Introduction

People and Plants

in Environment and Society
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  • 1 University of Kent kayevelina@outlook.com

World-Making with Plants

Plants have all too often been relegated to the margins—their diversity and vitality obscured within generic terms such as “habitat,” “landscape,” or “agriculture.” A green “background to human activity” (Rival 2016: 147; Sheridan, this volume), plants, the foundation of life on this planet, have frequently failed to compete with the charismatic fauna, let alone the anthropocentrism that dominates the Western cultural imagination. This marginalization has not only been due to an oversight by the social sciences but also, just as readily it seems, neglect by the natural sciences. Since Aristotle set in motion the perception of plants as passive and insensitive they have largely been overlooked and it was not until the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that western scientists began to comprehend the active relationship that plants have with the world (Gagliano 2013). Recent research on plants, however, is now expanding our appreciation both of the fundamental role plants have in the function and health of the living world (CBD 2010; Smith et al. 2011), and of their own intimate interactions within it (Chamovitz 2012; Marder 2013; Myers 2014)—sparking what some have optimistically anticipated as a “plant-turn.”

While on the one hand Western science is learning more and more about the centrality of plants to planetary processes and human survival, on the other hand, in correspondence with a concerning decline in formal botanical education and capacity (Kramer and Havens 2015), plant knowledge in the general public is waning (Gagliano 2013; Wandersee and Schussler 2001). Increasing urbanization and decreasing direct contact with plants has led to a “plant blindness”—an inability to visually and conceptually distinguish and interpret a botanical world that has been stripped of meaning (Wandersee and Schussler 2001). While 1.6 billion people around the world (20 percent of the global population) depend on forests for their livelihoods (FAO) and “80% of the people in developing countries use wild plants (many of them efficacious) for their primary health-care” (Smith et al. 2011: 2), the loss of biocultural diversity and changing land use has placed many plants in peril during the Anthropocene, and the sixth extinction with which it correlates (Corlett 2015). In the recently launched The State of the World’s Plants Report, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (2016) has brought together for the first time a comprehensive annual overview of the knowledge, uses, and threats to global flora. The report estimates that one-fifth of plants are threatened with extinction (RBG Kew 2016: 59) and highlights that of the 391,000 identified vascular plant species, over 31,000 species have documented uses (RBG Kew 2016: 18)—with many more potentially useful species unevaluated. As we lose plant species to extinction we not only lose their evolutionary heritage, adaptations, ecosystem functions, and their potential uses, but also diminish the inherent resilience and intrinsic value that biodiversity brings (Smith et al. 2011; Vucetich et al. 2015).

It is clear that conceptually and physically marginalizing plants, and the nature they have come to represent, has left them vulnerable. As the relationship between people and plants is undermined—through decreasing personal experience and correspondingly through the loss of knowledge of their forms, their uses, and their names—so too is lost a sense of connection and appreciation of the fundamental place they hold in sustaining both ecological and social worlds (Carlson and Maffi 2004; Hitchings and Jones 2004; Hunn 2014). As Gagliano asks, “How can any society recognize that plant conservation is one of humanity’s most crucial issues, when it literally cannot ‘see’ plants?” (2013: 149). Yet it has become clear that learning to “see” plants is a cultural endeavor. How we choose to frame this understanding, whether in anthropocentric, utilitarian, or ecocentric terms may have very tangible impacts on both them and us (Chan 2008; De Luca et al. 2012; Lewis-Jones 2016; Lidskog 2011; Jepson and Canney 2003; Sullivan 2009; Vucetich et al. 2015).

It is in light of this that the social sciences need to engage with and contribute to this discussion and rediscovery of plants as agents in our world. In order to “hold open space” for plants (van Doreen 2014: l.154) we need to better understand the ways in which plants can be successfully integrated into our social worlds, in order to ensure that as we shuffle for space in our self-declared Anthropocene we remember how and why we make place for them, and more importantly, with them (Rose et al. 2012; Ellen 2016; Irigaray and Marder 2016; Ryan 2011; Vieira et al. 2015).

This is more than a functional concern; foregrounding plants and their vegetal sociality and botanical subjectivity is proving itself to be an inspiring analytical tool (Kohn 2013; Iragaray and Marder 2016). In the context of the growing calls in the social sciences to decenter the human, and to better comprehend the more-than-human, it seems that plants and their modes of being have distinct contributions to make. Through attention to plant behavior it is becoming increasingly clear that plants are world-making, dynamic beings, and that their entangled interactions and “plant ontologies” (Marder 2012: 30) have much to teach us about other ways of living as we seek alternative political and ethical engagements with the world and “reconceptualize what it means to be human” (Ogden et al. 2013: 7). Collaboration, coherence, relational being, and interdependence—the very nature of plant-being—may be changing the way we think about social dynamics and is inspiring a flourish of philosophical texts inspired by nascent (as well as traditional) understandings of plant subjectivity (see, for instance, Gagliano 2013; Hall 2011; Holdrege 2013; Houle 2011; Irigaray and Marder 2016; Marder 2013; Mendum 2009; Nealon 2015; Tsing 2015; Vieira et al. 2015). As several articles in this volume explore, plants’ particular relationships with place-making, their forms of subjectivity and sociality, as well as their temporality—which can simultaneously create a sense of permanence while effecting changes to the landscape and on a global scale—can all inspire a sense of awe and mystery, or conversely lead to their conceptual neglect and physical vulnerability.

Building upon the vision of Environment and Society’s volumes on human-animal relations, on value, and on the Anthropocene, this volume of ARES further develops academic endeavors that “proactively expand the terms of relation” (Gallagher and DiNovelli-Lang 2014: 3) and foreground “more diverse ways of valuing nature” (2014: 4) “as we seek to come to a more responsible or more equitable ethics of ‘living with’ the natural world” (Feinberg et al. 2013: 1). The articles in this volume open up some of the potential areas of reflection that increased engagement with plants invites. Leading us through explorations of how place is made, occupied, and distinguished, through to how it might be shared, the authors each call on us to reflect upon the social worlds and relations that are formed with plants.

Borders and Boundaries

By exploring how plants participate in more-than-human territorialities, Besky and Padwe invite us to “reconfigure the way we think, not only about territory, but also about power and sociality beyond the human.” Plants, so frequently perceived as passive and peripheral, are put in the center of the discussion in order to open space for a more nuanced politics of nature.

Besky and Padwe highlight a particular quality of plants—namely their “slowness”—which brings with it its own insight into the notion of territory as an act, as something that both forms and is formed by our social interactions within and beyond the human. Plants, like territory, have a “deceptive stillness,” but are just as involved in the “life and death struggle to have the right to stand in one’s own time and place” (Latour 2014: 15) as the rest of us caught up in Anthropocene.

Besky and Padwe end on a somber note reminding us that “plants are both victims and agents of ‘slow violence’” and call on us to reflect upon “how the territory of humans and plants might be otherwise” (p. 22), speaking to a theme that runs throughout the volume of how we share space with plants. As Marder suggests in his intriguing evaluation of political resistance and plant agency, perhaps looking toward how plants hold place has much to teach us on such matters: “what would it mean to occupy public space without appropriating it? … Would it not imply being in a place without laying claim to it, being there for others?” (Marder 2012: 29)

In a similar vein to Besky and Padwe, Sheridan brings plants out from the periphery and examines their role in structuring relations. Sheridan focuses on “boundary plants” and the role they play in the production of space through the complex relations they are able to hold and through their own particular place-making dynamics. Exploring the role of boundary objects in anthropological theory, Sheridan demonstrates how plants as boundary objects “do things” and “sit firmly at the intersection of the material and symbolic phenomena” (p. 44). Sheridan shows how thinking with plants can broaden and challenge preconceptions of what making place and making boundaries implies, reminding us that boundaries perform diverse social functions.

Ground Truthing Land Use

Moving forward from the theme of territories, de la Vega-Leinert and Clausing as well as Zycherman both explore how frontiers of people and plants are negotiated and how place is made and shared on the ground.

De la Vega-Leinert and Clausing review the discussion around Land Sparing versus Land Sharing, raising the insightful point that at the heart of the debate lies how we conceptualize the relationship between people and plants and, by implication, between culture and nature. De la Vega-Leinert and Clausing highlight that moving forward, who leads land use decisions, and the ontological framework from within which they approach the relationship between people and plants will be a crucial element in shaping how frontiers will be constructed or dismantled and how the global territory will be spared, exploited, or shared.

Zycherman provides an in-depth analysis of the negotiation of two particular frontiers of the expansion of agriculture. Focusing on the management of deforestation in Brazil, Zycherman provides a grounded exploration of how both soy and cattle farming practices have led to Brazil’s increased agricultural production, while Brazil has simultaneously managed to stem the fast rate of deforestation it had been experiencing. Zycherman illustrates the need for policymakers to ground truth assumptions through reference to ethnographic research, and paying attention to the complexities of human-plant relations and the social worlds that inform them, which are often far more dynamic than simplified classifications of land use can portray. Zycherman demonstrates how land tenure, identity, and the daily livelihoods of ranchers and soy farmers are crucial to understanding the relationships that hold the fate of the Amazon in the balance. Rather than abstracted, broad-stroke policy that classifies land by its economic outputs, ethnographic attention can help to conceptually repopulate the landscape with the people and the plants that make place together.

Social Worlds and Networks

The final articles in this special volume focus on the interactions and networks that weave plants into the social world. Certain plants have had fundamental roles in shaping human history and global political economy. Domestication presents us with an intimate entanglement of human and plant trajectories, marking a change in ways of life and creating mutually dependant bonds (Cassidy and Mullin 2007; Rival 2007). While domesticated plants often dominate the discussions, it is important to recognize that they are not the only plants fundamental to social worlds. Although just 12 plant species provide 80 percent of the plant-based food intake globally, at least 7,000 species are edible (Smith et al. 2011: 2) and many people around the world wild harvest edible and medicinal plants that form vital parts of their nutritional and cultural worlds without being integrated into regimes of cultivation (e.g., Addis and Asfaw 2013; Aryal et al. 2009). Furthermore, many other plants share our social worlds through the pleasure, sense of well-being, or aesthetics that they render, whether that be in our gardens, nature preserves, homes, or in ritual, art, or literature (e.g., Ellen and Komaromi 2013; Hartigan 2014; Hitchings 2003; Power 2005).

Barnes focuses on one of the most important domesticated plants in the world: wheat. A crop that through its intense incorporation into human lives, histories, and economies, is now “cultivated over a larger area than any other crop” and provides 19 percent of the global population’s calories (p. 89). Wheat is not only a dominant feature of land and markets globally, but as Barnes illustrates, an intimate part of people’s daily diets and lives. For a plant so central to human history and contemporary life, wheat has received very little in-depth attention from the social sciences as compared to sugar (Mintz 1985), rice (Carney 2002), or rubber (Dove 2011). And as Barnes illustrates, there is much still to be learned about this plant that so dominates the cultural and physical landscape. As Sheridan highlights in his discussion on boundary plants (this volume), there are inherent material qualities that lead to some plants being more entangled in symbolic and material interactions with humans, and inform the ways in which they are. Considering wheat as seed, as plant, and as grain, Barnes traces the particular ways in which wheat has shaped and been shaped by the social worlds through which it moves and within which it lives.

Calvet-Mir and Salpeteur review the growing body of work that uses Social Network Analysis (SNA) to explore complex human-plant relations. SNA presents a quantitative way of surveying and analyzing the structure through which plants are integrated into the social: through their exchange, their use, or the sharing of knowledge about them. As the authors in this volume have highlighted, at a point in time when negotiating the way in which we integrate plants into the social—through conservation or through commerce—is so important, having a method that can communicate these relations in a way that is translatable between disciplines, especially between the natural and the social sciences, is particularly valuable.

Throughout the collection here we are reminded of the long, rich, and fundamental history of sharing place and society with plants, which has been and continues to be key to our “collaborative survival” (Tsing 2015). Intimate integration of plants into our lives as food, as medicine, or as markers and makers of place is central to what it is to be human. Plant agency is something with which we have co-evolved and without which our physical and social worlds crumble. As we move forward in the Anthropocene how we share the world with plants will demand a conscientious opening up of our social worlds to them. Appreciating the dynamic relationships we have with them already will help inform these decisions and serve as a reminder that to share the world with plants is a privilege—and not a choice.

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Environment and Society

Advances in Research

  • Addis, Getachew, Zemede Asfaw and Zerihun Woldu. 2013. “Ethnobotany of Wild and Semi-wild Edible Plants of Konso Ethnic Community, South Ethiopia.” Ethnobotany Research & Applications 11: 121141.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Aryal, Kamal, and Berg Ogle. 2009. “Uncultivated Plants and Livelihood Support—A Case Study from the Chepang People of Nepal.” Ethnobotany Research & Applications 7: 409422.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Barnes, Jessica. 2016. “Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: The Social Worlds of Wheat.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 7, no. 1: 89106.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Besky, Sarah, and Jonathan Padwe. 2016. “Placing Plants in Territory.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 7, no. 1: 928.

  • Carlson, Thomas J. S., and Luisa Maffi, eds. 2004. “Ethnobotany and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity.” Advances in Economic Botany 15.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Carney, Judith. 2002. Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Cassidy, Rebecca, and Molly Mullin, eds. 2007. Where the Wild Things Are Now: Domestication Reconsidered. Oxford: Berg.

  • Chan, Kai M.A. 2008. “Value and Advocacy in Conservation Biology: Crisis Discipline or Discipline in Crisis?Conservation Biology 22, no. 1: 13.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chamovitz, Daniel. 2012. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Sense. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

  • CBD. Convention on Biological Diversity. 2010. “Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020.” www.cbd.int/gspc/default.shtml (accessed 10 July 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Corlett, Richard T. 2015. “The Anthropocene Concept in Ecology and Conservation.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 30, no. 1: 3641.

  • De Luca, Vincenzo, Vonny Salim, Sayaka Masada Atsumi, and Fang Yu. 2012. “Mining the Biodiversity of Plants: A Revolution in the Making.” Science 336: 16581661.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dove, Michael. 2011. The Banana Tree at the Gate: The History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ellen, Roy. 2016. “Is There a Role for Ontologies in Understanding Plant Knowledge Systems?Journal of Ethnobiology 36, no. 1: 1028.

  • Ellen, Roy, and Reka Komaromi. 2013. “Social Exchange and Vegetative Propagation: The Untold Story of British Potted Plants.” Anthropology Today 29: 37.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FAO. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. 2015. “Forests and Poverty Reduction.” www.fao.org/forestry/livelihoods/en (accessed 10 July 2016).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Feinberg, Rebecca, Patrick Nason, and Hamsini Sridharan. 2013. “Introduction: Human-Animal Relations.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4, no. 1: 14.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gallagher, Patrick, and Danielle DiNovelli-Lang. 2014. “Introduction: Nature and Knowledge—Contemporary Ecologies of Value.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 5, no. 1: 16.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gagliano, Monica. 2013. “Seeing Green: The Re-discovery of Plants and Nature’s Wisdom.” Societies 3, no. 1: 147157.

  • Hall, Matthew. 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany, New York: State University of New York Press.

  • Hartigan, John. 2014. “Plant Publics: Multispecies Relating in Spanish Botanical Gardens.” Anthropological Quarterly 88, no. 2: 481507.

  • Hitchings, Russell. 2003. “People, Plants and Performance: On Actor Network Theory and the Material Pleasures of the Private Garden.” Social & Cultural Geography 4, no. 1: 99114.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hitchings, Russell, and Verity Jones. 2004. “Living with Plants and the Exploration of Botanical Encounter within Human Geographic Research Practice.” Ethics, Place & Environment 7, no. 12: 318.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Holdrege, Craig. 2013. Thinking like a Plant: A Living Science for Life. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne.

  • Houle, Karen L.F. 2011. “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics as Extension or Becoming? The Case of Becoming-Plant.” Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9: 89116.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hunn, Eugene. 2014. “To Know Them Is to Love Them.” Ethnobiology Letters, 5: 146150.

  • Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. 2016. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Jepson, Paul, and Susan Canney. 2003. “Value-Led Conservation.” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 12: 271274.

  • Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human, Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Kramer, Andrea, and Kay Havens. 2015. “Report in Brief: Assessing Botanical Capacity to Address Grand Challenges in the United States.” Natural Areas Journal 35, no. 1: 8389.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Latour, Bruno. 2014. “Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene—A Personal View of What Is to Be Studied.” Distinguished lecture. American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. Washington, DC. www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/139-AAA-Washington.pdf (accessed 22 August 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lewis-Jones, Kay E. 2016. “Useful to Us in Unknown Ways: Seed Conservation and the Quest for Novel Human-Plant Relationships for the 21st Century.” Journal of Ethnobiology 36, no. 1: 6684.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lidskog, Rolf. 2011. “Regulating Nature: Public Understanding and Moral Reasoning.” Nature and Culture 6, no. 2: 149167.

  • Marder, Michael. 2012. “Resist like a Plant! On the Vegetal Life of Political Movements.” Peace Studies Journal 5, no. 1: 2432.

  • Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Mendum, Ruth M. 2009. “Subjectivity and Plant Domestication: Decoding the Agency of Vegetable Food Crops.” Subjectivity 28, no. 1: 316333.

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