Irony is the lingua franca of the internet. A reflection on mental health easily becomes an impact font meme format, and a series of pastel-colored affirmations turns into its parodic, absurdist opposite in a matter of days. As such, the most prolific online creators must be fluent in the language, as well as be able to wield it with ease.
Though this is true for a lot of content creators, it is not true for John Green. Through his decade-long career on YouTube, first on the channel “VlogBrothers” and then on “Crash Course,” Green has abandoned an earlier ironic and chaotic form of videos in order to develop a more earnest and sometimes meditative style. “The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet,” his recent nonfiction debut, seems to be the culmination of this process. Written in an unironic, warm and deeply personal voice, it makes a compelling case for hope in a time of extremes.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed,” which started as a podcast of the same name, centers its premise around one of the most common features of modern life: the five-star review. Just as one might rate a hotel, restaurant or film, Green rates artifacts belonging to the Anthropocene (also known as The Great Acceleration), our current geological age. The chosen objects range from the mundane to the transcendental, from teddy bears and the Notes app to the concept of humanity’s temporal range.
Though the premise might seem absurd, each of the 40 reviews grows into an exploration of history, responsibility and the limits of human consciousness. As Green explained in the prologue of his book, “When people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir.” So in a sense, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is not only a map of his fascinations but an emotional history of life during the age of industrialization.
“A lot of people found the last year and a half exceptionally difficult,” said Green, “and it was really important for me personally but also professionally to try to write my way toward connection and wonder.” His deeply personal anecdotes and historical deep dives enliven the book, as Green attempts to find and pay attention to the moments of beauty and joy encompassed by human life.
In a review of sunsets, the author grapples with the risks of vulnerability: “How might we celebrate a sunset without being mawkish or saccharine?” How might one write a book about the value of life without sounding, well, cheesy? “The Anthropocene Reviewed” answers by embracing the adjective and countering that perhaps it’s necessary to abandon aloof distance in order to fully enjoy what life has to offer. It’s a case for loving the world unapologetically — even through moments of great suffering.
The general effect of the book is reminiscent of a collage. It might remind one of what Adam Curtis, director of the documentary series “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” once said: “There’s a way of thinking that the internet has pushed in people’s minds. If you notice how people now think and behave (…) You’re not looking for meaning for logical meaning any longer. You’re looking for patterns, connections.”
Green’s book thrives on finding these connections. A review of “Our Capacity For Wonder” walks its reader through the history of “The Great Gatsby,” World War II and the inequalities of the U.S. financial system before settling on Green’s experiences watching the effects of autumn on the trees near his house. It’s a beautiful essay; however, the space limitations of Green’s chosen format — each essay lasts only a few pages — might lead one to walk away with the sense that something was left unfinished in the book. But it makes sense, given that no human can tell a history of the Anthropocene on their own, and that Green’s reflections can only be incomplete ones.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed,” however personal, also has political intentions. After all, the Anthropocene is also the geological age in which humans have caused perhaps irreversible damage to Earth’s ecosystems, not to mention global problems such as growing inequality and prevalent economic crises. The book reflects on the ways the issues intersect with human lives in an attempt to explain what Green calls “the contradiction of human power: We are at once far too powerful and not nearly powerful enough.”
For example, Green’s review of air-conditioning allows him to reflect on humanity’s personal responsibilities regarding climate change, and an essay on Disney’s Hall of Presidents leads the author to the conclusion that “we cannot do the hard work of imagining a better world into existence unless we reckon honestly with what governments and corporations want us to believe.”
By looking at some of the forces that shape the current experience of the Anthropocene, the book not only seeks to understand its effect on humans but also the ways humans might alter them. In that sense, Green’s ultimate point might be akin to what activist and writer David Graeber once said: “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
It’s a sentiment that feels important, especially now, particularly for Gen Zers and millennials. The two generations have long been described as nihilistic and purposeless. But faced with the prospect of a shrinking economy and the certainty of near ecological catastrophe, it’s no surprise that young people have turned to irony and cynicism as primary cultural modes.
In such an uncertain time and societal landscape, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is a rare and valuable book. It makes a heartfelt case for the value of the human project, and it reminds its reader that even in bleak times, such as during a global pandemic, collective change is possible — that, as Green promised, “the light-soaked days are coming.”