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Let's Do What Plants Do

The future of the planet could depend on our ability to mimic photosynthesis
Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet Oliver Morton Harper, 480 pp., $28.95
Book Cover: Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet

Occasionally we read books that change the way we see the everyday world. I'm thinking of The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin's ode to human migration, which made us think about human nature in ways we'd never done before, and John McPhee's geologic tour de force, Rising From the Plains, after which a long road trip in the West takes on eons of meaning. A terrifying mind-bender for me was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's a kind of buddy novel set in a postapocalyptic world, beautifully written and filled with a bitter ache for all that has been lost. McCarthy doesn't eulogize culture as much as he does nature, and the result is a profound sense of the fragility of trees and rivers and trout and of our connection to the breath of life that starts with those things. For months I couldn't take a hike without practically weeping with joy at the grass and the sun.

I realize after reading Oliver Morton's Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet that the yearning at the center of McCarthy's novel is really about chloroplasts. By taking in sunlight and carbon dioxide and making food and oxygen, these wonder machines inside plant cells enable the breath of life and all things we hold dear, from the blue sky to the ocean breeze to "almost all the metabolisms on earth," as Morton puts it. In case that's not enough, our future as a species depends on photosynthesis and the delicate atmosphere it creates. Morton's mission is to explain the process in amazing detail and draw the lines connecting it to our imperiled climate. What The Road is to the heart, Morton's book is to the head.

Which is not to say that Morton is without emotion. It's just that his feelings are, well, surprisingly sunny. In a footnote, he writes that it's a shame there is no better word for carbon dioxide than its bland chemical term. It deserves something better, something almost spiritual, he suggests, to convey the substance's "richness and relevance." This flight of fancy is not untypical of Morton, an editor at Nature and the author of Mapping Mars, and it's this passion and freshness that make him the perfect writer of a book about photosynthesis and its significance to our future.

Most of us last gave serious brain-space to photosynthesis in high school biology (although lately we have certainly been thinking about one of its main ingredients, carbon dioxide). As Morton makes clear in his wonderfully clear way, the work of plants is inextricably linked not only to our climate but also to any hope we have of solving what he terms the "carbon/climate crisis." Global warming doesn't permeate the whole book, but it propels the narrative in a suspenseful way. After reading about how the carbon, nitrogen, and water cycles have grown the planet and its creatures, I found myself anticipating the part when Morton would talk about the cataclysmic ways in which those same cycles are changing and, in turn, creating a warmer world. As a teaser in the introduction puts it, "the rate at which we reclaim energy from the distant past has produced an accounting error; the profits and loss in our carbon accounts no longer balance."
image of Florence Williams
Florence Williams writes about health and the environment from her home in Washington, D.C. Her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History won the 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Science & Technology and was named a Notable Book of 2012 by th... READ MORE >

Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton, HarperCollins, 2008

An exploration of how photosynthesis makes life on Earth possible, with implications for climate change policy.

The statement "An exploration of how photosynthesis makes life on Earth possible" is grating, scientifically.

Photosynthesis makes PRESENT life on Earth possible. However, life's genesis and its long initial evolution "were made possible" long prior to the evolution of photosynthesis:

"Life Genesis, formation of first genes, was a phenomenon of serendipitous occurrence, in a supportive environment, of 'favourably-directed' energy potential between in-coming sun's radiation and polymerizing RNA-related oligomeric configuration."

"Life's Manifest"

Dov Henis

(A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)

The Road, a story wrote by Cormac McCarthy. This has been very popular and has received several positive reviews because of its great story about the journey taken by a father and son. Pennsylvania, this was the place where they’ve been filming the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. Concerning to Pennsylvania, it is one of the areas that is hard hit in Rust Belt. The Rust Belt, the former Steel Belt, has taken a downturn since the manufacturing industries started to drop off. Even the recent victory of the Steelers won't seem like enough for people who need a payday loan.