Buckle Up—The Plant Consciousness Revolution Is Here



Buckle Up—The Plant Consciousness Revolution Is Here | Atmos


























 

Zoë Schlanger, author of the new book, The Light Eaters: How the Unseen World of Plant Intelligence Offers a New Understanding of Life on Earth, speaks to Atmos about the awe-inspiring findings of modern botany and the winding path to recognizing plant consciousness.

“At what point do plants enter the gates of our regard?” asks Zoë Schlanger, climate and science reporter, Atlantic staff writer, and author of the new book The Light Eaters. 

 

“When are they allowed into the realm of our ethical consideration? Is it when they have language? When they have family structures? When they make allies and enemies, have preferences, plan ahead? When we find they can remember? They seem, indeed, to have all these characteristics. It’s now our choice whether we let that reality in. To let plants in.”

 

Described by famed Potawatomi botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer as “A masterpiece of science writing,” The Light Eaters not only addresses cutting edge developments in modern botany, but the overarching (and intensifying) debate around plant intelligence, consciousness, and even personhood. 

 

As scientists learn more about plants’ remarkable abilities to do everything from communicate to recognize kin, natural questions around their intelligence and potential consciousness arise. In a field that sees anthropomorphism and metaphor as dangerous, reconciling plant autonomy and intellect is a slow journey. 

 

“​​Science indeed has no agreed-upon definition for life, death, intelligence, nor consciousness,” writes Schlanger. “Left to the sciences, which were never built to take up ethical questions of being and nonbeing, plants remain conceptually locked out in the inanimate cold.”

 

In 2014 after nearly two centuries of efforts by the Tūhoe nation in New Zealand, the Te Urewera Act was established, a precedent-setting law which granted formal legal personhood to the Te Urewera rainforest. Similar efforts are being brought forth by Indigenous nations across Turtle Island in an effort to preserve our precious, often voiceless, wild ecosystems. “It’s not that plants are human, but that humans are just one kind of person, as are animals,” explains Schlanger. “Personhood means one has agency and volition, and the right to exist for their own sake.” 

 

As she prepares for her book launch tomorrow, Schlanger spoke to Atmos about the sometimes spicy and always rigorous world of plant science, undoing the myth of separation, learning to hold the complexity of plants, and what we stand to gain by welcoming them as intelligent kin, rather than simply decoration.

Romany Williams

Why are plants the ultimate other?

Zoë Schlanger

Humans are extremely biased towards things with faces, and of course a plant doesn’t have that. There’s also no brain that we can find in a plant. There’s a brainlessness to them that I think in some ways prevents our ability to think of them as beings that have lifestyles. It’s a limit of our own imagination at present, and certainly the cultural heritage of the West which centers European scientific ideals. We think of ourselves as much more connected to animals vs. plantsanimals have lifestyles much closer to our own. Some have compact brains, they move across landscapes, they have eyes, ears, noses, and mouths. Plants have none of those things. But there have been periods in history, and certainly contemporary Indigenous culture everywhere, with a much more intimate nature and understanding of the liveliness of plants. Even recognizing that there is a life force inside them that is compelling them toward more life, the same way that we’re all compelled toward more life. It’s something we’ve culturally lost touch with over the last several decades. 

I’m hoping for a future, even in the next decade, where we’re more comfortable thinking about the idea of there being a mind within things that don’t have brains.

Zoë Schlanger

Author, The Light Eaters

Romany

You write about how, as a sort of disillusioned climate reporter, you stumbled into botany at such an interesting time in the field, only to realize that there’s still so much that we’re unable to understand about plants. New revelations about them are also fuelling an ongoing, and deeply divisive, conversation in the scientific community around whether plants are intelligent or conscious beings.

Zoë

The ability to see plants as intelligent, or something approximate to intelligent, while respecting their otherness, their unique form of intelligence which is very likely incredibly different from our own, will take a certain level of tolerance for holding ambiguity and a comfort with the unknown. 

 

There’s an extent to which we will probably never fully understand what it’s like to be a plant. Thomas Nagel has this famous essay called What is it Like to be a Bat? where he posits that there’s some level of consciousness associated with anything that has a “thing it is like to be.” If we were to think of plants that waythat there is something that it is like to be themthat stretches the mind far past anything we’re comfortable dealing with. 

 

In this process of reporting I found that scientists are very conservative. They’re very in tune with the knowledge that they are writing the first draft of our understanding of complex scientific phenomena, and they don’t want that first draft to get misinterpreted. But their conservatism sometimes prevents the public from ever getting a taste for the true nature of what they’re finding. There’s a lack of willingness to use plain language to describe the incredible things that plants are doing. They use passive language a lot to talk about what plants do, even though the plants themselves are doing these very active things, and I think that robs us all of the ability to start synthesizing these complex ideas. 

 

I’m hoping for a future, even in the next decade, where we’re more comfortable thinking about the idea of there being a mind within things that don’t have brains. I think we’re coming close to that with fungi for example, and even the ways we’re talking about AI. The public is starting to gain tolerance for thinking through those ideas and the ethics that might come with them, and I think that plants are a natural next place to look. 

Romany

Do you think that intensifying conversations around AI intelligence will help, or hinder us, on the path to re-remembering our relationship with plants?

Zoë

I think it’s quite telling that we’re more willing to ascribe consciousness to a computer than to organisms that share a huge portion of their DNA with us. Many plant life processes are similar to our own. They have circadian rhythms and vasculature similar to our own nervous systems. There’s a certain disenchantment with consciousness and intelligence that hums when I hear about these debates around AI. It feels like we’ve skipped over the enchanted part of consciousness, there’s something ineffable there that we haven’t even figured out in ourselves. But why do we find it so much easier to ascribe consciousness to a computer than plants?

 

Just this month there was a convening of consciousness researchers that decided to ascribe consciousness to insects and cephalopods and a few other animals. This is about 10 years after the same convening in 2012 in Cambridge of a similar group that published a declaration ascribing consciousness to mammals and birds. So we have been expanding our knowledge of what organisms can possibly have consciousness without needing to understand the mechanical basis for it. We measure consciousness in ourselves and other organisms by watching what they do. Through inference not through understanding. One could look at a plant that is making decisions spontaneously or changing its body spontaneously to respond to its environment or strategically planning for the future, or protecting its kin, or having complex social livesall of which plants haveas markers for conscious engagement with the world.

Romany

In the book you write “Is there ever intelligence without some form of consciousness? My instinct says no.”

Zoë

The link there is experience. At what point can it be said that an organism is experiencing its world? Once sensation is linked to something like movement, then it must involve, at least to my mind, experience. One could look at almost anything we do and think of it as rote reflex, but we know in ourselves that there is a certain experience involved in taking in information and deciding what to do with it. In much the same way a plant is sensing its environment and making decisions about what to do next. We don’t think of plants as moving organisms and yet they are growing all the time. That’s the central rule of plant life.

One could look at a plant that is making decisions spontaneously or changing its body spontaneously to respond to its environment or strategically planning for the future, or protecting its kin, or having complex social livesall of which plants haveas markers for conscious engagement with the world.

Zoë Schlanger

Author, The Light Eaters

Romany

If plants are formally deemed intelligent, what, if anything, do we owe them?

Zoë

I think once you acknowledge some level of agency in another organism it becomes impossible not to understand that the circle of ethical regard has to widen to include it. The idea of plants having rights feels almost impossible to imagine, but many legal scholars make the point that there have been many forms of rights granted to lots of people that seemed impossible at the time. In an essay from the ’70s by a legal scholar named Christopher Stone called “Should Trees Have Standing?” he describes the legal landscape as being this collective myth that includes some things in the circle of rights and some not, and the exclusion of those things without rights is seen as natural. It’s unthinkable to include them, until the point when they are actually included. He also talks about the fact that inanimate objects have legal standing already, from corporations to ships, nation states and trusts. That kind of unthinkability should not be a barrier to expanding out notions of what should have rights.

Romany

What might happen if plants gained some kind of legal standing?

Zoë

First of all, we have to eat plants, so there’s no realm in which we can’t kill plants. But that doesn’t mean that there’s room for indiscriminate killing. What would it look like if the indiscriminate mowing down of a forest is no longer ethically acceptable? Or raising a 30 year old tree for toilet paper? Some forms of use would become preposterous once you acknowledge the inherent right of a plant or group of plants to exist and to flourish. This has been tested in law a few times already. I thought a lot about the case in Minnesota where the White Earth Band of Ojibwe sued the state on behalf of wild rice, because there was a pipeline planned to cut through the wild rice ecosystem. They argued that the wild rices’ inherent rights to, exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve would be impinged upon by the pipeline.

 

My biggest personal experience from doing the research for this book was gaining the understanding of just how much evolutionary creativity, fortitude, and unimaginable experimentation has gone into every single species of plant. Snuffing out a line of a plant seems ethically preposterous once you understand what it means to allow evolution to continue into the future, even if that plant isn’t necessarily useful to humanity.

Romany

The wild rice case was unfortunately thrown out due to lack of precedent, despite the fact that a similar, groundbreaking case was brought forth years earlier by the Tūhoe nation in New Zealand, resulting in the 2014 Te Urewera Act which granted legal personhood to the Te Urewera rainforest.

Zoë

It will take a lot of time, and the culture has to shift. Legal precedent is very much about what is considered thinkable in our collective myth. The more that people are intimate with the idea of plants as active, responsive, dynamic organisms then the closer we’ll get to that being a legal possibility.

Romany

How do you imagine the ethical consumption of plants might look, if and when, they’re ever given personhood?

Zoë

First and foremost we have to gain some tolerance for the uncomfortable truth that we have to enact violence in order to live. In order to eat, we will have to do violence on other creatures that likely want to keep living. Dealing with that would humble us in the face of the dilemma that we’re in.

 

I think a lot about the months I spent living in western Washington on the coast. There are many tribes in that area that call themselves “Salmon People.” Salmon is respected and revered culturally, yet it’s central to the diet of these tribes. The Swinomish people are known for their incredibly sustainable fishing practices. I don’t want to be naive to think that we’re going to stop large scale agriculture. There are still 8 billion people to feed, but there are ways that agriculture can be more mindful. 

 

What would it mean to incorporate what we know about plant communication into the way that we farm plants? What would it mean to not farm plants in vast monocultures, but in biodiverse fields where different species of plants are doing what they’ve evolved to do? Plants are extremely capable of repelling pests to a certain extent without our help if able to use their chemical language. Or could we think about the way that plants relate to their kin? Kin recognition is a newly evolving field but preliminary research suggests that there are all kinds of plants that behave in protective ways towards their kin, or at least compete with them less. What would it mean to think about that while we’re planting? There are ways to think about the agricultural relationship that centers plant agency instead of using our desires as the primary mediator. 

Romany

We know that Indigenous communities have been stewards of land across Turtle Island since time immemorial, and they’re often the ones bringing cases like this forward. How do we inspire more people toward a deeper thinking and advocacy around plants?

Zoë

The process of researching for this book allowed me to see myself as part of a system that relies on other organisms. I think our capacity to see ourselves as part of a living system is blunted by everyday life and the cultures many of us grew up in. We rely so heavily on plants, not only for the oxygen we breathe, but also every molecule of sugar that we’ve ever ingested and the glucose that builds our body and makes our brains run. Every single molecule of that was first made in the body of a plant through photosynthesis. Plants are the only organism that can do this, and without them, we would be toast. 

 

They are also the primary organism on earth in terms of sheer mass. There is a far larger mass of plants than there is of any other living thing, and that really shifts the perspective. You gain a certain awe of the role of plants on the planet, and I think experiencing awe inspires a different orientation toward that form of life. Awe leads away from exploitation. 

You gain a certain awe of the role of plants on the planet, and I think experiencing awe inspires a different orientation toward that form of life. Awe leads away from exploitation. 

Zoë Schlanger

Author, The Light Eaters

Romany

What do you think is one of the most awe-inspiring things about plants? 

Zoë

One of the senses that sets them the farthest apart from us and yet speaks the most to their potential for intelligence is the way that they synthesize chemical compounds in their bodies. They can do this quite spontaneously and to very specific effect. There are species of corn and tomato that can synthesize the exact compound that will attract the exact parasite of whatever is eating them. When these plants are being eaten by caterpillars, they send out what are essentially pheromones that draw in parasitic wasps that will then prey on the caterpillars eating them. Some researchers are very comfortable considering that a form of language. That level of interspecies communication is not only suggesting incredible spontaneity, but also suggests that the plants are using other organisms as tools which is a way that we define intelligence in other creatures, like crows using sticks to open boxes.

Romany

We have research to prove that being around plants calms our nervous system, yet there’s still something intangible and ephemeral about living alongside plants that science struggles to define. They’re an intrinsic part of our collective experience, our DNA, and our mood making, and yet they remain subjugated.

Zoë

I was speaking to a plant scientist at Wesleyan University who told me that she felt this sense of reassuring competence when around plants that made her feel very peaceful. I certainly relate to that. Being around plants gives one the sense that everything is well handled because they handle their own lives with exceptional grace, deliberateness, and success. There’s been plenty of research that being in nature is good for our physiology. We don’t fully understand why, but the evidence is there. We have so much to gain from the act of attending to other life forms.

 

I think learning that all forms of life have tremendous biological similarities is an incredibly expansive experience. You come to understand yourself as just one product of the unending, riotous, messy experiment that is evolution. We’re all trying to find a way to make it in this environment. It’s not a spiritual concept but it comes close to recognizing this unifying truth that evolution is not a hierarchical process with us at the top, but we’re just one little branch in the neverending web of life.

Romany

Are you hopeful that the debate over plant intelligence or consciousness in the scientific community will subside eventually?

Zoë

I don’t know if we’ll ever come to a universal agreement about whether or not plants are conscious. We might, but it almost doesn’t matter. I think the evidence coming out of labs is speaking for itself at this point. A word that scientists might not have been comfortable using 10ten years ago that is now being used more is “behavior.” Even in the most conservative realms of botany we’re able to think of plants as behaving organisms. Maybe we never have to decide whether or not a plant is conscious, but can we integrate this information into a general understanding of their incredible capacity to advocate for their own lives? Whatever you want to call that, it’s a sign of responsiveness and agency which isn’t something that we’ve granted them. It would be a sea change just to have that more broadly understood. 

 

Things that feel unimaginable today are unlikely to seem unimaginable as soon as society adopts them as truth. That’s the essence of a paradigm shift, and I think we’re at a moment of a paradigm shift when it comes to understanding plants.

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