Do plants have a policy? It may seem like an absurd question. We could see something like politics in social animals like ants, crows, and elephants. But plants – aren’t they just vegetables?
“By perceiving plants as being much closer to the inorganic world than to the abundance of life, we are making a fundamental mistake in perspective that could be dear to us.” warns the Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso in his latest book The Nation of Plants. Mancuso is director of the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence and is a leader in the upcoming study of what he calls plant intelligence. Some biologists say that since plants do not have neurons, plant neurobiology is an oxymoron. They reject the field as ado about nothing – like the famous but ultimately debunked 1973 work, The Secret Life of Plants, in which everyone played Mozart for their ferns, but which is now viewed as a confused and desirable attempt to give plants a feeling lend that they just don’t have.
However, research by Mancuso and others has shown that plants communicate, perceive and react to each other and to their surroundings and can even show something like memory. Plants may lack a brain, but as Mancuso argued in popular books such as Brilliant Green (co-authored with journalist Alessandra Viola in 2015), they are by no means inferior to animals when it comes to biological sophistication or evolutionary ingenuity. In The Nation of Plants, Mancuso semi-seriously suggests that they might even be smarter than humans about the way they live together.
(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)
In this short, airy book, skillfully translated by Gregory Conti, Mancuso argues that we should see plants as more than just a backdrop for our campsites, a decoration for our garden, or even a carbon capture tool, however as a resource for our politics. He invites us to conduct an unlikely thought experiment: If plants could write a constitution, what would that mean? The book begins with an imaginary address by a representative of the Nation of Plants to our United Nations. The spokesman – Mancuso does not state his species – advocates looking after the wisdom of the community, which makes up 80 percent of the world’s biomass (humanity weighs only 0.0000001 percent) and has members who have survived up to 350 uninterruptedly Millions of years. Mancuso offers his services as an interpreter for the plants and then guides us through the eight articles of their constitution.
Much of this constitution will not surprise anyone who has spent time thinking about protecting the environment or anyone who has a garden. Take Article 1: “The earth should be the common home of life. The sovereignty should relate to every living being. “We have entrusted the fate of the world to what Mancuso calls the Lords of the Planet, a tiny group within a“ very presumptuous individual ”- say, USA Senators. It’s absurd to think about it, writes Mancuso, and The Nation of Plants offers a more democratic alternative.
The book becomes more radical In Article 3, in which Mancuso presents his main policy proposal: “The nation of plants must not recognize animal hierarchies based on command centers and centralized functions, and promote diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies.” Hierarchies reproduce the natural organization of animal anatomy with its specialized organs and the central nervous system. They are good for certain things, explains Mancuso most of all Speed. A central nervous system can also coordinate rapid movements A strong CEO can force a company to adapt to changing market conditions. However, when an important organ like the brain is damaged, the entire organism fails. Plants, on the other hand, “see, hear, breathe and think with their whole body”. They capture light through leaves and soil conditions through a complex network of roots. As a result, they prefer not concentration, but distribution as the principle of organization. Just like individual plants, forests or fields of wildflowers make decisions based on what the environment can support rather than what a sovereign power seeks to achieve.
The Nation of Plants not only overturns hierarchies, it also erases borders. Mancuso reminds us that lines on the map are the most imaginary political and ecological fictions. Rehearsing a popular contrary line (and the central idea of his last book, The Incredible Journey of Plants), Mancuso argues that most so-called invasive species are far from unnatural: they are just clever answers to the changing conditions of a changing world . More importantly, however, the free movement of species and communities to the places where they can thrive should serve as models for humans. “People should always be able to migrate,” writes Mancuso, “certainly staying in one place means jeopardizing your chances of survival.”
This short book is full of bold claims, and Mancuso makes them with the certainty – or naivety – of someone who (as the author freely admits) has no legal or political experience. Mancuso has no time to ponder objections or delve into the history of the adaptation of natural principles to human politics, from social Darwinism to eco-fascism that lingers beneath the joyous surface of this well-intentioned work. Sometimes he points to philosophy, for example, citing Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil when talking about the moral flaws caused by hierarchy. But The Nation of Plants is not asking to be taken very seriously. It’s more of a provocation than a treatise – and it works in 168 pages.
Mancuso writes in the ancient tradition of Aesop’s fables: He invites us to see human problems through the lens of non-human beings. It’s a playful book that, like most games that lead you to believe, speaks to an uncomfortable reality: we need to rethink how we live together on earth and who and what we include in our politics. The Nation of Plants is small enough to fit in a coat pocket or in a backpack. It is best read on a park bench or in the forest, where we can forget the practical aspects for a brief moment and just listen to the plants.
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Main photo: Jaime Boddorff / Cavan