is an award-winning journalist writing most often about the environment and energy. His book "The Unnatural World" publishes November 2016. It's about whether the planet has entered a new geologic age as a result of people's impacts and, if so, what we should do about this Anthropocene. He also hosts documentaries, such as "Beyond the Light Switch" and the forthcoming "The Ethanol Effect" for PBS. He is the science curator for TED.
Fifty years ago last week, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act. David Biello assesses what’s happened since:
[M]ost wilderness in the continental U.S. is not untrammeled land. Wilderness areas are often former working landscapes—the Orwellian phrase created by the logging industry to explain away clear cuts—whether they were cleared for logging or farming over the course of the 19th century and early 20th centuries in places like the Adirondacks. The great forest that once covered the eastern U.S. has been re-growing for the last 50 years, even if its primeval quality may be illusory, given the exotic animals and plants that now live there. And, in this era of global warming, even the Artic and other remote spots show signs of human trammeling—whether the leavings are plastic detritus or a changed climate.
THE RED VEINS of a certain pink petunia flower come courtesy of human DNA — the A’s, C’s, T’s, and G’s that teach a cell how to build itself. With the help of a virus, Brazilian-born Eduardo Kac was able to stitch human DNA — his own — into a petunia, veining the flower’s petals in red by generating an antibody with a snippet of his genetic code. This so-called “Edunia” is neither the product of genetic research, per se, nor botanical gamesmanship. Kac is simply an artist, and the Edunia (along with limited edition seed packs) has been exhibited from Minneapolis to Barcelona, a show he calls “Natural History of the Enigma.”
Or, as Kac puts it:
The petal pink background, against which the red veins are seen, is evocative of my own pinkish white skin tone. The result of this molecular manipulation is a bloom that creates the living image of human blood rushing through the veins of a flower.
Such is art in the Anthropocene, this new era of man necessitated by our ever-expanding impacts on the planet as a whole, from geology to biology. Kac’s work is hardly alone. Bio-art in the Anthropocene ranges from a book stored entirely in DNA to a poem “written” by a microbe, a living poem known as “The Xenotext” to its progenitor (not exactly author) Christian Bök of the University of Calgary.
“As in all things, the bacteria got there first. One tiny cell built inside of itself a new pigment, a brilliant green thanks to its ability to absorb only certain colors in the light of a younger, weaker Sun. The pigment – dubbed chlorophyll by animals that rely on this one cell’s innumerable descendants to power name-giving brains – channeled the energy in sunshine to split the waters of Earth’s early oceans. The cell took in carbon dioxide, paired it with once watery hydrogen, and made food. In the process out bubbled a flammable gas that made life as we know it possible: oxygen.
These bacteria were the first geoengineers – large-scale manipulators of the planetary environment…” And we will be the second. Read the rest over at Earth Island Journal.
So now that I’ve settled on the classic “journey” structure (for the moment), I’m turning my attention to characters. Who’s going to populate this book of mine? And who’s going to keep readers turning pages?
I’ve got folks who could certainly serve: from a buttoned-down astronaut who now spends his time studying how to deploy renewable energy most effectively to a mustachioed oceanographer raised in the Himalayas who would like to use marine life to rejigger the skies. There’s even the man Stephen Colbert asked: “Are you trying to play God, sir? Because you certainly have the beard for it.” (That’d be George Church, who’s also been in the news lately for saying the resurrection of Neanderthals is imminently feasible and possibly desirable.)
The problem is I have no single character who can carry the entire saga of the Anthropocene. My only hope is that I can somehow weave these characters in and out of some over-arching narrative but I’m worried that what will actually happen is that I’ll just write a couple of scenes or set-pieces and then that’s the end of that character for the rest of the book. (Call it seven to 10 articles masquerading as a book, or “journalist’s syndrome.”)
I guess the only way to find out is to start writing…
As I set out on this book writing project, the first (and by no means smallest) challenge to surmount is how in the world I’m going to structure a book about a bunch of misfits having a scientific argument. I guess when I put it like that it doesn’t sound so terrible but the danger is that I end up with eight, loosely connected profiles that don’t add up to much. And my ambitions are much larger than that.
So I think I’m going to be imposing an artificial superstructure, like a narrative overlay that can then pull the reader through the book. The idea, at present, is to tell the story of the Anthropocene from the bottom of the sea on up to the far reaches of space, with stops on land (naturally) in between. Organizing the information this way may let the reader feel the pull of what’s to come.