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.
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.
Which is why I’m writing a book. We are the first life to transform this planet with the possibility of consciousness about it, terraforming terra herself as a result of our actions (albeit mostly unwittingly to date). If we want to ensure that the Anthropocene is more than a blip in the history of the planet, it will take all of our smarts and our technology to begin to master formerly natural systems, such as short-circuiting the millennia it takes to recycle water or the eons nature requires to turn tons of old, dead plants into fossil fuels.
This is not about preserving Nature with a capital N or bringing stasis to what is (and always has been) the dynamic flux of life, chemistry and plate tectonics. This is about managing change, adapting and ensuring the resilience of our civilization, our fellow life and even our planet.
I’ll be chronicling my efforts to craft a narrative history out of that topic here. So set out on this journey of disillusionment with me? Any and all help, insights, pro tips or just words of encouragement truly welcome. Welcome to the Anthropocene.