Exiting The Anthropocene
It has been proposed that humans are now living within a period of the Earth’s history appropriately named ‘The Anthropocene’ (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000). The name is derived from the observed human influence and indeed dominance of all climatic, biophysical and evolutionary processes occurring at a planetary scale. The issue is not simply climate change (as bad as that is) it is the whole Capitalist development paradigm that is at the dark heart of mal-development; that is, development that undermines and destroys the very foundations of all life on Earth.
Gone is the relative stability and predictability of the past 12,000 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 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.
In the Anthropocene, the so-called ‘new normal’, or what I prefer to conceptualise as ‘the new abnormal’, life will be characterised by uncertainty, unpredictability, genuine chaos and relentless change. Earth distress, as 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 will have its correlates in human physical and mental distress. I have written about solastalgia or the lived experience of negative environmental change as one emergent form of mental distress (Albrecht 2012a, Albrecht 2012b).
We need to get rid of the foundations of the concept of the Anthropocene before it covers many more decades of history of Earth. If all of the above are the outcome of human dominance of the planet, then I do not wish to be identified with The Anthropocene. I want this period in history to become redundant as soon as possible since, 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 with us thousands, perhaps millions, of other species as well. Popular literature and film 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 ‘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 (Albrecht 1994). 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’ (Holling 2001, Walker and Salt 2006) has also been appropriated by forces determined to pull it into the gravitational influence of toxic industrial society on a globalised scale. Instead of helping us rebound into configurations of successful models of living after disturbance, we are now seeing complex adaptive systems and ‘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 now use their public relations departments to spin the message that their industries are not only sustainable, but ‘healthy’ and resilient as well. The ongoing ‘resilience’ of technically non-sustainable and undesirable features of social systems are more correctly termed “negative resilience” (Gallopín, 2006) or “perverse resilience” (Holling 2001, Ráez-Luna, 2008). 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 (demos) has become corrupted by rule (kratos) by the powerful (oligarchy or plutocracy). It’s worse than that; Capitalism is now run by what can be technically called corruption. Corporations and oligarchs (authoritarians) use their power and influence to buy policy and manipulate or minimise 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.
We could call this form of political-economy Corruptalism (Cohen 1993) or what I prefer to call ‘Corrumpalism’ (from the Latin corrumpere ‘to destroy’). I define Corrumpalism as 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 mis-information, falsehoods, money and/or violence to achieve self-interested outcomes that are the opposite of cultural and ecological interests. We are seeing Corrumpalism played out in a public way with the recent VW scandal, the FIFA scandal, Olympics scandal, the Exxon climate change scandal, the ISIS oil scandal 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. To get the detail into these visions, we 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, perverse resilience, 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 The Symbiocene (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship). I created this concept in 2011 as an almost instinctive reaction again the very idea of the Anthropocene (Albrecht 2011). 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 and evolutionary thinking, symbiosis and its associated symbiogenesis, affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things (Scofield and Margulis 2012).
As many thinkers have pointed out, such interconnection and interaction puts humans back into the community of life and resists 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 the earliest thinkers to warn us of its dangers (in 1962), Murray Bookchin, summarised 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 (Bookchin 1971:59)
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, the relatively recent discovery of immense mutually beneficial associations of macrofungi with flowering plants in complex positive metabolic symbiotic relationship to each other in ecosystems all over the world has already overturned the dominance of the ‘Darwinian’ view of life as solely founded on competitive struggle between species (Scofield and Margulis 2012, Albrecht 2001). The symbiotic turn in thinking about the foundation of life has even overturned the idea of large organisms such as human beings as autonomous individuals. We are ‘holobionts’ or complex, collaborative organisms consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.
We are now closer to understanding how ecosystem parameters can be guided by key players in the system to maximise 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 all 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, such as to the very young, that need them most (Simard et al 2015). It also works to transfer information and energy from dying species to those that might continue to thrive, thus maintaining ‘the forest’ (see Frazer 2015). 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 now a prime example of natural justice and the attempt to maintain ‘balance’ or total homeostasis in nature where the early insights of Kropotkin in Mutual Aid (1902) find contemporary scientific validation. Cooperation and mutual aid can now be reinstated as an evolutionary foundation of life and crucial for all aspects of human enterprise. Kropotkin 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 (Kropotkin 1987:234).
Imagining The Symbiocene
Let us now try to imagine The Symbiocene and the politics of how it might function. The new era will be characterised 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 (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 innovation. Human psychology will be fully nurtured within The Symbiocene (Albrecht 2014).
However, beyond biomimicry we must also have symbiomimicry. Many simply think it is enough to copy the shapes and form of life, but they make no connection to life’s processes. We don’t just copy the form of life, we replicate in all types of human creativity, 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 organising resources and processes so that the young, weak and vulnerable get their fair share in order that the totality has the greatest chance of survival and flourishing is fundamental to life. Symbiomimicry in human enterprise will both generate and distribute resources such that, in nurturing all humans, we nurture the life support system on which we all depend.
The geological proof of the presence of The Symbiocene will be the observed gradual disappearance of The Anthropocene as the Earth is cleansed of its toxic legacy and the background rate of global extinction and evolution resumes. In what I hope will be a relatively short period of time (decades? hundreds of years?) there will be a point in human evolution when every element of human culture, habitat and technology will be able to be fully re-integrated back into life and its cycles and processes. From that point onward, within the youngest geological strata, there will hardly be a distinctively human presence left on this Earth. All that will be left to fossilise will be the bones and teeth of people who lived within The Symbiocene.
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 rule determined by the type 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 democratise a failing ‘biased’ democracy with, say, a Deep Ecology ‘council of all beings’ approach where 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 form, process and relationships such that they can deliberate on 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 to take place or if it is already being undertaken, 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 a thorough understanding of total ecosystems and the symbiotic interrelationships that enable them to function. In order to ‘live together’ humans must exercise their intelligence and power to achieve overall harmony in a community of interests. Within a Sumbiocracy, Earth Rulers must ponder what kind of mutualistic 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?
Governance by scientifically and traditionally informed humans (including citizen science) at all places and all scales determines the interconnections between elements of complex systems before they commit to action that impacts system health. We must 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 all the reciprocal relationships of the Earth at all scales from local to global. Organic form (all biodiversity including humans) and organic process (Earth systems) are present in this new form of government. Sumbiocracy is rule for the Earth – by the Earth, so that we might all live together.
We now have a very sophisticated understanding of how the natural world works and, as it was here and functioning before humans evolved as Homo sapiens sapiens, it is we that must fit in with its process and functioning. To understand the conditions of life but to deliberately destroy them by toxic overload, changing the climate for the worse, making formerly healthy ecosystems unfit for life, destroying ecosystems and extirpating species (the 6th Great Extinction), we demonstrate that we are not only Homo non-sapiens, but also some kind of pathological plague on all species on this Earth. We are 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. At the same time as this system has produced global scale pollution, negative climate change, mass extinction and human wealth, it has impoverished and corrupted many of the efforts that have been made to emerge into some sort of harmony or equilibrium with the Earth. The usurpation by a powerful elite, and their instruments such as mass media, of concepts like democracy, sustainability, sustainable development and resilience have all taken place within my lifetime (62 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 (1984), and before him, Erich Fromm (1965), 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 the pre-existing ecological matrix where humans as an intensely social species 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 deeply satisfying experience for most humans. As the politics of Sumbiocracy play out and we live with symbiomimicry in all our technologies and habitats, the Earth will breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Albrecht, Glenn A. (1994). “Ethics, Anarchy and Sustainable Development.” Anarchist Studies, Vol. 2, Autumn, No. 2: 95-118.
Albrecht, Glenn A. (2001). “Applied Ethics in Human and Ecosystem Health: The Potential of Ethics and an Ethic of Potentiality.” Ecosystem Health. Vol.7 No. 4, 243-252.
Albrecht, Glenn A. (2011) Symbiocene. http://healthearth.blogspot.com.au/2011/05/symbiocene.html
Albrecht, Glenn A. (2012a). “The age of solastalgia”: https://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337
Albrecht, Glenn A. (2012b) Psychoterratic Conditions in a Scientific and Technological World. In Kahn, P.H. and Hasbach, P.H. (eds) Ecopsychology: Science, Totems and the Technological Species. MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.
Albrecht, Glenn A. (2014) Ecopsychology in ‘The Symbiocene’ Ecopsychology Vol. 6, No.1, pp. 58-59. DOI: 10.1089/eco.2013.0091.
Bookchin, M. (1971). Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Palo Alto, Ramparts Press.
Cohen, S.F. (October 10, 1993). Renaissance or Ruin? Yeltin’s Desperation Dismantles Democracy, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1993/10/10/renaissance-or-ruin-yeltsins-desperation-dismantles-democracy/0a743f08-e74a-4334-9737-d917f0a3e583/
Crutzen, P.J., Stoermer, E.F., (2000). The ‘anthropocene’. International Geosphere-Biosphere Program Newsletter. 41, 17–18.
Frazer, J. (2015) Dying Trees Can Send Food to Neighbors of Different Species http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/dying-trees-can-send-food-to-neighbors-of-different-species/
Fromm, E. (1965). The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Gallopin, C. (2006). “Linkages between vulnerability, resilience and adaptive capacity.” Global Environmental Change. 16, 293−303.
Holling, C.S. (2001). “Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Systems.” Ecosystems (2001) 4:390-405.
Kropotkin, P. (1987) . Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, London, Freedom Press.
Ráez-Luna, E. (2008). “Third World Inequity, Critical Political Economy, and the Ecosystem Approach.” In The Ecosystem Approach –Complexity, Uncertainty, and Managing for Sustainability, edited by David Waltner-Toews, J.J. Kay, and N. Lister, New York: Columbia University Press.
Scofield, B, and Margulis, L. (2012) Psychological Discontent: Self and Science on Our Symbiotic Planet. In Kahn, P.H. and Hasbach, P.H. (eds) Ecopsychology: Science, Totems and the Technological Species. MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.
Simard, S.W., Asay, A.K., Beiler, K.J., Bingham, M.A., Deslippe, J.R., He, X., Philip, L.J., Song, Y., Teste, F.P. (2015). “Resource transfer between plants through ectomycorrhizal networks”. In: Mycorrhizal Networks. Edited by T. R. Horton. Springer. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/272567309_Resource_transfer_between_plants_through_ectomycorrhizal_fungal_networks
Walker, B.H. and D. Salt. (2006). Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Washington, D.C., USA: Island Press.
Wilson, E.O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge