Plants have a long history with human wellbeing, but they can often be overexploited, Irwin Goldman, a professor in the University of Wisconsin Department of Horticulture, said in a Badger Talk hosted by the Waunakee Public Library on Thursday.
Goldman said plants can have positive impacts on humans in physical, emotional and spiritual ways. During the 2008 development of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a pipeline transporting tar sands from Canada to the U.S., the Ponca tribe planted sacred red corn seeds as a barrier between themselves and the pipeline.
“This connection with the plant says a lot about the connection that people have with well-being,” Goldman said. “This is a plant that people are turning to to help their community in a way that you might look at you might say, ‘Well, how is a cornfield going to stop the pipeline?’ Well, it’s more about the deep connection that people have with the plant material [that it] represents to them.”
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But there’s a dark side to human connections with plants — our desire to connect with natural resources can often lead to overconsumption and the exploitation of different cultures.
Humanity’s exploitative tendencies can be traced back for centuries, Goldman said. He used the Silk Road and the Spice Trade as an example — in the rush to obtain spices like nutmeg and peppercorn, European explorers destroyed and enslaved the native populations of the Banda islands in Indonesia.
Poor working conditions and enslavement still exist today throughout the globe. Two examples Goldman discussed were child slavery in the Ivory Coast for the production of chocolate and unsafe working conditions for strawberry production in Florida and California.
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Goldman also said the way we acquire natural resources contributes greatly to climate change.
“The way that we approach natural resources has sped up climate change, and part of it is our desire to acquire plants and our desire to amass great wealth from the plant materials,” Goldman said. “The way that we tend to approach plant materials is a fundamentally flawed way when it comes to something like climate change because we tend to overdo it and we tend to, unfortunately, not find sustainable solutions to these problems.”
Goldman said the first year of the pandemic allowed for a “burst of reflection,” but it seems we’ve returned to traditional methods of acquiring mass amounts of natural resources.