As I sat in class the other day, Prof. Mancuso was talking about his famous 99% slide. If you have seen as many of his presentations as I have, you know this slide. This is the one where he talks about how 99.7% of the biomass of the planet is made of plants:
He is not the only one to say it, you can find it in Günther, “Higher plants make up 99% of the biomass on our planet” (44) and in Favareau, “…plants make up 99% of the eukaryotic biomass on our planet.” (741)
But Mancuso goes a step further to ask the question, “why is it that when we talk about the end of the world, we don’t realize that we are only talking about the end of humans on this planet?” Can we be so blind to the plant world that we don’t realize that they were here long before humans arrived and that unless we blow the planet up, they will be here long after we are gone?
Which got me to thinking about the 1%.
Who are the 1%?
The Economist states that “average household income of the 1% was $1.2m in 2008, according to [US] federal tax data.” Forbes concludes that “On a national basis, in 2013 you needed a minimum household income of $389,436 to join the club. But the threshold is a lot higher in certain […] locales.”
The richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016, according to a US Federal Reserve report published. And with wealth, in most cases, comes power. The top 1% hold a significant concentration of influence. Resources, access, information, economics… when you have so much concentrated in such a small percentage, it is inevitable that those in it will see things with a similar lens, creating a distorted view of the full extent of any issue. It is like having a conversation about dogs with a biologist and sociologist—one will talk about the physical characteristics of the dog and the other its behavior.
Let’s compare this for a moment to your Google search feed. The algorithms are based on two things:
- Your preferences, as determined by cookies, browser history, etc. and
- Human programming.
You see what Google wants you to see, which is whatever Google—and the many behavioral experts they employ—believe will get you to act in a certain way, regardless of what you think you want. Now this isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. Let’s be honest, we use Google because it is able to give us the “perfect” search results, even when we put in partial parameters because we don’t really know what we want. No, that is not the problem.
The problem is that we think we are finding absolute truth because ALL the results Google shows us reinforce our desired result. It is not like Google says, “here are 100 results that match what you want, but keep in mind we are giving you what we think you want and there are another million results that show the great diversity in the entire sphere of possible results.” It is not Google’s job to broaden your thinking, it is there to show “exactly” you what you want. Only that want you want is a tiny sliver of highly personalized reality. In short, you are only seeing what you want to see, not what really exists.
Why does the 1% even matter ? We are talking about plants!
Because as I see it, even though humanity only makes up 0.01% of the planet, we are acting exactly like the 1% when it comes to our relationship with the plant world. Plant blindness—a habituation to the presence of plants so strong that we don’t even realize they are there—prevents us from seeing how our actions affect them. And if you don’t see the consequences of your actions, you can not consciously choose whether you want to engage in that action at all. You act blindly in the hopes that it does not hurt anyone.
We are so focused on our needs, our problems, our concerns, our desires… that we do not realize the impact we have on the world around us, which is exactly what we complain that the 1% is doing. Of course we can find examples of individuals in the 1% that have no regard for anyone else but themselves, but that exists in every income bracket. If you have a conversation with someone from the 1%, you will probably find that how you see them and how they see themselves are two different things. And to be honest, this is not about them, this is about us acting like how we think of them.
If you are reading this, you probably consider yourself pretty in touch with nature. You buy organic food and communicate with trees. But have you ever stopped to think about how that store bought plant in your house was raised? Was it given pesticides, grown in a monoculture with rows of treated flowers, and chosen only for its beauty while “ugly” siblings were composted? And what about those flowers sitting on the table? Did you stop to think before cutting them from their parent plant for your personal enjoyment? Books, signs, cardboard… all are made from what? Paper. And paper is made from? Trees. Yep, our need to have things written down has contributed to the mass decimation of forests.
So while you carry your cloth bag to the grocery store (which is made of plant fiber) and throw out the printer in favor of e-statements, you are still enforcing your will over the plant world without even realizing it. You, me, all of us are the 0.01%, and all of us hold a significant amount of influence, even without understanding the ramifications of our actions.
Where are you going with this?
You can tell this is a topic I think about often. I believe we need to become aware of the impact we have on the planet. I know I am part of the 0.01%. I know that my actions have a profound effect on the plant world. What I don’t know yet is which actions are acceptable: which are destructive to the harmony we so desperately seek and a cause of the deep unrest we feel as human beings. I can’t just wake up and “stop” exerting my will on plants, even if I want to. And thinking I am an ecologist, a plant lover, or whatever title implies that I believe the plant world to be equal to me, would be a half-truth.
As Richard LaPiere’s landmark article, Attitudes vs. Actions (1934), showed quite clearly, there is a disconnect between what we believe and how we act. And when it comes to the plant world, plant blindness accentuates this disparity. We “use” plants in everything, from medicine to clothing, so to establish a new relationship based on mutual recognition would require us to redefine the very nature of our relationships with objects and the materials they are made of. These are relationships stratified over time and ingrained into the fabric of our societies. How do you go about changing that? And what to?
The only thing I can do is take responsibility for my blindness and look for ways to bring my thoughts and actions into alignment. I can start by doing my best to acknowledge the plants that gave of themselves in order for me to have the computer under my fingertips, the chair under my bum, the leggings I am wearing (yes, I wear leggings sometimes), and on and on. I can sit longer in awe of all the wondrous ways plants choose to manifest themselves: au naturale in their environment, as products, on my windowsill, in art.
Through these actions, and more yet to be identified, I hope to unlock a secret door that leads to an understanding of what E.O. Wilson labeled “biophilia”—the innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life—, which I pray will take me into a garden no longer designed by the 0.01%, by the conscious give and take of two forms of life that respect each other without hierarchy.
Want to know more?
If you have any questions about interspecies cocreation, #natureinthecity, or plant music: write a comment, contact me via my website, and/or sign up for my newsletter. If you explore related topics, let me know in the comments
References and Image Credits:
99.7% slide, courtesy of Stefano Mancuso
Witzany, Günther. Biocommunication and Natural Genome Editing. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2009.
Favareau, Donald. Essential Readings in Biosemiotics: Anthology and Commentary. Amsterdam: Springer Netherlands, 2016.
“Who exactly are the 1%?” The Economist Jan 2012. The Economist Group Mar 2018.
Gensler, Lauren. “What it takes to be part of the 1%” Forbes Jun 2016. Forbes Online Mar 2018.
Egan, Matt. “Record inequality: The top 1% controls 38.6% of America’s wealth” Money Sep 2017. CNN Money Online Mar 2018.
LaPiere, Richard T. Attitudes vs Actions. Social Forces, Volume 13, Issue 2, 1 December 1934, Pages 230–237, https://doi.org/10.2307/2570339
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard, 1989.
Also published on Medium.