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Our Government Is Broken. This Botanist Thinks Plants May Possess the Answers to Fix It

Professor Stefano Mancuso looks to the neurobiology of our leafy companions for answers, writing down their ‘constitution’ in his forthcoming book, ‘The Nation of Plants’

With the recent departure of Donald Trump from the U.S. presidency after four grueling years, it really isn’t difficult to illustrate the incompetence of government. Despite the U.S. leading the world in COVID-19-related fatalities — nearly 500,000 deaths to date — and less than 1 percent of the population being fully vaccinated under his watch, Trump praised his administration’s handling of the pandemic during his final speech as president. “You should start to see really good numbers over the next few months,” he said of COVID rates. “I think you’re going to see those numbers really skyrocket downward.” (Emphasis mine.)

Contradictory metaphors aside, Trump’s utter failure to admit to, or possibly even grasp, reality reflects one of the most glaring weaknesses of traditional models of governance: The state is built as a hierarchy, with the most powerful at the top, so when those people at the top are dysfunctional, the entire state begins to fail. But as biologist Stefano Mancuso argues in his forthcoming book, The Nation of Plants, there is an alternative — decentralization — and you can learn more about it from your houseplant than from Trump.

Mancuso is a professor of botany at the University of Florence in Italy, where he specializes in the new field of plant neurobiology. While the cognitive abilities of plants have traditionally been written off as non-existent, plant neurobiology reconsiders this assumption, recognizing that because plants operate on a much longer timescale than animals — trees, for example, can live for millennia, rather than a mere century like the oldest of us — their actions often go unnoticed by humans.

“Plants are dynamic and highly sensitive organisms that actively forage for limited resources, both above and below ground,” Mancuso explains. “They accurately compute their circumstances, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis and take defined actions.”

In The Nation of Plants, Mancuso draws on his study of plant neurobiology to posit a “constitution” from the perspective of plants. (Don’t worry, he’s well within his right mind and acknowledges it as an imaginative, playful exercise.) This constitution has eight articles derived from Mancuso’s understanding of plants’ evolutionary biology, which Mancuso imagines the Nation of Plants delivering to the U.N. to help humankind “modify your behavior, before the consequences of your conduct become fatal” and to “find the road to a long and happy cohabitation with us and our marvelous planet.”

Many of the articles from “The Constitution of the Nation of Plants” reiterate common progressive values, like sustainability and conservation, albeit with unique insight based on plant evolutionary biology. Article V, for example, “The Nation of Plants shall guarantee the right to clean water, soil and atmosphere,” lays out the greenhouse effect — how human overproduction of carbon dioxide is trapping solar radiation within Earth’s atmosphere and destabilizing the climate — but also how the evolution of plants 450 million years ago introduced Earth’s first carbon-capture scheme. Plants turned our planet’s naturally produced carbon dioxide into oxygen, making Earth habitable for other forms of life for literally the first time in its history. (We repaid them, of course with a one-two punch of deforestation and industrial pollution.)

The Nation of Plants also goes beyond progressive commonplace to advocate for more refreshingly radical ideals too. Mancuso marshals science to advocate for universal sovereignty, open borders, and as previously mentioned, democratic decentralization. Article III — “The Nation of Plants shall not recognize animal hierarchies, which are founded on command centers and centralized functions, and shall foster diffuse and decentralized vegetable democracies” — might conjure weird visions of VeggieTales meets Schoolhouse Rock, but Mancuso’s elaboration is yet more evolutionary biology spliced with comparative politics.

Extrapolating human and plant anatomy to corresponding political systems, Mancuso illustrates what we might learn about governance from plants. In his view, it’s understandable that humans organize society hierarchically, because human beings themselves are organized hierarchically, with a primary command center, the brain, that tells the rest of the body what to do. The problem with this setup is that if the head is chopped off, the body is done for. Plants, on the other hand, are neurologically decentralized: There’s no head to chop off — in fact, in many cases, splitting a plant in two will produce two independent organisms (rather than one dead one, like with us). While we can’t change our anatomy, we can change the way we govern ourselves.

Or as Mancuso writes, “Though they are rare, there are a few important examples of such differently structured human organizations. What’s more, they are almost always innovative. The internet itself, the very symbol of the contemporary world, is constructed like a plant: completely decentralized, diffuse, composed of an enormous number of repeated identical nodes, with no specialized organs.”

Decentralized democracies may be more common that Mancuso supposes — worker and housing cooperatives could easily be considered decentralized democracies, where employees and tenants, rather than bosses and landlords, govern their workplaces and homes, respectively — but the takeaway is clear: Rather than concentrating power into leadership positions that could be usurped by people like Trump, we’d be better off decentralizing power into more local, more accountable, more governable configurations.

Interestingly, that’s exactly what’s happened in the four years of Trump’s presidency. With the head of the state in disarray, everyday people took it upon themselves to address issues that might have otherwise been left to the government — organizing eviction defense, joining street movements against police violence, taking what they need to survive and more. “The revolution is well underway, even though we don’t realize it,” Mancuso says.

Hopefully we’ll do plants proud.