Applied plant ethics should be thought of as an emerging field in applied ethics, engaged in a philosophically systematic reflection on the many roles that plants and their manipulation or cultivation can play in at least three broad reference domains: environmental ethics, business ethics and the ethics of technology. Today, these three domains are evolving rapidly in response to the accelerated pace of real-world global changes. These changes are so radical and pervasive as to have attracted the label of “epochal”, and it has been suggested that a change in the geological taxonomy of the epoch we live in, from Holocene to Anthropocene, is in order. Humans in the Anthropocene can finance and pursue activities that enable and/or require the technological manipulation, alteration and possibly transformation of the planet, from the global climate system to the biology of individual organisms. Plants are among the entities of nature that are being and will be most extensively and intensively manipulated, altered and transformed.
Applied plant ethics is one vantage point from which to observe and discern the manifold, new and complex ways in which environmental ethics, business ethics, and the ethics of technology are evolving and mingling in the Anthropocene. Reflections on these developments can be relevant not just to plant ethics and applied ethics, but also to normative ethics more generally (as we attempt to articulate values and norms that go beyond those that refer to animal life, be it human or non-human), to political philosophy (insofar as these developments trigger questions of governance, representation, legitimacy and justice), as well as, beyond philosophy, to sustainability studies more generally (as we highlight the central roles that plants play and can further play in structuring forms of human life that can successfully manage the accelerated global changes and challenges of the Anthropocene).
In environmental ethics plants are of relevance to conservation issues (of individual plants, populations, species, habitats, landscapes, and eco-systems), and to climate change, where plants-related issues arise when it comes to forest use and management, possible effects of the change on plant growth, plant adaptation to rising temperatures (including adaptation through climate-induced relocation or genetic transformation), increased invasions of alien species, the future of subsistence as well as industrial agriculture, and some forms of geo-engineering. Plants are also relevant to urban environments as elements of that “green infrastructure” that can play a central role in urban climate adaptation as well as ex situ biodiversity conservation, while also being a crucial source of wellbeing for urbanites. In the ethics of technology, plants are obviously relevant to various incarnations of bio-technology research and practice, such as genetic modification including gene-editing through CRISPR/Cas techniques, as well as to the emerging field of synthetic biology. Less obviously, their unsurpassed adaptive capacities make plants fertile models for bio-mimetic sustainable design, as well as for robotics and the development of materials. In business ethics, plants are clearly relevant to agricultural production and consumption, to pharmaceutical research and development, as well as to (legal and illegal) trade in endangered species.
The list is far from exhaustive. In addition, many of these issues intersect in complex ways: for example, climate change is partly due to deforestation which is in turn partly driven by food demands; as climate change worsens, less arable land and water remain available, which in turn stimulates bio-technological research on climate-wise crops and investments in various forms of precision agriculture, likely driven by AI – research and investment that are often funded by businesses in view of market advantage. Plants are present at every step of this sequence, and at each of these steps multiple and important ethical issues arise that can be usefully illuminated from a plant ethics perspective. In the background stand the larger political questions of how to govern the various steps of this and other sequences, who should legitimately do it, in whose name, and with what authority, and of the justice of the resulting distributions of benefits and burdens – not just among present humans but also among present and future humans and among humans and other species. At a higher level of generality, plant ethics can also be important to ethics and political philosophy when it comes to reflecting on the challenges of an ethics and a politics that can accommodate new ways for humans to relate and co-exist with the radically other-than-human that plants are. Such not-for-humans-only ethics and politics is particularly opportune in the Anthropocene.
In short, applied plant ethics is crucially important to a number of human issues of the future (from climate adaptation to food security and sovereignty, from bio-engineering and synthetic biology to conservation, from urban sustainability to robotics). A philosophical meta-suggestion that seems to follow is that fields in applied ethics that are typically considered in isolation can and should in fact be brought together around this topic (and indeed many others), in ways that will also enable and require important advances in normative ethics and political philosophy.
Among the questions that applied plant ethics would be called to grapple with, are:
- How should we evaluate the losses of individual plants, plant populations, plant species, plant habitats, plants-rich landscapes and ecosystems - or simply their transformations - that rising global temperatures can be expected to cause?
- From the perspective of plant ethics, what is bad or unfair about letting the climate change, and who or what is wronged: plants themselves, peoples whose material and cultural heritage is tied to plants, future generations?
- What is the stance of plant ethics in regards to the many arguments that have been advanced, on environmental grounds, in favor of vegetarianism?
- What is the stance of plant ethics in regards to the debate on the moral acceptability of ex situ biodiversity protection, and of seed banking?
- What is the stance of plant ethics with regards to invasive plant species?
- From the perspective of plant ethics, what is the moral status of non-mainstream, climate-wise forms of agriculture such as permaculture and agro-ecology?
- What are the ecological and moral justifications for urban planning that includes plants as protagonists of climate-wise urban design?
- What institutional conditions, and what forms of political participation and at what scale, are required in order to bring plants and plant-related human (and animal) interests to bear on policy-making for the Anthropocene?
- What is the stance of plant ethics in regards to synthetic biology (i.e. the technologically- mediated creation of living organisms, including plants)?
- What forms of bio-technology and plant manipulation more generally, and under what circumstances (ecological as much as economic and political), can be considered morally justified from the perspective of plant ethics?
- What forms of plant-centered geo-engineering (including a range of possibilities, from re-afforestation to the enhancement of plants’ metabolic capacities for photosynthesis) can be considered morally justified from the perspective of plant ethics?
- What should designers and engineers learn from plant life? What are the promises and moral and political controversies of (specifically) plant-inspired bio-mimicry in accelerating fields like robotics?
- What is the stance of plant ethics with regards to data-driven and AI-directed precision agriculture? How does such evolution in cultivation technology change the relation between humans and plants?
- Can plant ethics provide distinctive normative guidelines for ethical business in the food sector?
- Can plant ethics provide distinctive normative guidelines for ethical business in the real estate sector?
- Can plant ethics provide distinctive normative guidelines for ethical business in the energy (i.e. biofuel) sector?
- Is it morally justified for food businesses to breed and select the most marketable varieties of crops and fruits if that accelerates the loss of less marketable varieties, thus decreasing biodiversity with accompanying eco-systemic and social costs?
- Is massive deforestation a crime against humanity?
- Should there be a market for endangered plant species whose in situ survival is endangered by climate change and other systemic source of habitat loss or degradation? What form would it take?
- Is there anything peculiarly wrong with the poaching of wild plants (as contrasted to the poaching of wild animals)?
- What, if any, are the moral obligation of businesses towards plants, as well as towards members of cultures and traditions whose crops or knowledge of plants can be profitably marketed?
- What are the implications, in terms of intra- and inter-generational justice, of the emergence of an oligopolistic network of large agrochemical multinationals dictating plant research, biological structures, commercialization, and conservation?
Reflection on these questions and other will raise further issues in normative ethics (when it comes to articulating values and norms that should guide the application of plant ethics to different domains) and in political philosophy (when it comes to considering the governance of accelerated global changes that impact plant life or plant-related human and animal interests; the legitimacy of the actors that shape such governance at different scales; and the fairness of the resulting distributions of benefits and burdens – among present humans, among present and future humans, and among humans and other species). Its great fecundity; its relevance to our everyday practices, our planet’s dynamics, and our epoch; and the intellectual challenges that are posed by systematic reflection on plants - their features, histories, values, meanings and roles in our lives, as well as on what counts as virtuous way of relating to and co-existing with them in the Anthropocene - establish applied plant ethics as one of the most urgent, innovative and promising fields in applied ethics and in philosophy more generally.