Vegan? Becoming a vegan? One day, someone is going to ask you that burning question: “Oh, so you think plants don’t have feelings?”
Depending on your mood, available time, and experience with this classic outburst, your answer might be (1) terse, (2) practical, or (3) biological:
(1) Whatever. You roll your eyes and return to what you were doing before this unoriginal remark was uttered.
(2) OK, but animal farming harms more plants. Obvious, is it not? Animal husbandry requires several times the volume of crops as would be grown if we just grew food for people to eat. Willy could spare untold leafy billions from torture by growing food, not feed.
(3) Plants can’t run. You could also remind Willy that nature gave animals nervous systems to prompt them to self-protectively move away from sources of pain. If beanstalks had feelings, evolution would have equipped them with moveable feet, fins, or wings.
My preference is 1.
Plant Sensitivities, Revisited
So now that we’ve got the retorts laid out, let’s think seriously about plants. They are indeed responsive to their surroundings. And in this time of climate change, plants’ sensitivity to stress is coming to the attention of environmental science. Plants naturally breathe in carbon dioxide. But they can only take so much.
Excessive carbon dioxide in our atmosphere results from several human activities—including the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and animal agribusiness.
We also tend to drive predators out of any biological community we enter. That leads to an abundance of herbivores, standing around the foliage, chomping away without a care. Their bliss is illusory; the absence of wolves and other predator animals is unhealthy. And the put-upon plants can’t absorb the greenhouse gases they could handle in a balanced environment.
A study at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies showed plants around spiders (predators) took in carbon 1.4 times faster than when with only grasshoppers (herbivores). Grasshoppers coping with predators ate less grass, and grasses stored more carbon in their roots when dealing with these herbivores and carnivores together. Where only herbivores were present, plants tended to breathe out, rather than store, carbon.
Compare the way sea otter scarcity correlates with rising emissions. The missing otters’ prey, sea urchins, are free to feed heavily on the kelp forests which would otherwise hold in carbon. With predators gone, CO2 emissions have, in some cases, risen tenfold!
What Are the Implications for Vegan Activism?
We need to get out there and challenge the persecution of predator animals. I’ll gladly help in the writing of educational materials with any vegan group interested in forming, say, a coyote co-existence initiative.
By being vegan, we’ve already built a solid platform for this advocacy. Predators are so often wiped out because they impede human hunting and animal farming (which a vegan humanity would stop).
And of course, trees and foliage can’t take in carbon dioxide if they’re gone because the forest was cleared of indigenous flora and fauna so corporations could usurp the land to farm domesticated animals.
All told, plants and their sensitivities have diverse and interesting ramifications, and we need to pay attention. In the mystical yet grounded words of my friend Jack McMillan: “Plants—and, yes, rocks, and water, and all . . . are part of the exceedingly complex web of life and the sacred constellation of consciousness.”
 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” (2010) examines fossil fuel consumption, land use, and the impacts of population growth, and states: “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”
 The scientific experts who study climate change for the United Nations haven’t been taking these multiplier effects into account in their models.
Thanks goes out to Jack McMillan for inspiring this post. Coyote coexistence art by Lee Thompson.