In my reading life, I tend to gravitate toward good storytelling, not conceptual explorations. However, having a good story to tell about the lifegiving and life-generating world in which we live involves by necessity having the words and language to articulate such a story. Glenn Albrecht is a wordsmith, in the sense that he literally invents words that express emotions that may be difficult to name until we see the word itself. For example, he is famous (at least among environmental philosophers) for coining the term solastalgia to capture the deep loss and lived experience of inhabiting a place that, over time, has been so ecologically altered one experiences a loss of home.
In this article, “Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene,” Albrecht gives us a more hopeful coinage: Symbiocene. Over the past few years, many important critiques have been leveled at the use of the term Anthropocene, the idea that the planet has entered a newly induced geological era dominated by human impact. As Albrecht notes, to use this term unthinkingly may involve capitulation to a “new abnormal.” Environmental writing frequently lacks a compelling counterweight for all the injustice and exploitation it seems to revel in listing, relying on statistics and litanies of loss for purposes of persuasion—as though humans are motivated and energized by a tonnage of numbers and J-curves. Albrecht’s “Symbiocene” might not be the utopia everyone would get behind, but it embodies a lot of attractive ideals for governance that, as our well-loved and deeply missed board member the late George Rabb used to say, puts “nature at the table.” A Symbiocene Era (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship) would remind us that nature isn’t only at the table, it is the table and the processes that create the table—nurtured and made beautiful by cooperation and mutual aid. At a time when so much in politics is utterly self-serving and pathologically individualistic, Albrecht reminds readers what to hold in heart and mind as a possibility: the expression of biophilia in such ways that living together with our nonhuman kin is honored, reinforced, and celebrated.
–Introduced by Gavin Van Horn
It has been proposed that humans are now living within a period of the Earth’s history appropriately named “The Anthropocene.” The name is derived from the observed human influence and indeed increasing dominance of climatic, biophysical, and evolutionary processes occurring at a planetary scale. The issue of human dominance is not simply climate change (as bad as that is), it is the whole capitalist development paradigm that is at the dark heart of maldevelopment—that which undermines and destroys the very foundations of all life on Earth.
Gone are the relative stability and predictability of the past twelve thousand years, as the established patterns and regularity of Holocene phenology begin to fall into chaos. While some cosmic constants remain—such as the cycles of day and night, the moon’s influence on the tides, the date of the solstices, and the length of time the Earth takes to go around the sun—many other patterns and rhythms of Earth’s phenology are undergoing major change. A rapidly heating climate puts things out of whack. Synchronicity and timing are all important; and when, for example, the instinctual migration of mammals and birds tied to “locked in” global rhythms and patterns fails to coincide (trophic mismatches) with the great warming-accelerated flourishing, flowering, and fruiting of once reliable food supplies, death and extinction follow.
Exiting the Anthropocene
In the Anthropocene, the so-called new normal—or what I prefer to conceptualize as the new abnormal—life is characterized by uncertainty, unpredictability, genuine chaos, and relentless change. Planetary distress is manifest in global warming, changing climates, erratic weather, acidifying oceans, disease pandemics, species endangerment and extinction, bioaccumulation of toxins, and the overwhelming physical impact of exponentially expanding human development. Moreover, the Earth’s distress has its correlates in human physical and mental distress. Solastalgia, the lived experience of negative environmental change, is one emergent form of mental distress.
We need to get rid of the titanizing and, by contrast, the fatalistic implications that are built into the concept of the Anthropocene before it covers many more decades of the history of the Earth. If the new abnormal I just described is the consequence of human dominance of the planet that is taken to be inevitable or “technologically manageable,” then I do not wish to be identified with the Anthropocene. I want this period in history to become redundant as soon as possible. The longer it prevails, the more likely we will suffer catastrophic failure as a species here on Earth. While this would be a tragedy of huge proportion for humans, we will take thousands, perhaps millions, of other species down with us. Popular literature and film—often sensitive barometers of a society’s deep anxieties—already portray such an apocalyptic turn in human–nature relationships.
While we have already tried to build a new and viable society around concepts such as democracy, sustainability, sustainable development, and resilience, all these terms have been corrupted by forces determined to incorporate and embed them into the Anthropocene where they become normalized, business as usual. Sustainability is inadequate as a concept because it does not specify what is to be sustained and over what time frame it is to be sustained. “Sustainable development” equally fails to define what it is about development that is to be sustained, except perhaps development itself, for its own sake. Yet global-scale development, which is diametrically opposed to micro-life and planetary-scale forces, puts us on the path to dislocation, then extinction.
The concept of resilience has also been appropriated by forces committed to the status quo and has been pulled into the gravitational influence of toxic industrial society on a globalized scale. Instead of helping us rebound into configurations of successful models of living after disturbance, we are now seeing complex adaptive systems and so-called resilience being used to justify the ongoing existence of processes and activities that are driving humans to disease and extinction. Coal, oil, and gas fracking industries spin the message that they are not only sustainable, but promote health and ecological resiliency as well. The staying power of ongoing undesirable features of social systems is more correctly termed “negative resilience” or “perverse resilience.” These forms of resilience occur where pathological social relationships that are oppressive and exploitative of humans and ecosystems (life) are rendered resistant to change by economic and political subsidies (donations and corruption), political support, bullying, actual violence, terrorism, and vested interests.
Dominance by powerful vested interests has also become characteristic of what is called democracy. Rule by the people (the demos) has become corrupted by rule of the powerful (kratos) and hence is no longer a democracy at all, but, properly speaking, an oligarchy or plutocracy. It’s worse than that; capitalism is now run by what can be technically called corruption. Corporations and oligarchs use their autocratic power and wealth to influence policy, manipulate public officials, and minimize regulation. It is this form of government that is blatant in most parts of the world but more powerful, if not more subtle, in the so-called advanced countries of the Western world.
This form of political economy has been called “corruptalism.” Even better, perhaps, would be “corrumpalism” (from the Latin corrumpere, “to destroy”). Corrumpalism is the ability to corrupt and destroy the integrity of a social system and its biophysical foundation by perverting all forms of development via the use of misinformation, falsehoods, money, and/or violence to achieve self-interested outcomes that are the opposite of genuine cultural and ecological interests. We are seeing corrumpalism played out in a public way with the recent Volkswagen scandal, the FIFA scandal, the Olympics drugs scandal, the Exxon climate change scandal, the revelations of the Panama Papers, and many more worldwide, from intensely local to global scales. There can be no “Good Anthropocene” given the corruption that has already taken place.
In order to counter all these negative trends within the Anthropocene, we clearly need, within popular politics and culture, visions and memes of a different future. We also will need more novel conceptual development, since the foundation on which we are building right now is seriously flawed and conducive of nothing but great waves of ennui, grief, dread, solastalgia, mourning, and melancholia. We must rapidly exit the Anthropocene with its non-sustainability, its perverse resilience, its authoritarianism, and its corrumpalism. The new foundation, built around a new meme, will need to be an act of positive creation.
Entering the Symbiocene
I argue that the next era in human history should be named the Symbiocene (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship). The scientific meaning of the word “symbiosis” implies living together for mutual benefit, and I wish to use this profoundly important concept as the basis for what I hope will be the next period of Earth history. As a core aspect of ecological thinking, symbiosis affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things.
As many thinkers have pointed out, such interconnection and interaction put a human worldview back into the community of life and resist the Hobbesian and Spencerian views of nature as essentially hostile and a competitive war of all against all. No doubt conflict between organisms exists, but an overall balance of interests (eco-homeostasis) is in the total interest of all life. In addition, ecology itself is a radical concept in that it requires of us all to live within the limits of nature and to live with all the other life forms that share this home we call the Earth. In this contemporary historic moment of our appreciation of the threat of global warming, one of the earliest thinkers to warn us of its dangers was Murray Bookchin, who in 1962 summarized cogently what an ecological understanding of the world means and what it does to our understanding of our place within it:
The critical edge of ecology, a unique feature of the science in a period of general scientific docility, derives from its subject matter—from its very domain. The issues with which ecology deals are imperishable in the sense that they cannot be ignored without bringing into question the survival of man and the survival of the planet itself. The critical edge of ecology is due not so much to the power of human reason—a power which science hallowed during its most revolutionary periods—but to a still higher power, the sovereignty of nature . . . ecology clearly shows the totality of the natural world—nature viewed in all its aspects, cycles and interrelationships—cancels out human pretensions to mastery over the planet.
As a scientific term, symbiosis has been used to give substance to the nature of the interactions between different organisms living in close physical association. For example, relatively recently it has been discovered that, in ecosystems all over the world, there are immense, mutually beneficial associations of macrofungi with flowering plants in complex, positive, metabolic, symbiotic relationship to each other. Findings such as these have scientifically overturned the view that evolution and life are solely founded on competitive struggle between species.
We are now closer to understanding how ecosystem parameters can be guided by key ecological players in the system to maximize benefits for the life-chances of whole species. In essence, there is a form of “natural justice” that prevails. We now know that, for example, health in forest ecosystems is regulated by what are called “mother trees” that control fungal networks that in turn interconnect trees of varying ages. The control system works to regulate nutrient flows to trees that need them most, such as very young ones. It also works to transfer information and energy from dying species to those that might continue to thrive, thus maintaining the forest as a larger system. These crucially important insights have yet to be incorporated into ecological thinking applied to politics and human societies.
Given that forest ecosystems are foundational for most life on Earth, including humans, the so-called wood-wide-web is a prime example of natural justice and the attempt to maintain balance or total homeostasis in nature; in this way the early insights of Kropotkin in Mutual Aid find contemporary scientific validation. Kropotkin’s idea was that evolution, although partly consisting of both conflict and cooperation within and between species, was more fundamentally a result of cooperation and mutual aid. This insight can now be re-asserted as crucial for all aspects of human enterprise. As he wrote, “in the practice of mutual aid, which can be traced to the earliest beginnings of evolution, we thus find the positive and undoubted origin of our ethical conceptions; and we can affirm that in the ethical progress of man, mutual support—not mutual struggle—has had the leading part.”
Let us now try to imagine the Symbiocene and the politics of how it might function. The new era will be characterized by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. Given that we have evolved as a species within the pre-existing evolutionary matrix, such intelligence lies within us as latent potential. The elements include full recyclability of all inputs and outputs, the elimination of toxic waste in all aspects of human enterprise, safe and socially just renewable energy, and full and harmonious integration of human industry and technology with physical and living systems at all scales.
In the Symbiocene, human action, culture, and enterprise will be exemplified by those cumulative types of relationships and attributes nurtured by humans that enhance mutual interdependence and mutual benefit for all living beings (which is desirable), all species (essential), and the health of all ecosystems (mandatory). Human development will consist of creative actions that use the very best of biomimicry together with other eco-industrial, eco-technological, eco-agricultural, and eco-cultural innovations.
However, beyond biomimicry we must also have what I call “symbiomimicry.” Many simply think it is enough to copy the shapes and forms of life, but they make no connection to life’s processes. We don’t just copy the form of life; in all types of human creativity we replicate the processes of life that make the mutually beneficial associations between different life forms strong and healthy. Examples such as the wood-wide-web suggest to me that organizing resources and processes so that the young, weak, and vulnerable get their fair share is fundamental to life in order to give the totality the greatest chance of survival and flourishing. Symbiomimicry in human enterprise will both generate and distribute resources so that, in nurturing all humans, we nurture the life support system on which we all depend.
As we build the Symbiocene we shall also build a new political system I call sumbiocracy (from the Greek sumbiosis, from sumbioun, to live together, from sumbios, living together). I define sumbiocracy as political rule or governance committed to the types and totality of mutually beneficial or benign relationships in a given socio-biological system at all scales (mutualism).
The basic idea here is that if the processes that nurture ecosystems and biomes are identified, protected, and conserved, species within such healthy ecosystems will also flourish. We therefore do not need to further democratize a failing, biased democracy with, say, a Deep Ecology “council of all beings” approach, in which species’ interests are “represented” in decision-making structures by well-meaning humans. Rather, we need to elect people to govern who understand and affirm life-supporting organic forms, processes, and relationships, and we must give that governing body the authority to carefully deliberate on various creative proposals from humans.
If, for example, an aspect of human development is known to have a long-term, toxic impact on a basic life process such as metabolism, then it simply cannot be permitted. Or, if this toxic impact is already underway, it must be urgently phased out of existence (e.g., lead in petrol, asbestos in building supplies, phalates in plastic).
In contrast to democracy, which is by definition anthropocentric and capable only of partial answers to human-biased questions, sumbiocracy requires those who govern (Sumbiocrats) to have an in-depth understanding of total ecosystems and the symbiotic interrelationships that enable them to function. In order to live together, humans must exercise their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve overall harmony in a community of interests. Within a sumbiocracy, Earth rulers must ponder what kind of mutual development is permissible to enable living together via the answers to the following questions:
- Is there full recyclability of all inputs and outputs?
- Are we using safe and socially just forms of renewable energy?
- Do we have full and harmonious integration with biogeochemical systems at all scales?
- Have we achieved the elimination of toxic waste in all aspects of this enterprise?
- Are all species, great and small, having their interests taken into account?
- Do we have a harmony or balance of interests?
Sumbiocratic governance by scientifically and traditionally informed humans (including those practicing citizen science), in all places and at all scales, deliberates to determine the interconnections between elements of complex Earth systems before any commitment to action that impacts system health is undertaken. We must also remember that place is critical to effective sumbiocracy, as only those with close and intimate ties to particular places are in a position to know their place and make decisions about its health and vitality.
Sumbiocracy is a form of government where humans govern for the reciprocal relationships of the Earth at all scales, from local to global. For example, governance to protect the interests of the Amazon basin (the lungs of the Earth), the Great Barrier Reef (global fish nurseries), and the Arctic cryosphere (all forms of ice) will ultimately protect medium- to long-term human interests, as well. Organic form (all biodiversity including humans) and organic process (Earth and life systems) are present in this new type of government. Sumbiocracy is, after Lincoln, “government of the Earth, by the people of the Earth, for the Earth, so that the Earth shall not perish.”
We now have a very sophisticated understanding of how the natural world works and, as it was here and functioning long before humans evolved as Homo sapiens, it is we who must fit in with its process and functioning. We understand many of the conditions for life but deliberately destroy them by toxic overload. We change the climate for the worse, making formerly vibrant areas unfit for life, destroying ecosystems, and extirpating species (the sixth great extinction). In these ways, we demonstrate that we are Homo non-sapiens, and not only that, but also some kind of pathological plague upon all species on this Earth. We can be better than that.
During a relatively short period of human history we have seen the emergence of a growth-addicted industrial-technological society that has achieved its success at the expense of the vitality of the Earth. The productive capacity of the system called capitalism has produced great human wealth for some, yet it has also produced global scale pollution, negative climate change, and mass species extinction. It has, at the same time, impoverished and corrupted many of the efforts that have been made to harmonize human enterprise with the life systems of the Earth. The usurpation by a powerful elite (with instruments such as mass media) of concepts like democracy, sustainability, sustainable development, and resilience have all taken place within my lifetime (sixty-three years).
Rather than rehabilitate these now well-abused concepts, I believe it is time to create some new ones; concepts that are urgently needed and very hard, if not impossible, to corrupt. The Symbiocene, sumbiocracy, and symbiomimicry are all offered in this spirit. Indeed, I can offer one more neologism that might help. E.O. Wilson, and before him, Erich Fromm, gave us the concept of “biophilia” as something to hope for in human nature. Our instinctual love of life and life-like forms would/could prevail over necrophilia and possible ecocide. However, although “bio” means life, it is often seen in the context of a reductionist science that pulls things apart and isolates particularities. I now offer “sumbiophilia” (the love of living together) as an addition to biophilia. Since we evolved within a pre-existing ecological matrix as an intensely social species and lived in relative harmony with all other life forms, sumbiophilia must also be deeply ingrained within us. If I am correct, then exiting the Anthropocene and entering the Symbiocene will be a satisfying experience for most humans. As the politics of sumbiocracy play out and we live by symbiomimicry in all our technologies and habitats, the Earth will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
This essay originally appeared in Minding Nature, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 2016).