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Thinking about plants … yes, really

If plants need a champion, then Michael Marder fits the bill. The philosophy professor wants us to consider whether plants are conscious, whether they have rights and if so, how we should behave towards them. Are plants merely there for humans to use how we please? Or do we have some moral or ethical obligation to treat them with respect?

Marder draws on the works of Aristotle, Kant, Freud and modern botanists to formulate a new way of considering plants and our relationship with them.

He outlines his ‘plant thinking’ in a recent interview with Joe Gelonesi on ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone (available as a podcast here).

But Marder goes further. With ‘plant thinking’, we not only learn more about plants, we also learn something of ourselves.

It’s a big call, that studying a tomato plant sets us on a path of self-discovery.

Yet, his ideas are intriguing. There’s nothing better than someone who comes along and makes you question your way of looking at the world, then prompts you to find out more.

Marder, from the University of the Basque Country, and his vegetal ideas certainly fit the bill.

What do I – a one-time student of science, a gardener, plant eater and vegetarian – make of it all?

Ph for philosophy

First I need to get past Aristotle and his idea of the vegetative soul, Freud on “it thinks” versus “I think”, and Kant’s interpretation of I-can’t-remember-what. Then it’s a detour via different understandings of consciousness, no easy feat for someone who hasn’t formally studied philosophy, or whose tongue trips over the word phenomenology.

With just the absolute basics under my belt, it’s an obvious leap to draw parallels between Marder’s work on plants and the writings of Australian philosopher Peter Singer on animal ethics in the 1970s, credited as fuelling the animal liberation movement.

Perhaps Marder’s ideas will follow the same trajectory to sprout a ‘plant liberation’ movement. We’ll see.

Botanical basis

As well as drawing on western philosophy, Marder looks to science and botany in particular for his ‘plant thinking’. Here lies a conundrum that on one hand places science central to his thesis, yet on the other seems to dismiss it, an issue discussed in his recent interview.

For instance, he talks of how science provides evidence of how plants sense their surroundings, make decisions based on what they sense and act on those decisions. These are concepts that biologist Daniel Chamovitz drew together for his recent book What a Plant Knows: a Field Guide to the Senses, and some might consider markers for a basic form of consciousness.

Yet, Marder says we need to move beyond science to allow plants to have their secret life.

He told The Philosopher’s Zone:

“Perhaps it is through art that we are able to manage to be at peace with plants; where we do not interfere with them; we observe them from a distance or represent them on a canvas, for instance. In that way, [we] do not instrumentalise them, [we] do not turn them into means for our own ends.”

If my reading of Marder is right, he’s saying that although science provides evidence for a very basic form of plant consciousness, the very process of collecting this data is invasive and disrespects the plant.

‘Biting the hand that feeds’ is the phrase that comes to mind. Surely, without the evidence that science brings there’d be a very different discussion of plant consciousness and our conversation about respecting plants wouldn’t exist.

Respect for all?

Let’s suppose that I follow the argument that plant life is worthy of respect, I’m confused about whether Marder’s suggesting all plants should be afforded the same respect or if there’s a hierarchy.

On what basis do I decide what’s worthy of respect? The complexity of a plant? If that’s the case then simple mosses would be less worthy of respect than towering trees. Its weed status? How do I feel about respecting lantana? Whether a plant’s native or introduced? Endangered or common? Edible or ornamental? I could go on.

Then there’s the question of how I show respect to a plant. Do I ask permission before picking its fruit or collecting its seed, as shown recently on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia (transcript available here). In the episode Connection to Country, Indigenous elder Margaret Katherine asks a plant “It’s alright I can break you?” before collecting its seed and giving it to host Costa Georgiadis with instructions to “look after it just like a baby”.

To eat or not to eat?

Then there’s the tricky question of whether it’s ethical to eat plants, either one leaf at a time while the plant’s still alive, or even at all.

I cut meat from my diet more than 20 years ago. Clearly cutting out plants too is not an option. But I’d be happy to thank a plant for its seed.

If showing respect is allowing a plant to express its plant-ness, what does that say about pruning, espaliering or bonsai? How about inserting another organisms’ genes into a plant’s genome? The GM debate has been lacking so far on whether the host plant has been violated or what this violation means for the plant’s being.

Could showing respect to a plant be all about letting it fulfil its genetic potential? If that’s the case, do I have an ethical responsibility to water it and provide it with the correct nutrients? Suddenly gardening becomes an exercise in plant rights and, by extension, a political act.

Perhaps Marder addresses these issues in his recent book Plant-Thinking: a Philosophy of Vegetal Life, featured in the program, which I have yet to read but have ordered.

Marder is quite clear in his interview, though, on the distinction between respect for a plant and imbuing plants with a sacred status.

“There is a danger, I would actually claim, of sacralising them, of adoring them, of imposing upon them a kind of sacred status. I would not want to go in this direction. I would rather like to carve a special niche of ethical respect for plants that would avoid extremes of either their sacralisation or our profession of our love of plants with all kinds of activities such as plant whispering.”

Clearly, talking to your plants is out. I suspect the same goes for tree hugging.

So where does this ‘thinking about plants but not in a sacred way’ take me?
Marder said:

“As soon as we relate to plants, we relate through them to much more than what they are. We relate through them to animals, to humans, to the environment of which they are necessarily a part. Plants could be a kind of entry point into a broader environmental ethic and a broader environmental approach that would encompass much of what we call nature.”

I try to list how plants connect with animals, humans and the environment.

Plants are food, provide insect habitat, start conversations, build community, act as therapy, provide space and sanctuary, make shade, start soil, symbolise love and remembrance, give us clothing, become weeds, shape and allow us to share culture, foster recreation, purify water, are tradeable commodities, inspire art, provide fuel, break wind (in both senses of the words), remediate soil, help us exercise, attract tourists, give us medicine, regenerate air, regulate weather, act as chemical factories, circulate water, stabilise soil, provide building material, trigger learning, foster national identity …

My mind has turned to vegetal soup. What have I missed?

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. FYI — Genet lauded plant, too — their sexuality in particular. 😉

    June 9, 2013

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