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3 Ways to Tackle Plant Blindness

Plant conservation gets a fraction of the funding that animal conservation gets. A recent paper in Conservation Biology blames Plant Blindness. Is there a solution?

Plant blindness and the implications for plant conservation by Balding and Williams has been getting quite a few shares on Twitter recently. I think JSTOR should get the credit as their recent tweet seems to have gained steady traction as people pass on the link.

What makes it a good paper isn’t just that it argues that there’s plant blindness. It’s what the authors do with that information and how we might fix that.

Psychological research demonstrates that people are more likely to support conservation of species that have human-like characteristics and that support for conservation can be increased by encouraging people to practice empathy and anthropomorphism of nonhuman species. We argue that support for plant conservation may be garnered through strategies that promote identification and empathy with plants.

Their conclusions conveniently pull the actions into three headlines.

1. Enable direct experience of plants that draws attention to individual plants and species

Tree (and zebra)
Some people see the zebra, others see the tree. Image: claudiovidri / 123RF Stock Photo

Looking at the reasons for plant blindness, Balding and Williams argue human-like characteristics are important for conservation appeal. Simply having a face makes animals more appealing than plants to the public. Other features like movement and communication help. In contrast, plants are… they’re background. It’s easy to lose plants in the landscape as they merge into a green mass. It’s easy to see a forest, but picking out individual plants in it requires much more thought.

One idea they suggest is borrowing from non-western cultures in how they relate to plants. They draw on anthropological research from Nusa Penida, off Bali and how the locals relate to the coconut palm. A palm is planted with a child’s first tooth and then has a social role during life.

This bothered me for a few reasons. I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere specific. A tree for me would have been planted many miles from where I was born and left shortly after. I also feel uncomfortable when well-meaning middle-class couples almost play-act photogenic ethnic minority for a few hours. However, Balding and Williams make a point of quoting another scholar that this kind of thing should be done “without fetishizing or appropriating Indigenous people and their culture of connection

With a bit more thought, I can see how this could work. Some people wish to be planted under a tree when they’re buried. This is perhaps a little late for curing plant blindness, but it gives a connection for the relatives. Another possibility would be a marriage tree. If we take the metaphor a little too literally, losing 25% of the forest in stumps might not be a perfect backdrop to any new planting ceremonies. And as for birth trees? Well just because it wouldn’t have worked for me, it doesn’t mean that it would work for a significant portion of the population.

2. Emphasize evidence-based similarities between plants and humans

Possibly because I’m not a botanist, I think I’d have less trouble with this than a plant scientist. To be fair, Balding and Williams use a heading: (Appropriate) anthropomorphization of plants. Anthropomorphization is something that many botanists hate. I can understand why. Often the most interesting thing about a plant study is that a plant is responding to something is a very different way to animals. It can be hard to come up with human analogies for what a plant is doing without losing key elements of what makes a study important.

I think this shows how sometimes the complaints from one sci-comm practitioner to another that they’re doing science-communication the wrong way misses the point. In this case the problem is How do we get people to care about plant conservation. It would be nice if people got a better understanding of the plants too, but if people do understand why plants in a specific location are in need of support – and don’t care – then this is not a positive result.

The danger I see with anthropomorphization of plants is that it’s easy to create shallow analogies and narratives. However, if and when people recognise there’s not a lot of substance to the narrative, then it’s reasonable to conclude that there’s not a lot of substance to the problem the narrative was highlighting. It’s certainly not impossible to put plants in a very human frame of reference and promote good science, but it isn’t always simple.

3. Use creative activities to promote empathy with plants

The authors cite plenty of evidence that empathy increases support for conservation. It also indicates that we feel more empathy with animals than plants. Given how different we are from plants, I suspect that a lot of the activities will have to be very creative. One example of empathy they give is the Council of All Beings program. It’s a holistic approach to empathy, including rocks. If like me, you struggle to empathise with a rock then you could start with coal – which was at least a plant earlier in the past.

I think there are some barriers to empathy. We tend to discourage the active voice in writing science. Sentences are written in a passive voice to give an air of objectivity. It can be forgotten that a sentence is only written when there is a human doing the writing. If you’re not very confident as a scientist, then insisting we remove feelings out of advocacy can imply we are implacably dedicated to objectivity. It’s certainly easier than a reflective analysis of our own biases.

Again, the goal is not understanding – I’m not suggesting that the authors are in What Is it Like to Be a Bat? territory. It’s a matter of evoking a feeling and with it an action. That’s rarely a problem in science. The reason you’re looking into a problem is that you already want to take action about it.

Is Plant Blindness Problem Zero for Botany?

There’s a lot to like about Balding and Williams’s paper. It lays out what the problem is, why it happens and what can be done about it in language accessible to scientists. If you’re reading this post then you almost certainly don’t suffer from plant blindness. Everyday experience for plant biologists is that they know plenty of people with an interest in biology. Immersed in plants, it’s obvious to see practical value in knowing about them. So it’s understandably a challenge to recognise why it might happen in others.

On the other hand, to get a view of how little the public think of plants, watch a wildlife documentary. Fur and feathers get plenty of coverage. Plants, when they’re acknowledged are usually just scenery. So in order to get people to pay attention to plants, before you do anything else you have persuade them that they need to pay attention to what they’ve thought of as background. There are some documentaries that have put plants in the foreground, like Kingdom of Plants, but they’re rare. It’s tempting to argue there should be more plant-led documentaries, but maybe there’s another way. I do have an idea that I’d like to try out.

It might seem ridiculous, but for most people, it’s not clear why plants matter. To tackle that, I thought to visit wildlife hotspots and show why it’s the plants that make the activity possible. Instead of telling people you shouldn’t be so interested in starling murmurations, which is obvious nonsense – they’re stunning, I could explore what it is that makes the reed beds possible. The reed beds being the reason starlings are murmurating over places like Otmoor.

That’s one example, but anywhere where there is spectacular wildlife there has to be important botany. Even in marine environments. Seals are not autotrophs and nor are the fish they feed upon. So we’re looking for kelp or phytoplankton in sufficient numbers to be able to support the rest of the food web. Since January I’ve been kept busy with one thing after another, so while this is on my to-do list, it’s currently a long way down. If you want to take this idea yourself please do.*

It would be easy to be frustrated to have to explain over and over why plants are important. There is a positive side though. The degree that plants are undervalued and overlooked is also a measure of how much there is to be gained. To be Panglossian about it, botanists to have the advantage that plants genuinely do matter far beyond niche interests. It means there is always an opportunity to improve the standing of plants in the public consciousness. Looking at it like this, maybe Plant Blindness isn’t just a problem, it’s an opportunity. Thanks to the work by Balding and Williams it doesn’t have to be an insoluble opportunity.

* and I wonder if subconsciously I took it myself from the series Trees of Life, which looks at how wildlife relies on iconic trees in Africa. It might be available on Netflix.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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