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« Who Really Killed Trayvon Martin? (Norman Costa) | Main | If you can't say something nice ... redux »

April 14, 2012


Now, meat eaters do have legitimate ethical issues to contend with; are the food habits of smug vegans up for debate too?

Prasad, I must confess that your post about the dignity (and other feelings) of plants caught me a bit flat footed, given the time of the year. It is spring time and I am gardening furiously. You can't imagine the thoughts that cross my mind when I plant new plants and move or discard old ones. Some have to do with my own botanical knowledge and aesthetics and others, believe it or not, are projections of what the plants themselves may be "feeling." I am quite ruthless with some old vegetations ("Off with their heads / roots") and highly sentimental with others. I got rid of a whole row of mature azaleas without batting my eyes. They had been in my front yard ever since we bought the house and I never liked them much. Then there was this lone gerbera daisy, five years old, its foliage wilting and yellowing but still blooming valiantly. I decided to uproot it and replace with a new flowering plant. It felt like euthanizing a pet!

I mourn over lost plants, like the sour cherry that we lost to some black fungus last year. It had a companion tree, that showed signs of the same fungus. But to my surprise, the second tree survived the attack of the fungus, maybe it was primed to do so by the larger one nearby that was attacked and didn't survive.

Plus, we have a number of what arborists term 'noble trees'. They shed tons of leaves, but I would rather hug them than allow them to be cut down.

Dignity of Plants- I'm all for it. Dignity of Stink bugs, not so much:)

I love the fact that the Committee's helpful diagram is a decision "tree."

Decisions have dignity too.

Hmm, interesting. I think plants contribute to ecosystems and are pretty to boot, sort of like topsoil or rock formations. It would be unfortunate to destroy the Ayers Rock for example, even if no-one imbued it with sacred value. That applies to plants even more clearly than to mountains or rivers. Plant welfare/rights/dignity otoh, especially as applied to individual plants, that seems weird to me. I don't know what it could mean to cause harm to a plant, in a way that's distinguished from causing harm to a stream or a stalactite. I know there are people who think bonsai is ''cruel'' but it's clearly different from bonsai kittens.

On the other hand, I do understand feeling bad for plants one has tended. I maintained a few dahlia plants one winter as a child, I think I was about eleven at the time. Of course they didn't exactly thrive in the Delhi summer (or maybe they just die in a few months, dunno) so I spent about two weeks that summer tending to dying winter plants, watering them frequently and keeping them in cool places. And then I was miserable when they died anyway.

I think it's natural (and human) to feel that way, but we feel it about lots of things - teddy bears, mementos and keepsakes, photographs most obviously. I think we can do that (optionally, that is) without heavyweight ethical notions analogous to introducing the dignity and rights of family heirlooms and pet rocks.

I think it's natural (and human) to feel that way, but we feel it about lots of things - teddy bears, mementos and keepsakes, photographs most obviously. I think we can do that (optionally, that is) without heavyweight ethical notions analogous to introducing the dignity and rights of family heirlooms and pet rocks.

I agree. My comment was tongue-in-cheek. It is not a good idea to bring in "dignity" or other forms of anthropomorphizing issues when debating hybridization of plants or the common sense stewardship of the eco-system, that impact us as much as they do the plants.

Speaking of bonsai trees, I know that Rabindranath Tagore, a huge fan of Japanese art, did not like them on account of what he considered the "cruel" treatment of plants. He introduced several art forms from the far east in the curriculum of Viswabharati University and had many Japanese students at Santiniketan. But he did not encourage the Japanese bonsai tree culture on the campus. I have a vaguely similar attitude. Nonetheless, I own a bonsai tree that was a birthday gift from my daughter seven years ago. I have tended to it carefully and it is still thriving. When I go away on long trips, I board it with a local nursery that specializes in bonsai and other exotic flora, rather than leave it in the care of a neighbor. All this of course, has to do with my own attachment to the tree and not what the bonsai may or may not "feel." But bonsai cats? I did see that report and not surprisingly, it made me furious. (I will post a picture of my bonsai on FB)

Dr. J.C. Bose the brilliant Indian scientist polymath did believe that plants can "feel pain, understand affection etc.".

Miya Masaoka, among others, has prepared and played mechanisms for creating music based on the responses of plants to human interactions.

I, too, find talk of the dignity of plants a little unsettling. But look up "dignity" in the dictionary. Perhaps the undue anthropomorphizing occurs at the lexical level. The word means "The quality of being worthy or honourable; worthiness, worth, nobleness, excellence." I'd expected to find a more subjectively determined definition, something more like self-worth. When I think of dignity I imagine a subject measuring his or her own worth, but that dynamic doesn't appear in the definitions.

@ Dean:

When I least expect it, you come up with some of the most instructive, informative, and interesting ideas from a dictionary. Of course, it helps enormously, to our benefit, that you have access to the OED. I don't. Maybe prasad does.

@ All:

Initially, I thought this was a "Let's play odd-ball," piece like prasad's "If you can't say something nice." Now I find it interesting for some deeper notions. My first thought - especially after reading Ruchira's first comment - was the practice of some indigenous peoples to apologize to a killed animal for taking a life, then thanking the dead creature for providing sustaining food, and wishing their spirits well on their cyclical journey of rebirth, life, death, and rebirth. Such peoples see themselves as one with all creation in the same cycle of life.

Evil is gratuitous slaughter, and unnecessary suffering. Good is preserving a sustaining world. I thought the same ideas might be helpful in thinking about plants, after Ruchira talked more about life and death in her own garden. This is not leading me to any particular insights, except to take a few moments and reflect on these things, and learn from others who commented.

When I looked at the two linked articles, something else popped up. [FULL DISCLOSURE: This is totally personal opinion and speculation.] What the hell, I thought, is the issue of plant dignity being explored in the context of the Swiss Constitution? The Swiss didn't seem to care about dignity when they took the money of Jews, for safe keeping, before WW2. Nor after when survivors and their heirs came to claim their assets. Is this monumental overcompensation? Have they lost their way? Or are they on to something?

I think [here comes the speculation part] that it is the beginning of a defense against unbridled genetic modification of organisms, and the patenting of life forms. The issues are more than the highly circumscribed matters of science and patent law, or even the ethics that are narrowly confined to them. This is a shot across the bow of Monsanto who is taking the most outrageous steps to control the world - or at least their part of it. The issues go beyond ethics associated with GMOs. This is about power, politics, and profit.

Monsanto has been able to get local law and policies to require planters to buy only GMO seeds at very high prices, even when the seeds were not designed for that environment and geography. When farmers went to plant seed from their harvest, they were taken to court for impinging on the patent. You can no longer plant the seed from your own harvest. This establishes an eternal commercial servitude.

So, I see this as far more than the dignity of a basil plant. Corporate Personhood will see to it that we eventually have a Corporate Personhood crowned Emperor.

See Norman, where a bit of reflection takes us, even when the starting point is something that appears at first glance to be a "What the hell," "Let's play oddball" type of conversation.

Ruchira, I remember the idea of cruelty to plants being almost axiomatic in many upper class and caste Indian circles, because of religion, Bose, Tagore, chipko etc. Don't have anything to add, just noting that from very different starting points it's a pretty interesting view to have large marketshare, especially if you try to harmonize with other views also prevalent.

Dean, I don't know if the word dignity itself is the issue, but the subjective thing seems to be right. Any word (be it welfare or rights or utility or dignity or what have you) is going to lead to problems re plants if we think in terms of plants having them for their own sake and not for the sake of something else.

Norman, your speculations are spot-on! I came by the 'dignity of plants' quote while reading Stewart Brand's recent book, googled and found the two links I posted. He talks extensively about genetic crop modification, and makes the point that property/profit, IP and local crop customization are much more useful issues to bear in mind than nature or destructive frankenfood. He's strongly in favor of university and public sector GM, and of private sector GM provided people below an income threshold get access. I think terminator gene is a red herring. It was never introduced into anything, and Brand points out that it was thought up in large part because people get so panicky about GM genes leaking into the ecosystem. Plus most "normal" hybrid seeds are purchased anyway since they don't breed true. Re the Swiss nazi thing, have you seen the Daily Show segment with the Swiss ambassador? If you haven't that should be the next ten minutes of your life :)


Great segment on The Daily Show. And Jon Oliver is one of my favorites.

I have an alternate interpretation, however. The Swiss see the Muslim minarets as competition for their own Swiss minarets.

More food for thought, Prasad.

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