THE BROWN STUFF UNDER OUR FEET IS ALIVE, AND COGNITIVE GREEN THINGS GROW IN IT

The American educator Professor Emeritus Robert Sylwester once said, “plants don’t have a brain because they are not going anywhere.” But, he might be very wrong!

In my professional life, I’m engaged in looking for sustainable solutions to large-scale global challenges like water shortage, climate change, ocean pollution, hunger and universal healthcare. And I’m happy to tell you that there are some brilliant solutions out there.

In my private life, I work a lot in my garden. It makes sense to me to make my small plot of land thrive, bloom, die and start over again. Garden work has taught me something about plants and soil, and made me realise that there is one dominant global challenge out there that we know far too little about: the challenge of how to take care of and understand soil and plants. This might even be the challenge above all else, and the one that really threatens our existence if we don’t act upon it.

To many of us, soil is merely the brownish substance below the asphalt, in the forests and in our gardens. For centuries, the common belief has been that we have three different kinds of soil: sandy soil, silt soil and loamy soil. But, soil-obsessed scientists have now determined that we have hundreds -even thousands- of different kinds of soil. They even discovered that one teaspoon of any kind of soil houses more creatures than the number of people living on the entire planet. Despite this, and despite the fact that our entire planet actually relies on soil to grow food, we have been using it up and leaving it infertile. Not good.

Let’s move from soil to plants. Back to Professor Sylwester’s statement that plants have no brain. The other day, I had the enormous pleasure of talking to Stefano Mancuso, who is a pioneer in the study of plant neurobiology and leads the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology at the University of Florence. Needless to say, Stefano doesn’t agree with the Professor. On the contrary, he describes plants as “dynamic and highly sensitive organisms that actively and competitively forage for limited resources, both above and below ground; they accurately compute their circumstances, use sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and take defined actions to mitigate and control diverse environmental insults.” He also explains that plants are “capable of a refined recognition of self and non-self and are territorial in behaviour.” 

This new view sees plants as information processing organisms with each individual plant possessing its own complex communication system.

Boom! Who would have thought that our green surroundings are all cognitive beings? Plants have senses-even more than we do- they communicate with each other and with animals. They play, they have character, they learn survival strategies and even have social lives. But, even more interestingly, plants are distributed beings. As humans, we are centralised beings. We have one central brain that controls our behaviour, and our senses are mainly centralised around our faces: sight, hearing, taste etc. But plants? Plants listen with their entire being, feel light and even drink with their entire beings.

It’s clear that we can learn a lot from these decentralised beings. When we design, for instance, we design from a centralised point of view. We design motors, machines and computers with one centralised brain. This makes them vulnerable to flaws and attacks. If we learn from plants, we could design much more resilient, decentralised systems and products. We could learn about silent communication over miles and receive unique insight into how to cope with all the globes’ problems.

The importance of us understanding much more about plants and soil is far broader than the current discussion on whether to spring dig your garden soil or not. It’s about learning and understanding, and it’s about making sure that we can eat food, breathe air and fight CO2 in the future.

It’s clear that as a species we must start to understand the ground under our feet and the strange green beings living in it.

See Stefano Mancuso’s inspiring TED Talk about plants here:

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