What plants can tell humans about violence, harm and ethics
“I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me. I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart… I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions. I am zucchini – and I am in space”
These are the opening lines of US Astronaut Don Pettit’s quasi-fictional Diary of a Space Zucchini (listen to a dramatized version here): an account of ten days in the life of a plant growing on the International Space Station. Through a series of short entries, the zucchini writes about its growing awareness of the people with whom it interacts, including its knowledge that its ‘kind’ is regularly eaten by them. It discusses its feelings and sensations, such as its embarrassment at having it roots exposed, its enjoyment of light and a good view, or its distaste for the nourishment it is given. The zucchini communicates with its human companions – and of course its audience – and tries hard to understand its surroundings. By taking on the voice of a vegetable, Pettit goes beyond talking to plants, and talks as a plant. Is he crazy?
In Western secular cultures, the ways in which humans relate with nonhumans often function as markers of the boundary between sanity and insanity. In a supposedly disenchanted universe, it’s regarded as a sign of mental illness to imagine mere ‘things’ as being capable of having a perspective, of speaking or being spoken to. And it’s considered crazier to think this about some things than others. As Val Plumwood argued, it’s more or less acceptable to speak to animals that are known to respond to human language – perhaps because of the widespread human affinity for them, the fact that they display forms of intelligence that remind us of our own, or even the success of animal welfare activists in convincing some humans of their sentience. But talk to a tree and you’re bound to provoke strong and negative reactions.
So it takes a brave soul to admit that one has been talking to, let alone thinking like, a plant. Luckily, in their recent books, Michael Marder and Matthew Hall have been courageous enough to do just this. Both authors challenge the Western (and, in Hall’s case, the non-Western) traditions which have cemented plants as mere resources to be dominated, manipulated and exploited for the use of humans and other animals. From the perspectives they develop, Pettit’s vegetable-eye view is a bit zany, because it attributes human (or at least zoological) forms of subjectivity to a plant – not because it treats a plant as a subject.
In the proverbial nutshell, both Marder and Hall provide persuasive arguments and evidence that we should consider plants as beings with their own forms of subjectivity, which are distinct from, but linked to, our own. Marder’s work is a challenging re-thinking of the being of plants through the lenses of phenomenology and deconstruction. Instead of evaluating plants in human terms, he focuses on their unique ontological conditions. These include total openness to their environment; the fact that they are multiplicities instead of selves, simultaneously singular beings and instantiations of a species; their ability to express and communicate through their embodiment; and the unique forms of temporality and freedom they experience. He also argues convincingly that plant-being is deeply entwined with human being – in other words, plant being is a dimension of human being – an argument that dissolves the human/nature duality imposed by Western metaphysics. Marder’s intriguing claim is not (only) that plants should be given consideration within the scope of human ethics, but also that plant-being can offer an alternative ethics from which humans can learn.
Hall takes a slightly different approach, focusing on the zoocentric tradition in Western thought, but also in other systems of belief such as Buddhism. He shows how judging the ethical status of plants on the basis of animal physiology and capabilities sets plants up to lose, literally disqualifying them from ethical consideration. Indeed, Hall demonstrates how the dogmatic backgrounding of plants, often in the face of contradictory empirical evidence, has been deliberately used to underwrite and defend exploitative practices. But he also shows how a range of cultural and spiritual systems – from new animisms and Jainism to European paganism (ancient and contemporary) – have treated plants as subjects worthy of ethical treatment – including as nonhuman persons. In these cultures, treating plants as subjects isn’t (or wasn’t) considered crazy.
In framing plants as ethical subjects, both authors bring us to a crucial problem. If plants deserve ethical consideration, then we cannot go on destroying them without a second thought. This problem strikes right to the core not only of ethics, but also of our understandings of violence and harm. This, if you were wondering, is why someone concerned with international security should care about the ethical status of plants.
Thinking about plants as ethical subjects forces humans to confront a disturbing and poignant fact: harming other subjects is not incidental to our form of being. Harm is the very condition of our existence. This is probably the most important problem that concepts and practices of ethics, violence and security must contend with.
And it’s not something that most people would like to admit. Most people recognize that other kinds of animals rely on doing harm to other beings, and normally excuse them for it. Think of the myriad nature programs in which children are told not to cry for the antelope being devoured by the lion because ‘that’s how it goes in nature’. But one of the many ways humans have tried to distinguish themselves from other animals is by believing that we can choose not to harm others, or at least control our urges to do so. As I’ve argued elsewhere ,Western secular societies in particular abhor violence – both the idea of being its victim and its perpetrator. A human who ends up in either of these positions is treated as a dehumanized being. Andrew Linklater argues that the entire history of human efforts at security and civilization has sprung from the desire to minimize harm and regulate violence.
This doesn’t mean that Western secular societies don’t commit violence. On the contrary, like the many other cultures that Hall explores, they define violence and harm in ways that make their norms and actions appear to be non-violent. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to disqualify certain kinds of beings from ethical consideration – whether plants, other animals, or ‘dehumanized’ humans. If a being isn’t capable of being harmed, then how can destroying it be considered violence, and why should we worry about the violence we do to it in our everyday lives?
Plant-thinking, as Marder calls it, forces this violence into the foreground in a unique way. Certainly, other approaches draw our attention to the suffering of others and our violence against them (animal studies in particular). But recognizing plants as ethical subjects shows not only the violence we do, but also the impossibility of escaping this violence.
To understand why, simply compare plants to two other beings: water and nonhuman animals. Humans and most other life forms absolutely need to consume water in order to survive. However, by consuming the water, we do not destroy it (although we change its form). In contrast, humans do not, strictly speaking, need to consume the bodies of animals in order to survive (veganism demonstrates this point, and the development of lab-generated meat opens new horizons for it). Even those who eat animal products need not necessarily harm or kill the animals involved (for instance, if one is a vegetarian who uses free range animal products). In contrast, we cannot live without consuming plants, and in order to consume them, we need to destroy them, at least in part (e.g. by consuming their fruit, roots, leaves or flowers). So unlike the other two examples, plants are both necessary to our form of being and must be harmed in order to support this form of being.
Thinking of plants in this way also shows us that everyone –including many other kinds of animals- is part of this harm. Even the dedicated pacifist and committed vegan must harm plants in order to live, and therefore, from this perspective, must do violence against ethical subjects. Moreover, plants offer us no easy escape route. Short of opting for voluntary extinction – which, as Peter Singer argues, is an option, but not a desirable one – we have no choice. We have to harm plants in order to be human.
Understanding this is crucial in understanding the ethical problems of harm and violence. If we recognize as subjects many of the beings we habitually instrumentalize – animals, landscapes, other humans – then suddenly the world appears as a much darker place, and we appear as much more violent beings than we might have thought. By recognizing the ethical status of previously disqualified others, we multiply, amplify and deepen every instance of harm, all the while knowing that we can’t completely remove ourselves from it.
Does the inevitability of this harm mean that we should just throw in the towel and embrace our violence? Yes and no. None of this suggests that we should glorify the violence we do or accept it in an unthinking way. And the amount of effort to which human societies have gone over centuries and across multiple contexts to disqualify certain beings from ethical consideration suggests that there is little appetite for revelling in it. We’d much rather pretend it’s not there by instating a kind of amnesty toward the other. This is quite like futural amnesty, but it is applied to beings that we share the present with. It involves giving ourselves permission to render certain things unthinkable so that we can get on with our daily lives without guilt or horror. It is precisely this kind of amnesty that has led to blindness and irrational denialism in the face of ecological breakdown and the ruthless exploitation of billions of living beings, human and otherwise.
But we should own up to this violence to the extent that it forces us to confront the full enormity of the harm that is bound up with our existence. Here, we should listen to Zizek’s call for the citizens of Western democratic states to acknowledge their violent histories (and presents). He disdains the unwillingness of these people to recognize either the violent roots of their own ‘peaceful’, liberal orders or the virtues of totalitarian regimes. In short, he is disgusted at their disgust at the very conditions which have made their lives possible, and urges them to face up to these. One needn’t accept Zizek’s political programme as a whole in order to benefit from this message: that we need to confront the full enormity of the harm in which we are implicated.
Being willing to do this is an ethical act, and it is the first step towards a powerful, confrontational ethics. Confrontational ethics is responsive: it requires that we open ourselves to the ethical callings of the others that we encounter rather than following strict, abstract rules about ethical conduct. But it is not passive, in the sense that it does not involve waiting to come into contact with the other. Instead, it requires that we seek out the other who is the subject of harm and face this other directly – even as we are harming it.
It also demands that we look for harm even where it is well hidden, breaking through the various forms of amnesty that allow us to live our lives in ignorance of it. We needn’t immerse ourselves in thoughts of violence in every waking moment, but we should reflect on the harms that we do as we are doing them – for instance, when we sit down to eat or choose fruit at a supermarket. This kind of ethics acknowledges that we must do harm to other ethical subjects, but impels us to do it in a way that is thoughtful, and attempts to minimize the harm wherever possible. Most importantly, perhaps, it demands that we have the guts to look straight at another being and to own up to the harm that we do to it.
This is precisely the conclusion that Marder and Hall come to, in their own separate ways. Neither of these authors asks humans to stop eating plants or harming them completely. I have to admit that I downloaded Marder’s article ‘Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?’, then ignored it for several months for fear that it might peg my own (vegetarian) diet as unethical. I preferred to cling to amnesty towards plants than to face an even more restrictive diet, or the gloating of carnivore friends. But Marder doesn’t suggest that we abstain from vegetables. Instead, he urges us to think about just how much harm it is really necessary for us to do in order to support our forms of life, and what harms can be minimized. For instance, he suggests that we should think carefully about the plants that we eat and the processes by which they end up on the ends of our forks. For instance, instead of supporting bio-engineering processes that maximize the value of plants for human consumption, we should find ways to ‘let plants be’. This might mean allowing them to adhere to their own temporal cycles, or leaving uncultivated spaces for them to grow.
In a similar vein, Hall suggests that we should adopt something like the ‘new animist’ approach, which acknowledges that we must kill nonhuman persons in order to live, but that we should treat them with respect. This involves working actively towards the flourishing of the others who we kill, not for our instrumental purposes, but rather as a sign of solidarity. It also involves ensuring that we do not waste the lives that we take (for instance, in the well-documented phenomenon of food waste that accounts for up to 1/3 of food produced for human use in Western countries). In short, both authors argue that we need to be responsive to, and respectful of, the subjects that we harm.
At first glance, it seems that both of the positions outlined here retain the very hierarchies they are trying to dissolve. We will go on harming plants, they suggest, but we should be thoughtful and ethical in how we do so. Surely, if we were truly to treat ‘plants as persons’, then this proposition would sound a lot less reasonable. Imagine if we said that it was ok to maim or kill humans, provided that we tried to minimize it and only killed for good reasons. In fact, this is the basis of the logics of killing and ‘saving’ that currently underpin international politics, in particular the ethics surrounding military intervention rooted in the just war tradition. So perhaps the message to take from this is that all persons – human or otherwise – remain subjected to ethical hierarchies, no matter how hard we try to level them. This is another unpalatable truth that plant-thinking can help us to see.
So, as it turns out, plants can tell us a great deal about violence and harm. Traditionally, plants are considered to be amongst the weakest and most vulnerable beings in relation to humans. But look at the power they have to force humans to confront their own violence and reflect on their ethics if we are receptive to them.
If Marder is right, then we can also draw on aspects of plant-being in order to act ethically. The confrontational ethics I discussed above can draw a great deal from this approach. Despite the connotations of the term ‘confrontational’, I am not looking for a violent, aggressive form of ethics. In fact, the kind of ethics I’m advocating draws on several of the qualities that Marder attributes to plant-being: radical openness to one’s surroundings and the other beings within it, receptivity to the multiplicity of one’s self and others, resistance (however weak) against the forces of instrumentalization it and receptiveness to multiple possible futures. This kind of ethics does not just involve adding plants to an increasingly long list of beings that we need to consider in our existing ethical terms. It also means that we can reshape our ethics by being, and thinking, a little bit more like plants. To the close-minded, this might very well seem crazy, but it is a powerful – and, I think, a courageous – way of addressing the violence and harm at the roots of human existence.