For a Peace Treaty with Plants

by

Michael Marder

 

Peace with plants? With them, themselves, or through them, as the symbols of pacific existence? Or both at the same time?

Since its inception, what is called our “civilization” has been waging a war on the vegetal world. In the early agrarian societies that flourished along the Nile River and in the Mesopotamian Basin, the cultivation of crops depended upon the first genetic manipulation of the living, their standardization, and concerted production. From the beginning, plant and human cultures were ideally, if never completely so, monocultures: predictable, regularized, docile, homogenized. Violence against plants was of one piece with the fierceness, with which the places of their growth were taken over, colonized, modified, narrowed or expanded. Swamps drained and terrains flattened, agriculture molded the world, vegetation, and our communities. Whereas objective differences between plant specimens were leveled, those among humans were magnified, giving rise to the unequal division of labor and socio-economic stratification.

The European civilization asserted itself against the forest, which still harbors darkness, obscurity, irrationality, and mystery in the fairytales that bear the imprints of culture’s deeper historical crusts. This is not only the case in Central and Eastern Europe, from Germany to Russia, where collective identity has been established in relation to, but also at a distance from, the woods. Already in the Ancient Greece of Aristotle, matter (hulé) was associated with lumber and with the forest, its density emblematic of corporeality and of potentiality not yet actualized by the vital principle that sets itself to work in a body presumed to be inanimate in its absence. The very human existence (Dasein) Martin Heidegger construed in terms of a clearing (Lichtung) in being replays the idea that a clearing in the forest is the place of spirit, liberated from the tight grip of matter. Concretely, the practices of deforestation carry on the metaphysical task of expanding the spiritual domain at the expense of essentially wooden matter. In a desert alone is pure spirit fully at home, on an unlivable earth vacated of plants, the horizon directly touching the sky.

Let us assume that at some point in human history the war on plants was a matter of survival, given all the uncertainties of food provisions derived through hunting and gathering. Today, things are very different: the continuation of such hostilities endangers all life on earth. Despite the inventions of Hubble Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider, we are still seeing our natural environment with the same eyes as the pioneers of the “civilizing mission.” We have been exceptionally slow when it comes to inverting in our minds the valuations that have been long overturned in reality. To continue Heidegger’s line of thought, we are still yearning to build upon and cultivate every corner of the planet, while forgetting that there is no dwelling without letting-be, leaving open, ceding mastery.

In order for the above not to sound too abstract, I suggest translating letting-be into letting-grow. The change I propose is not at all arbitrary, in light of what Heidegger himself says about the first beginning of philosophy that comprehended being as phusis, nature, or literally everything that grows, burgeons out, as well as the movement of such growing or burgeoning out. But what does it mean, exactly, to let grow? To forsake the activity of gardening, with its selective care for some plants and not for others? To allow our sidewalks, streets, and squares overgrow with vegetation? To let weeds be, even if they are suffocating the life of other plants?

Letting-grow signifies, to my mind, a global shift in attitude, a new socio-natural contract, or an alternative physio-ontological configuration of the living. A peace treaty with plants, if you will. Obviously, a carrot and a weeping fig are not going to sit at the table to sign any treaty, but neither does the imagined community that establishes the classical social contract fundamental to human cohabitation. French philosopher Michel Serres, for one, has already endorsed the creation of a Biogaia parliament, a world-wide institution, where “air and water, energy and the earth, living species, or, in short, Biogaia, would be represented.”[1] His idea is commendable, despite the fact that, as we know full well, parliamentary discussions usually amount to little more than hot air, water under the bridge, energy wasted for nothing… Before inquiring into the modes of representation and expression in such a parliament, however, it would be necessary to forge the peace of cohabitation and collaboration with all those comprising such an institution.

A peace treaty is a rapprochement between previously hostile factions. Yet, in the war on plants—the war now entering a super-aggressive phase of genetic engineering, 24-hour growing lamps, and monocultures that exacerbate the logic of the past—hostilities have been utterly one-sided: it was humanity that endeavored to master, subjugate, and determine, to determine by mastering and subjugating, the very being of plants that have, in turn, exerted a quiet, if persistent, influence on us from within, including at the genetic level. Therefore, the onus of responsibility is squarely on us to rectify this injurious relation and, through a new treaty or a new treatment of the vegetal, to mend the effects of our violence against the earth, against the elemental realm as such, and against the living. Should it ever be achieved, peace with plants would provide a comprehensive framework for environmental justice that, not merely formal and calculative, would be ontologically and ecologically grounded.

So, our rapprochement with plants is, largely, a matter of our own responsibility. An important step in that direction would be to acknowledge that the flora is not so non-oppositional as to merge entirely with the context of its growth and that humans are not so oppositional as to negate and destroy everything that surrounds us. Indeed, our relation to plants has never really been a relation, for, how can one articulate total oppositionality, with which the human has been conflated, and absolute non-oppositionality, to which the plant has been equated? A war worse than overt military hostilities, the assault on vegetal nature fails to recognize the enemy qua enemy. We see nothing but a green blur, chunks of which are concretized whenever we are hungry or require construction materials only to vanish into the satisfaction or the dissatisfaction of perpetually arising need. An approximation to plants does not traverse the distance between us and them; it establishes and calibrates this distance in the first place.

Approaching the vegetal as a who, rather than a what, is prior to the decision on what will follow this engagement: hostility or peace. Further, the plant is a who that grows, to the point of being defined by growing activity with its own degrees of freedom, decisions on blossoming, branching out, genetic transcription, memory and its retrieval, and so forth. A who that grows with its environment, reacting to the minute alterations that happen there, separated from the world by the minimal barrier, which is at the same time a mediation (i.e., a membrane), of the with. Our peaceful being-with-plants is unthinkable unless we let them be with their surrounds, let them grow. Letting-grow, for nothing (at least, nothing that we can reap for ourselves), is giving due to the vegetal who. More than desistence or inaction—though desist from the seemingly never-ending exploitation of plants we must—it is a combined ethical and aesthetic stance that promotes growing, regardless of externally imposed objectives, be they pragmatic or purely decorative.

At this point, a suspicion might creep into the readers’ minds: is peace again a hollow word, a utopian wish to be fulfilled exclusively on the dreamy fields of art? Is it a function of the pacification of need (Herbert Marcuse’s “pacification of existence”) whereby, armed with luxury and superfluity, we can at long last afford to quell the struggle for survival, attended by violence against human and non-human beings? Far from it. I do not intend to marshal aesthetics as a panacea of the sated bourgeoisie to the ongoing horrors of world history and civilization. What I would like to get at, by way of my appeal to a peace treaty with plants, is a peaceful satisfaction of need within the so-called “realm of necessity” and a cultivation of environmentally ethical behavior in the “realm of freedom.” Translating letting-be into letting-grow, I conjure up a future, where our default growing against everything and everyone would give place to growing with the other. Not exactly symbiotically, but maintaining the differences we would be ready to share without organizing them into oppositional, militaristic clusters of friend-and-foe.

One sign that a peace treaty with plants is in effect is a regime of agricultural organization and work responsive to the capacities and needs of the plants themselves. Does agriculture linger—patiently, forbearingly—with vegetal temporality, the tempo or rhythm of reproductive possibilities undetermined by the human “producers”? Does it skirt the trap of monocultures and care, instead, for the diversity of the plant world? Is it receptive to the limitations and singularities of the place that is being cultivated and to the fulfillment of agricultural workers?

Some will argue that, given the exponential rates of increase in the global human population, none of this will come to pass. An ethical agriculture would remain a private fantasy, confined to a few pockets of the affluent world. The problem is not the slow, inefficient, seasonal, parasite- and weather-contingent growth of plants but the snowballing demand for foodstuffs and raw materials on the part of the human who forces, rather than lets, all else grow. For too long, we have been arrogating letting-grow—which in any case is not tantamount to an infinite quantitative increase—to ourselves, while pressing both organic and inorganic worlds to grow with us, in accord with our swelling needs and accelerating paces of consumption. The ensuing extreme imbalances in the growing of phusis are as old as our history; only relatively recently have they escalated to a situation of crisis. That is why it is crucial to combine the precepts of letting-grow and growing-with in a relational whole of freedom (the letting part) hemmed in by mutual constraints (the with part). Within these limits, we will finally have a chance to ask who the other, vegetal party is as well as who we are after the end of our war on nature that has been draining our energies and diverting much of our creativity, not to mention other existential possibilities, into the struggle for survival. 

Peace treaties imply a temporary cessation of hostilities that may recommence at a future point in time. They are, by definition, conditional, in contrast to the unconditional, perpetual peace Immanuel Kant postulated as the cosmopolitan end of human history. To be truly meaningful, our peace with plants would need to veer toward the second, unconditional variety. Why a “treaty” then? Because it is an occasion for our assembly, with each other and with plants, the assembly that echoes the etymological sense of the Old French traitié. A germ of growing-with.

 

[1] Michel Serres, Temps des crises (Paris: Éditions Le Pommier, 2009), p. 51, translation mine.

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