For most of human existence, things didn’t change much within a single lifetime.
If you lived a thousand years ago, the tools you used were probably the same ones as your great grandparents. And other than big events like a volcano, the physical world didn’t change much either.
Not anymore. Now we live in the Great Acceleration, also known as the Anthropocene, where even the Earth gets updates to its apps. Change (like global warming and pandemics) is the hallmark of this new era. How to live in the midst its uncertainty without falling into despair is the open question. In his new book, The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green uses humor, wisdom and a keen sense of connections to offer us something like an answer.
Green is a long time book reviewer and author of the best-seller The Fault In Our Stars. Like many of us, Green looks at the changes we face with a mix of dread, bewilderment and the need to find hope. Early on in this book, he notes the contradiction of human power at the heart of living in the Anthropocene. “We are at once far too powerful and not powerful enough,” he writes, being able “to radically reshape the Earth’s climate and biodiversity but not powerful enough to choose how we reshape it.”
But to live in this hyperconnected, hyper-accelerated world also means there can be no escape. As his wife tells him “in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers, there are only participants.” That’s why Green makes the act of reviewing the central conceit of the book.
Green begins by pointing out a unique feature of our cultural moment. “In the years since I’d been a book reviewer,” he writes, “everyone had become a reviewer and everything a subject of review.” Driving with his brother through Badlands National Park, he checks its Google reviews to find “Not enough mountain.” Later he discovers a review of a bench in Amsterdam, made famous via a scene in the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars. “It’s a bench,” says the reviewer. Green takes the absurdist quality of these judgments to heart by building a book made of more than 40 short essays, each acting as a “review” of some aspect of our lives in the Anthropocene.
Each essay is a web of salient and unexpected connections. The first, for example, focuses on the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” tracking its global, wandering history. From an origin in the musical Carousel to a chant for British soccer fans, to being sung by British paramedics praising fellow health care workers during the pandemic, Green sees something profoundly necessary in the sappy song. Recalling the line “At the end of the storm there’s a golden sky and the sweet song of a lark,” Green goes on to note: “But in reality, at the end of a storm there are tree branches everywhere, and downed power lines and flooded rivers.” And yet, that pandemic image of paramedics using the song to cheer on their spent colleagues gives Green hope that storms and the courage to face them must go together.
He gives the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” 4.5 stars out 5.
In the essay “Human Temporal Range” Green uses the idea of species longevity (i.e., their temporal range) to muse on Anthropocene dread and the fear of our own extinction. He notes that species have always been coming and going. We humans haven’t even been around very long. We’re are younger than coyotes, blue whales and turtles, so would the Earth really miss us that much if we go? While this gives him some helpful perspective, Green does, of course, want us to go on. “What scares me about the end of humanity is the end of all those memories…” Greene laments, “if no one is around to play Billie Holiday records those songs won’t make a sound anymore. We’ve caused a lot of suffering, but we’ve also caused much else.”
So, by way of hope, Greene gives “human temporal range” 4 stars out 5.
And so it goes. Jurassic Park‘s computer generated velociraptors get just 3 stars because while Green loves them, the real ones were much shorter and probably not very scary. CNN, and all of cable news, get just 2 stars for hindering our chances of dealing with the complex issues of the Anthropocene. The Internet gets 3 stars for being, well, the Internet. “Plague” unsurprisingly gets 1 star (though the essay is an easy 5). And Googling strangers, deservedly, gets 4.
What Green is really telling us with these unexpected stories about Sycamore Trees, Canada Geese and Dr. Pepper is how much there is to love in the world and why that love is worth the effort. As he writes, “To fall in love with the world isn’t to ignore or overlook suffering both human and otherwise …. We all know how loving ends. But I want to fall in love anyway, to let it crack me open.” The point, says Green — giving us Maurice Sendak’s final words — is simple even in, and perhaps especially because of, these challenging times: “Live your life, live your life, live your life.”
Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. You can find more from Adam here: @adamfrank4.