Ornamental Slavery?

Walk into any Home Depot or a major garden center and you just can’t help but feel sorry for their plants. Not only are they grown for human consumption, but the mere fact that they’re displayed in rows, jammed up against one another, blindly hosed down every couple of hours by staff, just waiting to be bought. This especially rings true for tropicals designed for indoor use, as their sight in a giant warehouse could not be further from their natural habitat.

As the overnight temperatures dip into the lower 40s here in the Pacific Northwest, I cannot help but feel the same about my own tropical houseplant collection, many of them still anxiously waiting outside for their lucky day to be brought back indoors for winter. I stare at them while drinking my afternoon coffee, as they soak in the last few rays of the Oregon sunshine before the inevitable rainy season. I see them and think, they must really hate this and that this must be torture for themThat no plant should ever be containerized for human enjoyment, savagely ripped out of its natural habitat, grown under artificial conditions, just barely surviving, as we smugly drink our gourmet coffees and carry on with our days. I think of all the “annuals” that aren’t true annuals, the millions of geraniums that are soon going to be thrown to the compost pile if not straight trashed in the coming weeks. I find myself wanting to start a PETA for plants, but then I read this, stop myself, and realize something.

Plants are an extremely important part of the food chain and as true plant lovers, it would be prudent to have to extend our protectionist attitudes toward agriculturally grown species as well. This would leave us with little to eat, especially vegetarians. Yes, we should care about geraniums and houseplants. Yes, the growing conditions in most homes are less than optimal. Right you are that livestock farming is arguably far viler than anything I’m complaining about here. At the same time, I still don’t know how I feel about the prospects of artificial meat. Likewise, I also cannot imagine my house or backyard without ornamental plants. Just as hamburgers and buffalo wings are part of American food culture, ficus plants and Draceana marginata are the staples of home decor. Palm trees are absolutely beautiful and I could not imagine Santa Monica beach without them. Am I a bad person for thinking these things? Far from it.

I and millions of other people grew up in the world with these cultural norms. And like most norms, few of them scale well. Sadly, with ever increasing population sizes, most farms have grown from a few domesticated animals to unspeakable death camps. Tropicals went from existing in the tropics only to nearly every home in the civilized world. Cocunut palms (Cocos nucifera) have been naturalized in so many places around the tropics that botanists aren’t really sure of their true location of origin. The butterfly palm (Dypsis lutescens) for example, has lost far too many specimen in its natural habitat in Madagascar to deforestation and other human activity, but the species is said to be thriving as a houseplant or as a landscape plant and therefore cannot be truly considered endangered. Does that mean that we shouldn’t care about the fate of the butterfly palm in Madagascar? Or course not.

Our world has grown tremendously complex in the last 100 years. We need to make some serious optimizations before it is too late. I don’t think that we should be cutting out the consumption of meat from our diets and perhaps artificial meat is the long answer to our harrowing farm practices. Maybe augmented reality tech can turn boring landscapes into lush tropical ones. I’m not quite ready to make these leaps yet, but it is vital that we do not ignore these problems and their ever increasing urgency. We need to keep an open mind about good solutions where everyone can benefit. In the end, a starving child from the Third World should be able to enjoy a delicious cheeseburger in the cozy confines of a houseplant-decorated home the same way that I do.

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