These moments provided a health boost and showed just one way that our relationships with plants support human health and wellbeing. This is part of relationship health, a term I use to describe the way relationships produce health. According to a relationship health perspective, health is an ever-evolving process created by the encounters between people and nonhuman aspects.
We only have to consider the emergence of infectious diseases to remember that sometimes encounters can be bad. Most interactions between humans and nature are positive and healthy. Plants are a great example of our relationships.
The Euro-western culture largely ignores all the roles plants play in our society. It has been described as ” Plant Blindness,” or “inability to notice or see plants in your environment.” In our busy lives, plants are little more than background foliage or, worse, disposable.
Locally, trees are destroyed as homeowners renovate while infrastructure is expanded. We show a lack of understanding of the importance of plants to our health when we allow the destruction of forests in order to build plantations for palm oil and wetlands.
It is striking how little people know about the importance of plants to human health, especially when you consider that they produce oxygen. Without them, we can’t breathe. They provide us with food, medicine, fibers for our clothing, and materials for our homes.
Plants have many roles to play.
The side of the building is covered with squash plants. Author: Sarah Elton
Botanists study plants. My colleagues and I, as social scientists, consider the different roles that plants play within our political and social worlds.
Plants are social actors and participants in society. I will examine the many ways in which plants can support our health. Not only do they provide food, oxygen, and shade, but also the way in which our relationship with plants helps us make political decisions that promote health in cities.
Euro-western thinking does not accept that nonhumans are part of society. Since the Enlightenment the dominant Euro-western view has been that humans are the supreme species and the rest of the planet is a resource to be exploited, as author and philosopher Silvia Wynter explores her work.
For some, seeing a plant’s role as an active participant is a paradigm shift. Indigenous ontologies have valued and understood the contributions of nonhumans in world-making . People from other parts of the globe, including the Indian subcontinent, understand that humans aren’t the only actors on the planet. This has been a part of Indigenous knowledge for a long time. Only the Euro-western culture has tried to ignore and erase other worldviews.
Plants as social members
Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood is viewed from the rooftop of a condo, with the community gardens in the foreground. New apartment buildings are in the background. Author: Sarah Elton
What does it look and sound like when plants become social participants? Plants don’t behave like we do — they act without intention. Their agency as health agents emerges more from their relationships.
I did fieldwork in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood, which is being transformed from a community of social housing to one with mixed income. The redevelopment involved building on land that residents had been using to grow food for decades. The locals didn’t want to lose the space they had used for growing food, so they pushed for gardens in their new neighborhood. They wanted to continue having access to their homegrown vegetables and the mental and physical peace that gardening brought them. They did not want to lose the relationship they had with plants.
The relationship between people and plants was a great help in promoting the cause. Residents were able to secure some garden space within the new design.
At first glance, humans are the ones who advocate for plants. The plants are the ones that spoke out and demanded to be included in the design. If you acknowledge the agency of the nonhuman, then the analysis changes.
When you think of plants as members of society, the agency that plants have in advocating for their cause becomes apparent. Their agency is a result of the relationships that they have with people. They play a part when humans consider their needs in making decisions. Plants and people are partners, and their physical presence in the garden stakes a claim on the land. This new worldview offers many opportunities to understand the non-humnonhumant in modern society better.
This scenario shows how relationships between humans in the city and nature can produce health. The body does not determine the health of a person. For gardeners, who depend on their gardens for their food and wellbeing for their livelihood, the health they produce is influenced, in part, by the relationships that they have with their plants.