By an overwhelming margin, most of the biomass on planet Earth is plant life. This means that anytime we talk about a natural terrestrial environment, we are always talking about plants, whether we are aware of this or not. Yet they have often, unjustly, been treated as background.
How can we foreground them in our thinking and acting?
Can the purpose of plant-life be not only for the good of others (animals including humans), but for their own good? Are they entitled to their own dignity and their own purposes? If we say Yes, and yet cannot avoid their use, what does that mean for our relationship to them?
I think there is a great deal we can do. I will talk a bit about the Rights of Plants, speaking from my perspective as a mythologist who works primarily with mythopoetic images of how trees are alive; how they influence their environment; how they respond to humans; what we might learn from them; and how ancient myth counsels the utmost reverence for wild environments.
So, let’s begin from the idea that plants are alive for their own sakes and have their own personhood and destinies. What can we do to honor their right to flourish?
Here we go:
We can acknowledge, support, attend to, and speak about three interwoven sources of knowing about plants: 1) modern plant science; 2) Indigenous wisdom traditions; and 3) ancient plant science, philosophy, and myth. Today these modalities are joining hands in surprising ways.
These valuable voices we need to be listening to, and sharing with others, include ancient and current polytheistic traditions (spiritual, religious, philosophical, medicinal, and mythic), environmentalism, conservationism, ecology, and the latest revolutionary research in plant science, including the exciting fields of plant neurobiology and plant communication.
We can consider plants as subjects (not objects). Paving the way, in accordance with new insights into plant ethics, the Swiss constitution now maintains that the dignity of living creatures should be respected. As living beings, plants also have dignity. The Executive Federal Council in Switzerland directed the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology to work out the basis for constitutional norms regarding plants, and in 2008 they presented a report titled: The dignity of living beings with regard to plants. Moral consideration of plants for their own sake.*
We can avoid wasting plants. This includes vegetal food waste, paper waste, and the cultivation of vast farmlands used to feed grazing livestock for meat that goes to elites (with negative ecological and health consequences worldwide).
We can avoid harming plants insofar as we can avoid this, and support them instead. To give just a few ideas, we can make community arbor decisions; grow city forestscapes, plan green spaces, and care for trees as communal treasures rather than private property. We can address the destruction of forests worldwide—land that is considered “vacant land” or “standing timber,” ripe for “development,” i.e. human consumption and habitat degradation. This would include ending the widespread practice of clearing land to be sold rather than preserving the ecosystem to seek conservation buyers (or even conservation developers).
We can respect the plant lives we depend on and take. Consuming respectfully, expressing gratitude for their lives, and learning about how they experience the world.
We can spend time admiring how much these primal beings can teach us, including their modernity: they are modular; they are decentralized; their anatomy is highly variable; their forms and responses are highly flexible; they are vastly more genetically diverse from humans; and their innate capacities are diffuse and collaborative throughout the organism.
We can promote their flourishing in the following ways: preserve and protect the forests that remain on the planet. Return land to diverse natural ecosystems through restoration and recovery projects. Stop conversion of plant habitats to human use. Buy farmland and golf courses, etc. and return them to native plant ecosystems. Stop investing in grass lawns and food monocultures,
with their drastic use of genetic modification, pesticides, and weedkillers.
We can plant diverse native species (not soybean, wheat, corn); and support innovative and diverse eco-projects that are springing up all over the planet, such as the World Seed Bank in Norway, which is preserving heirloom and disappearing species, or Trees for Life, which is rewilding the Scottish Highlands. Or Ohio Forest Sanctuaries, which is a project dear to the heart of Yoga Central.
We can foreground rather than background vegetal nature, thanking plants for their role in the atmosphere we breathe, and noticing green in the world everywhere we go (practicing gratitude, and avoiding what is now termed “plant blindness”).
We can call for, support, fund, and engage in plant-focused ecological restoration projects, promoting not deforestation, but what is now called “afforestation.”
In closing, let’s vow to enrich our ways of plant-thinking! Let’s read and talk about plant ethics, including plants as persons. Let’s engage in a new commitment to forest bathing; or extend our awareness of animal-assisted therapy to encompass nature-assisted therapy; or join a land restoration project. Let’s read Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree with our book club, cozy up with the latest work from a great nature writer or photographer, sing to our houseplants,
and get covered with rich soil by creating wildly diverse native gardens. Let’s delve into Indigenous plant traditions of healing and spirituality, and revive and share ancient nature myths about trees who are wise, just, compassionate, fierce, prophetic, and outspoken! Above all, let’s befriend the sentient green beings all around us, and thank them with every sacred breath.
*I am grateful to Michael Marder, Matthew Hall, Suzanne Simard, Peter Wohlleben, and Stefano Mancuso, whose plant-insights helped inspire this post. You can check out Switzerland’s report on plant dignity at https://www.ekah.admin.ch/inhalte/ekah-