Panel 13: Theory



Panel 13: Theory

What Might Critical Plant Studies Contribute to Climate Change Discourse?

John Ryan, University of Western Australia

The field of “critical plant studies” has been growing recently, a field which attempts to follow in the steps of “human-animal studies” and grant agency and autonomy–and therefore more rights–to plants. This paper looks at how these studies may further climate change discourse, as the plant world has already seen well-documented disturbances from climatic events. (more).

Public Folklore and Environments, Environmental Folklore: Methods in Documenting Vernacular Cultures of Response to Ecological Change

Jess Lamar Reece Holler & Bethani Turley, University of Pennsylvania, Ohio State University

Folklorists have long grappled with questions concerning the environment. This talk will explore this rich history and take up the urgent opportunity of folkloristic perspectives on environment in the Anthropocene (more).


Q & A

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16 replies
  1. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi all,
    Thanks for viewing my talk. I’m keen to hear your ideas about critical plant studies and the role of plants in climate change discourse. What do you think?
    All the best

    • Rick Thomas says:

      Hi John,

      Great talk-were the photos all yours? I was intrigued when you mentioned how CPS could strengthen the ethical standing of beings historically relegated lower in the chain of life, and it reminded me of another question that’s been on my mind for awhile. Quick note: my background is in ecology and I actually assisted with research at the University of Minnesota (though not the exact study you mentioned) on plant responses to anticipated climate change events; what we did was expose different boreal species to a heating and drought treatment to mimic conditions expected in that region due to global warming. Although related to changing the narrative only tangentially, I was wondering what your thoughts were to such experiments through a CPS lens? I think the usefulness of such studies is without question, as it helps us identify which species are particularly vulnerable and can inform management decisions now, though I never landed on a decision regarding the ethics surrounding them before, as there’s no doubt we made conditions pretty miserable for those trees…would love to hear your thoughts!

      • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

        Hi Rick,

        Thanks very much for your comments! Almost all photos are mine, except for the leaf with raindrops image. Most of those plants are Australian, but the yellow flowered Cassia hails from Thailand, where I presently live. That’s so interesting about your involvement in the University of Minnesota study – are your current studies/research projects related to your background in plant ecology?

        Your question about plant ethics is a great one. It reminds me that, although there are ethical frameworks at universities for research involving animals and humans, experiments involving plants don’t usually require special approval. Is that correct from your experience? It certainly is the case at the Australian universities I’ve been involved with.

        I agree with you, plant experiments can be extremely valuable for devising conservation measures and informing decisions. It might be the case that in the not-so-distant future the impacts of experiments on plant participants will be taken into consideration – oh great more paperwork! But yes that’s the direction CPS might lead; if plants are shown to be percipient, decision-makers then the possibility of their experience of pleasure and pain might be a real consideration. I think about how human-animal studies and the animal movement of the 1960s/70s since Peter Singer’s text helped to radically change experimental practices surrounding animals; maybe the same for plants.

        Thanks again and all the best for your research! Hope to chat with you more during the conference.


        • Rick Thomas says:

          Hi John,

          Thanks for your response, sorry I didn’t see it sooner! I’m currently completing my Master’s Degree at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at UCSB, which is how I came to be part of this conference with Ken. I think the program and Environmental Studies in general as a whole from my exposure to it have been getting better and more aware about interdisciplinary/alternative ways to approach environmental problems, both scientific and ethical, which may be due to such studies as CPS. There is clearly still much more that needs to be done however!

          Something comes to mind. I do not argue that we should take into consideration plants in ethical decisions if they are “percipient, decision-makers” as you mentioned, but I’m wondering where is the cut off point? If, for example, science can help inform us that bacteria (to take an extreme case) are decision makers to the extent possible to them, would we need to include them into our ethical considerations? I think people have an intuitive grasp of what separates animals from plants, so I’m wondering what would happen if we were to break down this separation. Thoughts?

          • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

            Great questions, Rick. The breakdown of the separation most certainly raises a host of unforeseen possibilities and complications. I think plant ethics as a field is just in its earliest stages and will always be inherently different to the concerns of animal ethics. For instance, most plant ethicists wouldn’t go so far as to rule out the use, consumption, processing, etc. of plants. I think CPS is most useful in enabling us to reflect on our practices involving plants and their rights to live their own lives apart from the use- or aesthetic-value we attribute to them. This might involve ‘leaving plants alone’ in conservation areas (i.e. recognizing their right to freedom) but it might also involve more judicious and conscientious engagements with flora and, in certain instances, more conservative practices.
            Anyone else? What do you think about plants having ‘personhood’ (after Matt Hall’s book ‘Plants as Persons’) or at least plants warranting moral consideration?
            All the best

    • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

      Great to hear more about general news in CPS, John! I’m personally really excited about the rise of bio-ontology and plant-oriented metaphysics, which I think will have interesting ethical implications in the future (as you say in your comment to RIck, most institutions don’t seem to ask for ethics reviews of studies involving plants). I feel like this conference is itself following a more plant-based critical model than traditional conferences (each panel like a rhizome or patch of grass, all connected and growing simultaneously). Do you see an opportunity for critical plant studies to link various ethical calls with actual models of sustainable practice?

      • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

        Thanks for your comments, Danen – I’m also excited about the possibilities of plant-oriented metaphysics. Here is an article from 2008 about the Swiss ‘dignity law’ governing plant biotechnology grant applications:
        I believe that critical plant studies could push more in this direction of actual ethical frameworks and towards sustainable practices involving plants. But there is still much work to do 🙂
        All the best, John

  2. Jess Lamar Reece Holler, University of Pennsylvania says:

    Dear All,

    Bethani & I are so excited to welcome you to our panel, and are grateful you all could join us!

    We’re thrilled to open discussions about the legacy and contributions of the field of public-sector folk studies (and folklore studies more generally) to the environmental humanities, and would love to think through a couple of key questions on our minds with you all. For me, some key questions might be:
    1. What are the limits, potentials and pitfalls of a vernacular, “listening” oriented stance to environmental expertise and experiences in EH? Where is this already happening? Where are there gaps, ruptures, fissures where a vernacular approach might be particularly needful?
    2. Disciplinary Legibility/Interdisciplinary Translation: For those of you who aren’t folklorists — our message here, today, is that folklore is a field which offers a rich, ready, and useable past for EH studies. What might we do to make the different pre-EH disciplinary histories of work around cultures of environment and environment legible to scholars & practitioners from other disciplines; to community members, etc.? Is it useful to ‘claim’ these histories as fodder/toolkits for a more robust EH practice? Or is it important that EH is a movement that begins now, independent/sideways of these other related-looking formations with similar concerns re: cultures of environmental response?
    3. For those of you coming from other disciplines: what METHODS have you found the most helpful in tracing cultures of response to environmental toxicity and its ways of being made public? Are these mentor projects, texts, case studies that anyone working on similar issues have found particularly enabling?
    4. How do we cultivate an “ethics of care” and truly community-collaborative practice, when working with front-line communities most affected by environmental injustice — sticking “close to the ground” and honoring vernacular voices & perspectives/questioning the institutionalization & empowerment of ‘expert’ knowledge — while also providing critiques of the structures of power (global capital, racism, knowledge economies, internal/external colonialism & development) that shape these disparities?

    Just a few (HUGE, sorry!) questions, to begin. So looking forward to the chance to ruminate with you all.
    Towards a fruitful discussion!


    • Jessica George, Indiana University-Bloomington says:

      Hi Jess & Bethani – I am new to folklore studies, but your talk and the resources you’ve provided have given me several helpful starting points. As a person coming from literature, it’s interesting to me how many of the practices you discuss (the emergence of local environmental vocabularies, story-telling, and art) become important to the architecture of the speculative worlds of climate change fiction (I’m thinking especially of The Water Knife). I’m still mulling over your questions from the above post, but I wanted to say that I really enjoyed your presentation!

  3. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi Jess and Bethani,

    Wow, what an awesome presentation! Thanks very much, I learned a lot.

    The potential for folklorist studies to inform the environmental humanities and vice versa is far-reaching, as you have shown. I have an interest in vernacular botanical knowledge that seems to intersect in many ways with what you’ve presented about environment and folklore. Local plant knowledge is often in dialogue with the ‘official’ scientific paradigm yet it’s local knowledge that suffers most when habitats are destroyed or climate change disrupts climatic patterns.

    My impression is that the environmental humanities, perhaps because of the role of ecocriticism in the development of the field, still has a strong leaning towards the study of literary texts, performances, cinema, etc. But the interview and the context as text is something I’ve been fascinated by and which I believe folklore can contribute to EH.

    It’s also a question, to my mind, of continent knowledges. Is it James Clifford who wrote of ‘partial truths’? Folklore can help EH scholars negotiate the contingency of environmental knowledge in the Anthropocene and to value forms of knowledge that exist on the margins of ecological or scientific discourses.

    Lots to think about, so thanks for that! I’ll chime in if anything else comes to mind.

    Best wishes
    John, Chiang Mai, Thailand

  4. Jessica George, Indiana University-Bloomington says:

    John – Thank you for your talk! I don’t have much previous knowledge about critical plant studies, and this was a really helpful and accessible introduction. One thing that really interested me was your observation about literature and poetry’s zoocentric tendencies. Do you see other forms of creative media as more attentive to representations of plants in the Anthropocene? This past semester, I taught the films (Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pumzi) which all seem to foreground plants in some way or another (crops, trees, seeds), especially as spatiotemporal markers of climate change. It seems like the visual component of film allows for a more thorough engagement with plants in narrative, but I was wondering what you think about this because plants are arguably also easily aestheticized and romanticized in visual media.

    I was also wondering just generally if any work had been done on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault from a CPS perspective. (It seems like a sort of interesting intersection between your presentation and Jess & Bethani’s work!)

    • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

      Hi Jessica,

      I love your point about the aestheticization and romanticization of plants in visual media: particularly in still images, plants are often reduced to purely symbolic value, referring not to their own lives but to the lives of humans. Time-lapse films of plants growing (reaching, reacting, communicating, etc) seem to offer to most possibility for foregrounding plants’ narratives. Time-lapse of plants has also traditionally excluded human animal footage (because they move too quickly to capture a steady image at the same frame-rate required to capture plants), and it makes me wonder to what extent a non-anthropocentric understanding of time is necessary to comprehending plant-life narratives…

      • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

        Hello Danen,

        Great comments, thanks! It’s remarkable to think about the earliest time-lapse films of plants and how David Attenborough (Kingdom of Plants) and others still use the technique to ‘speed up’ plant-time enough for us to appreciate their particular behaviours. I agree with you that non-anthropocentric understandings of time are really essential to more vegetally inflected human ways of being. You might be interested in Michael Marder’s take on this in his book ‘Plant-Thinking’.

        All the best, John

        • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

          Thanks for the recommendation, John. I just found a pile of good stuff by Marder at — very relevant material. In a different sort of discussion of time, Molly Hall’s talk in Panel 9 makes good use of Benjamin to criticize homogeneous conceptions of time: taking those critiques of homogeneous time further could include a grounding in the relativity of time (visible in time-lapse) to criticize homogeneously anthropocentric frameworks of time.

          • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

            Hello Danen,

            Good find – Michael Marder’s website has most of his articles as PDFs. A treasure trove of plant ideas. You might also be interested in his book ‘A Philosopher’s Plant’, which reads the work of major Western philosophers in terms of flora.

            All the best

    • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

      Hello Jessica,
      Thanks very much for your comments and interest in the topic! It would certainly be intriguing to look at the films you mentioned from a critical plant studies perspective. I wonder to what extent the films engage with the lives of the plants rather than their aesthetic or Romantic value, and how one could determine how or if the films are engaging as such? At the risk of self-promotion, I recently co-edited a book called The Green Thread; one of the chapters ‘Plant-Thinking with Film: Reed, Branch, Flower’ by Graig Uhlin argues that the medium of film is intrinsically plant-like ( It might be worth reading that chapter if you’re interested in the intersections between film and plant life. It’s a great area of research and one with vast potential, I think, especially in conjunction with ecocriticism.
      The Svalbard Global Seed Vault would be another fascinating study from a critical plant perspective particularly regarding memory and time. In the same book there is Tom Bristow’s chapter on “Wild Memory” as an Anthropocene Heuristic: Cultivating Ethical Paradigms for Galleries, Museums, and Seed Banks,” which addresses some of the connections between plants, banking, seeds, etc.
      I hope you might be able to introduce a CPS perspective into your film classes!
      With best regards

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