The Secret Rights of Plants

Oohoohoo! This is the kind of article an oft-guilt-tripped meat-eater like myself DREAMS of coming across, courtesy of NPR:

Recognizing The Right Of Plants To Evolve

October 26, 2012

According to recent reports from a research team led by Australian biologist Monica Gagliano, some plants such as chili peppers may be able to “hear” other plants.

If proposals calling for rights for animals are on the table, why not rights for other living things? Plants, for instance.

After all, plants can sometimes exhibit humanlike behavior. And we’re not just talking about the butterwort-flytrap hybrid in The Little Shop of Horrors. Some plants respond well to music. Some “smell” other plants. Still others seem to shrink away when touched.

Plants display remedial types of memory and possess “anoetic consciousness” — the ability of an organism to sense and to react to stimulation — writes Daniel Chamovitz in his 2012 book, What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses.

And, according to recent reports from a research team led by Australian biologist Monica Gagliano, some plants (such as chili peppers) may be able to “hear” other plants (such as sweet fennel). “We know that plants recognize what is growing next to them,” Gagliano says in the University of Western Australia’s University News. “There is chemical communication between them. Plants can warn other plants of a predator by releasing a chemical, and the warned plants can release chemicals to make themselves unpalatable to the predator.”

She says, “I think we might realize that plants are more sensitive than we think.”

Sensitive enough to deserve rights? Some people think so.

A Dense Forest

Writing in The New York Times recently, Michael Marder, author of the forthcoming Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, calls for “plant liberation.” Plant stress, Marder points out, does not reach the same intensity, nor does it express itself in the same ways, as animal suffering. This fact, he adds, should be reflected in our practical ethics.

But, he continues, “the commendable desire to ameliorate the condition of animals, currently treated as though they were meat-generating machines, does not justify strategic argumentation in favor of the indiscriminate consumption of plants. The same logic ultimately submits to total instrumentalization the bodies of plants, animals and humans by setting them over and against an abstract and rational mind.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the struggles for the emancipation of all instrumentalized living beings should be fought on a common front.”

In other words, what is good for the goose is good for the gooseberry.

In a debate between Marder and Gary Francione — a professor at Rutgers University’s law school — on the Columbia University Press website, Francione offers an opposing view to plant liberation and rights. “If plants are not sentient — if they have no subjective awareness — then they have no interests,” Francione says. “That is, they cannot desire, or want, or prefer anything.”

Therefore, Francione says, “I do believe that we have an obligation not to eat more plants than we need to live, but that is because I think that overeating is a form of violence to our own bodies. I also believe that we have an obligation to all sentient inhabitants of the planet not to use more non-sentient resources than we need. In both cases, we have obligations that concern plants but these obligations are not owed directly to plants.”

In sum, he says: “I reject completely the notion that we can have direct moral obligations to plants. I reject completely that plants have any interests whatsoever.”

Of Subjects And Lives

Longtime animal rights advocate Tom Regan, professor emeritus of philosophy at North Carolina State University and author of The Case for Animal Rights, is skeptical about affording plants the same legal respect as animals.

“Being the subject of a life is a sufficient condition for having basic moral rights,” says Regan, who defines “subjects of a life” as those “in the world, aware of the world, aware of what happens to them.”

And, he continues, “what happens to them makes a difference to the quality and duration of their life.”

By Regan’s compass, many, many nonhuman animals are subjects of a life and therefore have basic moral rights, including the rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity.

Plants, however, “are forms of life without a subject. That is to say, while they live in the world, they are not aware of the world, nor are they aware of what happens to them,” Regan says.

Before recognizing the rights of any forms of life without a subject — such as plants — Regan says, “we need to be given a sound argument.”

And, he says, “at least up to this point in my life, I have not encountered one.”

The Right To Evolve

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund argues that greenery does have interests — and rights. The Pennsylvania-based nonprofit works with communities around the world to “craft and adopt new laws that change the status of natural communities and ecosystems from being regarded as property under the law to being recognized as rights-bearing entities.”

Establishing a legal system in which natural communities and ecosystems have an inalienable right to exist and flourish, says Mari Margil of CELDF, “places the highest societal value on those natural systems and communities.”

Under such a rights-based system of law, Margil says, “a river may be recognized as having the right to flow, fish and other species in a river may be recognized as having the right to exist and evolve, and the flora and fauna that depend on a river may be recognized as having the right to thrive. This legal framework seeks to protect the natural ecological balance of that habitat.”

In the past few years there has been a flurry of international interest in a plant rights movement. The New York Times reported in 2008 that Ecuador became the first country to provide constitutional rights to plants, granting nature “the right to the maintenance and regeneration of its vital cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.” That same year, a Swiss ethics panel advocated protecting plants’ “reproductive ability.”

Speaking recently in Hawaii, the Dalai Lama said that every living thing, including a tree or a plant, has the right to survive.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

From one angle, the contemporary plant rights movement is an extension of our ever-increasing awareness of the complexity of plant life. Writing in his popular 1990 novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton drew a compelling portrait of nature.

“In the earth’s history,” Crichton observed, “plants had evolved as competitively as animals, and in some ways more fiercely … People who imagined that life on earth consisted of animals moving against a green background seriously misunderstood what they were seeing. That green background was busily alive. Plants grew, moved, twisted, and turned, fighting for the sun; and they interacted continuously with animals — discouraging some with bark and thorns; poisoning others; and feeding still others to advance their own reproduction, to spread their pollen and seeds. It was a complex, dynamic process …”

In Crichton’s latest novel, Micro — co-authored with Richard Preston and published after Crichton’s death — the nature of nature continues to be explored.

“Plants are very good at doing just about everything an animal can do, sometimes a lot better than an animal can do them,” says Preston in an interview.

Plant rights, however, is a stickier thicket. And if sovereignty for soybeans is not imminent, our awareness of our relationship to plants — and how we treat them — is moving to the front burner. “When it comes to beautiful, rare or keystone plants in an ecosystem,” Preston says, “they don’t have rights as individual organisms, but I think the ecosystem as a whole has an inherent right to exist.”

And, he adds, “I don’t think humans have an inherent right to destroy any ecosystem.”

Very Secret Life of Plants, don’t you think? So let’s recap – we are all eating living things, no matter which way your slice it.

Sweet dreams!

Audrey 2 from Electric Dragonfly


8 thoughts on “The Secret Rights of Plants

  1. I think the actual takeaway is not that “we are all eating living things” but that all living things have a right to exist. Now because humans cannot subsist on rocks and dirt, we need to find nutrients from somewhere.

    As Preston said at the end of your post: “they don’t have rights as individual organisms, but I think the ecosystem as a whole has an inherent right to exist… I don’t think humans have an inherent right to destroy any ecosystem.”

    What I get from this article is that we should be minimizing the suffering or damage that we are doing to the entities sharing our giant ball of rock and magma floating through space. We shouldn’t assume ‘eating animals is okay because plants have rights too!’ Instead, we should be trying to live in a way that has the least possible negative impact on our bodies and the other living organisms we live with.

    Sorry for the guilt trip 😉

  2. That’s all right – I’m used to non-meat-eaters having serious issue with what’s on the end of my fork. I agree that we don’t have a right to destroy any ecosystem, but I don’t believe people who eat meat are necessarily destroying it any more than people who don’t. Look at the rise of soybean production and the vast swaths of forestland being destroyed to make room for it – just one example of many.

    We eat venison that is shot by either Butch or local friends, are planning on raising our own chickens next year and will be getting a share of a neighbors cow down the street – is that consumption somehow on par with the negative ecological effects of huge slaughterhouses just because it’s meat-related?

    There really just hasn’t been enough (not funded by private interests) scientific research to convince me that eating meat responsibly is worse for me health-wise or that humans were actually designed to be vegetarians or any of the other headlines that float around certain media outlets.

    And I do think one of the takeaways here is that “we are all eating living things.” Just because we aren’t in-tune enough to interpret the language of plants and how they feel pain doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Not what a vegetarian/vegan wants to hear, I know.

  3. I think eating locally sourced food (hunting, small farming, personal gardens) is absolutely the right way to go.

    Remember, Melanie and I try not to be too preachy about eating meat, and we’re both supportive of hunting if it means factory farms are losing support.

  4. Totally. The challenge definitely lies in getting enough people to recognize where their big mac comes from and the issues caused by supporting fast food/factory farms. It’s a bit daunting when youi realize that some people are just never going to be responsible.

    It reminds me of this commercial that Arbys (I think) has out right now where they make a BIG deal about how their turkey is sliced IN the “restaurant,” not at a factory elsewhere (like, Subway, they imply). Butch and I find this hilarious – so it’s somehow better that a turkey is transported as an uncut chunk rather than sliced? It’s almost like a politician’s logic!

    And I know that you and Mel are not the militant veggie types (obviously, you’re friends with ME!). But I’m glad you commented from the “other side” – it’s important to have discussions that aren’t simply efforts to prove one side is right or wrong!

  5. There has been some very interesting research in the methods of plant communication recently. As a Druid, I rejoice in scientists acknowledging what so many in my community already sensed.

    Along with what Ron said, I think it’s sad that MORE vegetarians don’t seriously think about these issues. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that you are eating life. That’s just the way of it. Life requires life to continue, and energy must be transformed to do that. Our modern lifestyle has disconnected us so much from the Earth and it shows in our diets. This is where I find being an animist extremely helpful. I already believe that plants have souls and feelings – though different from our own. They deserve respect and must be handled with care and love. I give offerings to my garden – charged water, time, tea, songs, sometimes even my blood. I pray before every meal and acknowledge that life is being taken so that I may live. We try to do the least amount of harm possible and have chosen the path of the herbivore – it’s just what we do. I would use the same rituals in the event I needed to eat meat. It doesn’t necessarily mean we view plants as soulless or unfeeling. The most important thing is, as discussed above, take stock in where our plants come from and how they interact with the rest of the environment.

  6. Well said, Mel. Thank you for chiming in! Please send me links to any recent research. I mentioned The Secret Life of Plants, which is a classic…but it can also come across as a little loopy at times!

    And I love the idea of “giving thanks” for the life/energy you’re taking – Seems very American Indian-esque to me (in my limited, white-girl knowledge).

  7. I meant to comment here again – soon after I posted this I received my newest Organic Gardening in the mail and it had 2 very different articles in it that are directly related to this post! The first can be read online here: (don’t be fooled by the title – the author really doesn’t change her values after all).

    The other article was the back page, written by Maria Rodale, and it’s her thoughts on growing up on the land and how that naturally included eating animals. Actually, this reminds me that I need to renew my subscription, and this time of year I renew it with free gift subscripts for others – would you guys like one?

  8. Pingback: Big (Green) Deal: What Tree Said | A Green(ish) Life

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