The Nation of Plants
Imagine that sequoias and cedars, lilies and laurels, even daffodils and daisies, and indeed all the plants of our green world formed their own vast and diverse country, one that spanned the Earth, and then presented its Constitution of the Nation of Plants as a gift to the United Nations General Assembly. What would a Nation of Plants say regarding the rights, responsibilities, and relationships between the animal and vegetable worlds?
It is an ambitious and imaginative question, and Stefano Mancuso sets out to answer it in The Nation of Plants. This well-written, informative and surprisingly brief manifesto offers the plant blind (or plant ignorant) reader an introduction to the centrality of plants to our shared world: “Plants are what make Earth the planet we know . . . Thanks to photosynthesis, plants produce all the free oxygen present on the planet and all the chemical energy consumed by other living things. We exist thanks to plants, and we will continue to be able to exist only in their company. It behooves us to keep this idea clear at all times.”
Not to mention, of course, the role plants play in providing us with food, medicines, materials from fabrics to the paper we write on, and of course enjoyment and beauty.
Mancuso is at his best when exploring the sheer abundance and adaptability of plants. Flora thrive through relationships with members of their own or other species, such as symbiosis or other cooperative strategies that are pivotal to ecological communities. Rooted in place, plants survive predators and other threats by foregoing the vulnerability that comes from having specialized organs. “Plants see, hear, breathe, and think with their whole bodies,” writes Mancuso of one of the many differences between plants and animals, “A essential difference: concentration versus distribution.”
If Mancuso had continued speaking (as best an animal can) in a floral voice, The Nation of Plants would have placed much needed seeds in fields left too long untended. Instead, Mancuso’s imagined Constitution includes Articles well-known and often proposed by the human community, such as the right to clean air, water, soil, and atmosphere, the need to respect the lives of future generations, and the understanding that the Earth is a shared home to all life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mancuso falters in articulating how Articles calling for “diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies” or “the inviolate rights of natural communities as societies based on relationships among the organisms” might look if put into practice. Mancuso falls back, instead, on well-worn examinations of (so many) human-induced problems from climate change to the havoc caused by introducing new species into established ecosystems, along with his opinions on migration, bureaucracies, and many other topics. The result is a book that’s unfortunately more about humans than plants.
And yet, who can argue with the plants (or their human translator) when they implore “we believe it is the duty of our ancient nation to help you today, as always in the past. But we are not so used to talking. We are quiet by nature and you animals are so restless . . . The number of your shortcomings would not allow for excuses, but you are still a very young and inexpert species that knows how to learn fast . . . Learn from those who have more experience than you, and you will have a radiant future.”