Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet

Photosynthesis may be the energy answer we seek.

Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet By Oliver Morton Harper Collins 460 pp., $28.95

Some books are riveting by the nature of their topic: Fresh biographies about the lives and business acumen of Warren Buffett and Ted Turner, for instance; or a new novel by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature; or perhaps a sordid tell-all penned by a disgruntled Hollywood insider spilling the beans on a famous film starlet.

On the other hand, a work of nonfiction about photosynthesis is not one that readily screams entertainment or bestseller.

Yet Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet is so topically relevant to our daily lives – and the things we profoundly take for granted, such as breathing oxygen, the changing seasons, and the source of electrical horsepower – that it should seize our attention out of necessity.

That is, if we are the least bit curious about America’s energy and economic future, what it portends for global warming, or the conundrum of our strategic military defense, as enunciated by the latest champion of energy independence, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens.

Any grade-school student can explain that photosynthesis is the magical metabolic process by which sunlight is converted via plants and other organisms into oxygen and energy, which in turn fuels life on Earth.

Whether sweeps of massive forest or potted petunias on the porch, plants are powerful sponges that pull ubiquitous carbon dioxide, the agent causing global warming, out of the atmosphere.

Morton, a British science writer and author of the previous acclaimed book, “Mapping Mars,” is a keen translator of phenomena that might otherwise be considered arcane.
Pleasantly, “Eating the Sun” is a work of flowing prose that makes vivid why our leafy nub of cosmic dust, swirling around an average star, is an extraordinarily beautiful and rare place to reside in the universe.

“Photosynthesis is not just a thing that plants do,” he writes. “It is a thing that planets do, too. More specifically it is a thing that THIS planet does, and the thing that marks it out from all the others in the solar system.”

Photosynthesis as an adventure story
“Eating the Sun” is surely not a turgid scientific textbook; parts of it have the feel of an adventure story. In three sections spanning billions of years, Morton masterfully takes readers on a journey that begins when Earth was barren, like Mars, and lifeless – before photosynthesis gave rise to plants and, in conjunction with the effects of emerging oceans, spawned conditions that enable creation, as we know it, to thrive.

Greenness, Morton notes, is not merely the notable color of Earth, thanks to plants that feed us, fill our breaths, and inspire us; nor the battle cry for the progressive environmental movement; nor the symbol of economic prosperity, nor the rousing theme for latest revolution in technological innovation. As the end-product of photosynthesis, it is the most potent engine known for transforming ceaseless sunlight into the essence of Earth’s life support system.

Consider: The sun emanates more useable energy in an hour than all the energy 6 billion humans currently use in a year. Instead of mining carbon stores from the ground and releasing them into the atmosphere by burning, Morton says the sun is like an ever-flowing stream of energy waiting to be harnessed.

The elusive holy grail of energy is all around us, Morton says, but tapping into it will require a paradigm shift in how society thinks about exploiting a finite supply of fossil fuels created millions of years ago by, paradoxically, the same process of photosynthesis that benefits humans today.

From coal and oil to manufacturing biofuels out from corn and prairie switchgrass, America as a society has monumental choices to make. Understanding the way photosynthesis works factors mightily into the direction Capitol Hill and the White House will go in the years ahead.

CouId it be the answer?
Photovoltaic power, generated through an array of synthetic solar panels and natural organic organisms such as algae, could liberate countries from having to fight wars over resources, Morton says. The greatest dividend of photosynthesis is that it spares the atmosphere from rising carbon dioxide emissions that are turning up the thermostat on the planet below.

Although he is an enthusiastic proponent of solar power, Morton is no Pollyanna. Grand green ambitions must be matched by a new physical energy grid. Building it is no less daunting nor further away than the dreams humans had in the early 1960s when they pondered the possibility of leaving tracks on the moon.

Todd Wilkinson is a freelance writer who lives in Bozeman, Mont.

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