ARISTOTLE’S FOUNDATIONAL DEFINITION of the human being as a “political animal” [zōon politikon] in his Politics proscribed, in one broad stroke, all other living entities from the complex realm of political activity. While animals might still get close to political action by virtue of their proximity to humans in the Aristotelian hierarchical scale of life, plants were altogether absent from the picture. And yet flora has been at the forefront of human politics from very early on, from the changes that emerged as a result of the shift to agricultural societies at the dawn of human civilization to the political impact of the so-called “Green Revolution” in the second half of the 20th century.
The development of agriculture some 12,000 years ago, made possible by an efficient exploitation of certain types of plants, triggered one of the most profound shifts in human history, generating unprecedented levels of inequality and allowing for the rise of vast empires. The “Green Revolution,” based upon the mechanization of agriculture, the extensive use of fertilizers, as well as of hybrid and, later, genetically modified seeds, also had profound political consequences. These developments primarily benefited North America, Europe, and Japan, while contributing to the relative decline of the Soviet Union, which caught on to hybrid seeds later than the West, and to the general impoverishment of Africa, unable to fund the transition from a traditional to an industrial agricultural system.
But plants do not merely provide the material basis for human political development, nor do they simply form the backdrop against which politics takes place. Much of humankind’s history has been framed in terms of a fight to conquer and rule over a wild and fierce nature, plants being one of the most salient aspects of this powerful enemy to be subdued. If we invert Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum from the early 19th century and regard politics as a continuation of war by other means, then our relationship with vegetal life has always been eminently political. We have struggled to overcome plants’ hold onto vast swathes of the earth, colonized their territory, and forced them to become obedient subjects working to fulfill our needs.
The classification of plants as dangerous or useful, invasive or native, forming a “green Hell” or, instead, mirroring the “earthly Paradise” testifies to the political nature of our engagement with flora. Going back to jurist Carl Schmitt’s understanding of politics as the distinction between enemies and friends in his The Concept of the Political, humans behave politically toward vegetal life by identifying certain of its elements — poisonous plants, for instance — as enemies to be destroyed, while others are warmly accepted within the fold of friendship — for example, edible, nutritious plants such as potatoes or apples. Humans have forged strategic alliances with plants, the success of which has determined our survival in a variety of different environments, at the same time as it has contributed to the exponential expansion of certain vegetal species — rice, maize, or rose bushes, for instance — to the detriment of others.
Schmitt’s definition of politics highlights the inherently ambiguous nature of the expression politicizing plants. As we have just seen, humans have always politicized plants by positing some of them as friendly and others as inimical to our endeavors. Considering that the core of a political attitude is to draw a distinction between friends and enemies, however, both animals and plants can also be said to behave politically. Vegetal beings are able to recognize their kin, forge alliances with other plants and animals — for instance, with insects, who act as pollinators — and identify their enemies, which they try to avoid, for example, by releasing volatiles into the air or by contracting their leaves. Politicizing plants therefore entails envisioning plants both as the politicized object and as the politicizing subject.
Human politics and the politics of plants intersect, clash and are sometimes mutually reinforced. Plants are not simply passive beings suffering the effects of human political action but they often inform and even dictate political activity. At the limit, it becomes impossible to distinguish between human politics about plants and plant politics tout court. This interchangeability or, rather, the irrelevance of such watertight categories, is the very definition of a symbiotic relationship.
Plants have caught on to the advantages of bringing humans and other animals to their side a long time ago. It suffices to think about the beauty and fragrance of flowers to realize how plants effectively manipulate us into admiring them and, therefore, helping them to reproduce. It is we, humans, who are lagging behind in our outdated belief that we can be the rulers and masters of plants. It is high time we take a leaf out of flora’s book and try, instead, to adopt a more diplomatic approach in our plant politics.
This text adapts a section of the Introduction to the book The Green Thread: Dialogues with the Vegetal World (New York: Lexington, 2015), co-edited by Patrícia Vieira, Monica Gagliano and John Ryan.