Stefano Mancuso loves plants. The Italian scientist is one of the world's leading plant neurobiologists, but he also has an exceptional knack for good storytelling. In the latest of his books to be translated into English (by Gregory Conti), he turns his storytelling in a futuristic direction. What would it be like, he muses, if plants sent representatives to engage with us (humanity) at a sort of United Nations of the plant and animal worlds? What would they say to us, and how would they represent themselves? What warnings would they offer, and what lessons might they share?
Mancuso's previously translated work The Incredible Journey of Plants (Other Press 2019) was packed with interesting anecdotes and examples of the remarkable ways in which plant species travel and adapt to new environments. Crammed full of fascinating scientific and historical examples, it lingers primarily in the realm of popular science. Mancuso is passionate about the virtues of the plants he studies, and the book makes a compelling case for the underestimated nature of plant intelligence.
Nevertheless, there are important lessons also contained in that book for human readers to draw from. The rapid, global movement of plant species and their ability to thrive and adapt (relatively) harmoniously to new environments is an implicit rebuke to humankind's obsession with population movement borders and controls. Indeed, humans have attempted to extend this very animal territorialism to the plant realm as well, with their obsessive concerns about 'invasive species'.
Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash
There's really no such thing as an invasive species, Mancuso observes, any more than humans could be considered an invasive species for spreading across the planet. He notes that plants have travelled around the planet long before humans ever appeared. For the most part, their movement to new territories settles into an eventual equilibrium. The exception, he notes, is when humans forcibly introduce plants into new environments, often with the aim of achieving some very human-centric goal. But even then, the plants rarely do a fraction of the damage to their new environments that the human populations around them wreak.
With The Nation of Plants, he veers more directly into the political implications of plant intelligence. Much of the book is a rebuke aimed at humans who might think they're the superior species on the planet. Superior in what way? he asks. Certainly not in numbers, or in bio-mass – humans comprise a mere one ten-millionth of the biomass on the planet, or 0.06 gigatons. Animals as a whole comprise two gigatons (half of that insects). The planet's mushrooms have a biomass six times that of all animals put together. Meanwhile, plants represent more than 80 percent of all the Earth's biomass – 450 of the 550 gigatons of biomass on the planet. They're older, more resilient, and more energy-efficient than humans, or indeed any animal species.
Wherein lies our superiority, then? Is it the fact we are the planet's apex predator? Hardly a superior characteristic (especially when one considers how easily humans can be rendered helpless and slaughtered in mass numbers by a microscopically small virus). Is it intelligence? Yet humanity is the only species on the planet that is working at an accelerated pace toward its own self-destruction. Most other species on the planet quickly rein themselves in when they realize something in their behaviour pattern puts their future at risk. On the other hand, humans have the capacity to understand full well the suicidally destructive nature of their actions, yet have shown – as a collective species – zero intention of changing their behaviour.
Mancuso's body of work delivers a compelling argument that plants are much more of a planetary success story than humans. In an effort to persuade humans to smarten up, he proceeds down a speculative path in Nation of Plants, imagining what plant representatives would have to say if they delivered a speech at the United Nations, and what sort of tenets might manifest in their constitution, if they had one. Mancuso's fundamental message, echoed in his other books, is this: it's imperative we learn from plants, and start giving them the respect they deserve, as they hold the key to humanity's survival on this planet.
There's less science and more politics in this book than in his previous works, but his argument is compelling and important. It's also innovative: if human society's constitution is meant to embody its fundamental core tenets and behaviours, what sorts of values and principles would be reflected in a plant-based constitution?
Mancuso argues that humanity's inability to look beyond its animal nature and consider the lessons offered by plants is a fatal flaw. Even our social structures tend to reify our animal biology: the structural hierarchies of human societies are a parallel expression of animal intelligence, in which a central organizing brain dominates and controls the rest of an organism. Plants organize themselves differently, he notes – with a sort of decentralized, non-hierarchical structure, which is why injury to one part of a plant body is rarely fatal to the plant as a whole. Animals, on the other hand, are structurally quite weak, with innumerable weak points, and damage to any one of them might fatally doom the organism as a whole.
We might not be able to change our animal biology, but could we change our social structure to draw from plant structure's inherent strengths? There are examples of attempts to do so, the Internet being one of the most successful. The entire premise of the Internet is a very plant-like, decentralized structure of information and action, reflecting the fundamentals of plant intelligence more than human. Mancuso doesn't mention it, but it's also notable that the cell-like organizational structures of some socio-political movements – ranging from religious sects to revolutionary militant cells – are also rooted in plant methods organization. Revolutionary cells were designed to be resilient and autonomous – capturing members of one would not necessarily endanger a movement as a whole, because each cell operates autonomously and often without knowing who's in other cells. Decentralized autonomy is fundamental to plants, but it's a behaviour that humans can learn from.
Plants are also extremely efficient organisms, generally drawing no more than the nutrients they require to survive from their surrounding environments. Animals, on the other hand, are incredibly inefficient at consuming resources and transforming them into energy. And humans take it, as usual, to a ridiculous and fatal extreme. Mancuso discusses the notion of 'Earth Overshoot Day' (EOD), also referred to as 'Ecological Debt Day': "the day of the year on which humanity, having consumed the entire production of resources that terrestrial ecosystems are able to generate for that same year, begins to consume resources that will no longer be renewable." It's truly remarkable that most people are familiar with something as inconsequential to our species as 'tax freedom day' (the date on which one has effectively earned one's annual taxes and now 'works for oneself') yet few are probably familiar with EOD, which has the potential to determine our species' very survival.
If there's anything that reflects the current ecological crisis, it's EOD. As recently as 1970, there was no EOD – humanity as a whole did not consume more than the planet produced. (This was, of course, skewed between industrialized and developing nations, but that's a matter of transnational justice, not planetary survival). In 1971, overconsumption reached the point that our EOD began to slip, on 1 December of that year. By 1980 it was on 4 November, by 2000 it was 23, September, and in 2018 the overcomsumption mark reached 1 August. That is equivalent, in a sense, to spending more and more every year than you earn, and sliding further and further into debt. However, unlike debt, we cannot collectively declare bankruptcy once the gap becomes insurmountable. Our only option is to reduce our consumption or die.
Resource consumption by humans is a huge part of the problem, Mancuso emphasizes. In the decade between 2000 and 2010 alone, human household consumption increased from 48 billion to 71 billion metric tons.
Consumption is not spread out equally, of course. And the problem is not overpopulation – our planet could easily support even more humans than it does at present. But the problem lies in our disproportionate and inequitable distribution of resources. "If today's entire world population were to consume as much as the average American, we would need the resources of five Earths…if the Earth's human inhabitants consumed resources at the same level as Indians do, the resources would be enough for another two billion people beyond the almost eight billion that already populate the planet," he explains.
Here too, plants point the way out. When resources become scarce in a plant's environment, it doesn't have the option of picking up roots and walking away. Instead, it alters and scales back its consumption patterns, sometimes shrinking its physical size. Humans and other animals can't go to that extreme, but we can follow plants' lead in achieving more equilibrium with our environment when it comes to our consumption patterns.
While individual plants can't pick up roots and walk away from catastrophes like climate change, they actually can do so as a species. Already scientists have noted significant migration of plants, trees, and animals in response to climate change. There's an analogous process going on with human beings, Mancuso notes, in the form of economic migrants trying to cross borders in response to economic and political instability, which more often than not has its roots in climate change as well.
He emphasizes the hypocrisy and contradiction reflected in a world that redistributes its species in response to changing climatic conditions and needs, yet in which one species – humans – fight tooth and nail to prevent other humans' movement. Free movement is essential for the planet's survival, Mancuso stresses – not just for plants and animals but also for humans. It's another lesson we might learn from our chlorophyll cousins.
Plants are in fact able to compensate to a remarkable degree for humans' failures, by absorbing pollutants and helping to recycle and process them. If we were smart, he observes, we would stuff every available space in our cities with them, and that might give us a fighting chance.
There's another secret to the survival of plants in the face of extreme environments and catastrophic change. (They've survived nuclear radiation and returned with vigor in the aftermath far faster than scientists ever imagined). According to their basic cellular structure, plants act on symbiosis principles, mutual aid, and cooperation. Competition and 'survival of the fittest' was never an evolutionary principle, Mancuso stresses, explaining how these ideas were the twisted product of Nazi-leaning Social Darwinists trying to mold evolutionary biology to their political agenda. He sides with the 'mutual aid' theory of evolution and points to the plant world as a clear example of success in action. If humans could learn to emulate the tendency of plants to work together, even across species, we would be able to respond to our environmental – and other -- catastrophes far more effectively.
There's a lot to learn from the example of plants. The Nation of Plants is a whimsical, speculative foray into applying plant neurobiology to humanity's problems (which are now the planet's problems as well). Although fans of his previous books may be disappointed by the comparative dearth of interesting plant anecdotes in this one, here's an unquestionable value to Mancuso's key argument that we need to start moving beyond our animal thinking and start learning survival lessons from some of the planet's other (far more successful) denizens.
"Even if they behave as though they were, humans are not the masters of the Earth, but only one of the most unpleasant and irksome residents in the condominium…The last to arrive on the planet, we behave like children who wreak havoc, unaware of the value and significance of the things they are playing with," writes Mancuso.
"Humans, in fact, are not the center of the universe, but just one of the many million species that by populating the planet form the community of the living."
If we don't start seeing ourselves that way, we might not be around for much longer.