Reviews

How green is my planet?

Stunning images, like the TV programme, incredible facts, like the TV programme and the same referencing as the TV programme.
You can listen to this page as an audio file.

The green planet: The secret life of plants* by Simon Barnes, 2022. Witness Books (an imprint of Ebury Publishing, part of the Penguin Random House group of companies).

Stunning images

This blog item is along the lines of, “if you liked that, you’ll like this” (Kristin Iversen), as The Green Planet by Simon Barnes is appraised. However, there are caveats to the ‘likeability’ side of things…

Overview of book

The Green Planet is a little over 300 pages devoted to the glory of the natural world that is plants. The book consists of a very short Introduction, and five main chapters, each of which examines some of the plants, and aspects of their ecology, in different habitats. Thus, we have chapters headed (and presented in this order): Tropical Worlds, Desert Worlds, Seasonal Worlds, Water Worlds. The final chapter, Human Worlds examines the clash that often occurs when, and where, people and plants meet. The book concludes with 3.75 pages of 4-columned Index. In addition to the text, the book is extensively illustrated, with a picture on pretty much every other page, and all (I think) in colour.

The Green Planet is an unapologetic celebration of the wonders of plants and how they survive in four major environments, and – as important – how humankind is affecting those habitats and the ability of plants to survive there. On the one hand It’s a great series of essays on the ingenuity and resilience of plants when faced with challenges of surviving in what – to us at least – are often hostile environments. On the other, it’s a cautionary tale of the fragility of the natural world and how desperately it needs our consideration, conservation, care, and compassion if it – and we – are to survive on this planet that we all share.

Barnes certainly gets across his message that plants are “just as aggressive, competitive, and dramatic as the animals” [from the book’s back cover], and ably demonstrates the strange and wonderful life of plants, “a life full of remarkable behaviour, and continuous surprises” [also from the back cover], and goes some way to allowing readers to “discover the secret heroes breathing life into our world” [yep, this too from the back cover]. But, and above all, The Green Planet is a book devoted to plant biology and ecology – and who can argue with that?

Similarity to the TV series of the same name

Although the book’s front cover declares that it accompanies the landmark series – The Green Planet, produced and broadcast by the BBC in 2022 – the book is not just a text-based version of the TV programmes. For example, the order in which the habitats are presented in the book differs to the broadcast order, which was Tropical, Water, Seasonal, Desert, and Human. [I’m curious to know why there is a difference in habitat ordering; it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book, I’m just interested to know…]. The text in the book is not simply the transcript of the TV programmes. If it were, that would be a rather slim book because the text narrated in each of the TV episodes (by (inter)national treasure and legendary natural history broadcaster extraordinaire Sir David Attenborough) was fairly minimal – to a great extent the images did most of the ‘talking’. Text-wise, and quite rightly so, The Green Planet (the book) is much more expansive and provides further explanation and information additional to that from the TV programmes. And, although sumptuously and abundantly illustrated, the book’s illustrations are no match for the televisual feast of the TV programmes.

Whilst additional facts were welcome, I was a little surprised to note that at least one fact from the TV programmes wasn’t included in the book. For example, one of the awesome aerial shots of stands of Euphrates poplar (Populus euphratica) in the Taklimakan Desert (China) from the TV programme is reproduced in the book (running across pages 84 and 85). Although that was nice to see, the book doesn’t mention the name Euphrates. Instead, the book refers to the trees as ‘poplars’ and ‘desert poplars’ within the text [consistent with that, Euphrates isn’t included in the index, but – and rather curiously – neither is the mentioned-in-text desert poplar nor poplar…]. Rather more surprisingly, Barnes makes no specific mention of the underground, root-root interconnections between these trees that were highlighted in the TV programme. These underground tree-tree connections, which apparently allow water to be shared amongst individuals [see entry No. 2 in “10 weird and wonderful plants from The Green Planet“], are very important to the plant’s survival in this extreme habitat. Such notes of caution aside, The Green Planet is pretty faithful to the TV series of the same name. So, if you liked the TV series, you’ll probably also like the book.

Critical assessment of book

Everything that’s published and/or in the public domain can expect to be scrutinised and critically appraised. That certainly applies to books that come within my reach. However, that isn’t criticism for its own sake, it’s always intended to be a legitimate appraisal of any perceived shortcomings of the tome. An entry point for that sort of assessment is to understand the audience for whom the book was written and/or its purpose. Unfortunately, nowhere could I find out the book’s intended readership. I will therefore assume it is intended for the intelligent lay reader who has some interest in plants. As for purpose, I think that’s pretty clear. Page 319 of the book states that “This book is published to accompany the television series entitled The Green Planet, first broadcast on BBC One in 2022”. The spine of the book has ‘BBC Books’ in clear lettering. The book’s front cover has ‘BBC’ boldly placed above the book’s title. And the back cover of the book has ‘BBC Earth’ stamped upon the bottom left corner. Clearly, the book can be viewed as a BBC creation. For those who may not know, BBC is the initialism for the British Broadcasting Corporation.** Based in the UK, the BBC claims to be “the world’s leading public service broadcaster”.

The Green Planet (the book) can therefore be judged according to its proudly-proclaimed BBC credentials: How well does it do in that respect? In particular, does it achieve the three goals of the BBC’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain”?

Does it inform?

Yes (sort of…).

On almost every page there is a plant-related or -relevant statement – many of which were new to me (which is always nice to see). For example: the vines that host the parasitic plant Rafflesia can be more than a kilometre long; in 70 years Costa Rica lost 80% of its forest; a big cactus can take in getting on for 800 litres in the course of a single rainstorm; aggregate annual temperature in the southwestern United States has risen by 1.2 degrees between 1950 and 2010; bumblebees are able to alter the frequency [of their buzzing] to suit the flower [in buzz pollination]; the bladderwort is the fastest plant on Earth; duckweed holds more protein than soy beans; it’s been claimed that dams cause more plant extinctions than deforestation; monocultural farming reduces the number of worms in the soil; and there is a rule of 10% in relation to the invasiveness of alien plant introductions.

However, the information value of some of those facts isn’t as high as it could be. For example, which species of cactus can take in getting on for 800 litres in the course of a single rainstorm? Regarding the aggregate annual temperature in the southwestern United States having risen by 1.2 degrees between 1950 and 2010, what units are these – Fahrenheit or Celsius?

There are other examples where there are doubts about what species is actually meant, and the information value of the book is thereby also diminished. For instance, Barnes tells the fascinating tale of the relationship between the mountain tree shrew and a pitcher plant on Borneo that involves laxative-laced nectar. He also states that there are 10 different species of pitcher plant on Mount Kinabalu, where the shrew-plant interaction takes place. Unfortunately, Barnes appears to make no mention of which pitcher plant species is involved with the shrew. Elsewhere, there is a fascinating account of the reproductive ecology of the ‘poison arrow tree’ in Queensland. Nowhere in the book can I find the scientific name for this plant mentioned (absence of scientific names is a general feature of the book). And that’s an issue because we are also told that “The poison arrow tree is a widely spread group” (p. 60), which I infer to mean that there are several species, all called poison arrow trees. Which one has the mentioned relationship with the metallic starlings? Inclusion of scientific names for all plants would have been really helpful – from a general information point of view, and helping to specify particular species.***

But! There’s a major problem with all of those ‘facts’ [see Does it educate? section below].

Does it entertain?

Yes.

The green planet is well written, very well-written. Which is probably no surprise when one reads that Simon Barnes is a best-selling author of natural history books, and an award-winning sports journalist with The Times newspaper. All of which literary activities have no doubt contributed to perfecting his highly-readable and entertaining writing style. Examples of Barnes’ phrasing include: “It is the genius of humankind to create from rainforest a place that is teeming with death” (p. 74); “In the manner of the Sleeping Beauty, with the sun playing the part of the handsome prince” (p. 147); “It is a matchless opportunity for them to feast, fight and fornicate” (p. 242); “So now, as humankind wobbles on the tightrope above the abyss of destruction, let us seek for balance” (p. 308).

And – from a sheer entertainment point of view – Barnes’ words are enlivened with umpteen cultural, literary and other references, such as: “The idea that plants need water is part of the bleeding obvious, as Basil Fawlty [irascible owner of the hotel named Fawlty Towers from the TV series of the same name] would say” (p. 80); Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; the character ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan in MASH (the book, TV series, and film); the film Withnail and I; George Orwell’s Animal Farm; Goldfinger by Ian Fleming; John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids; the musical comedy, The Little Shop of Horrors (which is somewhat strangely cited in the Index); and Voltaire’s Candide (Matthew Sharpe). Whether such references give us a clue to the anticipated age of the book’s intended readership, I couldn’t say. They certainly added interest to Barnes’ writing.

Does it educate?

Short answer: Not really. Long(er), reasoned answer: Read on.

For all of the great number of facts presented in The Green Planet (and there’s probably one for every other page), NONE of them are evidence-based. Or, to be more accurate, Barnes provides no sources to substantiate any of the statements he makes. And that deficiency is compounded by the absence of any indication of further reading the reader could undertake to find out more about plants – and maybe stumble across the source(s) of some of the book’s facts. And, somewhat curiously, no books or articles or sources appear to be acknowledged by Barnes as having been consulted to provide any of the facts stated in the book.

Although there’s good use of proven pedagogic practices such as recap, repeat, and reinforcement by appropriate cross-referring between chapters, the real educational value of leading by example and providing one’s sources is absent. Amongst the true aims of education should be the desire to encourage its recipients not to accept or believe everything they’re taught or told (Rachel Denning). In the context of a factual book such as The Green Planet, it means that readers should rightly be sceptical of the written word – especially where and when it isn’t backed up by evidence.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that what is written is wrong, it’s just not as ‘right’ as it could be. Where sources are stated the curious can check them and – hopefully – reassure themselves of the accuracy of what’s been stated by the author and as a result be better informed. Providing one’s sources isn’t just a courtesy to your readers, it helps – in that BBC’s mission-guided way – to educate them. Plus, it gives the author due credit for the scholarship that’s surely been undertaken to garner the veritable tsunami of facts that are presented in The Green Planet. And it’s not just me who thinks this way (I’ve mentioned this need for evidence-based plant writing on more than one occasion, e.g. here), The Wandering Botanist is also of this view, which is supported by commentators to her blog item. And, more generally, Josh Brolin supports the need for writers to state their sources.

Does this really matter? Can’t we just trust the author? The uncritical acceptance of the words of others – especially if they’re not supported by evidence is always a dangerous thing to do because it can lead to the casual acceptance of falsehoods, and the perpetuation of errors. Has Barnes made any erroneous statements in The Green Planet? Yes, he has.

The most serious of which is the error regarding crassulacean acid metabolism [CAM] on pages 103-105, although it’s not called by its name. Barnes tells us that cacti have evolved the ability to take in carbon dioxide during the day – and to store it. And that this feat allows them “to perform one of nature’s great contradictions; they can photosynthesise in the dark” (p. 103). So much is stated as fact in the book. Unfortunately, it contains errors.

Cacti don’t take in CO2 during the day, they do so during the night. Now, that fact is somewhat remarkable because the majority of plant species (the approximately 95% that don’t have CAM (Shanon Trueman)) have evolved the ability to take CO2 in during the day, through their stomata (Karen Blaettler). But, cacti do store the CO2as part of a molecule of malic acid – within the cell’s vacuole (Travis Garcia et al., New Phytologist 204: 738-740, 2014; https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.13127) for later use in photosynthesis. The neat trick that cacti – and other plants that use CAM – have evolved, and which helps them to take in CO2 during the night, is that their stomata are open during these hours of darkness (which is contradictory to the great majority of plants in which stomata typically open during daylight). Nevertheless, cacti – like all other photosynthetic plants – undertake photosynthesis during daylight. However, in the case of cacti, their stomata are closed during the day, which thereby inhibits uptake of photosynthetically-essential CO2 from the atmosphere. For cacti (and other CAM plants) this lack of access to the atmospheric, external source of CO2 is not a problem; the CO2, that’s been stored overnight, is released within the plant where it is incorporated into organic molecules by photosynthesis during the sunlit daytime. If what Barnes has stated was fact then nocturnal photosynthesis by cacti should rightly be considered “one of nature’s great contradictions” (p. 103). Sadly, that isn’t what happens.****

Not only does this CAM issue underline the importance of including sources, it also makes a case for having a botanical specialist check over the book before publication. I have no idea if this happened or not. Presumably (hopefully!), that didn’t take place, or inclusion of this major mis-fact would represent a serious failure of such oversight. Yes, I could do what I’m urged to do by Elsa in Frozen and just “let it go”. But, to do so – and especially having raised the matter publicly – risks creating a TBR [truth-by-repetition] (Tim Brinkhof), should that mis-fact be taken as correct by readers and repeated. That, as a Botanist who is keen to improve the public’s understanding of botany, I cannot knowingly allow.

Taking all of this into account, I have to conclude that The Green Planet doesn’t really fulfil its BBC remit to educate. Maybe, the book’s plant-curious readership will be sufficiently motivated and encouraged to delve deeper into the literature to find out more about the book’s facts. I hope they will. But, they’ll have to do it on their own, in the absence of any information on sources or guidance from the author.

What would Auntie think?

I think she’d agree that, judged against the three goals of the BBC’s mission statement, The Green Planet entertains, and informs, but doesn’t really educate. Although, in the immortal words of the sadly-departed Marvin Lee Aday [aka Meat Loaf], “two out of three ain’t bad”, I believe that the ‘Beeb’ (as the BBC is affectionately known (John Rabon)), via its spokesperson Simon Barnes on this occasion, can – and should – do better.

Our planet – and its plants – is crying out for more plant-minded individuals. Helping to cultivate a plant-literate population is therefore a very important, worthwhile, and highly desirable goal. The Green Planet was ideally placed to contribute to that; as a text-based product, the book could be expected to add true depth and understanding to the more image-based ‘plantfest’ that was the TV series. Unfortunately, by excluding sources, Barnes has missed a golden opportunity to capitalise upon the interest in plants that the TV series has helped to generate, and do its bit in building a botanically knowledgeable public.

Summary

The Green Planet by Simon Barnes is sub-titled The Secret Life of Plants.* This is an acknowledgement that the lives of plants are largely secret to so many of us that share their planet. Hopefully, Barnes’ book, and the BBC TV series that it accompanies, will help to share those secrets with a wider audience who will come to appreciate plants more. And, maybe – just maybe – people will view plants with renewed respect and admiration, and look after them just a little better as a result. If The Green Planet plays its part in improving the public’s botanical literacy, that will be a good outcome. If a new version of the book could be produced that is evidence-based, that would be a brilliant outcome [I’m always interested in discussing plant-based projects]…


* Which is not to be confused with The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins & Christopher Bird, an altogether different book about plants (Elsa First)…

** Many other definitions of BBC are available, see here.

*** I could only find four instances where full scientific names of plants were provided. The first was Rhipsalis baccifera (Reza Raihandhany & Adhityo Wicaksono, Philippine Journal of Science 151(1): 205-213, 2022) (a cactus unusually found in “parts of Africa and in Sri Lanka” (p. 101)). Second was Ceratocaryum argenteum (Pablo Gómez Barreiro) (“a grass species with a smart lifestyle” (p. 178)). Third was Macarenia clavigera (Dylan Baddour; Murray Carpenter) (whose “most obvious challenge is to hold tight to the rocks throughout the year” (p. 204)). For none of those three does Barnes tell us whether they have common names or not – they’re certainly not mentioned if they do. The fourth instance is Furcraea parmentieri, where Barnes has to use the scientific name because “The plant doesn’t have a common name” (p. 302). Occasionally, just the genus was mentioned (e.g. Desmodium (“the sticky pea of Madagascar” (p. 69))). More often than not only a common name was mentioned in the text.

**** Unfortunately, there is a bit of a problem here. Unless you already knew about CAM, you’d probably not spot that error, which makes this sort of ‘mis-fact’ a difficult one to deal with. Avoiding inclusion of erroneous statements is to a large extent dependent upon how scrupulous the author is in checking facts to ensure that what is presented is correct (or is as accurate as can be having undertaken appropriate due diligence). But, at least with the sources(s) stated, the sceptical reader has the opportunity of establishing how correct the statement is.

 

 

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