Goethe’s ‘Leaf’ and Scales of the Anthropocene: The Vegetal versus the Geological
As indicated by our new geological era of the Anthropocene, the timeframe on Earth since the industrial revolution when traceable amounts of industrial particulates and other ecological alterations can be found across every surface of the planet, human beings have been continuously scaling up their impact and influence so that we have attained geological levels.* Indeed, capitalist and industrialist practices of all types seek precisely this action: to scale up, whether it be production, consumption, profiteering, use of planetary resources, or, inadvertently, the devastation of ecological systems. In industrial agriculture, farming systems destructively scale down the number of people involved, the nutrients produced, and the health of the soil, while scaling up profit, calories, use of fossil fuels, huge machinery, monocultures, and market power.* Thus, while industrial activities of the Anthropocene have indeed attained the global scale of a geological force in re-shaping of much of our world, I suggest that we need a contrasting, multidirectional model that can scale both up and down as well laterally, a scale that is based not on extraction and profit but rather on that which enables terrestrial life to exist as we know it: the vegetal.
Specifically, I suggest the vegetal scale as suggested by Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s scientific concepts of the large-scale “plant ocean” (Pflanzen-Ozean) and the small-scale “leaf” (Blatt). Goethe’s formulations of the vegetal from his botanical writings and his 1790 Metamorphosis of Plants provide us with three very important ecological tools: first, a focus on plants whose impact on Earth as a place for life cannot be overestimated. Evidence of plant power, as well as that of their fellow photosynthesizers ranging on all scales from single-celled cyanobacteria to vast forests, includes the production of oxygen at the concentration that we all need to survive, the shaping of local ecological and water systems, and, in short, food. Second, Goethe focuses specifically in his Metamorphosis on scaling the “leaf” up, down, and laterally as the primary means that plants utilize morphologically in order to form other vegetal structures.* Plant scale thus is multidirectional and always geared towards life. And third, Goethe reformulates and coins several invaluable terms for this study: the “leaf,” by which he means a kind of morphological stem-cell potential; and the “plant-ocean,” by which he means the realm of existence for small-scale insect life but that I scale up to include the human. We could say that Goethe’s vision of the vegetal is a sliding scale of living interactions based on plant life adapting to its environment and shaping itself and its surroundings to enable other living things; it is this vision of scale that I juxtapose to the global vision of the Anthropocene as human up-scaling through industrialization (that relies on down-scaling livability and the value of life, especially of the non-human). Attaining a geological scale in the Anthropocene means reaching devastating levels of alterations to our living world. Let us seek here instead to think multidirectionally, non-humanly, to think of/like/with plants.
Much of the philosophical attention to Goethe’s botany has been, conversely, dedicated to his notion of the “Urplanze,” or original plant (form) from which all other plants could take shape. He initially supposed that he might actually find representative examples, living embodiments, of such a Platonic idea, or an actual Urpflanze, in Italy. I suggest that his continued botanical studies during this fertile time in the south transformed—metamorphosized, as it were—Goethe’s vision away from an ideal, complete form into a scaled down version of actual vegetal structures, of the leaf, or “leafness.” His thinking scaled down, in other words, from the abstract idea of the entire singular Urpflanze to the concretely existing leaf visibly present in multitudes yet also as the material potential for living forms.
Plant scale, for Goethe, therefore begins with the leaf: “Everything is leaf,” he writes in his botanical notes in Italy. Indeed, this can be understood as the foundational premise of his famous Metamorphosis of Plants that traces the plants’ transformation of the leaf form into all the other vegetal organs including the fruit. The full quote reads: “Everything is leaf, and with this simplicity, the greatest complexity is possible”.* Moving from the leaf/ness, the plant shifts forms systematically, so: “that the different parts of the plant emerge from a fully similar organ, which is modified and changed through a progression, though it always remains the same in essence”.* In contemporary terms, we would say that Goethe here describes a concept akin to a stem cell; that is, a basic form that can transform into other configurations. “Blatt” is the scalar and metamorphic potential that plants use to create the vast range of leaf forms, as well as their other organs including the flowering parts. This scales up, too, to allow the huge variety of botanical lives. Blatt/leaf then is, in essence, a concept of scale, of the potential to metamorphosize. Plant scale here refers both to literal size such that plants can have large and small leaves according to type and environmental conditions but also to more fundamental, multidirectional transformations from seed to node to node on the stems, to the flower structures including the calyx, corolla, stamens, fruits and seeds, as is fully delineated in his Metamorphosis of Plants. Leaf is the fundamental unit of potential transformation and, also an enabling scale, a life-giving scale, a mutable force that perpetuates plant growth and thereby all the other living things dependent on botanical communities, that is to say, virtually all other multicellular life.
Goethe’s leaf scale can also be scaled up to encompass the vast realm of what he calls in his morphological writings the “plant-ocean”: “The entire realm of plants, for example, will appear to us as a massive ocean, which is just as necessary for the existence of insects as are the world’s oceans and the rivers for the existence of fishes. And we will see that a massive number of living creatures are born and nurtured in this plant ocean”.* Envisioning this living green ocean as a space for creatures like insects, Goethe creates a realm that we can easily scale up another notch to include animals and human beings even while maintaining a sustainable and ecological understanding of the living world. Our very human existence is immersed in the plant-ocean, which provides oxygen, food for us and the animals we eat, and which influences both small- and large-scale ecological systems, all the way up to the global climate. We are fully dependent on the vegetal and exist within its scale of life. The contrast here that I wish to highlight is to industrialized agriculture and industrialization broadly that see no limits, particularly not the limits necessary for the vast array of living things to thrive in the long-term. It is not that scaling up itself is inherently the problem but rather that scaling up as the only goal which ignores ecological frameworks has endangered so much of life now that we are currently in the sixth mass extinction event on Earth (Kolbert).
In sum, portrayals of the Anthropocene’s vast scale would benefit from the multidirectional, vegetal plant scale derived from Goethe’s botanical concepts, especially the leaf and the plant ocean. In terms of scale, to think the human is, in reality, to think the vegetal, even as our industrialized economics instead inadvertently aspire to think and be geological, scaling ever upwards into catastrophe.