The plight of plants
There’s no way of softening the blow, plants just aren’t as “cool” as animals. At least, that’s what most people think. People all over the world are suffering from what scientists are calling “plant blindness.”
Look at this picture – what do you see? You’d probably say, “an iguana.” You miiight say, “an iguana in a tree.” You probably don’t know what kind of tree though. But don’t worry, neither do I, because whoever took the photo didn’t think it was important enough to write down in the description.
This tendency not to notice plants is a problem because it can lead to not valuing plants. In the US, 57% of endangered species are plants, but only 4% of money used to protect species is spent on plants. That’s a big gap. And this a bigger problem than you might think. We rely on plants for food, air, fresh water, psychological wellbeing and other ecosystem services. If we don’t protect our plants, these things go out the window.
So why don’t we tend to notice or value them? There may be an evolutionary explanation – generally, animals have been more important to pay attention to as they have presented significant threats or a significant food source. That, and plants are don’t grab attention by moving.
But it could also be a learned behaviour – for example, school textbooks might devote less time to plants. This creates a zoocentric culture – one focused on animals. But there are some societies that are more plant focused. For example, the Maori people have a creation story in which people and plants are united by genealogical descent. And for Aboriginal Australians, everything in the world is alive, and even plants have their own sense of autonomy, their own personhood.
So how do we foster this kind of closeness to plants in western culture? Well, people value animals because they can relate to them. Scientists have concluded that to cure plant blindness, we have to create empathy with plants.
One experiment showed that when people were asked to take the perspective of a group of trees that had been cut down, people empathised more with the trees. They were also more willing to engage in environmentally protective behaviours.
Documentaries like Michael Pollan’s “the botany of desire” or David Attenborough’s “Kingdom of plants” go a long way in providing people with a plant’s eye view of the world. Maybe we can unlearn our plant blindness and appreciate these important organisms just as much as animals.