‘Plant Blindness’ Our Negative Tendencies to Ignore Plants

by Wayne Michaelson

Think about your interactions with the fauna around you. Do you remember the last animal you encountered? Can you characterize this organism? Well, you might even have a pet of your own statistically speaking. More importantly, Can you distinguish it from other animals? These questions might not seem alarming to you, but try considering your interactions with the flora around you? Can you specifically tell me the last plant you saw?

If the latter part was a challenge to you, don’t worry, it’s not just a ‘you’ problem. Our tendency to neglect plants is more widespread than you think. This tendency is so widespread that American botanists James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler, coined a term for it in 1998: “plant blindness.” Originally, they defined plant blindness as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment,” which results “to the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” Plant blindness also involves an “inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features” of plants and “the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.”

  Failure to see, notice, or pay attention to plants in our daily lives can be partly attributed to the cultural framing of Euro-western thought towards separation, exclusion, and hierarchy. We place organisms on a hierarchy where humans sit at the top; animals subservient to humans, and plants at the bottom. Wandersee and Schussler noticed the anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals and used their voices to warn us about negative implications of these tendencies. They developed a classroom poster that says “Prevent Plant Blindness” as part of a national campaign to raise awareness and help the nation overcome plant blindness.

So why is “plant blindness” problematic? Not surprisingly, plant blindness leads to the underappreciation of plants and results in a limited interest in plant conservation. This is problematic because much of the big issues we are tackling in the 21st century are plant based. Global warming due to climate change, food shortage, and the need for new pharmaceuticals to cure new diseases all involves plant based processes. An article published by the University of Chicago Press shows  plant blindness impacts how we prioritize conservation between plants and animals. Getting Plant Conservation Right (or Not): The Case of the United States stated that “while most federal endangered species (57%) are plants, less than 4% of money spent on threatened species is used to protect plants (Kayri Havens, Andrea T. Kramer and Edward O. Guerrant Jr., 2014) 

Plants are put in a lower pedestal than animals partly because of the differences in the way we interact with them. Plants don’t necessarily have the conventional voice to fight for air time in our daily lives. In fact, from our childhood, these tendencies are rooted from the lack of plant representation in schools. According to Angelique Kritzinger, a lecturer, from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, in University of Pretoria, concluded that “Plant blindness begins in childhood, exacerbated by how little attention is paid to botanical content in school” (2018). We are not educating students in active learning with new thought paradigms that expands their ways of listening and interacting with their surroundings. 

Time and intimacy with plant matter are important components of generating attention to plants. Unlike animals, we don’t invest a lot of emotions when we interact with them normally, plants don’t lick your face or bark at you when you try to touch them or even just look at them. Emotions play a huge role in how we compartmentalize on what is important or not. According to multiple authors from the ​Society for Conservation Biology “engaging meaningful experiences involving a multiplicity of senses can potentially engage emotional responses and concern towards plant life” (2006). 

According to Natalie Rogers, a humanistic pioneer activist, and the creator of Person Centered Expressive Arts, “incorporating movement, sound, art, and journal writing into their therapeutic practices helped patients identify feelings, explore unconscious material, gain insight, and solve problems” (1993).  Our human minds are more than capable of developing practices that direct attention to plants’ voices and dissipate plants’ invisibility. Today, we have created machines that are capable of measuring the vibrations and electrochemical signals plants send through the air. We can even manipulate those vibrations and musicalize it.

The Portuguese sound artist João Ricardo created full soundscapes by electrochemical signals from a cactus.  João Ricardo led a “Cactus orchestra” of over twenty cacti, performed by young students that follow his gestural directions on how to rhythmically pluck the cacti needles. Creating music through touch and corporal proximity with plant life revitalizes human-plant relationships generating intimacy and knowledge. Plus, he is inspiring the future generation to divert their attention to the underrepresented flora. 

Our realities are affected by the cosmos, the environment, living and nonliving, which is why we need to challenge subconscious tendencies and creatively organize ways of contextualizing and materializing the inaudible components of plants’ voices. Recognizing and listening to the voices of plants are acts​ of acknowledgment. We should listen and be sensitive to these paradigms as they are critical to our own survival and to the health of the planet. We should emphasize plant relationships in schools. We can use the arts to stir up emotions and attract new audiences.

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