Plant Cuttings Plants & People

Plant blindness eradicated *

Side-view of the human eye, viewed approximately 90 degrees temporal, illustrating how the iris and pupil appear rotated towards the viewer due to the optical properties of the cornea, by Paul Savage

Plant blindness [PB] is the term coined by James Wandersee & Elisabeth Schussler (The American Biology Teacher 61(2): 82–86, 1999; https://doi.org/10.2307/4450624) for the phenomenon in humans whereby plants are not seen – literally overlooked – in nature, and consequently their importance to humanity is not appreciated. It’s also been called zoochauvinism, and zoocentrism, which terms emphasise the perceived pre-eminence and importance of animals above all other forms of life – plants, bacteria, fungi, algae and protozoa, and Archaea.

As Botanists we know the importance of plants** – and related photosynthetic organisms such as algae and cyanobacteria – to the lives of humankind (think: food, textiles, medicines, oxygen, etc., etc.). But, one of the holy grails of plant science communication is to increase the botanical literacy *** generally – and plant awareness specifically – of our fellow human beings. So, to learn that PB has been eradicated is like having all of our botanical Christmases coming at once, and would be a truly monumental achievement which should rightly be celebrated world-wide.

Unfortunately – you knew I was going to rain on the parade, didn’t you?* – plant blindness has NOT been eradicated. Rather, it is the term plant blindness whose eradication is proposed, by Kathryn Parsley (Plants, People, Planet doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153): Why?

Although originally developed as a useful visual metaphor that directs one’s focus upon the problem of plants being unseen or overlooked, use of the word blindness in the term PB is considered ‘ableist’ [“Ableism refers to: A network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is cast as a diminished state of being human (Fiona Campbell, 2001, p. 44)”, cited in Fiona Campbell (2009) Contours of Ableism: The production of disability and abledness, p. 5. London, UK Palgrave Macmillan]****.

In proposing replacement of PB with the phrase plant awareness disparity (PAD), Parsley argues that it avoids the insensitivities inherent in the term plant blindness which “equates a disability (blindness) with a negative or undesirable trait (being unaware of and apathetic toward plants)”. Furthermore, and importantly, whilst removing the ableism associated with the original term, PAD stays true to the four categories – attention, attitude, knowledge, and relative interest – embodied within the concept of PB, and which need to be addressed if the disparity between the public’s awareness of plants and animals is to be eliminated.

Knowing how difficult it is to get the ‘plants are important’ message over to those who need to hear it (e.g. Sarah Jose et al., Plants, People, Planet 1(3): 169-172, 2019; doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.51), anything that we Botanists can do to be more sensitive to, and sensible of, the needs of others – and thereby increase our chances of changing the hearts and minds of the botanically unaware – has to be a good move. Replacement of PB with PAD therefore seems like the right thing to do. Although only a Brief Report, Parsley’s article may represent one of the most important milestones along the path whose ultimate destination is full botanical literacy (in its broadest sense) for all of humanity, and deserves to be widely disseminated, read, discussed, and acted upon.

However, let’s not forget, whatever name we give the phenomenon [Ed. – and there is probably still scope for debate as to what is the best term to use for this phenomenon if ‘plant blindness’ is to be discontinued.] is arguably less important than making every effort to eradicate the mind-set formerly known as plant blindness*****. But, if ‘rebranding’ plant blindness as plant awareness deficit helps to get the message over, then let’s get behind it. We at Cuttings HQ applaud Kathryn Parsley’s intention and intervention. So, let’s all get out there and show plants some love – and show the phytochallenged, botanically-unpersuaded, plant-averse why they should love plants!


* Spoiler alert: It’s important to read the text of the blog item and not just accept a headline – however eye-catching, or attention-grabbing or desirable an outcome – as fact!

** A timely reminder of the importance of plants – and fungi – has been delivered via Kew’s State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report for 2020, many of which concerns and issues are also discussed in articles in a Special Issue of Plants, People, Planet entitled Protecting and sustainably using the world’s plants and fungi, aired in more traditional news outlets (e.g. here, here, and here), and covered by Juniper Kiss on Botany One.

***literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world”, botanical literacy is literacy specifically about plants. For more on botanical literacy, see here, here, and Claire Hemingway et al., (Science 331(6024): 1535-1536, 2011; doi: 10.1126/science.1196979).

**** “The term plant blindness is ableist and problematic because it positions “blindness” as a deficit that must be cured and negates the possibility that blind people can lead lives that are full of rich sensory flora experiences” (Caitlin McDonough Mackenzie et al., Plants, People, Planet 3: 139-141, 2019; doi: 10.1002/ppp3.10062).

***** But awareness disparity is not a phenomenon that’s unique to plants, it is also a problem for the fungi – as mentioned in Nicholas Talbot’s review (Nat. Plants 6, 1068–1069 (2020); https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-020-00767-z) of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life book. As is the current vogue, we also need a suitable acronym for the plight of this kingdom. In alignment with PAD, mycological awareness disparity has been mooted, but MAD is an initialism no doubt beset with its own problems. Fungal awareness disparity – FAD – probably isn’t much better (if ‘fungal blindness’ were just a fad, we could just wait for it to fall out of favour – as fads are wont to do..). So, how about mycopia for the failure to sufficiently appreciate fungi in the wild or in the affairs of humans? The prefix myco- underlines its relevance to the world of fungi and also applies the notion of shortsightedness, which is medically known as myopia, for the failure to ‘see’ fungi and which is a most unsatisfactory and short-sighted state of affairs. Since short- or near-sightedness is an established term that describes a medical condition, mycopia hopefully avoids any suggestion of ableism. Or, since for many hundreds of years, fungi were lumped together with plants – and effectively still are today in the Shenzhen Code 2018, the International Code of Nomenclature for Algae, Fungi, and Plants… – just use PAD to include that kingdom as well? And, we could also extend PAD****** to algae – whether unicellular or multicelled – in the kingdom Protista. And, why not go the whole hog and also allow cyanobacteria to be brought within the all-encompassing term PAD so that all oxygenicphotosynthesising non-animals (and fungi!) are recognised as needing more appreciation? Or, refer to it as ‘aphytopia’, a term inspired by a comment from Prof. Costos Thanos in response to a previous blog item about plant blindness..?

****** There is a rumour that it was considered broadening the concerns more widely beyond just plants to a better appreciation of the roles of Botany and Botanists in an attempt to reduce the public’s awareness disparity relating thereto. But, the acronym of BA… was, well, shall we just say it was not good?

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