Will ignorance destroy our civilization
Knowledge: "If we continue like this, our species will die out"
The world is in the middle of a virus pandemic. Why does it make sense to use the plants as a guide now?
Stefano Mancuso: Let's see what we've done first. One of the consequences of our catastrophic fingerprint that we leave on earth is the spread of many diseases, many viruses that pass from animals to humans. We have known that for years. In 2009, the journal Nature presented a study showing that the transition of epidemic diseases from animals to humans has tripled in the past 40 years.
And are we responsible for that?
Mancuso: Without doubt. The main reason is that we are destroying the animals' natural refuge. We are destroying the habitats of bats that carry coronaviruses, we are destroying the primeval forests, we are building new cities where there weren't any before. The transfer of such viruses to humans is therefore unavoidable. Let's look at the plants. They have been on earth for millions of years and know how to survive here. Humans, on the other hand, only think of themselves, we have a completely anthropocentric view of everything. But if we only look at the world from our perspective, we as a species will not survive. I don't mean it morally, it's really just a question of survival for me.
Why should the anthropocentric view be dangerous?
Mancuso: We are not really aware that we are part of nature. We are not beings that exist outside of this context. Our survival as a species is only guaranteed if the survival of the other species is certain. For us as humans it is necessary that this community of species be preserved on earth.
"A typical expression of human stupidity"
So what can we learn from plants?
Mancuso: A plant would never use more resources than are available to it. Plants can only use the resources that are in the piece of earth on which they live. It's not much different with us. We are stuck on this planet, of course the area is much larger. But the thought is the same: we cannot use more resources than the earth can give us. But that's exactly what we're doing. We pretend that the resources are infinitely available. This is a typical expression of human stupidity.
On the other hand, they represent the thesis of the “intelligence” of plants. Why?
Mancuso: I often argue about the alleged superiority of human intelligence over the intelligence of plants. The ultimate goal of a species is the survival of its own species. Reproduction is the first goal. Everything else is secondary. From this perspective, humans are by far one of the least viable species that ever existed on earth.
In what way?
Mancuso: We have been on earth as a species for 300,000 years. What we call human civilization has existed for about 15,000 years. And during this time, especially in the last few years, we have managed, so to speak, at breakneck speed, to bring the planet into the wretched state it is in now.
As a species, we are still comparatively young ...
Mancuso: The average life of a species on earth is five million years. To stay on average, we would have to exist as a species for 4.7 million years, an unimaginably long time for us. We think in a few thousand years. Will we still exist in 1000 years? Who knows! If we go on like this, certainly not.
Is our intelligence, brain, or mind really at the heart of the problem?
Mancuso: The idea that we are superior to other living beings is the greatest source of our problems. We think our great and logical brain that we are so proud of is our strength. That our brain makes us superior to other living beings. On the other hand, I claim: Anyone who claims that has never read Darwin and does not even know what he was actually claiming in his theory of evolution.
"We use the brain as a disadvantage"
How is the theory of evolution to be understood?
Mancuso: The fact that we have this brain that enables us to do things that other living things cannot does has no bearing on evolution. The only interesting question is, does this ability help us keep our species alive longer or less? Is it an evolutionary advantage or a disadvantage? It's all about this. The brain can, of course, become an evolutionary asset, but we are not currently using it that way. We use the brain as a disadvantage.
What role does climate change play?
Mancuso: One of the consequences of global warming is that the animals are moving north. A migration of life from south to north is already underway because it is too hot in the south. This in turn means that we will come into contact with animal species that we have never had anything to do with. The temperature of an organism is the most important parameter with regard to any chemical, physical or biological reaction. The most optimistic models predict a temperature increase of six degrees by the end of the century. It's an apocalyptic scenario. But we don't understand. We don't even have a vague idea of what's going to happen.
What's going to happen?
Mancuso: Pandemics will become even more common in the future. Deadly viruses also existed in the Middle Ages, also in the past centuries. The epidemics remained local. Today it is different. It doesn't matter whether an epidemic breaks out in China, Italy, Japan or Spain. Within a week it spreads all over the world. This is another reason why we will have to deal with these dangers more and more in the future. It really seems to me that nature is giving us one last chance, some kind of friendly nudge.
"We live in a kind of vegetative state"
What do you mean by that? So far, Covid-19 has claimed around 80,000 deaths worldwide.
Mancuso: In relation to the world population, the number of deaths is low. The message is: if you don't change, if you don't adapt to nature, apocalyptic things will happen. A few months ago, 19 degrees Celsius were measured in Antarctica. 19 degrees in the Antarctic is unimaginable! We should really take the current pandemic as an indication. If we don't change, and do it quickly, we can expect much worse in the future.
If we changed so quickly, could it be quickly reversed?
Mancuso: Yes, but we have to take immediate action, all of us. It is impressive to see how many people are currently behaving in exactly the same way. We are all at home, I would not have thought that rather undisciplined populations like the Italian or the Spanish would meet the requirements in such a closed manner and stay in their homes. That makes me feel positive. Because that means you can change behavior very quickly, provided you explain the consequences to people.
How would the plants react to such a challenge? What could we learn from them now?
Mancuso: Well, we're all living in a kind of vegetative state right now. A few billion people in the world. We cannot move freely. The plants always live that way. Your most important recipe for success is your sense of community. We could copy it. Only in a few exceptions do plants compete with other plants or living beings. Instead of competing, they create communities that live together. Plants, animals, insects, microorganisms.
"Cooperation is more promising for survival"
But in a forest, don't the trees compete for light?
Mancuso: Our forests are all man-made. In Europe we no longer have original forests, but human-planted ones. Basically there is no difference between a corn field and a planted forest. This has nothing to do with real plants that develop naturally in their environment. We have to imagine a real forest, a primeval forest, less as a collection of individuals, but rather as a single mega-individual, a superorganism in which everything is connected and in which a constant exchange of information, nutrients and resources takes place.
What does that mean transferred to us?
Mancuso: The most important factor in evolution is not competition. Our brain can help us take the next step. That would be not to rise above other living beings, but to understand a form of life like that of plants and to see that cooperation is much more successful than competition. Cooperation is much more promising for the survival of the species.
You said earlier that species that are of no use to the whole are dying out. Is this the context of the current pandemic?
Mancuso: A few decades ago, British scientist James Lovelock came up with a great theory called the Gaia Hypothesis. It says: We have to imagine our planet with all living beings as one big living being. The earth is a single living being. Everything is in balance, just like with humans. With us, the pH value in the blood must always remain roughly the same or the sugar content. If not, mechanisms take effect that provide the necessary compensation. We call this homeostasis. James Lovelock assumed the same for Earth. If there is some factor causing an imbalance, in this case people with their actions, the mega-organism takes precautions to restore homeostasis and bring all parameters into balance. Seen in this light, the current pandemic is really a wave of the fence post.
The question is whether we understand the message and respond ...
Mancuso: It's a bit like the Mafia. The first time she warns you and breaks a little something. Next time she'll plant a bomb and then she'll kill you.
Stefano Mancuso, 54, is a professor of botany, neurobiologist and best-selling author. He teaches at the University of Florence and is the founder of the International Laboratory for Plant Neurobiology (LINV). His books such as “Die Intelligence der Pflanzen” (2016) and “Pflanzenrevolution” (2018) have also been published in German.
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