Perhaps the least appreciated dramatis personae in human history are plants. Humans, like all other animals, cannot produce their own food as plants do through photosynthesis, and must therefore acquire organic material for survival and growth by eating plants or by eating other animals that eat plants. Humans depend on plants not only as a food source, but also as building and clothing materials and as sources of medicines, psychoactive substances, spices, pigments, and more. With plants being such valuable resources, it is therefore not surprising that plants have been involved in practically all violent conflicts among different human societies. Ironically, plants have also been the source of materials to construct weapons or weapon parts.
Wars have always constituted a large part of human history, and the overall theme of this book is that to understand the history of violent human conflict, we need to understand what specific materials plants make that people find so useful and worth fighting over, and what roles such plant products have played in specific conflicts. To do so, Plants and Human Conflict begins with a chapter explaining the basic biological facts of the interdependence between plants and humans, and the subsequent seven chapters describe the physical and chemical properties of specific plant products demonstrating how the human need for these products has led to wars as well as contributed to the prosecution of wars. These chapters recount some well-known (and some lesser known) historical events in which plants have played a central role.
This book uniquely combines the modern scientific knowledge of plants with the human history of war, introducing readers to a new paradigm that will make them reconsider their understanding of human history, as well as to bring about a greater appreciation of plant biology.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Natural Resources as Causes of Violent Conflicts
War and Living Organisms
Chapter 2 Fighting Grains
Grains Are Targets of War
Grains Are the Perfect Food for War
Grains and Man-Made Famines in the 20th Century
The Russian Famine of 1932–1933
The Chinese Famine of 1959–1961
The Cambodian Famine and Genocide of 1975–1979
Chapter 3 War and Slavery Capitalism – Sugarcane, Tobacco, and Cotton
Chapter 4 Killer Spices
The Spice Trade Until the End of the 15th Century – The Rise and Fall of Venice, the First Predatory Company Masquerading as a State
The Spice Trade in the 16th to 18th Centuries – The Rise and Fall of VOC, a Rogue State Masquerading as a Company
The Attraction of Spices to Humans – Is It Chemistry or Metachemistry?
Chapter 5 Caffeine, Opium, and Other Drugs for the Masses
Why Plants Make Psychoactive Compounds
Opium and The Opium Wars
Cocaine, Tetrahydrocannabinol, and Modern Wars
Chapter 6 Wood and Rubber
Wood in Land Warfare
Wood in Sea Warfare
Rubber’s Good Qualities
Rubber’s Contribution to Human Misery
Rubber in Modern Wars
Chapter 7 Modern Land Grabs – Hawaii, Palestine, and Latin America
Farmland Ownership and National Identity
Sugarcane and Hawaii
Oranges and Zionism in Palestine
Bananas and Central America
Chapter 8 Black Plant Power – Coal and Oil
Coal and Oil Are Biochemicals that Store Sunlight Energy
Formation of Coal
Formation of Petroleum
The Crucial Roles that Coal and Oil Have Played in Recent Human History
Coal, Coal Miners, and Social Strife
Oil and Social Strife
Appendix: Chemical Notations
ERAN PICHERSKY is the Michael M. Martin Collegiate Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at the University of Michigan. He received his B.Sc. degree from the University of California, Berkeley in 1980, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis in 1984. After doing research as a post-doctoral fellow at the Rockefeller University in New York, he has been on the faculty of the University of Michigan since 1986, serving as the first Chair of the newly created MCDB Department from 2001-2003. His awards include a Fulbright fellowship and an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, both received in 2000, and a Guggenheim fellowship in 2015. He was elected a Fellow by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 2012 and by the American Society of Plant Biologists in 2017. Dr. Pichersky has served on the editorial boards of several major scientific journals that cover plant research, and had previously edited (together with Dr. Natalia Dudareva) a book on the Biology of Floral Scent published by CRC Press.
Dr. Pichersky’s research has concentrated on identifying the myriad compounds that are found uniquely in plants, many of which are extensively used by people, with emphasis on those that impart scent and flavor. His group further elucidates how plants synthesize these compounds, and how this information can be used to enhance the production by plants of such valuable chemicals. Over the years Dr. Pichersky’s research group has collaborated with many other research groups around the world, and Dr. Pichersky himself has spent extensive time as a visiting scholar doing research at scientific institutes around the world, including the United States, Germany, Israel and Australia. Dr. Pichersky has authored approximately 250 reports, reviews, letters and editorials in scientific publications, and is a recipient of several patents.
"A book with this title could go in many different directions, and the author has developed his narrative in a way that will be of great interest to those who find fascination with the topic of how plants have helped shape the trajectory of human conflict. One influence is that plants can be a desirable resource, the market for which nations or cultures have fought to control. An example is opium (Papaver somniferum L.) and the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century pitting Britain against China. Along the way, the reader learns a great deal about opium and its byproducts including morphine, codeine, and heroin, information ranging from chemical composition and centuries-old use to the physiological effects on the human body.
There are eight most interesting chapters in this book, the first starting with the well-known paradigm that nations seek to control land on which economically important plants, such as rare spices, are found, and the desire to benefit from such natural resources has resulted in war. The author also makes a convincing case that grains have been the perfect form of food to fuel an army on its way to conquer another’s territory, and that destroying grain crops can be a way to impede a soldier’s defensive capability. I found the discussion on the use of wood in both land and sea warfare quite fascinatin. [...]
The level of precision and detail that the author brings to this volume is also the great strength of this scholarly work, which draws from many different disciplinary perspectives. [...] it is about human behavior, and how plants have been an essential element or partner in directing the course of that behavior. As it is filled with interesting historical information about commonly known plants, it would make a useful classroom reference, not only to serve as the basis for discussions but also to provide a lens by which other elements of the relationship between plants and people can be examined."
MICHAEL J. BALICK, INSTITUTE OF ECONOMIC BOTANY