It is common knowledge that plants are responsible for all life on earth. However, their existence, species, workings, history, etc. are barely part of our basic education, politics, legal systems, philosophy and cultural heritage. As contemporary philosopher Emanuele Coccia puts it, at some point in the history of ideas, plants were forgotten. With climate change as the biggest challenge of our time, this could change. A new worldview might be on the rise, one in which vegetal life takes a more central position. What will such a worldview look like and how will this affect our lives?
Since the German idealism of the 18th century, Western culture has adopted a way of thinking in which nature (e.g. vegetal and inanimate life) is reduced to everything that doesn’t have a soul and has no intelligence, no reasoning. This led science to separate between the humanities and natural sciences. When seen through the eyes of natural sciences, nature is transformed into a purely residual, mechanical and oppositional object, incapable of occupying the position of subject, as animals and humans can. In order to empathize with other living beings, biologist Von Uexküll was the first to introduce the idea of the Umwelt in the 19th century, which inspired famous philosophers such as Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze and Agamben. Umwelt cannot simply be translated as “environment”, since it refers not only to surroundings but also to the specific way in which each living creature experiences its environment. Because of the different senses and the various ways to survive, an environment entails different “carriers of significance” for each living creature. For example, a tick only senses heat, smell and amount of hairiness. Only the objects in its vicinity that carry such characteristics have significance to them. However, Von Uexküll only considered living creatures with organs able to have an Umwelt, to experience their surroundings in a certain way. His idea therefore enforced the separation between animal and vegetal life. This resulted in vegetal life largely being ignored outside the realm of science and agriculture: a man of the world knows all sorts of specifics about human history, mathematics, languages, politics, etc., but knowledge of vegetal life is not seen as something that has significance in this sense.Our current basic education only provides a fraction of knowledge of the history, names or lives of plants or vegetal life in general. All the while, plants are absolute necessities to our lives: they provide oxygen and form the base of the food chain. In our daily lives, however, our appreciation of plants is mainly based on their decorative qualities. In fact, the life of a plant is not very appealing to us. To illustrate, the medical term for a permanent state of partial arousal rather than true awareness as a consequence of severe brain damage is “persistent vegetative state”. In the debate on whether plants can have rights, opponents argue that there is no evidence that plants can experience pain, or anything else for that matter, since they have no senses like humans or animals do. In The Life of Plants, Coccia aims to redefine our cosmological view by telling a different story of plants, one in which he tries to move away from our current zoocentric perspective on life. Coccia analyzes every aspect of plants — leaves, roots, flowers — and emphasizes the different principles that govern them. Some examples: Vegetal life is the sole link between inanimate phenomena and life, the one thing that can transform solar energy, water and inanimate matter into life. As such, plants are the only living species that do not need to feed off other living beings or live at their expense. A plant’s life is both above- and underground, plants are constantly and directly exposed to the elements as they open to the world and merge with it. Plants contradict the idea of individualism as they can consist of older parts and new ones, in which different genetic identities can coexist (e.g. in big old trees). A plant can also be cut into pieces and instead of dying, reproduce. Unlike animals, for which development stops once the individual has reached sexual maturity, plants never cease to develop and grow, to (re)construct new body parts. Reproduction in the animal kingdom is usually between two animals, whereas in the kingdom of plants, sex is a cosmic event: it involves other animals or insects, such as bees, or, for example, rain and wind. One of the most important messages Coccia aims to express though, is that plants unite all that lives. He doesn’t claim that everything can be reduced to vegetal life, but argues that, as plants produce our atmosphere, they provide a place where everything can come to life and make contact, species can mix without losing their own form or substance, that plants are the connective tissue that joins together all other forms of life; they’re the link between animals, men, the earth, the sky. Finally, he argues that the origin of our existence is not a unique event light years away. The origin of the world is happening continuously by the leaves that surround us, like fish we swim in their sea called atmosphere.