Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life by Ferris JabrBecoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life by Ferris Jabr

Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life by Ferris JabrFerris Jabr’s Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life is an excellent work of science journalism that takes a pretty common topic in popular science — the history of our planet — but explores it through a relatively unique prism: how living creatures have been “a formidable geological force,” both shaped by and shaping the planet as we currently know it. Jabr’s clear description of Earth’s transformation over eons would have been enough to make this book worth reading, but the unique perspective means it’s all the more stimulating and engaging.

Jabr divides the book into three sections (Rock, Water, Air) to “mirror” the planet’s “three major spheres — the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, and the atmosphere” in order of their “relative abundance.” As he further describes in his introduction, each section moves from the way in which microbes affected that particular planetary element to larger lifeforms such as plants and animals and finally to how we humans have altered the Earth as well (often not for the better).

Jabr does an excellent job with regard to the most important aspect of science journalism: making scientific concepts accessible to the lay reader. His explanations are always clear and easy to follow, and jargon is kept to a minimum but used when appropriate and lucidly so. The science is timely, as recent as one could hope for given the time to publish, and Jabr does an excellent job in highlighting when scientific points are debatable, need further research , or have been called into question by more recent findings, sometimes with the text and sometimes in the notes. For example, when discussing concerns over the impact of melting permafrost and released methane on global warming, he notes that “some scientists have recently challenged this idea.”

Jabr also excels at the second-most important (or perhaps co-equal) element, making it interesting. His sense of wonder is both unflagging and contagious throughout, and while he brings a necessary sense of urgency to the discussion of our species’ harmful impact (more to us and other living creatures than the planet, which will certainly survive us), particularly with regard to climate change, it’s a balanced view as opposed to all gloom and doom. The many in person visits to important sites and personal interviews with scientists also make the book more engaging, ensuring it is more than a dry recitation of geological or biological facts or timelines.

Jabr’s language does the same. While for the most part, as noted, it’s all clear and straightforward, Jabr doesn’t shy away from dipping into a more lyrical style, particularly at the close of chapters. Here, for instance, he describes checking out the boggy section of his backyard:

I noticed the onionskin echo of a recently molted damselfly still stuck to the stem of a rush. Just below it, where the waterfall met the surface of the pond, bubbles formed and popped. Each was a tiny domed mirror in which I caught glimpses of my distorted reflection, the contours of trees and flowers, and the clouds in the sky. In each bubble, a different version of the garden; in each, one of many possible worlds.

And here, he takes on a larger view than his backyard as he describes the symbiotic relationship between life and Earth:

Life emerged from, is made of, and returns to the Earth. We still carry the ocean in our blood and grow skeletons of rock . . . Earth is a stone that eats starlight and radiates song, whirling through the inscrutable emptiness of space — pulsing, breathing, evolving

To be honest, Jabre does such a nice job when waxing a bit more poetic that I wished he’d done more of it, though that sort of thing can be overdone, so I understand his wariness. Informative, a relatively fresh angle, both deeply personal and expansive, always clear and sometimes poetic, smooth movement from research findings and data to in-the-field experiences and engaging interviews with the scientists doing the work, Becoming Earth is an excellent bit of popular science and one I highly recommend.

Published June 2024. One of humanity’s oldest beliefs is that our world is alive. Though once ridiculed by some scientists, the idea of Earth as a vast interconnected living system has gained acceptance in recent decades. We, and all living things, are more than inhabitants of Earth—we are Earth, an outgrowth of its structure and an engine of its evolution. Life and its environment have coevolved for billions of years, transforming a lump of orbiting rock into a cosmic oasis—a planet that breathes, metabolizes, and regulates its climate. Acclaimed science writer Ferris Jabr reveals a radical new vision of Earth where lush forests spew water, pollen, and bacteria to summon rain; giant animals engineer the very landscapes they roam; microbes chew rock to shape continents; and microscopic plankton, some as glittering as carved jewels, remake the air and sea. Humans are one of the most extreme examples of life transforming Earth. Through fossil fuel consumption, agriculture, and pollution, we have altered more layers of the planet in less time than any other species, pushing Earth into a crisis. But we are also uniquely able to understand and protect the planet’s wondrous ecology and self-stabilizing processes. Jabr introduces us to a diverse cast of fascinating people who have devoted themselves to this vital work. Becoming Earth is an exhilarating journey through the hidden workings of our planetary symphony—its players, its instruments, and the music of life that emerges—and an invitation to reexamine our place in it. How well we play our part will determine what kind of Earth our descendants inherit for millennia to come.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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