Following a thread woven from five of life’s essential elements—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus—scientist Stephen Porder explores how microbes, plants, and people have used these fundamental building blocks to change the planet we all share.
He begins with two stories from the deep geologic past, when single-celled cyanobacteria and plants harnessed these elements to wildly proliferate across the oceans and the land, only to eventually precipitate global environmental catastrophes. He then jumps to the present and explores how human ingenuity in gathering these elements underpins the success of modern society. But—like our world-changing predecessors—the unintended consequences of our success now pose an unprecedented challenge.
Porder’s story is not one of gloom and doom, nor is the final chapter of humans and life’s essential elements written. We can use our knowledge to craft a more sustainable future. If we do, he argues, the future will be brighter than the past implies.
Porder is a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and environment and society at Brown University, where he serves as the nation’s first associate provost for sustainability. His new book, Elemental: How Five Elements Changed Earth’s Past and Will Shape Our Future(Princeton University Press), is available for purchase.
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