship comes from? Is our impulse to preserve other animals and their habitats self-interested, “dusted in eco-guilt,” or ultimately altruistic?
  8. Ackerman suggests that we are like sea mussels—animals living “in individual shells that are glued together.” In what ways might the innovations she describes that alter homes and neighborhoods shift our ideas about individualism and community if they become widespread? Is culture a factor? Do you think, for example, that the projects under way in Kalmar, Sweden, would be feasible in the United States?
  9. Although humans are biologically adapted to the wilderness, a mass migration from rural areas to mushrooming metropolises is under way that will only intensify in the coming decades. How do you think this continued shift will affect our relationship with nature and our view of ourselves as a species?
  10. Ackerman considers ways of “harmonizing city life with human and planetary well-being” ranging from “living walls” to urban wildlife preserves. Have you seen such efforts firsthand, and if so, what were your impressions? What features are crucial to sustainable and compassionate cities?
  11. Though they’re likely far off in the future, imagine what it would be like to live in a robotic “smart” house—one that acts as butler, protector, and companion. Would you want such a house for yourself? What capabilities and limitations would you want to assign it?
  12. How far would you go in adjusting your diet and other consumption habits to tackle sustainability issues? For example, would you be willing to eat “ocean vegetables” like kelp and seaweed or other unusual foods? Do you think Bren Smith’s vertical ocean farm is a promising model for the future of food production?
  13. We take plastic for granted, but it’s very new. How has it changed our lives for good and bad?
  14. It would be fascinating and thrilling to bring saber-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths back to life, as scientists in Japan and Russia are hoping to do. But what might some of the consequences be? What if we brought back Neanderthals? What place and rights would they have in the modern world, and what ethical dilemmas would their existence present?
  15. Modern prosthetic limbs and implants are enhancing human bodies, while the Internet is rewiring our brains. Cyborgs and man-made human chimeras will become ever more common as medicine and technology advance. Are we in danger of “dehumanizing” ourselves as a result? What would that mean? Are there specific boundaries we should not cross?

Listen: Diane Ackerman on KQED's Forum with Michael Krasny

About Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman has been the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in addition to many other awards and recognitions for her work, which include the best-selling The Zookeeper's Wife and A Natural History of the Senses. She lives in Ithaca, New York.

Books by Diane Ackerman

  1. Book CoverDawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day

    "It's easy to live in the moment when you're immersed in Ackerman's glorious prose." —Washington PostMore

  2. Book CoverThe Human Age: The World Shaped By Us

    Winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and the PEN New England Henry David Thoreau Prize.

    A dazzling, inspiring tour through the ways that humans are working with nature to try to save the planet.More

  3. Book CoverOne Hundred Names for Love: A Memoir

    Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
    Finalist for the National Book Circle Critics Award

    "A testament to the power of creativity in language, life—and love." —Heller McAlpin, Washington PostMore