What Plants Can Teach Us About Politics
In his new book, ‘The Nation of Plants,’ botanist Stefano Mancuso suggests that human democracies may have something to learn from the world’s trees and flowers
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Do plants have a politics? It may seem like an absurd question. We might recognize something like politics in social animals such as 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 fullness of life, we commit a fundamental error of perspective, which could cost us dearly,” warns the Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso in his latest book, The Nation of Plants. Mancuso is director of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence and a leader in the emerging study of what he calls plant intelligence. Some biologists say that since plants lack neurons, plant neurobiology is an oxymoron. They dismiss the field as much ado about nothing—like the famous but ultimately debunked 1973 work The Secret Life of Plants, which had everyone playing Mozart for their ferns but is now seen as a confused and wishful attempt to endow plants with a sentience they just don’t have.
Yet research by Mancuso and others has shown that plants communicate, perceive, and respond to each other and their environment, and can even exhibit something like memory. Plants may lack brains, but, as Mancuso has argued in popular books like Brilliant Green (coauthored with journalist Alessandra Viola in 2015), they’re in no way inferior in biological sophistication or evolutionary ingenuity to animals. In The Nation of Plants, Mancuso half-seriously suggests that they may even be smarter than humans when it comes to the way they live together.
In this brief, breezy book, ably translated by Gregory Conti, Mancuso argues that we should see plant life as more than just a backdrop for our campsites, a decoration for our garden, or even a tool for carbon capture, but as a resource for our politics. He invites us to conduct an unlikely thought experiment: If plants could write a constitution, what would it say? The book opens with an imagined address by a representative of the Nation of Plants to our United Nations. The speaker—Mancuso does not specify its species—makes a plea to attend to the wisdom of the community that represents 80 percent of the world’s biomass (humanity weighs in at just 0.0000001 percent) and has members who have survived continuously for as long as 350 million years. Mancuso offers his services as our interpreter for the plants and then guides us through the eight articles of their constitution.
Much of that constitution won’t surprise anyone who has spent any time thinking about environmental preservation, or anyone who has a garden. Take Article One: “The Earth shall be the common home of life. Sovereignty shall pertain to every living being.” We’ve entrusted the fate of the world to what Mancuso calls the Lords of the Planet, a tiny group within a “very presumptuous single species”—say, U.S. senators. It’s absurd when you think about it, Mancuso writes, and The Nation of Plants offers a more democratic alternative.
The book becomes more radical in Article Three, where Mancuso introduces his key political proposition: “The Nation of Plants shall not recognize animal hierarchies, which are founded on command centers and centralized functions, and shall foster diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies.” Hierarchies reproduce the natural organization of animal anatomy, with its specialized organs and central nervous system. They’re good for certain things, Mancuso explains, above all speed. A central nervous system can coordinate rapid movement, just as a powerful CEO can force a company to adapt to changing market conditions. But if a major organ like the brain gets damaged, the whole organism fails. Plants, by contrast, “see, hear, breathe, and think with their whole bodies.” They detect light through leaves and soil conditions through a complex network of roots. As a result, they favor not concentration but distribution as an organizing principle. Just like individual plants, forests or fields of wildflowers make decisions based on what the environment can support and not what a sovereign power desires to accomplish.
The Nation of Plants doesn’t just topple hierarchies, it also erases borders. Lines on the map, Mancuso reminds us, are the most imaginary of political and ecological fictions. Rehearsing a favorite contrarian line (and the central idea of his last book, The Incredible Journey of Plants), Mancuso argues that most so-called invasive species are anything but unnatural: they’re just clever responses to the shifting conditions of a changing world. But more importantly, the free movement of species and communities to the places where they can thrive should serve as a model for humans. “People should always be able to migrate,” Mancuso writes, “certainly when remaining in a place means compromising one’s chances of survival.”
This short book is full of bold claims, and Mancuso makes them with the assuredness—or the naivety—of someone who (as the author freely admits) has no professional experience in law or politics. Mancuso doesn’t have time to consider objections or even address the fraught history of adapting natural principles to human politics, from social Darwinism to ecofascism, which lingers beneath the cheery surface of this well-intentioned work. He gestures toward philosophy at times, citing, for example, Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil when discussing the moral wrongs brought about by hierarchy. But The Nation of Plants doesn’t ask to be taken very seriously. It’s a provocation rather than a treatise—and, at 168 pages, it works.
Mancuso writes in the old tradition of Aesop’s fables: he invites us to see human problems through the lens of nonhuman creatures. It’s a playful book, and one that, like most games of make 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 slip into a backpack, and it’s best read on a park bench or in the woods, where for a brief moment we can forget about practicalities and just listen to the plants.