Living in an Anthropocene World

I just added a new selection to the “books I recommend” section of my website, and this time I’m explaining why I chose it. The Unnatural World by David Biello caught my attention when I was in the public library looking for books with advice for nonfiction authors. It was part of a featured selections display, where the images of leaves on the cover and the title drew me in. I checked it out immediately and bought my own copy soon after I started reading.

Biello’s message – that we are living in the Anthropocene Era, in which humans control the planet’s environment and which may date to as long ago as the beginnings of agriculture – asserts itself throughout the book. His thesis is that humans have been changing the natural world in myriad ways over millennia, not just the few decades of the author’s lifetime (he was born in 1972). He calls humans “the world’s most invasive species.”

Biello’s pedigree as a journalist shines through. Many sections read like pieces of investigative journalism. Biello introduces a colorful cast of characters in the scientists who are single-mindedly pursuing their goals, be that discovering better ways to sequester carbon or figuring out how to reincarnate the extinct passenger pigeon. He finds ways to incorporate the vast collection of stories and facts he unearthed while researching the book and cleverly tie everything back to his thesis.

Biello weaves in his own opinion, either agreeing with his real-life characters or letting his skepticism about their ideas punctuate his stories. The concluding chapter is an homage to Elon Musk and Musk’s vision of the future.

At times Biello goes off on tangents that can feel like stream of consciousness thinking. For example, within two pages the narration moves from the story of a scientist raised in Britain by Polish parents, to a more general discussion of immigration and refugees, to the development of writing 5000 years ago, to a musing on the randomness of fate. In some sections, Biello waxes philosophical for slightly too long.

Speaking of tangents, I noticed an error in the book that few, if any, readers will find. Stephen Gienow, one of Biello’s characters, had been a member of Team 1727 at a high school robotics competition that Biello doesn’t mention by name but must be FIRST Robotics. Biello says that Gienow participated in the Breakaway competition in 2012, where 120-pound robots played a game of soccer.

I am very familiar with FIRST Robotics, having been a mentor for Team 3482 from 2012 to 2014, when my older son was in high school. It is a fantastic program that delivers on its promise of “combining the excitement of sport with the rigors of science and technology” (tagline from the FIRST website). I happen to know that the 2012 competition was Rebound Rumble, a basketball game. Breakaway happened in 2010, before I was involved in FIRST.

Despite the tangents and the fact that The Unnatural World is a long book, it is well worth the reader’s time. Biello is a good storyteller. He makes a compelling argument that the Anthropocene Era is here to stay and the ultimate goal should be to create a “better Anthropocene” that allows the human species to survive for as long as possible.