Curing our plant blindness: how we can protect the planet this Earth Day


Earth Day 2019 is calling people to protect the world’s threatened and endangered species.

According to the Earth Day Network, it’s relatively normal for between one and five species to go extinct annually. But scientists now estimate that we’re losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, with some disappearing before we’ve even had time to learn what they offer the planet.

So, which do we need to be worried about?

If your mind went to bees, great apes or sea turtles, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Bonus points if you thought of sharks, giraffes, or birds.

But how many of us remember plants and trees when thinking about endangered species?

There are more than 390,000 species of plants on our planet, with 2,000 more being discovered annually. Yet 8,800 of these are currently threatened with extinction.

Our propensity to favour animals over plants, seeing the latter as merely background material, has been worrying scientists for some time. So much so, that there’s now a diagnosis: “Plant blindness”.

What is plant blindness?

Plant blindness is defined by Wandersee and Schussler (2001) as the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment. It’s particularly common in cities like London, where we live our lives totally disconnected from the natural world.

It’s also down to the sheer volume of information we humans are processing when we open our eyes. The human eye generates over ten million bits of data per second, only 40 of which end up being extracted by our brain for our conscious vision. Most of what we see is therefore processed subconsciously, with huge amounts discarded and never truly ‘seen’.

Our brains prioritise information that might be important (a tiger is more likely to be a threat than a fern) and naturally gravitate towards other things with faces. The homogenous green of a bunch of plants just doesn’t seem to be catching our attention.

So plants are a little dull – why does it matter if I’m noticing them or not?

Wandersee and Schussler’s (2001) research found that those suffering from plant blindness are unable to recognise the importance of plants as part of the wider ecosystem and in our day-to-day lives.

The historic bias against plants means that children are not being taught about them fully at school, while botany degrees have become obsolete in the UK. With a declining interest and expertise in our leafy neighbours, their future is in danger.

Taking the USA as an example, plants account for 57% of the federal endangered species list. However, plant conservation receives less than 3.86% of the federal endangered species expenditure.

Such a dismissive attitude to the conservation of plants is worrying when they’re essential for providing clean air and food, not to mention being the habitat of many animals. Alongside the obvious fact that plants provide us with fruit, nuts and crops, they’re also the basis for many medicines.

Plants also play a key economic role. The Netherlands exported $9.4 billion worth of plants and flowers in 2016, which was completely eclipsed by the USA’s $138 billion of plant-based agricultural products in 2017.

That’s not to mention the cultural and spiritual significance of the natural world, and the fact that many of us can relate to the joy of interaction with plants, whether that be a wedding bouquet or the much-loved tree outside a family home.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. What can we do to save them?

It’s easier than you might think to overcome plant blindness and help protect our flora for the next generation. Here are some simple steps that you can take now to put plants on the national agenda.

  • Take the Earth Day Network pesticide pledge
  • Plant and grow native plants (they have the best chance of survival)
  • Purchase sustainable plant products, from teas to skin care
  • Encourage little ones to take an interest in plants (cress heads, anyone?)

While we strive to protect the lives of the animal kingdom this Earth Day and into the future, let’s not forget the plight of plants.

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