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The Best Books for Growing up in the Anthropocene

recommended by Caspar Henderson

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
by Caspar Henderson


Welcome to life in the Anthropocene, a new epoch in the history of life where the impact of humanity on the Earth system is so great, we need a new term for it. Author and journalist Caspar Henderson offers a rich reading list to help ourselves and our children grow up in the Anthropocene.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary by Caspar Henderson

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary
by Caspar Henderson

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What does growing up in the Anthropocene mean?

I think we should try to define both terms in the question first. I’m no expert on ‘growing up’ – I went straight from adolescence to mid-life crisis without an intervening stage of maturity – but a sensible definition would take account of several things. Among them, I think, is that there is an extremely sensitive core to almost every human being. Ted Hughes put this beautifully in a letter to his son: “behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim.” The wonder and vulnerability of childhood is still there inside us, however carefully protected by armour or buried under denial. Bearing that in mind, I think we can do worse for a definition of growing up than one that refers to what Aristotle and others have called flourishing. For me, flourishing would mean the fullest possible development of one’s potential as an individual and as a social being: a way of being that allows room for creativity, playfulness and awe as well as a strong moral sense and a determination to act as wisely, justly and compassionately as one can.

The term Anthropocene was coined or popularized early in the 2000s by Eugene Stoermer, a distinguished researcher into planktonic life forms, and Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate in chemistry whose work was foundational to the discovery of the ozone hole. The essential idea behind it is that the impact of humanity as a whole on the Earth system – notably through destruction of natural habitats and a rapid increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – is now so great as to mark a new epoch in the history of life. The claim behind the term is not a new one, and it is still contested, but many now accept it as a useful marker for the reality of our times, which are likely to see rapid and sometimes unpredictable transformations in the Earth’s biogeochemistry, with mass extinction of pre-existing life forms as a likely part of the mix.

“The term Anthropocene was coined or popularized early in the 2000s by Eugene Stoermer”

Growing up in the Anthropocene means developing the capability and character to confront these and other challenges. It’s a process for us as individuals but also as social and political beings: we have to organize to face down individuals, state and non-state actors who compromise the well-being of other humans and of ecosystems that provide us with beauty, health and possibility. It means retaining a sense of awe and, while allowing for fear and accepting there will be defeats, not giving way to panic. It requires educated, accurately-informed scepticism towards some of the more extreme pessimistic and optimistic predictions and the ability to be in a state of reasonable doubt and ambiguity while recognizing unreasonable and manufactured doubt for what they are.

It seems an admirable goal, but how do you persuade people to buy into it or, if they do, agree on what the priorities are?

At the risk of sounding paternalist, one of the places to start is with education. H.G. Wells said that civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe. He was probably right. We need to offer our children the best possible foundations in mathematics (notably, statistics) and science (including ecology) as well as, crucially, a rich engagement with culture, values and politics. A recent statement by the UK’s Education Secretary Michael Gove that climate change should be dropped from the national curriculum in England and Wales for children under 14 was, in my view, a move in the wrong direction.

I’m not saying that we should sit around hoping that a wiser generation will one day take our place. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the failure of the environmental movement but the show isn’t over till the fat lady sings. There are a many ways that each of us – whether we’re artists, builders, checkout cashiers, dog-walkers or engineers – can, through our actions and expressed views, influence others. Ordinary people have, in the past, when well-informed and organized, pressured governments and other institutions to liberate slaves and build adequate sewerage systems, and there’s no reason why we should not get them to eliminate subsidies for environmentally destructive behaviours or increase protection for habitats that are reservoirs of biological productivity and beauty. To quote Edmund Burke, “Nobody ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

As to agreeing on priorities, we must engage with others at home and abroad in as open debate and fair debate as we can, mindful of the best scientific evidence available. That may sound almost impossibly idealistic, but nations did it back in 1987 when they agreed under the terms of the Montreal Protocol to limit and reverse damage to the stratospheric ozone hole. A similar principle is at work behind efforts to avoid “dangerous climate change,” where “dangerous” is usually taken to mean a rise in global average temperature of more than 2ºC. The challenge of climate change is greater and more intractable than that of the ozone hole, but the fact that most countries, most publics and most people in positions of influence take it seriously is, in principle, even if not in action, a start. A report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, published in 1987 as it happens, gave a now-classic definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But what do we and future generations truly need? North Koreans, Swedes, Egyptians, Bolivians and others may have very different views but in the end it comes down to what conditions of life we are prepared to accept and what risks we are willing to take – in other words, to what we value. And this, in turn, will be influenced by our cultural formation, including – hopefully – the best that’s been thought and said. One could name fifty or five hundred books in that regard. The five I suggest here are a small sample.

OK yes, let’s talk about your five book choices. The first on your list is Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. Tell me about it and how it fits into your theme.

The Natural History, written before 79 AD, is one of the key works of European Classical Antiquity, a foundation of the tradition that later became known as natural philosophy and that we now call science. Among Roman authors perhaps only Lucretius, who argued the world was made of atoms, has been as influential.

The first thing to say about Pliny’s work is what a delightful and odd read it is. This huge compendium, which aims to describe the entire world, was, for the most part, taken as truth for nearly fifteen hundred years. To modern eyes it contains much that is bizarre or ludicrous as well as beautiful, and it shows a way of organizing knowledge that is very different from what we are used to today. Italo Calvino catches its essence in the introduction he wrote for the 1982 Italian translation, notably what he calls the Natural History’s “wealth of unexpected juxtapositions.” So, for example, Pliny classifies fishes as “Fish that have a pebble in their heads; Fish that hide in winter; Fish that feel the influence of stars. Extraordinary prices paid for certain fish.” A good example of bizarrely improbable claims is that the goby, a small fish that lives in a burrow on the seabed, could stop a fully manned trireme under full power from moving.

But it would be a mistake to ridicule or belittle the Natural History. Yes, Pliny can be credulous. He reports that in Ethiopia there are winged horses with horns, and mantichora, which have the face of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. There is also the catoblepas, to look into whose eyes causes the looker to fall dead. In India there are locusts three foot long and people use their legs for saws. But when it comes to matters he has seen with his own eyes, Pliny is generally a much better guide. He tries hard to get things right, and shows some very modern “common sense” in, for example, an outright dismissal of astrology.

Pliny can be marvellously expressive. Calvino highlights, for instance, his account of the moon, “where the tone of heartfelt gratitude for this ʻsupreme heavenly body, the most familiar to those who live on earth, the remedy of darknessʼ joins with the agile functionality of the sentences to express [its] mechanism with crystal clarity.”

For Pliny, Calvino writes, “nature is eternal and sacred and harmonious, but it leaves a wide margin for the emergence of inexplicable prodigious phenomena.” And it is his awareness of both that gifts us his over-riding quality: a sense of wonder. Pliny wrote of “magna ludentis naturae varietas” – “the great variety of nature at play” – and though of course ignorant of the mechanism of natural selection he had a sense of the grandeur of a process in which, as Charles Darwin put it, endless forms, most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. And he would, I think, have agreed with Bertrand Russell’s observation of a “world full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” Russell, a mathematician and logician, didn’t mean magic of the abracadabra kind or mysticism, but the miraculous in the original sense of that word as that which should be looked at in wonder and astonishment. (The Latin root, mirus, is thought to be derived from the Indo-European smei – to smile or laugh.)

Pliny fits my theme because enthusiasm and joy about the astonishing nature of actual existence – and, indeed, the astonishing existence of actual nature – are needed in dark times as much as in times of hope. I think the Anthropocene is both. Not coincidentally, Pliny was a Stoic who, if we are to believe the account by his nephew, showed courage and kindness as well as enduring curiosity when his expedition to investigate the eruption of Vesuvius led to his death.

Let’s go on to the book you described in your email as Darwin’s under-appreciated masterpiece, The Descent of Man. It was underappreciated partly because it was quite sensitive wasn’t it?

Darwin’s books are a series of masterpieces. From early works such as The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs in 1842, to his last, which has the unpromising title The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, published in 1881, he gives us a truly majestic view of the workings of even the smallest life forms which, however humble they may appear, have global consequences.

But yes, as you suggest, the question of man’s place in, and relation to, nature was the big one. Darwin clearly understood the implications of the theory of natural selection from early in his career, writing in a private notebook in 1838, “Origin of Man now proved…He who understands baboons would do more towards metaphysics than Locke…” But he was, at least initially, deeply troubled by the implications of his proof – it was, he later said, “like confessing to a murder” – and he alluded to it only elliptically in 1859 in The Origin of Species, writing that “much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” For a combination of reasons, which Jerry Coyne describes in his interview with Five Books, Darwin held off for another twelve years before publishing a detailed chain of reasoning in The Descent in 1871 and buttressing the case the following year in yet another masterpiece, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals.

Darwin showed that man was continuous with other animals not just in his bodily form but in his mind and, for want of another word, soul. This was a hugely controversial idea in his day and it remains so for many people in ours (though it has never been a problem for animists or pantheists, among others). Even the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Darwin’s great champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, balked at it. They simply could not believe that the human mind and morality could, just like nipples and noses, have evolved without divine intervention. Perhaps the dark, Malthusian aspect of the theory of natural selection, expressed so vividly in chapter 3 of The Origin, and the “Social Darwinist” vision, which was not Darwin’s own but to which it was quickly linked, was too daunting, and unlike Darwin himself, they failed to appreciate it was an incomplete account.

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The Descent of Man develops a fuller conception of how natural selection works. Much of the book focuses on selection in relation to sex – a phenomenon which we may be familiar with through the example the peacock’s tale: the extravagant tail feathers of the male result from female preference. (Interestingly, Darwin suggested sexual selection might explain human music, though most evolutionary biologists would now say that even if correct it is just one among several factors.) But more importantly, at least for my argument here, is what Darwin has to say about cooperation as a factor in evolution besides competition. The key quote, from chapter four, is: “any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”

Paul Seabright explains the implications well in his interview with you: “Darwin was clear that natural selection can select for cooperative and collaborative qualities. But he also points out that the process of selection for cooperative and collaborative qualities is not a serene parade of agreeableness – it’s the result of often violent conflicts. It’s because we live in a world which often has violent conflicts that our collaborative qualities are so important.”

An understanding of this reality – the interaction and the tension between competition and collaboration – is crucial to our prospects for growing up in the Anthropocene. The science and mathematics may take us quite some way. Recently, Martin Nowak and others appear to have put a solid foundation under the claim that there is a “snuggle for existence” as well as a struggle for one. It follows, crucially, that it is possible to design systems and rules under which cooperators are more likely to thrive. The logic here applies as much to social and political institutions as it does to the natural world, so it follows that humans can – in the right circumstances and other things being equal – develop smarter systems that favour flourishing for both humans and natural ecosystems. This, at least, I take as the corollary of works such as Seabright’s own book The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Behind these important works stands Darwin’s The Descent, which I should add is also a very good read.

Tell me about your next book, The Deep, which looks amazing. What is it about and how does it fit in with our topic?

After the massive, wordy tomes I’ve just mentioned it may come as a relief to turn to what is essentially a gorgeous coffee table book. Claire Nouvian’s The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss is a large format, full colour bestiary of the real, containing photographs of a couple of hundred among the countless astonishing creatures that live beneath the shallow sunlit layer at the top of the world ocean. There’s a cockatoo squid – a semi-transparent, orange-spotted, pig-snouted cephalopod with long, feathery tentacles above its eyes. There are predatory fish such as the black swallower, the gulper eel, the squarenose helmetfish and the scaly dragonfish, whose faces are – at first sight – stranger and more hideous than anything in your worst nightmares, though closer inspection reveals how remarkable and, in a way, beautiful they are. There are siphonophores, jellyfish, crinoids and other unaccountable beings such as the ping-pong tree sponge which would embarrass the most shameless creators of schlock science fiction. No one could have dreamed up these animals.

The Deep, then, has marvelous pictures and a readable, informative text. Also, it illustrates very well at least two points that I think are central to this notion of growing up in the Anthropocene. The first is that the real world is stranger – more astonishing, more disturbing, more beautiful – than almost anything humans imagined. And we need to enlarge and deepen the boundaries of our imaginations and our knowledge to comprehend as great a part of the dimensions and details of the real world as possible. In this way we can extend our sense of what there is to celebrate, and what there is to value. Henry Thoreau said “in wildness is the salvation of the world.” He was a visionary and a radical but he was not a wooly thinker. It was Thoreau who refused to believe that Walden pond was bottomless and actually took the trouble to measure its depth with a plumb line. He saw that there was a greater beauty in knowing than in ignorance and that knowledge does not lessen the mystery of existence.

The second point is that the fate of the world ocean, and the variety of life it contains, are to a great extent in our hands. This enormous habitat – 1.3 billion cubic kilometres or more – is nine-tenths of the living space on Earth. For all the brilliant scientific advances in recent decades, our understanding of what we are doing to it and what the likely consequences will be remain very patchy. Only very recently, for example, have we begun to appreciate that carbon dioxide emissions in the last few decades are altering ocean acidity faster than at any time in at least 55 million years, and probably tens or hundreds of times as fast as happened back then, at a time of crisis and extinction. Only very recently have we begun to understand just how much of the heat from the enhanced greenhouse effect caused by our pollution is sinking into the deep oceans. And then there are the impacts of over-fishing, pollution, plastics and much else.

Books like The Deep are among the tools that can help us expand our sense of wonder while we also reflect on our responsibilities.

Your next book is Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen.

There are many good books for the general reader about the science, the politics, the economics and the psychology of climate change, and it is invidious to single out one or even a few. The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart, Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by David McKay, Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and Eaarth by Bill McKibben are among those worth attention. Greg Craven, a high school science teacher in the US, developed his excellent talks on YouTube into a book called What’s the Worst that Can Happen?, and I’d also recommend that.

But if I had to recommend just one book it would be James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren because it is, simultaneously, a good introduction to the science, a first-hand account of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of attempted sabotage by political operatives who know nothing about the science, and a very human call for action. The book is dedicated to his grandchildren, Sophie and Connor, for whose future he fears in a rapidly warming world. It also contains a manifesto for how to address the challenges which, whether or not one agrees with every detail, is as good as any of the necessarily brief outlines you can find in books of this kind.

Hansen, who has just announced that he is stepping down as Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is a distinguished climate scientist, but one of the things that really marks him out is his passionate commitment to making change happen. Hansen has been unusually outspoken among scientists for a long time. He first came to prominence in 1988, when he testified to the US Senate that he was “99% confident” that the Earth was warming because of human-made greenhouse gases. He stood up to the administration of George W. Bush when it tried to censor him. And he’s put himself on the line, being arrested for demonstrating against mountain top removal mining. He has been a clear and authoritative voice against the Keystone pipeline, which would bring oil from the highly polluting Athabasca tar sands in Canada to US refineries. It is precisely because he wants to commit himself full time to activism that he has stood down from his scientific work.

Hansen has been criticised for giving undue stress to the more extreme scenarios within the range of probability if we fail to drastically reduce emissions greenhouse gases. He fears an extinction event comparable to the “great dying” at the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago is a real risk. He’s also criticised for being unrealistic in calling for emissions of greenhouse gases to be limited such that atmospheric concentrations do not exceed 350 parts per million – a goal adopted by the campaign group 350.org. These criticisms are worth entertaining but in an unreasonable world, where the functional stupidity of our societies and governments with regard to climate and environment is greater even than the dysfunction embedded in regulation of financial systems before the crash of 2007, a little unreasonableness may be the most reasonable thing. Hansen has earned the right to speak. We should listen.

Tell me about your final choice, The Techno-Human Condition.

Climate change is likely to be a huge challenge in this century and beyond, but it’s unlikely to be the only one. Some challenges may come as a surprise but among those we think we can see coming are how we will feed nine to twelve billion humans, how we will keep a lid on deadly conflict and how we will increase the likelihood that what is most valuable and marvelous in the rest of the living world thrives.

Responses and debate often focus on how science and technology can “save” us. Sure, there will be no solutions without advances in science and technology. Equally surely, science and technology alone almost never provide a solution. Technical advances usually bring unforeseen consequences. More importantly, poor political and social choices can lead to terrible outcomes.

“Music, the arts and the sciences, which are making discoveries of surpassing beauty almost daily, can help us find plenty of space, amidst all the uncertainty, for wonder and celebration.”

There is a large and serious literature emerging on how to “manage” the planet in the Anthropocene. Books for non-specialists include Mark Lynas’s The God Species and Al Gore’s The Future. There is also a growing array of writers and thinkers who are sceptical of the very idea of planetary management, often accusing the “managers” of overly simplistic analysis and recommendations. I recommend Allenby and Sarewitz’s book not because it is especially critical of, say, geo-engineering – in fact their first target is transhumanism – but because it can help the reader to think more clearly about the actual complexity and inherent unpredictably of the situation in which we find ourselves. They are not suggesting that we should cease to act rationally or ethically, just that we understand more fully our ignorance about most complex systems, not least the human context for science and technology and our frequent inability to control them. We need, they say, to “add a degree of psychological and institutional flexibility that acknowledges and dignifies our ignorance and limits. Rehabilitate humility.” This is, if you like, about thinking slow as well as thinking fast about the planet, and there is nothing here that a good and wise scientist would disagree with. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist who has looked carefully into geo-engineering, stresses the uncertainties – and, by the way, emphasizes that other options such as reducing emissions are likely to be cheaper and more effective. The late Carl Woese, one of the most eminent biologists of recent times, argued that our first priority should be “not to engineer nature but to listen to its harmonies.”

Science and technology are key to our future but even more important are the ethical and political challenges we have to overcome if we are truly to grow up in the Anthropocene. If Jared Diamond was right in Collapse, societies disintegrate when those in charge cease to think about the interests of the people as a whole. This looks like one of the clear and present dangers facing us today. To find the resources to fight the necessary battles we need to find strength inside ourselves. This means allowing plenty of room for the inner child to play. Music, the arts and the sciences, which are making discoveries of surpassing beauty almost daily, can help us find plenty of space, amidst all the uncertainty, for wonder and celebration.

May 28, 2013

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Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson is a writer, journalist and editor. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Nature, New Scientist, the New York Review of Books and openDemocracy. He is a past recipient of an IUCN-Reuters award for best environmental reporting in Western Europe. His debut book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, won the Roger Deakin Award from the Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Literature's Jerwood Prize. A New Map of Wonders followed in 2017. The Book of Noises is out now, published by Granta in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US.

Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson

Caspar Henderson is a writer, journalist and editor. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Nature, New Scientist, the New York Review of Books and openDemocracy. He is a past recipient of an IUCN-Reuters award for best environmental reporting in Western Europe. His debut book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, won the Roger Deakin Award from the Society of Authors and the Royal Society of Literature's Jerwood Prize. A New Map of Wonders followed in 2017. The Book of Noises is out now, published by Granta in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US.