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More than fifty years ago, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 mission became the first to carry a human crew in orbit around the moon. William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell were the first lucky mortals to observe the dark side of our satellite and experience the enchanting spectacle of the rising Earth. In the course of that mission, during one of their ten moon orbits, William Anders took a photo that would become famous, rightfully earning its place among the icons of recent human history: the dawn of the Earth seen from the moon. Every one of us, at one time or another, has seen it reproduced. It shows the terrestrial globe, partially dark in its lower part, with the South Pole on the top left and South America in the center of the picture, rising above the lunar horizon. A blue and green world, with white clouds woven delicately across its entire surface. That picture, dubbed by its author Earthrise and catalogued by NASA with the less poetic entry number AS8-14-2383HR, changed forever our idea of Earth, revealing for us a planet of majestic beauty, but also fragile and delicate. A colorful island of life in an otherwise empty and dark universe.
A planet green with vegetation, white with clouds, and blue with water. These three colors are the signature of our planet but, for one reason or another, they would not exist without plants. Plants are what make Earth the planet we know. Without them, our planet would very much resemble the images we have of Mars or Venus: a sterile ball of rock.
Yet of these beings that make up nearly the totality of living things, which have literally formed our planet, and on which all animals depend—humans, obviously, included—we know extremely little, almost nothing. This is an enormous problem, one that impedes us from understanding how important plants are for life on Earth and for our personal, immediate, survival. By perceiving plants as being much closer to the inorganic world than to the fullness of life, we commit a fundamental error of perspective, which could cost us dearly. In an effort to make up for the scarce awareness and esteem that we have for the vegetable kingdom, given that we humans comprehend only human categories, this book treats plants as though they were part of a nation, or a community, of individuals, who have common origins, customs, histories, organizations, and goals: the Nation of Plants.
Looking at plants in the same way we look at a human nation leads to some surprising results. The Nation of Plants, with its green, white, and blue tricolor flag (they are the colors of our planet and they depend on the presence of plants), is the most populous, important, and extensive nation on Earth (trees alone number more than three trillion). Comprising every single vegetable being on the planet, the Nation of Plants is the nation on which every other living organism depends. So you thought that the superpowers were the true masters of the Earth, or you believed that you depended on the markets of the United States, China, and the European Union? Well, you were wrong.
The Nation of Plants is the only true and eternal planetary power. Without plants, animals would not exist; life itself, perhaps, would not exist on our planet, and if it did, it would be something terribly different. Thanks to photosynthesis, plants produce all the free oxygen present on the planet and all the chemical energy consumed by other living beings. We exist thanks to plants, and we will continue to be able to exist only in their company. It behooves us to keep this idea clear at all times.
Even if they behave as though they were, humans are not the masters of the Earth, but only one of the most unpleasant and irksome residents in the condominium. From the moment of their arrival, about 300,000 years ago—nothing compared to the history of life on our planet, which goes back to 3.8 billion years ago—humans have succeeded in the challenging enterprise of changing the conditions of the planet so drastically as to make it a dangerous place for their own survival. The causes of this reckless behavior lie partly in humans’ inherently predatory nature and partly, I believe, in our total incomprehension of the rules that govern the existence of a community of living beings. The last to arrive on the planet, we behave like children who wreak havoc, unaware of the value and significance of the things they are playing with.
I have imagined that plants, like attentive parents, have come to our aid once again, after making it possible for us to live and realizing our incapacity to develop autonomously, by giving us rules—in reality, their very own constitution—to use as a guidebook for the survival of our species.
This is just what the book you now have in hand is about: the eight fundamental pillars on which the life of plants rests. One more than the seven pillars of wisdom of T. E. Lawrence (the famous Lawrence of Arabia), but with no pretense to wisdom, just to plain convenience.
Imagining a constitution written by plants, for which I serve as a go-between with our world, is the playful exercise that has given birth to this book.
A constitution written by plants, and in the place of plants, by someone who knows nothing about legal matters. My brother, who on the contrary is an erudite super-magistrate, warned me immediately about the risks I was taking by playing with sacred texts and advised me to forget about it. Like all good brothers, I did not listen to him, so now all I can do is hope in the clemency of the court for the inevitable inaccuracies that I have managed to stick into the few articles of the Constitution of the Nation of Plants.
It is a short constitution; based on the general principles that regulate the common life of plants, it establishes norms applicable to all living beings. Humans, in fact, are not the center of the universe, but just one of the many million species that by populating the planet form the community of the living. This community is the subject of the vegetable constitution; not a single species or a few groups of species, but all of life taken together.
Compared to our constitutions, which place humans at the center of the entire juridical reality, in conformity with an anthropocentricism that reduces to things all that is not human, plants offer us a revolution. As in one of those sentences where it is enough to change the tone or the accent on a single word to change the overall meaning into its diametrical opposite, so the constitution of plants, by shifting the accent from a single species to the whole community, helps us to understand the rules that govern life.
In the pages that follow, you’ll find the articles of the Constitution of the Nation of Plants, just as they were suggested to me by plants themselves in my by-now-multidecade familiarity with these dear fellow travelers. Each article is accompanied by a brief explanation that should help to clarify its significance. Enjoy.
Address to the United Nations General Assembly by the Representative of the Nation of Plants
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary General, honored guests, and distinguished delegates:
I am here today representing the Nation of Plants to direct to this noble assembly an appeal that can no longer be postponed. The indiscriminate use of the resources of our planet, the increasing pollution of its atmosphere, and the resulting change in our climate are the most serious threat that humanity has ever faced in the course of its very brief existence. I make this appeal, therefore, to each and every one of you and to the nations you represent, so that you will begin to modify your behavior, before the consequences of your conduct become fatal. If you do not change right away, the damage for people and for all the natural systems that sustain you will be irreparable.
Today, for the first time, our nation, the oldest and most populous on Earth, asks for the floor and it speaks to you, beseeching you to listen to us and to consider our words with attention and sagacity. We have sustained animal life, including yours, ever since the beginning. The planet that we inhabit is alive because we are here. Water, oxygen, the climate depend on us. We are the engine of life. Be conscious of that.
Over time, you have learned to use us. We are the basis of your food chain: everything you eat comes from us. Your most important sources of energy come from us. Your medical care depends on us. We supply you with building materials, fabrics, colors, beverages, beauty, health, and endless other benefits. You have learned very well how to use what we produce. But now the time has come for you to begin also to use what we can teach you.
In China, in the area of Beijing, you are constructing a single urban agglomerate that will soon host 130 million inhabitants. Within thirty years from today, more than 70 percent of the human population will be concentrated in urban areas. Seventy percent of carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming, is produced in cities, from where it is dispersed into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, our great forests are only able to absorb 40 percent of it. Even though the arboreal population of our nation numbers three billion individuals, we are still too few and too distant from the places where you produce carbon dioxide for us to be able to help you effectively.
Use us better immediately! Cover your cities with plants, not just in parks, flower beds, roadsides, and on gardens and terraces, but by wrapping every possible surface in plants! We adapt much better and much faster than you do. In a very short time, we learned to absorb carbon dioxide in those environments where it is present in the highest concentrations, like your cities. If we are closer to the places of production, we absorb much, much more . . . and we use it to grow. Transform your cities into urban jungles, and the benefits you will receive will be incalculable.
In 2017, during a seminar at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, one of your leaders whom we most admire, Pope Francis I, said: “I wonder if this piecemeal third world war that we are living through is not actually becoming a world war for water.” He was right: 90 percent of the wars that afflict your bellicose species today are happening along the so-called drought line, in areas where there’s less than a hundred millimeters (four inches) of rain per year—the limit under which you are not able to cultivate us. A billion people do not have access to secure sources of drinking water, and another four billion suffer from a scarcity of water for at least one month per year. Drought and soil aridity are causing you problems that you are unable to manage. Because of the drying up of water resources, desertification, reduced access to fertile lands, and famines, hundreds of millions of members of your species do not survive.
How can you imagine a future in these conditions? Yet you keep on consuming 70 percent of the planet’s available drinking water for agriculture. Look around, two-thirds of the globe are submerged in salt water. Let me say it again: learn from us. We know how to live on salt water alone. Our halophyte sisters evolved for this reason. Use our knowledge, and you can transform the oceans into an immense reservoir that you can draw on to feed the planet, without consuming the drinking water that is so necessary for you.
And then energy. Some 80 percent of your supply derives from fossil resources: petroleum, coal, natural gas. Fossil fuels created by our nation over millions of years, which you are exhausting and whose consumption is the principal cause of the climate change now in progress. You have to find more sustainable models of development for the future of your species. Current renewable energy sources are a possible solution, but they are costly and probably not as clean as needed. We can assure you that obtaining clean and potentially infinite energy is possible. Imitate our photosynthesis: a process that allows us to transform sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen. Artificial photosynthesis would resolve all of your energy problems. Its possible applications would be endless, and they would invert the normal process of producing waste. You can replace polluting systems that produce energy with a system that, by producing energy, cleans the air.
You are animals, and as such preying on and killing other living beings is your nature. We understand that. But there is a difference between preying on and destroying, and your actions are rapidly bringing on a mass extinction. Hundreds of thousands of species are threatened by your behavior; almost two-thousand five hundred square miles of forest are disappearing every month, and with them, the ecosystem that ensures the survival of countless organisms. Do not be surprised if your species too, humanity, ends up suffering the consequences. Some of you have already been affected. The ever-higher numbers of viruses and microorganisms that are passing from other animals to people are one of the most direct consequences of the alteration of natural ecosystems. Sixty percent of the new infectious diseases discovered on a global level are zoonotic, and of the thirty new human pathogenic agents discovered in the last three decades, 75 percent have had animal origins. Ebola, SARS CoV-2 (aka the novel coronavirus), and HIV are just a few of them. We know and you know that your behaviors are the causes of your problems.
Life is a complex and unpredictable network of relationships, in which each living species is but a simple node. Every species depends on the network staying as intact as possible. The systematic elimination of organisms and environments is destroying the network that allows you to survive. The coronavirus pandemic that has struck you is like a small tremor of this network. Be wise and take remedial actions, or the next shock could have more dramatic consequences. In these months of confinement and quarantine, you have lived for a brief period of your lives like plants. Unable to move from the places where you live, remaining stationary inside your houses, you have had a chance to better appreciate the environment that surrounds you. You have learned not to waste resources that your life depends on. You have communicated more often and better with your neighbors. You have come to understand the importance of community. In sum, for a brief period you have come closer to the life of plants. Do not forget that.
If you would dedicate to plant research just one-tenth of what you spend on technology research, you would be saved. Up to now, you have preferred to do otherwise. Change! Now! We can teach you how to obtain energy from the sun; how to depollute our only planet, returning it to its ancient wonder; how to create organizations that are more democratic, decentralized, strong, with which to face a future you are now afraid of. In 2060, there will be ten billion of you, and you are asking yourselves how our planet will be able to maintain you all. Stop worrying! That is not the problem.
Stop considering the other members of your species as rivals, as consumers of resources on the way to extinction. Take inspiration from us, reason and organize yourselves as we do, and three billion more human beings will become an enormous resource. Because every individual is a resource, an opportunity, a potential contributor to the solution of our collective problems. Open up your communities. Be cooperative. Closed borders do not protect your wealth; they only make you poorer.
Honorable Secretary General, dear delegates: we have asked for the floor because we believe it is the duty of our ancient nation to help you today, as always in the past. But we are not so used to talking. We are quiet by nature and you animals are so restless . . . always ready to run away from problems rather than resolving them. You are wearying, impulsive, proud. You prefer speed over contemplation, ephemeral power over the glory of life. The number of your shortcomings would not allow for excuses, but you are still a very young and inexpert species that knows how to learn fast. Do not be hardheaded. Do not persevere in error. Learn from those who have more experience than you, and you will have a radiant future. We leave you as a gift our constitution, with the wish that it may help you to find the road to a long and happy cohabitation with us and our marvelous planet. Take care of yourselves.
I now return to the joys of my community.