A woman walking through a shining door

Why trying to “make the most of a bad situation” isn’t always the answer

Beronda L. Montgomery is a writer, researcher and scholar who was named one of Cell’s 100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America in 2020. In her new book, Lessons From Plants, she provides a fascinating insight into the science of how plants behave – and explores the lessons we can learn from plants about life, success and building diverse communities.

The last year has seen an explosion of interest in plants, as more and more people wake up to the benefits of interacting with and enjoying nature

But what if the plants we see all around us could teach us lessons about how to live a successful, healthy and happy life?

In her new book Lessons From Plants, Beronda L. Montgomery, a writer, researcher and scholar who is fascinated by the ways in which plants live and transform themselves and their communities, dives into this concept. She tackles a lot of important subjects throughout the book, including what plants can teach us about building diverse communities and making effective change.

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In the following extract, she considers how, despite the common assumption that plants make the most of what we give them and don’t have an active role in their environment, they actually strive to make changes that benefit themselves and the community they’re a part of.

This, Montgomery suggests, is something we can all learn from. Indeed, she says, it’s OK to strive to make change, and explains why making the most of a bad situation or trying to “bloom where you’re planted” isn’t always the best way to move forward.

“Bloom where you’re planted.” This phrase is often used to encourage people to survive and thrive wherever they find themselves. The idea is that we should behave like plants, which are widely assumed to make the best of the spot where the gardener places them. However, the analogy is misleading. Plants don’t just function within their environment: they actively participate in and transform it. They mount phenotypically plastic responses to optimize their growth, and they demonstrate a sort of awareness that extends beyond the boundaries of their own selves and reflects knowledge of the external environment – what is sometimes called “extended cognition.” This awareness can lead to behaviors and adaptations that transform the environment, improving circumstances for the individual itself and for other inhabitants. In the process of succession, the early emergers affect the ecosystem in ways that determine which species will be able to grow and thrive in the next stage.  

Promoting change in human environments requires similar skills to those that plants display during ecological succession. In human institutions, or ecosystems, effective initial leaders of cultural change function as pioneers. Identifying and supporting individuals who possess the characteristics needed to promote change successively and synergistically toward developing and sustaining a new ecosystem is critical. Leaders who are effective trailblazers, like pioneer plants, are able to thrive while guiding change with limited or variable resources. They also recognize that even when an environment seems stable, the efforts of the pioneers can forge new directions and innovation.  

The cover for Lessons From Plants by Beronda L. Montgomery
Lessons From Plants by Beronda L. Montgomery

In human succession patterns, organizations often focus on group dynamics rather than recognizing and embracing the impact that individuals – especially effective change agents – can have on influencing desired cultural change. Accomplishing change requires leaders and trailblazers capable of pushing through obstacles, much as pioneer plants in primary succession may need to emerge through barriers or put down roots in difficult places. These pioneer individuals can often effect change with minimal resources or networks to support ideas, growth, and innovation. The effort of these individuals then leads to additional ecosystem changes that support the next wave of individuals needed to drive and sustain cultural change and institutional transformation.

The transformational goals of pioneers often require an initial period of disruption. Just as prescribed fires are needed for managing certain ecosystems, intentional disruptions may be required in human ecosystems to interrupt entrenched patterns, or status quo thinking or action, and to move purposefully toward intended change outcomes. Although intentional disruption is often necessary, we should not overlook the reality that beneficial disruption opportunities can arise from bad intentions. For example, the 2016 election of a US president whom many Americans viewed as anti-woman and anti-science led to a national protest movement, including the 2017 Women’s March and the March for Science.

Disturbances in an environment can change the composition of the individuals that are able to exist, thrive, and persist there. Yet, we tend to ignore the need to introduce intentional disturbance or disruption, just as we do in fire-adapted ecosystems; significant changes to the composition of individuals may be required to move toward change targets.  

People often purport to desire significant changes to ecosystem structures in the pursuit of equity but ignore the need for real “disturbance” to break away from the status quo community composition. An organization may need to reevaluate recruitment strategies and screening processes to promote the identification and recruitment of a broader range of individuals. We must understand that intervention and intentional disruption may be critical for supporting environments primed for the succession needed to support cultural change.  

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We can accomplish systemic change through multiple means, much as plants do. Strategic ways to initiate transformation start with reflection on and awareness of our current situation: identify the features of the local surroundings and what resources are available, and assess our needs. At the community level, a subset of individuals, pioneers, can serve the whole by acting as “sensors.” Such individuals are positioned to assess climate or rapid changes in the environment which require responses or innovations. Intentional interventions in human ecosystems designed to support catalyzing a platform for long-term evolution of ecosystems can lead to desired outcomes. 

Everyone must recognize the importance of pioneers – those that have the traits needed to initiate robust culture change at the right time and place – and support the need for leaders to function in this pioneering way. 

Excerpted from Lessons From Plants by Beronda L. Montgomery, published by Harvard University Press. 

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Images: Getty, Harvard University Press