Constellations From Five Stars: John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, by Ethan K. Poole
The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current geologic age in which humanity is not just a part of our ecosystem but the most powerful species on Earth, deciding which other species survive or go extinct, drying out entire rivers, and even melting Antarctica. We don’t have a clear answer for when this age began, but John Green, New York Times bestselling author of several books including The Fault in Our Stars, believes that King Ferdinand of Portugal kickstarted the Anthropocene when he tasted the literal fruit of globalization and became the first resident of the Old World to ever eat a pineapple grown half the world away.
He makes this argument in his most recent book and the podcast of the same name, The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which he was reviewing Hawaiian Pizza on a Yelp-style five-star scale (it received a score of two stars, if you were curious). The book and podcast are each a series of essays reviewing different parts of the world around us on this aforementioned five-star scale. The things he’s reviewed range from Super Mario Kart (four stars), Halley’s Comet (five stars), and the concept of love at first sight (four stars) among many other things. It can sometimes be a challenge to find the beauty in the world without ignoring or glossing over all the horror that comes with it, but Green has managed to pull off the trick with deft and grace here. You’ll find a soft, empathic ride from start to finish in The Anthropocene Reviewed, whether you chose to experience it as a book of essays or as a podcast performed in a surprisingly resonante one-note baritone.
Green pushes reviews as a medium to their logical limit as he both satirizes and celebrates the idea of the five-star scale. I mean, it’s absolutely insane to try to rate sunsets or chemotherapy on a scale of one to five, right? After all, the five-star scale only became a popular method of review because AI likes it when needing to categorize things. It's ludicrous to try to search for deeper meaning using them, you would think. Yet all the same, these silly reviews ending up talking, with so much care, about the rampant romanticization in our imagination of disease, humanity’s temporal range (which is the amount of time we have existed as a species and, hopefully, will continue to exist), or about how a group of starving people were tasked with safeguarding one of the world’s largest seed banks so they decided to continue starving as to save the lives of hungry people later, that you can’t help but get immersed in and learn from them.
Whether it's about Tetris, the Penguins of Madagascar, or cholera, Green manages to use these reviews as a catalyst for engaging memoir, interesting history lessons, or beautiful prose. Typically, it is some mixture of all of them and it is always incredible to watch unfold in front of your eyes. By the metric of deepening one's understanding and care for the world around them, The Anthropocene Reviewed is a truly top-shelf work of art.
To get a sense of this, let's look at one throughline between several of these reviews: disease. One of the early reviews is about cholera, mostly the human response to it. We’ve developed cures and treatments for the disease, and many lives were saved because of it, but people still die of it to this very day, largely because they do not have proper access to those treatments in the same way we in the wealthy world do. People in poor areas die largely because their lives don't feel connected to ours, as though there is anyone’s life who is not, in some sense, connected to yours. As Green is fond of saying: disease only treats people equally when society treats people equally.
However, even at cholera’s worst, tuberculosis always had a higher body count. It didn’t receive the same fear, though, because it was romanticized. It made you thin and pale, which was considered attractive; it was even written as having a “hectic glow.” This isn’t the only time he mentions this as he also talks about his experience with labyrinthitis, a disorder of the inner ear which made it difficult to stand, and the attempted metaphorization that came with it. He rejects the idea that he got labyrinthitis because he needed to be taught a lesson about balance, in the same way he rejects the idea that people are prettier when they’re dying of tuberculosis. Overall, Green writes against the idea that diseases exist to teach us lessons or serve as metaphors and instead sees them merely as things that humanity has to live with as best we can.
Humanity in the Anthropocene is characterized by how much power we possess to reshape the world in our image, but humans—each and every one of us as individuals—don’t tend to feel that power. People like presidents might, but in our day-to-day life, we do not feel as though we decide which species go extinct or like we could put a man on the moon whenever we felt like it. Even that great power we all share together is limited. Green points out that if humanity is to survive into the next few centuries we’ll have to be able to live in a world where we are powerful enough to warm the globe but perhaps not powerful enough to stop warming it. That is the great contradiction of the Anthropocene, and it is one we all have to find a way to live with before it's too late. But he believes (as I believe) that it is possible that our species may survive this, that we shouldn’t give up hope just yet. If we do survive this, it won’t be by giving into tribalism and the fighting and hatred that come along with it. If we are going to make it through this, we are going to have to act like we are all one team.
One of the central motifs of John Green’s first novel, Looking For Alaska, is the question of how we’d make it out of this “labyrinth of suffering.” Robert Frost, while trying to answer a similar question, is quoted as saying that “the only way out is through.” Green’s most recent work shows us, in crystal clear language, that the only way through is together. I, for one, hope we make it.