BOOKMARKS fOR A HUMAN AGE

The Anthropocene Nightstand

By Alistair Scrutton

The end is nigh for fossil fuels, but not due to wishful thinking from environmentalists. Instead, thank market forces and innovation. That is the theme of Dieter Helm’s Burn Out, in which he argues that new technologies, the Internet of Things, and falling demand for oil will reduce oil and gas dependency. Largely dismissive of United Nations efforts to regulate emissions, Helm contends that these changes may benefit the United States and Europe. Written by an industry expert, Burn Out offers a refreshing insider perspective on an energy transformation.

For many people, it’s a given that the world’s population is increasing unsustainably. That’s wrong, say Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. We are actually three decades away from a population bust, driven by shrinking family size and women’s empowerment. That may help the planet, but it will also challenge us to accept immigration if we want to keep workforces young. As the authors say: “Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing.” A contrarian and sharply written read.

 

After analyzing our past in Sapiens and our future in Homo Deus, Harari turns to the present, tackling issues from populism to artificial intelligence to our “post-truth” world. In 21 essays, Harari taps into nagging doubts about where the world is headed as liberal and democratic narratives are increasingly questioned. His sweeping general-izations may irk some readers, but his book is peppered with the kinds of observations you will unwittingly find yourself bringing up around the dinner table.

How will we feed a burgeoning world population without ruining our planetary resources? Robyn Metcalfe looks at global food-supply chains and finds some possible answers. We are in the midst of a whirlwind of technological changes that soon may deliver dinner plates, tailored to our health needs, directly to our doorsteps. Blockchain technology and the Internet of Things will mean less food waste. Despite fears of DNA-modified food and processed meals, Metcalfe makes the case that we should be cautiously optimistic and embrace these technologies.

Animals also cry. In his latest book, Frans de Waal describes depressed fish, nerve-wracked dogs, and other animals that share emotional traits with humans—but that many behavioral scientists have long ignored. The book title refers to Mama, a chimpanzee whose video-recorded deathbed goodbye and hug to biologist Dr. Jan van Hooff went viral. Full of telling anecdotes, the book has a deeper purpose: nudging us to recognize that the evolutionary roots of emotions may be behind how we love, reach for power, or even murder.

Being in a hurry may be a defining feature of the Anthropocene, but this book urges us to think long-term—over billions of years. Marcia Bjornerud travels to places such as Norway’s Svalbard archipelago to analyze our relationship with time—or, as she says, “time denial.” Understanding Earth’s age-old rhythms, she argues, will help ensure planetary sustainability by forcing us to think across generations. Timefulness transforms geological phenomena, from atmospheric carbon molecules to ancient mountains, into a meditation on life itself.

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