Really enjoyed getting to know Anishinaabe plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s way of thinking the other day. She spoke on campus about what we can learn from plants. Not some sort of metaphor—Kimmerer draws from indigenous teachings to argue that we should see plants as sovereign, sentient beings. There’s some Western precedent for this, too; apparently Plato argued that plants have souls.
Such a view leads to some interesting perspectives. Kimmerer talked about how “humans and plants worked together to create corn,” a cool way of thinking about the breeding process that turned a Mexican wild grass into the most important food source in the world.
There’s more here than semantics, philosophy, or spirituality. Kimmerer argued that Western cultural dominance has imposed the idea that plants are objects—referred to as “it”—rather than the pronoun we’d use for a living being, and the pronouns that her Potawatomi language still uses. In her view, this objectification is a key precursor to the abuse and exploitation of nature.
For the bulk of human history and until very recently, Kimmerer’s view was the dominant one. She argued that our lives since the Industrial Revolution have been humanity’s first experiment in treating the world as if it isn’t alive. “The results are in, and they don’t look good,” she said. If the grim projections of our environmental future are to be believed, she’s certainly right.
Is Barack a heads or a tails type of guy? We would find out if Socrates (via Gary Gutting) had his way:
GUTTING: I see what you mean. It’s going to be nasty, brutish, and long — not to say immensely expensive — but of course if we want a democracy, there’s no alternative.
SOCRATES: I disagree. You shouldn’t hold the election at all. You should flip a coin instead.
G: You don’t see any difference between Obama and Romney?
S: Oh, I do. I’m very impressed with Obama, no question. He’s intelligent, courageous, self-controlled and has a good sense of justice. Just the sort of person I had in mind for my philosopher-rulers. But none of that’s going to make a difference to the American voters. The election’s likely to be close, and in any case the outcome will turn on the October unemployment report, the price of gas, an Israeli attack on Iran, who has the most money for attack ads in the last two weeks or some other rationally irrelevant factor that you don’t yet have any hint about.
After that, the dialog drifts in a different direction, pondering the pitfalls of democracy in a poorly informed and politically apathetic society. I’ve heard The Case Against Democracy before; I think that first point is far more interesting. Even if we conclude that democracy is desirable, our elections are in effect contests that produce winners at random. If you don’t believe Socrates, google “weather voter turnout.” They say rain on election day is good for Republicans.
I disagree with Gutting’s Socrates that democracy is bad. The issue here is that our current system is democratically impotent. If the outcome of our presidential election can be altered by the October jobs numbers and price of gas, how democratic are we really?
And lastly: Gutting and Socrates made one glaring omission. All of this matters only because our nation is so deeply polarized. Most years the presidential election is, statistically speaking, a tie. What we need is a system that can produce a more decisive winner.