Eating Plants With Michael Marder

2.5 min. read (or watch the video)

A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted a link to Aeon Magazine’s article entitled “The minds of plants,” by Laura Ruggles. Kudos to Ruggles, a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide in Australia. She starts off her article with the words: “From the memories of flowers to the sociability of trees, the cognitive capacities of our vegetal cousins are all around us.” Sounds good to me. I am all for a greater sensitivity to the needs of non-linguistic beings.

My friend, who posted the article, provocatively (or thoughtfully) commented: “Will we see tomatoes in the fridge as cadavers some day?” Hmmm. Of course this question is rooted in growing evidence for the (unconscious?) sentience of plants (even if not necessarily their fruit). And it’s not news that many vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat root plants for this very reason. They don’t want to end a life merely for their own enjoyment. Instead, they will gladly accept a plant’s fruit – as a gift to life without having to end a life.

So first we learn that not only humans have feelings, but animals do too. This makes it difficult for many of us to justify killing them. Then we learned that fish — and even what we refer to as “seafood” — suffer pain when hurt or killed. Now they are telling us that in spite of lacking brains, plants are intelligent beings, that they have memory, that they can make decisions based on past experiences, and that they recognize their own relatives versus strangers, and that they can make unpredictable and adaptive behavioral decisions in changing environments. Frankly: as moral beings, what are we left to eat?

There is much to be said on this dilemma. Indigenous societies and their cosmologies have long dealt with it, and we do well to learn from their solutions. Michael Marder — a plant-philosopher in the Western tradition — comes to a similar conclusion. Instead of asking “What can I eat?” He argues we should ask “How am I to eat?” (Marder 2013:185). And his answer is: “Eat like a plant!” (Ibid.). This doesn’t mean we should live on inorganic minerals. For Marder, it means to turn ourselves into “a passage for the other without violating or dominating it…” What he means is to recognize the plant and its gift as a distinct entity (not just as part of a species), and to consciously allow it to live on through us. By so doing, we become one with the plant and the plant with us. Comment below on how you feel about eating others, including plants!

Sources: Aeon Magazine – “The Minds of Plants” – https://aeon.co/essays/beyond-the-animal-brain-plants-have-cognitive-capacities-too

Micheal Marder (2013) “Plant Thinking – A Philosophy of Vegetal Life” Columbia University Press. http://cup.columbia.edu/book/plant-thinking/9780231161251

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.