The Nation of Plants, by Stefano Mancuso 2021. Other Press.
Who’s in charge of the Earth?
Aside from religioso-spiritual responses to this question, the mantle of this awesome responsibility appears to be have been assumed by us humans. It’s an important, if somewhat daunting, task, so it’s reasonable to ask how are we doing with our planetary stewardship? On many counts the answer is “not very well”, being as we are in the Anthropocene with its attendant concerns over a Sixth Mass Extinction of living things (e.g. Gerardo Ceballos et al., PNAS 117: 13596-13602, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1922686117), unsustainable agricultural practices, and a globally-declared Climate Emergency (e.g. William Ripple et al.). Since our current practices aren’t working out too well, is there another way to care for the Earth? Maybe there’s a set of guiding principles – other than the sheer greed and selfishness that seems to drive so much of what humans do – that would allow all to share Earth’s bounty, not just for the present but also far into the future? One hopes so. Whilst the hubris of humans will probably not permit them to cede power to another group of organisms to run the planet, is there a ‘planet-help manual’ that we could borrow from another group that would allow us to do things differently – and much better? Attempting to answer these really big questions – which are existential for our own species, and many others – is the laudable goal of The Nation of Plants by Stefano Mancuso, which book is here appraised.
A very short overview of the book
This slim book – the complete thing is only about 170 pages long – offers a solution to our human quandary. The Nation of Plants provides 8 proposals – the individual Articles of the Constitution of the so-called Nation of Plants – which are “based on the general principles that regulate the common life of plants”, and “establishes norms applicable to all living beings” (p. 6), including, humans. The importance of this short declaration shouldn’t be underestimated for it presents a new compact between people and planet that provides a life plan for how to look after the Earth’s resources in a much more responsible and sustainable way than we’ve so far managed.
Humans have had their chance, time for the plants to have a go?
It’s probably no surprise that Mancuso has turned to plants to offer insights into how humans could better manage the planet. For many years, he has been interested in, and fascinated by, the ways that plants interact with their environment. Because of their largely immobile lifestyle*, plants have developed numerous strategies to detect and respond appropriately to the problems of life on, and rooted in, the Earth. Furthermore, as organisms that have been around for hundreds of millions of years before humans arrived, plants are masters of managing within their means on a resource-limited planet. Plants are therefore probably uniquely placed to offer the benefits of their hard-won ‘wisdom’ to humanity. Mancuso therefore proposes that many of those plant behaviours could serve humans well in dealing with the very real problems we experience in living on a planet with finite resources. Although Mancuso acknowledges that what he has written is “a playful exercise” (p. 3), what The Nation of Plants contains is extremely well thought-out, and provides a great deal of good environmental sense. Much of it has been said before, by others, in diverse publications – as evidenced by the sources he cites, but Mancuso’s important contribution is to have brought those ideas together and packaged them into a coherent whole.
A new vision for people and planet
Although imaginary, what Mancuso provides in his engaging book is nothing short of a contract between the people of Earth and the rest of the biosphere in an attempt to halt – and reverse where possible – humankind’s destructive practices which impact all living things that call the planet home. The content of this proposed new code of conduct is based upon what has been learnt about the biology and ecology of plants, and the recognition that plants already do so much to clean up the planet. If we acknowledge that – and allow plants to do more of what they do so well – we will all benefit. As you might therefore expect there is quite a lot in The Nation of Plants about the climate emergency, and the role that plants previously played in moderating CO2 levels. With that proven and impressive track record in averting climate disasters in the past, if we permit plants to help they could do so again. But, Mancuso goes far beyond considerations of how to deal with global warming.
Some of the Constitution articulated
I won’t state all 8 Articles here – that would spoil the joy of reading the book, but it is worth noting a couple that give a good idea of the Nation of Plants’ agenda. Article 5 states that the Nation of Plants shall guarantee the right to clean water, soil, and atmosphere. Unfortunately, by concentrating almost solely on the issue of CO2 in the atmosphere, Mancuso misses out on the opportunity to strengthen his argument by providing examples of some of the other remediative activities of plants (e.g. heavy metal phytoremediation of soil (e.g. Hazrat Ali et al., Chemosphere 91: 869-881, 2013; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.01.075; An Yan et al. (2020), Front. Plant Sci. 11:359. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2020.00359), and rhizofiltration of contaminated waters (e.g. Viatcheslav Dushenkov et al., Environmental Science and Technology 29(5): 1239-1245, 1995; doi: 10.1021/es00005a015; Antony Ignatius et al., Environ Sci Pollut Res 21: 13007–13016, 2014; https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-014-3204-1)).
According to Article 3, the Nation of Plants shall not recognize animal hierarchies, which are founded on command centers [interestingly, Plants use English (US)…] and centralized functions, and shall foster diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies. This is a particularly interesting Article in light of many of our present day political hierarchies – which are typified by a centralised, top-down authoritative approach – and is a clear nod in the direction of Mancuso’s work on plant intelligence**. Even without any encouragement from these statements, we would benefit from making more use of plants to help clean-up the planet. And reassessing our current hierarchical ways of operating to allow more autonomy and local decision-making to solve particular and peculiar local problems can only be a better approach to certain environmental issues. Good governance is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach; local solutions are usually needed for local issues. Dealing with these matters in a geographically-nuanced and location-sensitive way will better benefit the local population and the planet. But, to have these good practices clearly stated in this book can only help to focus people’s minds on these issues.
However, lest it be thought that Mancuso advocates pushing people aside and installing a new regime where plants are in charge, it is important to stress that isn’t what the book is proposing. Rather, The Nation of Plants urges us humans to reassess what we are doing, recognise that most of it is bad and unsustainable, to look at how plants behave, learn from that, and amend our own behaviours. Indeed, the plants are keen to offer their expertise in the service of humanity, and are actually asking to be ‘exploited’ by people. With such a generous offer, who are we to decline it?
Doubtless, changing the human mind-set about environmental stewardship will take time, but the Nation of Plants’ Constitution is a good ‘roadmap’ for planetary sustainability, and a great starting point. Something we might usefully put into practice right away is Mancuso’s proposal that “deforestation should be treated as a crime against humanity and be punished accordingly” (p. 107). Now, that’s rather an arresting proposition.
Give us the evidence…
Although the Constitution for the Nation of Plants is a mere 178 words, Mancuso devotes approx. 140 pages of text to providing explanations and justifications to support each of the Constitution’s 8 Articles (and help to convince those who may require extra persuasion). And that’s where the book must be regarded as a little deficient. Although Mancuso draws upon a lot of 21st century sources (many dated post-2010) to support the scientific arguments that underpin the Constitution, there is an insufficiency of cited and stated sources. The science seems fine, but the necessary evidence base is a little thin. As is common practice these days, in-text super-scripted Numbers refer the reader to sources for the statements made, and those are grouped together at the back of the book. But there’s just not enough of them. Is that important?
First, from the oft-stated point of view that true science communication [SciComm] must show its sources (see comments about that here, here, and here, and for the importance of providing one’s evidence more generally, see here). Second, because The Nation of Plants is written by Mancuso. As somebody who will forever be connected with the contested concept of ‘neurobiology’ of plants and controversial claims concerning ‘plant intelligence’**, Mancuso’s work probably comes under closer scrutiny than that of other scientists with more mainstream views whose research is considered much less problematic and controversial. Mancuso’s work, however carefully argued, will probably always be subject to higher levels of scrutiny and consequently there will be a more pressing need for him to provide the evidence for his assertions. Whilst that extra burden of proof may seem unduly onerous, when the requisite appropriateness of evidence is provided, the arguments should be all the stronger and more compelling.
From what I’ve read elsewhere I’m happy to believe that the evidence for all that is stated in the book exists, it just doesn’t necessarily exist in the book itself. A specific example where evidence is required is Mancuso’s assertion that tree root apices can number in the “hundreds of billions” (p. 80). That claim is made with Mancuso’s characteristic enthusiasm for all things botanical, and I don’t doubt his sincerity in making this statement, but this number seems quite astonishing to me and it is essential that a source be provided to support it. It would be a great shame if Mancuso’s important message in The Nation of Plants was to be disregarded because of a perceived lack of credibility and veracity***.
No Illustrations? No Index?!?
The Nation of Plants is a book with no illustrations. Arguably, you wouldn’t expect any in a sober, serious document such as a Constitution. So, that ‘omission’ can be accepted. What is a little more difficult to accept is the absence of an Index: There isn’t one, and there’s no explanation – and certainly no justification – for that. That would have been really useful for interested parties – particularly those who might like to use the book’s numerous facts in lectures, etc. If there had been an Index, I like to think it would have included entries such as: Carbon dioxide; Charles Darwin; Club of Rome; Drake equation; Earth Overshoot Day (EOD); Filter bubble; Hubbert’s curve (e.g. Trevor Jones and N Brad Willms. FACETS 3: 260–274, 2018; doi:10.1139/facets-2017-0097); Jevons Paradox; Milgram’s experiment; Paris Agreement; Parkinson’s Law; Peter Principle; Serial Endosymbiotic Theory (SET)****; Symbiosis; Systema Naturae; Trophic pyramid; and World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity (e.g. William Ripple et al., BioScience 67: 1026–1028, 2017; https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix125). Which short list should give prospective readers an insight into the impressive range of subjects covered within The Nation of Plants.
People who liked Lessons from Plants might also like…
The Nation of Plants by Stefano Mancuso is a most timely companion to Beronda Montgomery’s Lessons from Plants. However, whereas Montgomery presents a few life lessons for people, from plants, Mancuso gives us a much more expansive complete curriculum [keeping with Montgomery’s notion of lessons] for human society’s behaviour – from the plants. And Mancuso argues for not just looking after the plants, but the whole biosphere as well since everything is connected. In The Nation of Plants, Mancuso provides much more than a blueprint for a healthy planet, he’s given us a carefully-considered manifesto for a new social movement whose goal is the continued existence of humanity via a new partnership between people and plants. Surely, every responsible Citizen of Earth should be supporting this greenest of green ambitions.
Let’s not forget the translator
Although Mancuso is rightly named as the book’s author, we must applaud the language skills of Gregory Conti, who has translated Mancuso’s original Italian text into English. Conti has done an excellent job – as he previously did for Mancuso’s The Incredible Journey of Plants. But, a translator needs good material to work with in the first place, and Mancuso’s story-telling is as masterful and captivating here as it was in his previous book, The Incredible Journey of Plants: Mancuso is undoubtedly a great plant science story-teller. But, and importantly, although rooted in Mancuso’s tremendous respect for plants, The Nation of Plants has a much more inclusive, planet-wide focus than its title might suggest. Two sections stood out for me in that regard. First, was the brilliant historically-ecologically instructive story that connected ancient Aztec cochineal production in Mexico with modern-day prickly pear invasive alien plant problems, first in Australia, and exported back again to nations of the Caribbean (via red-coated English soldiers…). And second, was his consideration of the ecological harm behind the attempts to conserve and preserve grain stocks during the Great Leap Forward of Communist China’s leader Mao Tse-tung/Mao Zedong. Like any globally-astute Botanist, Mancuso doesn’t confine his interests narrowly just to plants and plant science, he’s also a great ecologically-aware commentator with an eye to the history and wider-context of plant biological matters.
Stefano Mancuso’s The Nation of Plants is a super little book full of thoughtfully-packaged plant-people-and-planet facts that can be read in one sitting. It’s also an important book. Probably the best single item is the [fictional] address to the United Nations by the representative of the Nation of Plants. It’s not only short (eight-and-a-half pages) and full of delightful oratory, it also makes a very powerful case for ‘listening to the plants’ and learning from them as we humans try to copy with a planetary dilemma. Anyone who cares about the future of humankind – and the planet – should read it. Everybody who is interested in plants should also read it – if only to have their belief in the awesomeness of plants (re)confirmed.
* Yes, I am mindful that previously Mancuso has showcased many ways in which plants are actually more mobile than their soil-rootedness might suggest in The incredible Journey of Plants.
** For some who work in the world of plants mention of Stefano Mancuso’s name is enough to elicit a knee-jerk – and rather negative – reaction because of his association with the concept of plant neurobiology and notions of plant intelligence. Both of which terms are considered controversial by some commentators creating claim and counter-claim in the literature (e.g. David Robinson et al., EMBO Rep (2020)21:e50395;https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.202050395; František Baluška and Stefano Mancuso, EMBO Rep (2020)21:e50495;https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.202050495). But, Mancuso has not been put off by the adverse reaction his ideas have generated and has written two popular science books about these important plant biology topics, Brilliant Green [with Alessandra Viola] and The Revolutionary Genius of Plants.
*** Whilst I’m in ‘additional scrutiny mode’, the only clear errors I noted were two ‘typos’: manciata on p. 152, incorrectly shown as the specific epithet for Gunnera manicata, and phosphorous (pp. 154, 155) which should be spelt phosphorus.
**** Mancuso does rather overlook the roles of such scientists as Konstantin Mereschkowski (e.g. Klaus Kowallik and William Martin, Biosystems 199, January 2021, 104281; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biosystems.2020.104281), and Andreas Schimper in developing the SET by appearing to give all the credit for that theory to Lynn Margulis (e.g. Andrew Knoll, PNAS 109(4): 1022, 2012; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1120472109).