Coexistence: tolerance and cooperation from plants to politics

Updated Friday 28th January 2011

Is there a lesson for politicians in the way plant species can live together?

Salva Kiir, the leader of Southern Sudanese, emphasised the importance of coexistence with the north during the long-running armed conflict between North and South Sudanese. 

Similarly, coexistence was mentioned within a Christmas message by Pope Benedict. The pope cited it as key for peace in the Middle East, singling out Israel and Palestine.

In the science world, Josep Peñuelas, an eminent ecologist, also raised the conundrum of coexistence among plants (New Phytologist 183:5-8). How do diverse plant species manage to coexist in very close proximity, despite competing for the very few same resources (i.e. water, nutrients and light?

Fortunately, in the same issue, the Open University has managed to contribute one answer to just this question (New Phytologist 183: 253-258). I will share the answer in the next section, but first let’s define coexistence.

What is Coexistence?

According to Coexistence International, "coexistence" describes societies [communities] in which diversity is embraced for its positive potential; equality is actively pursued; and interdependence between different groups recognized. As such coexistence is not mere tolerance but rather working together for a better outcome.

Our recently published research shows that too, albeit for a slightly different reason. As plants explore and utilize different niches of the resource base (in this case water), they step out of each others' way as a result of competitive exclusion.

As such, various different plants manage to coexist together on this balance as created by competition. This coexistence means high biodiversity – and hence a more robust life support system. [You may want to read why biodiversity is important at Biodiversity: what is in it for me?].

Why is the study of coexistence important?

It is evident that commitment to a just coexistence based on mutual support, is key towards creation of harmonious society. There is so much one can gain from diversity – just look at our culinary possibilities.

Skirting off the detailed societal and political aspects of coexistence, I will try to give an example from my speciality: ecology.

Understanding the nuts and bolts of coexistence is important for managing biodiversity. This is especially important because biodiverse systems are often finely balanced. So any excessive external tinkering could easily bring down the whole system. Unfortunately, there have been many such examples – be it the Atlantic cod fishing industry in Canada or the of decline of wet meadows in the UK.

Erica pulchella in Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve Creative commons image Icon Sericea under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Are there any lessons for the human society?

Fellow ecologist and friend, Els Dorratt-Haaksma, once reported from the Biosphere Reserve in Kogelberg, South Africa as follows:

“...There I stood in the midst of THE hotspot of biodiversity of the whole of the Cape… Right here it is not unusual to count twenty plant species within one square meter....this is diversity in all its glory....every possible colour, shape , size, all living and working together in perfect harmony. ...respecting and obeying the Laws of Nature…

[Although it can be tough to survive, it still] is a fair world [of competition], and when I stand there in all that honest beauty, I want to shout to the world...we humans can do this too, if [only] we really tried!”

In conclusion, the principles of coexistence, and its embodiment in equality and diversity, have moral, social and economic benefits. Like biodiversity, we can just do well if the role of each and every part of the community is acknowledged and valued appropriately.

Find out more

OU course: War Intervention and Development (TU875) and International Development (U213)

Ecohydrology of South African Vegetation: Fynbos Research

Wet meadow conservation: Floodplain Meadows Partnership

External Links:

Equality and Diversity at Local Government

The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict

Initiatives of Change

Faith Foundation

Jerusalem Boxing Club: Blood, Sweat and Tolerance


For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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