Information Age Education
   Issue Number 159
April, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

The recently published Education for Students’ Futures book may be downloaded as a PDF from
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This issue of the IAE Newsletter is the last in the Education for Student’s Futures series of newsletters.

Education for Students’ Futures
Part 22. Diane Ackerman’s Book, The Human Age:
The World Shaped By Us

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

I met Diane Ackerman in 1991 through her book A Natural History of the Senses, and I was instantly smitten. She's a superb natural sciences essayist who describes in The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (2014), her most recent of many books, how our body/brain systems take in and understand our planet. She further warns of the dangers of not wisely caring for it.

She obviously isn't the first to eloquently raise an alarm. Rachel Carson did it with Silent Springin 1962, focusing on the effects of insecticides and pesticides on songbirds. In her newest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, Ackerman pretty much focuses on everything our progeny will eventually ask us to explain. And that's a bundle.

Welcome to the Anthropocene Era

The earth's environmental history is divided into ages based on which organism dominated (e.g., Cenozoic = post-dinosaur). Humans are currently the dominant species in the world, so Anthropocene Era is now used for our current era. The human population has grown rapidly in recent years, quadrupling during the past 150 years to over seven billion. This despite the suggestion of the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson that the growth of organisms during the 20th century was more bacterial than primate.

Our technological tinkering has given the earth a low grade CO2 fever that we need to attend to before it gets far enough out-of-hand to destroy us and other creatures on earth. The earth doesn't need us since it existed billions of years before we arrived, and it could continue long after us. The future shards of our existence might well remain as geological layers of plastic and metal.

Humans are resourceful, as recent advances in science and technology demonstrate. Ackerman describes several intriguing proposals, such as shifting a lot of farming from land to ocean. The issue isn't how to protect the ocean and marine life, but rather how we can correctly use the ocean to help support us. She suggests three-dimensional ocean farming as an intriguing concept ( Although many people aren't used to eating kelp, we've adapted our diet many times over many millennia (

More than half of the world's population (and 90% in Argentina) now lives in cities. Ackerman suggests that we should begin to focus on what's called Reconciliation Ecology, the co-existence of humans with nature, inserting plant and animal life wherever possible within dense urban areas. We should consider replacing manicured lawns with small gardens, sod roofs, rooftop gardens and hydroponics—and perhaps moving chickens, rabbits, and pollinating bees from farm to city.

Buildings could become living organisms, producing as much or more energy than they use. For example, imaginative Zimbabwe architects now use procedures that are similar to what termites developed over many millennia to regulate the temperature in their towers. With limited sunlight the Swedes have become leading innovators with solar energy. Add wind power, recycling of wastewater, getting energy from burnt garbage, updating building codes, and other innovations and they've reduced their oil dependency by 90%, trimmed CO2 by 9%, and reduced sulfur pollution to pre-WWI levels.

Burning coal, oil, and wood as fuel is like burning sunlight. The shift now should be to use other properties of sunlight.

Nature as Natural

What's natural? Plants and animals have adapted to the environment that we've developed. For example, urban blackbirds become active earlier in the day than rural blackbirds. The urban animals in several species that were studied have larger brains than their rural counterparts. Successful animals are those that can best tune to the available environment, and for some that's the complex urban environment in which humans predominate. My neighbor's cat comes over to our house every day at about the time we eat, and we usually give her something. We recently discovered that she also goes to another neighbor an hour later when they eat. How does the cat know when the two of us will eat? If you're an urban cat, what else do you have to remember?

We've now created a hybrid environment in which our needs/wishes rather than natural forces determine the environment. We transport plants and animals from one environment in which they fit into another environment in which they become invasive since the new environment lacks their former regulatory controls. A single predator inappropriately introduced into an environment can eliminate or change many species. We've further affected our environment through an oil and coal-based dependence that's changing our climate. For example, about half of the 305 North American bird species now winter an average of 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago. Arctic ice is melting, some parts of the U.S. now have several inches of rain in a few hours, and the Southwest is experiencing a severe drought. Our climate is changing.

What should we do about this problem in a democratic society in which individuals and groups have opportunities to present their often biased perspectives? For example, Ackerman reports that a foundation is currently freezing reproductive cells and eggs of species facing extinction, and using DNA analysis to possibly restore Mammoths who died in eras in which its DNA froze. That may seem laudable, but do we really want to restore plants and animals at some later date, after their preferred habitat no longer exists?

Most Americans say that they favor conservation, but does that mean that we want well-tended, visitor-friendly national parks; hiking-friendly Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails that extend for thousands of miles; or huge wilderness areas that discourage visitors and prohibit logging, grazing, or farming?

Moving Beyond Nature

Our tool-making capabilities are moving us indoors, away from the nature we formerly experienced. As a ten-year-old put it, "I like to play indoors because that's where the electrical outlets are." Nearsightedness has increased because young peoples' visual focus today is more tuned to a nearby screen than to the wider outdoors. The novelty and convenience of our increasing digital environment is replacing our biological environment, now typically experienced via screened reality or animation.

We now have two selves, our physical self that emerged over many millennia and our virtual online self that's present even when we're absent—a self we constantly maintain so that people can contact us when we're not available in person, a self that allows us to interact with what's going on anywhere while we remain here. Interactive computers emerged about 50 years ago. Further, within the past few years, interactive social systems have revolutionized society and many of its institutions.

Advanced robots are probably next on the technological agenda. The development of artificial life will follow artificial intelligence. It's already well on its way from science fiction to technological reality. Some are concerned that we won't be able to control robotic behavior, seemingly forgetting that we also can't control human behavior. If robots take over much of the work that formerly occupied human life, will that free us up to become a different kind of humanity that's not dominated by physical work?

The 3D printing revolution has moved beyond simple printing towards object construction. 3D printers are in their beginning stages and the 3D printing of some human body part replacements is now occurring.

Humans have long incorporated false teeth, hearing aids, artificial hips, and contact lenses into their bodies. I have a cow aortic valve to replace my own failing heart valve. Should we also think of clothing and shoes as early human skin prosthetics? Wars are terrible, but they tend to enhance the development of technology.

At the atomic level, we're living beings who are composed of nonliving parts. In addition, 90% of a human body is composed of bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi. Only 10% of the cells in our body are actually human. We share our human ecosystem with 10,000 species of microorganisms. We're thus not lone, autonomous individuals but are perhaps a bit of us and a consortium of microorganisms (that can often outvote us).

Ackerman concludes her exploration of our planetary era with the suggestion that we are an altogether different kind of animal than any the planet has known before. We've been able to reinvent the world to fit our wishes. We've survived, despite facing more challenges than any other animal. We currently inhabit a much more complex mental challenge than did our ancestors.

Her challenge is simple: Don't blow it with an over-riding sense of self-importance.

Beyond Ackerman: Emerging Educational Challenges

What challenges confront educators? Some might suggest that the next generation has more than enough issues to solve, or at least to begin a search for solutions. To work effectively in finding solutions, young people will need to experience a very different kind of education from what is now being offered. The informal and formal education they receive should help prepare them to become responsible adults who can work with other adults to address global problems. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are all important parts of schooling. However, understanding global sustainability and how our quality of life depends on it can and should be thoroughly integrated into our schooling system.

Futurists such as Rachel Carlson and Diane Ackerman are basically educators who need to reach the huge audience of the earth's population. Such visionaries can inspire us, but they'll need the entire educational system to take a strong leadership role.

A top-down approach works at the world, national, and state levels. A bottom-up approach works at the school, community, and city grassroots levels. The hundred-year-old expression "think globally, act locally" captures the essence of using both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

If you want to go back still further in time, remember Benjamin Franklin's statement at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.


Ackerman, D. (2014). The human age: The world shaped by us. New York: Norton.

Ackerman, D. (1990). A natural history of the senses. New York: Vintage.

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and a regular contributor to the IAE Newsletter. His two most recent books are A Child's Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit five books based on the IAE newsletters. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run. Email:

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