98 pages 3 hours read

John Green

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green is a book of 44 short thought pieces on the wonders and dangers of human activity on Earth. Published in 2021, the book entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one and received wide praise for its gentle amusement about the quirky habits of modern humans and its eloquent alarm at how we mismanage the Earth’s resources. Green is known for his bestselling fiction and multiple internet shows, including a namesake podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, from which most of the book’s essays derive.

This study guide is based on the ebook version of the first edition.

The Anthropocene refers to the current geological era, wherein the chief influence on the Earth’s surface is the activity of humans. It’s a time of astonishing human creativity in science, technology, the arts, and commerce. However, it’s also a time when humans have become so powerful that they threaten life on Earth, including their own. Green explores what he finds charming or alarming (sometimes both) about humanity’s inventions. His brother suggested the book’s title as a wry takeoff on internet reviews of products and services.

Plot Summary

Author John Green has mental health conditions, including depression and panic attacks. His early fiction gave indirect voice to these concerns, but he wanted to address them in a more direct, confessional way. The Anthropocene Reviewed is his first attempt to do so—and to share his thoughts about humanity’s ingenuity and imperfection as Earth’s caretaker.

Green admits a sentimental attachment to the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a corny yet inspiring musical number that’s also the anthem of his favorite sports team, the Liverpool Football Club. Although the song comforts him in the face of personal tragedies, he fears that human existence—including our potential to reach the stars—might not continue much longer if we persist in mishandling the environment. With so much doubt about our future, he finds it reassuring that Halley’s Comet returns reliably to the skies every 75 years or so.

The human capacity for excess, which the novel The Great Gatsby eloquently portrays, reminds Green that while chasing our ambitions we hurry past wonders that are all around us. By contrast, the discovery of the prehistoric Lascaux Cave Paintings by a group of French teens—and their efforts to preserve those paintings—is an example of how open-hearted people can inspire others by appreciating those wonders and doing right by them.

Quirky things matter too. Green loves Scratch ’n’ Sniff stickers, Diet Dr Pepper, and movie dinosaurs. These things aren’t important, yet they add zest to our often-troubled lives. In addition, Green finds distraction in odd facts: Humans saved Canada Geese from extinction, and now they’ve become so common that they pollute streams and ponds, while millions of children hug Teddy Bear plush toys even though a real bear is decidedly less than cuddly.

Several modern products draw Green’s skeptical eye even as he admires them. These include air conditioning, which ironically heats the planet; antibiotics, which save lives but teach germs to resist them; Disney’s Hall of Presidents, a beautifully realized attraction that intones saccharine bromides about patriotism; and the internet, which can be a source of community or a weapon of cruelty.

Green finds ironic happiness in many things. School at first stumped him, yet he found success—and a community of nerds—in the Academic Decathlon. He loves rivers and lives near one, though it’s often polluted. The beauty of sunsets isn’t visible unless people become vulnerable enough to admit that they love them.

A penguin, a pig, a hot dog, and news coverage each point to the irony of being human. For the opening scene of the animated film Penguins of Madagascar, documentarians risked the lives of animals to get some good footage. An entrepreneur invented the modern food market, putting countless mom-and-pop stores out of business. Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held at Coney Island every July 4, glorifies gluttony but also shows the amazing things humans can do. CNN brings news to the world but is too busy covering the latest developments to give important long-term trends the analysis they deserve—and therefore both informs and warps viewers’ perspective.

Anxiety comes in many forms, and Green has experienced several. He found inspiration for his depression by watching the movie Harvey, about a man who resolves the contradictions in his life by imagining a six-foot rabbit as his best friend; from this film, Green learned that “crazy” doesn’t mean unlovable. A sports fan, Green notices how great athletes can get the yips, a sudden inability to perform that results from a self-reinforcing loop of anxiety. The internet makes it possible to find out about other people yet also exposes their privacy.

Green moved to Indianapolis and found it boringly average-American until he found beneath the surface a neighborliness that enchants him. Each year, he bicycles with a large group to the Indy 500, a race that’s silly on many levels but nonetheless riveting. He deplores wasteful, prim lawns and hates mowing, but his feeling of connection to his neighborhood and its people makes up for it.

Games intrigue him, but some trouble him: Monopoly, for example, encourages players to utterly bankrupt other players; on the other hand, the computer racing game Super Mario Kart gives power-ups to those falling behind.

Green muses about what makes him feel certain ways or evokes specific thoughts. Things that make him feel lonely include the white desert of the Bonneville Salt flats, the loss of the social habit of whispering during the COVID pandemic, the inexpressible pain of viral meningitis, and the deadly history of the plague. People and things that make him feel connected include Hiroyuki Doi and his circle drawings, the band The Mountain Goats and their lyrics about relationships, and the delicious hot dogs of the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur food stand in Reykjavik, Iceland. A photo of three German farmers headed to a dance in 1914 evokes life’s uncertainties, like the war that would soon kill or maim those farmers. A gigantic ball of paint, created over decades by thousands, inspires him because it shows the power of community to build impressive things.

Odd bits of technology help Green reach out to others. The quirky QWERTY typing keyboard, for all its inefficiency, gives him a way to express himself to large audiences; and for years the iPhone Notes app helped him record random thoughts. Nature brings him both joy and sometimes irritation: Indianapolis’s frozen rain, graupel, torments him when he’s outside but looks beautiful at night; the shade of a 100-year-old giant sycamore tree symbolizes stability and long life.

Green both enjoys his time on Earth and feels anguish at his and the planet’s fragility. He hopes that humans can find their way toward a world where defenseless creatures no longer face arbitrary extinction at our hands—and that our brief lives uplift us and bring us meaning, joy, and love.