Is it ethical to buy exotic plants?

Our ethical columnist on the danger humans pose to bio-diversity.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

A friend of my mine has brought me a lovely plant from Thailand. Obviously, I scolded her about flying so far for a trip in the first place…but the plant is beautiful and I’d like to keep it. What should I do?

Rose Floorer

Dear Rose,

You were quite right to admonish your friend on her excursion. Jetting around the world simply for personal pleasure is the ultimate selfish act. It is, as my dear friend George Monbiot says, the moral equivalent of child abuse. Long-haul travellers should be made to collect ‘ABUSE MILES’ – that might finally wake them up to the fact that Holidays Kill and flights damage the Earth and its children and its plants and its animals.

Ripping flora and fauna from their native environment is a close second to the sin of flying. How could your friend needlessly encourage the destruction of living things just so you could look at them? Would you have been so grateful if your friend had kidnapped a Thai child so you could admire it? I think not. (And, for the record, ‘adopting’ a child, as Madonna or Angelina have done, is just as bad, as I have previously noted.)

Not only is stealing and transporting exotic plants or animals selfish, and not unlike a modern-day slave-trade in living things who clearly need a new Wilberforce to set them free; it is also dangerous. Think of the poor red squirrel in Britain, struggling to survive in the face of competition from its grey cousin, transplanted here from North America. (Everywhere they go, Americans – both American people in Iraq and American squirrels in Britain – seem to cause death and destruction.) It is not the grey squirrel’s fault, of course, that its presence is destructive to native species. Rather it is human beings’ meddling with nature that is to blame. Such a casual approach to biodiversity is driving plants and animals to oblivion.

I remember some years ago, when I still foolishly had a television set, watching an episode of the animated comedy The Simpsons. Bart and his family travel to Australia so that he can be punished for something or other, and in the process, Bart releases a bullfrog into the country. As the family flees at the end of the episode, Australia having turned against them, they see the frogs have multiplied rapidly. ‘Ha, ha, they’re eating all their crops!’ they laugh.

Firstly, this really is not funny; in its disdain for nature it is right up there with that disgusting ‘gag’ on an episode of The Simpsons that featured a pet shop with a sign in its window that said: ‘All our pets are flushable.’ Seriously, why has the American Humane Association not severely chastised the creators of The Simpsons for their poisonous and speciesist humour? Secondly, the frog joke was a sad indictment of the UNCARING attitudes of all Americans, even animated ones.

As it happens, humans may have some selfish reasons to avoid travelling from country to country – precisely because of what we take with us. A report from Oxford University, highlighted in the Guardian this week, shows how countries with similar climates but thousands of miles apart are now well-connected by air travel. That means lots of opportunities for non-native plants and animals to get a free trip from their own ecologically-balanced environment to disrupt another. For example, flyers are reportedly transporting insects around the globe, which can have a terrible impact on biodiversity: a British ant is not welcome in a Mongolian forest!

Flight also makes it very easy for diseases to leap between continents, too. The SARS outbreak a few years ago spread around the world through the ‘joy’ of air travel. How else would Canadians have had the pleasure of this terrible illness that started in Hong Kong? Think what bird flu will do when it turns into human flu! It will spread through airways just as surely as infections pulsate through our bloodstreams and nervous systems.

I was once told off by some liberal friends when I described frequent flyers as ‘a human disease’, spreading the ‘pox of consumerism’ and ‘virus of tourism’ to unpolluted and innocent lands abroad. ‘If you describe flyers as “dirty” and “diseased” you will isolate much of the public!’ they complained. First, much of the public deserves to feel isolated if it helps to change their behaviour; second, it seems I was right! Humans DO spread diseases and bugs when they fly; flying literally is a diseased enterprise. Another good reason to quarantine the pastime of flying – FOREVER!

Having said that…maybe a dose of some virulent disease would do the world some good, as I have noted before. Indeed, those brave souls at Earth First! put it very well some years ago:

‘If radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human population back to sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS… the possible benefits of this to the environment are staggering… just as the Plague contributed to the demise of feudalism, AIDS has the potential to end industrialism.’

Amen to that (though not in the Biblical sense). The ONLY reason to allow people to continue flying is that in doing so they will, ultimately, bring about their own demise – and, I’m afraid, such a demise is the only hope that the planet has.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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