Jeremy Zauder Reviews 'The Emerald Planet' by David Beerling

the emerald planet by david beerling book cover image

“The illumination is made possible thanks to the emergence of an exhilarating new discipline,
one that integrates unprecedented knowledge of plants as living organisms with their fossil record and the role they play in driving global environmental change.

“As we do so, we can see clearly that plants are not ‘silent witnesses to the passage of time’ but dynamic components of our world that shape and are, in turn, shaped by the environment. The power of the new science is that it brings to life the plant fossil record in previously hidden ways to offer a deeper understanding of Earth’s history and pointers to our climatic future.”

–– David Beerling ‘The Emerald Planet’

David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet is not a simple book to digest, but the patient reader will find much to absorb. The topics under consideration are newsworthy and relevant; many chapters deal directly or indirectly with climate change and global warming. In nine chapters, Beerling covers about 500 million years of earth’s history, going into detail in specific prehistoric eras or following discoveries until we see how the hazy, scarcely documented terrain of our past can become the mainstream doctrines of modern science.

I have no doubt that Professor Beerling is uniquely qualified to publish his book. He is an enthusiastic proponent of his field, palaeoclimatology, as a study only now reaching near-maturity with remarkable insight into today’s issues.

The past holds the answers to the present, and the author does a fine job of surveying the ventures made, the history uncovered, the theories expounded, the proofs used and confused, and the debates raging on. While the scope of the book covers more than a few disciplines (archaeology, climatology, meteorology, physics, plant physiology) there is no one unified theory, no simple answer. The chapters on the ancient forests of Antarctica and the discovery of the ozone layer are filled with vigorous historical debate and misguided conclusions which Beerling navigates effectively, leading the reader to his balanced modern view (supported by the most recent evidence, of course).

I found the human story of the scientists and explorers more engaging than principles of physics and why plants developed leaves. Beerling can explain complex topics effectively but too many concepts in one sitting can make my head spin. I was enthralled by the story of Captain Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole (in 1912) and the subsequent justification for the heroic efforts of his party. Starving and freezing to death on an ill-planned expedition, the five men would have no idea that the plant fossils they collected (which slowed their pace) would astound and galvanize the scientific community.

“The argument of this book is twofold. First, that integrating plant physiology into palaeobotany allows us to recognize fossil plants as new entities: exquisite tachometers of Earth’s history. Second, that plants themselves are significant geologic forces of nature. It follows that decoding the wealth of information retained in the matrix of these fossil tachometers hinges on continued investigations of
living plants. Integrating the information we glean in this way with cutting-edge knowledge from other research fields is a scientific frontier. It reveals how plants have shaped our planet’s past.”

The book’s journey is basically from the far past to the present, but I found that I could try different chapters out of order without missing too much of the narrative. Each chapter is an almost self-contained discussion of a specific topic and its related geologic era (of circumstance and then of discovery or experimentation in the last few centuries of our modern era). Taken together as a whole, the topics and queries are a far more powerful testament to the book’s overarching theme of plant evolution’s relevance to history and the environment, but those who weary in one area can move ahead or use the summaries provided as a gateway to the next topic.

The book works best when the earth’s history is painted in broad strokes. Readers may come away with dazzling images of dinosaurs, giant insects, Victorian experiments, and cataclysmic eruptions, but these are the highlights, the entry points into much deeper and more complex issues. I wanted to see more information displayed visually; a handful of charts and maps are provided to supplement the science, but I found myself turning again and again to the plates of photographs. The paintings, samples, microscopic views, and even a colleague in an amusing tee-shirt added appealing insight for a layperson like me. Perhaps the most useful illustration shows the geologic timescale in relation to the book’s chapters (what’s happening in the book’s narrative at what point in the past).

Professor Beerling achieves his goal of establishing the concept of the earth’s biomass as one of the greatest influences on the planet. Plants can indeed tell us much about earth’s history, but many facets of the story are still being explored, debated, or simply unknown.

There is much food for thought in his book to enlighten and even challenge conventional thinking. What the book lacks in accessibility and style is more than made up for by the comprehensive interdisciplinary approach, relayed by a real scientist with zeal and candor.

The “answers” provided to our modern problems, when clearly documented and agreed upon by the scientific community, don’t tell us much more than we know already about global warming and so forth. The Emerald Planet handily informs us of many previously unmentioned aspects of history that make this planet what it is today. At a few points there are references to ongoing research and points to consider when using our accumulated knowledge to protect the earth’s future.

Guest reviewer Jeremy Zauder has been a friend of nature since he discovered dirt at age two. Through pinecone-based art and Boy Scout camping, he has explored and shared his appreciation of the world around us. He is currently based in Jerusalem, Israel, hoping for the political rebirth of the Green Leaf Party. Jeremy works as a freelance writer & graphic designer and his blog is really random and out of date. His wife would like to add that “reduce, re-use, and recycle” does not mean that he can keep that piece of furniture he found on the street.

Like this review? If so, read more of our summer eco-reads festival:

Review of ‘Confessions of an Eco-Sinner’ by Fred Pearce
review of ‘Wild Fermentation’ by Sandor Katz
review of ‘God in the Wilderness’ by Rabbi Jamie Korngold

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