There is a scene in the film Avatar where the human Jake Sully (in avatar Na’vi form) and the native Pandoran, Neytiri intertwine their prehensile, braided, pony tails or ‘queues’. As these queues are extensions of their neural systems they can be used for communication, collaboration and connection with other Na’vi, different species and the totality of life on moon Pandora. When Jake and Neytiri conjoin the sensitive tendrils at the tip of their queues, there is an erotic electricity and their union is seen and felt to be sensual (possibly sexual) and intensely cognitive. Their moment could also be a manifestation of what could be called ‘love’ in sensitive beings. It can be argued that to fully unite with the other in a shared life is the ultimate expression of love. It is, as Hegel would call it, the fulfilment of ‘identity-in-difference’.
The film, Avatar, can easily be read as an allegory on the plight of the contemporary Earth. In their rapacious and murderous quest for ‘unobtanium’, the humans who invade Pandora care nothing for the distinctive humanoid and other forms of life. They engage in a great military drive for the extinction of any and everything that gets in their way. They are willing to use powerful technologies to blow up and burn ‘the tree of life’ in order to get more material wealth and power. Humans, for the most part, are portrayed as a species with no empathy with the greater forces that hold life together and put on full display, their willingness to commit ecocide to achieve their aims. A very bleak view of human nature was contrasted to the alien, animistic, pantheistic and ecologically ‘spiritual’ humanoids.
Yet, it was observed at the time when the film ended in cinemas, many people in the audience wanted to go back and experience the intense life and love experience of the Na’vi for each other and the ‘living moon’ Pandora. Many reported experiencing ‘the blues’ or what I interpret as both intense nostalgia, the desire to return ‘home’ and what I have called a type of virtual solastalgia or deep existential distress about the environmental desolation about what had happened on Pandora. People were emotionally desolated on ‘coming back to Earth’ at the film’s conclusion, despite the fact that Pandora only existed in the cinema and via 3-D glasses (Piazza 2010). I wrote about this experience not long after viewing the film in 2010:
As the real world is being desolated (climate change, ecosystem distress etc etc), real people experience solastalgia. When, in Avatar, they can ‘see’ an alternative world, which is beautiful, diverse and complex, one that meets their aesthetic, spiritual and ethical needs, they want to live within it. During the three dimensional movie, they experience a virtual solastalgia as they become virtual participants in the attempted destruction and desolation of the Na’vi and other life forms in this pristine environment … all for the sake of a meaningless materialism. The movie becomes, for such people, an existential experience of negative environmental change (defined as solastalgia). At the conclusion of the movie when they must accept that such a world is virtual only, they experience a virtual nostalgia for it and become depressed. The irony of humans finally seeing the value of life, different ways of being ‘human’ plus the intrinsically valuable complexity of non-human beings and their living systems via a movie about a virtual world and its destruction is not lost on me. (Albrecht 2010)
What the Avatar experience suggested was that deep inside many people was the empathy needed to commune with a coherent and complex world that planet Earth once represented for all humans and all life. Not a perfectly peaceful and harmonious place, but one with sufficient ‘balance’ between the forces of creation and destruction to allow life and the emotions to be nurtured and perpetuated. Pandora was a fantasy of a place which manifested unity-in-diversity and where the forces of life finally overcame the forces of death and destruction. People still connected to the Earth in their everyday lives have not lost this emotional empathy, but perhaps intensely urban people can only experience this kind of primordial empathy for other life and the systems that sustain them when they experience it in a virtual setting such as a film. It suggests that there is something foundational and fundamental in people that leads to the rejection of the deliberate destruction of life and that affirms a love of life and a life of love.
Since the first showing of Avatar, the state of the world, by all forms of measure, has only got worse. Powerful corporations are still searching the world to extract and burn fossil fuels. Places where Indigenous people live traditional lives are right now being ‘developed’ and exploited for yet more fossil-fuelled fire. Climate change is causing whole regions of the planet to become uninhabitable to the point where all forms of life have to ‘relocate’. Even those in so-called developed countries are now seeing their health status, life span, life chances and quality of life seriously inferior to their own parents’ generation. As the world goes to ‘hell in a handbasket’ I wonder if there is enough love left in the queues of humanity to save us from the forces which drive death and destruction? What relics of a collective love and life-affirming spirit within humanity are there to counter the ecocide, xenophobia and collective violence emerging in many countries and their leaders worldwide?
In order to negate solastalgia and other earth-related or ‘psychoterratic’ mental health problems as a result of Earth breakdown, I have created positive concepts, based on what I argue, are positive emotional and spiritual elements of human nature that will assist in the positive care of the earth and the mind.
Exiting the Anthropocene – Embracing the Symbiocene
A meme that is in widespread use in recent times is that of The Anthropocene. One implication is that humans have now become so powerful a technological species that they dominate and drive all the significant geological and climatic forces on Earth. Humans are leaving physical signs and signals of their current form of life such as nuclear radiation in the soil, plastic in the guts of fish, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the extinction of species. Humans are now leaving a dirty fingerprint on the planet that will be able to be read thousands of years into the future. I have argued that if these are signs of The Anthropocene, then we must exit the Anthropocene as soon as possible. Another implication of The Anthropocene is that it is both natural and inevitable that rapacious humans will continue to exploit and destroy their own, home, the Earth. Already there are some who contemplate leaving the earth to go and travel to new planets or asteroids to exploit as yet untapped wealth. This earth could be sacrificed so that the Anthropocene can go cosmic, even universal (Larson 2014). The film, Avatar, then becomes a blueprint for our future?
I have created a counter meme to The Anthropocene, one I have called, The Symbiocene. The concept is derived from the term ‘symbiosis’ which itself is derived from the Greek sumbiosis (companionship), sumbion (to live together) sumbios (living together) and, of course, bios (life). The scientific meaning of symbiosis implies living together for mutual benefit. As a core aspect of ecological and evolutionary thinking symbiosis affirms the interconnectedness of life within the variety all living things. I wish to use this profoundly important concept as the basis for what I hope will be the next period of Earth history. I argue that The Symbiocene, as a period in the history of humanity of this Earth, will be characterised by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. This period of human existence will be a positive affirmation of life and the love of life. Humans will re-discover ‘sumbiophilia’ or the love of living together within the ecological matrix.
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.
How utopian and blindly optimistic is the idea of The Symbiocene? Is it an atavistic fantasy? There are many writers and thinkers who have championed the idea that humans do have the capacity to live in harmony with each other and the rest of life. I consider Peter Kropotkin and his Mutual Aid as a Factor in Evolution (1901) as one thinker who saw more in human nature than greed and selfishness. Many modern environmental thinkers and writers have reached the same conclusion with the need to express this cooperative side of human nature in ethical and policy principles (Leopold 1949). One that has influenced my work is Elyne Mitchell, who, while writing about the Australian high country during the Second World War, drew on early ecological thinking to expound a philosophy of life. In her book, Soil and Civilization (1946), Mitchell examines then agricultural experiments that built soil fertility based on an assumption and knowledge of the interdependencies between “soil, plant and animal”. She argued that:
The principle underlying all these experiments … was this living, organic symbiosis which goes deeper and leads far beyond their actual quest for physical health in human beings, stock and plants. In the proof of biological interdependence, there is evidence of a universal pattern which is an outward form of the rhythm to which life moves.
Living by the laws of ecological balance is living within the rhythm of life. We of this highly self-conscious stage of our civilization could turn our consciousness to a complete awareness of the rhythm and tensions of life … others have sub-consciously based their lives and whole beliefs on this rhythm. We, by fusing this sub-conscious wisdom with the new scientific knowledge, could go forward with fresh creativeness, and perhaps find within the vital rhythm a road leading to the essence of Being. (Mitchell 1946: 40).
Other thinkers such as Erik Fromm and E.O. Wilson have extended this theme. The concept of an ecological or interconnected life of love and love of life was clearly articulated by Eric Fromm in the 1960s. He distinguished between “necrophilia” which involved the love of destruction and death and “biophilia” which he described as the “love of life”. In the Heart of Man (1965), Fromm develops the idea of biophilia in the context of human character development, productivity and ethics. He argues, “The full unfolding of biophilia is to be found in the productive orientation. The person who fully loves life is attracted by the process of life and growth in all spheres. He prefers to construct rather than to retain.” He suggests that, “biophilic ethics have their own principle of good and evil. Good is all that serves life, evil is that which serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces”.
Fromm’s pioneering concept of biophilia links love of humanity with love of life and nature in a nexus that anticipates many themes within late twentieth century and early 21st century environmental ethics. In his “Humanist Credo”, published in On Being Human he linked biophilia to a comprehensive ethic:
I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom (Fromm 1994).
To develop Fromm’s life-based concept of biophilia even further into an empathetic and ecological understanding of life we might wish also to talk about “ecophilia” (Soyinka, 2004). E.O. Wilson (1984) uses the term “biophilia” in a way different from the psychosocial character development of Fromm in that he argued biophilia was evolution-biologically-rooted. Wilson argued for a “deep conservation ethic” based on innate biological affiliation with all other organisms as a counter to destructive and exploitative relationships with the rest of nature.
The concept of “topophilia”, or love of place, was developed by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1974) and he highlighted the suit of human “affective ties with the material environment”. Tuan argued that on most occasions, topophilia is a mild human experience; an aesthetic expression of joy about connection to landscape and place, but that it can become more powerful when human emotions or cultural values are “carried” by the environment. He acknowledges the work of the anthropologist Strehlow in providing insight into the depth of positive place attachment held by Aboriginal Australians and what happens when place attachment is severed (Tuan 1974). He acknowledged that topophilia is a powerful human emotion for humans who are closely connected to the land. I have extended this idea with the notion of Song-line ethics in an analysis of the impact of development on Indigenous lands in Western Australia (Albrecht and Ellis 2014).
I created the concept of soliphilia, or the solidarity and affiliation needed between people to heal and repair the earth as a political and cultural addition to our psychoterratic language. Soliphilia, put simply, is the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept the political responsibility for them at all scales. My thinking was, that to resist those forces that are desolating the earth and its life, we needed concepts that unite us in ways that go beyond the traditional political contest over who owns the earth or the industries and technologies that transform it.
‘Solidarity’ remains a good word, however, it is now so closely tied to the Left in politics that it divides rather than unifies. However, it is clear to me that contemporary politics is so corrupted by forces determined to destroy life for short-term gain that soliphilia does not have much of a chance for widespread acceptance despite its recent promotion in popular literature (Worthy 2016). I need to look deeper into life and the human condition to find something that will support the philias.
Since the time of Mitchell, there have been considerable advances in the scientific understanding of the interconnectedness in life. Biological and ecological science have only recently discovered the incredible extent to which life is interconnected and how it depends, at its base, on collaboration between species to maintain the health of the whole. More specifically, ecological science has now revealed that in the foundations of ecosystems such as forests, symbiotic collaboration between trees and species of fungi via huge and complex networks called mycorrhizae are capable of maximising tree health and maintaining continuity of the ecosystem as a totality. The fungi grow hyphae or filaments which branch out to connect with plant roots. We get to see only the mycelium [Greek mykes (fungus) and helos (nail or stud)] or the decorative show of fungi ‘bodies’ on the surface of the soil. In another Blog post, I have written on this theme:
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. (Albrecht 2015)
It is not then fanciful to think about the symbiotic connections between species and the intense collaboration evident within species as a kind of empathetic life ‘spirit’ that holds it all together. Perhaps it was a ‘whiff’ of this spirit that people watching Avatar felt so strongly. Moreover we should not be all that surprised at such spirit recognition because the symbiotic empathy in the Na’vi and their tree of life has deep antecedents in Eurocentric mythology. John Christie, a writer who also runs a heritage farm in Australia, examines the idea of a primordial connection to trees:
In mythology, this is the World tree, the ‘axus mundi’, the centre uniting the heavens above with the underworld below, the still point around which the universe revolves. Here the tree is a centring force. Do we find comfort here? Robert Vischer was a German philosopher who invented the term ‘Einfuhlung’ (aesthetic sensibility) later translated into English as ‘empathy’ in the late 1800s.
This idea developed from an older concept that linked thinking and bodily feeling with an appreciation of objects. For example, it is said that a body swells when it enters a hall; it sways, even in imagination, when it sees wind blowing in a tree. It is the experience of the rhythmic continuity between self and other, between ‘outside’ and ‘in’. The suggestion here is that we objectify the self in external, spatial forms (in this case trees), projecting it into and becoming analogous with them, merging subject with object.
We become the tree; self and world unite. Trees, or groups of trees, then, are like botanical cathedrals – cavernous and protective and uplifting – and it is to this that we respond in an ‘empathetic’ way. Perhaps. (Christie, 2016:16).
I have followed Christie and Vischer in giving names to these feelings of a spiritual, empathetic unity between humans and nature. One path I have explored is ‘eutierria’ (eu = good, tierra = the earth) which I define as a good Earth feeling. The emotional experience of ‘eutierria’ is another concept that is strangely missing in the English language. The feeling of total harmony with our place and the naive loss of ego (merging subject and object) we often felt as children has become rare in this period of what Richard Louv calls ‘nature deficit disorder’. With eutierria I have put back into our language an earthly equivalent of ‘that oceanic feeling’ (connected to religious feelings and/or Freud’s psychoanalytic theory) or a secular spiritual feeling of oneness with our home.
Other writers about life have seen the affinities connections between life, love, spirit and soul. For example, In 1923 Rudolf Steiner created the concept of “love life” in relation to the life of bees. He argued:
That which we experience within ourselves only at a time when our hearts develop love is actually the very same thing that is present as a substance in the entire beehive. The whole beehive is permeated with life based on love. In many ways the bees renounce love, and thereby this love develops within the entire beehive. You’ll begin to understand the life of bees once you’re clear about the fact that the bee lives as if it were in an atmosphere pervaded thoroughly by love … the bee sucks its nourishment, which it makes into honey, from the parts of a plant that are steeped in love life. And the bee, if you could express it this way, brings love life from the flowers into the beehive. So you’ll come to the conclusion that you need to study the life of bees from the standpoint of the soul” (1923 Prelude 2-3).
Steiner, as a pioneer in the study of organic interconnections, actually saw life and love explicitly in ecological terms. He argued in his 1923 lectures on bees that to understand life; “[Y]ou need to take a deep look into the entire ecology that nature has to offer” (Lecture 7, page 127, see Matherne 2002).
The contemporary Welsh writer, Ginny Battson, has argued for similar love-life connections between humans and elemental forces within ecosystems. She writes about the fungal hyphae networks and their analogy to the idea of love:
Hyphae grow from their very ‘finger’ tips, the softest exploration in finding a way to their next interconnection. In a lab, the direction of hyphal growth can be controlled by environmental stimuli, such as the application of an electric field. Hyphae can sense reproductive opportunities from some distance, and grow towards them. Hyphae can weave through a permeable surface to penetrate it.
One may consider the human spirit of love a little like the hyphae, in sensing partners and finding ways to connect and exchange through layers. Love itself, of course, glows in many rainbow colours. Aristotle says love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies. Mycelium may be the soul and unity of the forest, where not just two beings are united, but many, and for the love of the whole community. (Battson 2015)
We can see then, the ‘spiritual’ affinities between life and love. Both are only possible when there is connection, exchange, creation and sharing. The principle which animates life in a forest, is one that has a pattern which is repeated in love between human beings at a small scale (between lovers) and at the larger scale in the soliphilia or “love of the whole community”. Here is a union of traditional thinking and modern science to produce a coherent account of why humans have a love of life.
The idea of a secular word for ‘spirit’ has also exercised my mind. There is an old root word in Indo-European languages that captures the meaning I want to convey. ‘Ghehd’ has meanings linked to Old English and Germanic words such as ‘together’, ‘to gather’ and ‘good’. The connections between the sumbios (living together) and ghehd (together) were too ‘good’ to miss. I have thought that a modern version of the word ‘ghehd’ could be incorporated into a spiritual context in the form of the ‘ghedeist’, with a shortening of the German ‘geist’ with its meanings of spirit and mind and affinities in other languages of a vital force or ‘life force’. My definition of the ghedeist is:
The life spirit or force which holds all things, living and non-living, together. A feeling of interconnectedness in life between the self and other beings (human and non-human) and their gathering together to live within shared Earth places and spaces. It is a feeling of intense affinity and sense of mutual empathy for other beings. It is a non-religious term for acknowledging the life-spirit which all living beings share and a way of distinguishing the good (which associates and interconnects) from the bad (which disassociates and dis-integrates).
The film ‘Avatar’ looks increasingly like a documentary on the human condition on Earth. Ecological science continues to build the case that the natural state of life has, at its foundation, grand scale symbiosis within organisms and between species. Interconnectedness is the norm. Isolation and disconnectedness is death. Pandora actually has a scientific foundation, made more explicit in scientific developments in plant-fungal networks since the film was made. The Na’vi-nature exhibited within the film, their spiritual and love-like qualities, based entirely on a naturalistic foundation of an ecosystem based on interconnected life and love. Humans sensitive to such a life force, felt the emotions of connecting with it, and, when exiting, detachment from its beautiful power. The need for a secular term for this optimistic idea of a creative love- life force, shared by humans and the rest of the ecological matrix, has never been greater. I offer The Ghedeist as a new term that unites the life force and the fact that we all need to live together on this one Earth. Without such a united spiritual love at human scale, there can be no unity with life at the largest scale.
Albrecht, Glenn (2010) Avatar and Virtual Solastalgia http://healthearth.blogspot.com.au/2010/01/avatar-and-virtual-solastalgia.html)
Albrecht, Glenn (2015) Exiting The Anthropocene and entering The Symbiocene:https://glennaalbrecht.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/exiting-the-anthropocene-and-entering-the-symbiocene-via-sumbiocracy-symbiomimicry-and-sumbiophilia/
Albrecht, G.A. and Ellis, N. (2014) The Ethics of Resource Extraction and Processing: Two Western Australian Case Studies, in Brueckner, M., Durey, A., Mayes., and Pforr, C., (eds) Resource Curse or Cure? On the Sustainability of Development in Western Australia. Heidelberg, Springer, pp. 43-58.
Battson, Ginny (2015) Mycelium of the forest floor. And love. seasonalighthttps://seasonalight.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/mycelium-of-the-forest-floor-and-love/
Christie, John (2016) Trees are the central theme that gives a garden strength. Diggers Winter Garden, 2016:16
Fromm, E. (1965) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Kropotkin, P. (1987) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, London, Freedom Press, 1987 , 234.
Fromm, E. (1994) On Being Human, ed. by Rainer Funk, New York, Continuum.
Larson, K. Dean (2014) Mining Asteroids and Exploiting the New Space Economy. Once property rights are established, space-based free enterprise can take off:http://www.wsj.com/articles/dean-larson-mining-asteroids-and-exploiting-the-new-space-economy-1408662987
Matherne, B. (2002) Book Review: http://www.doyletics.com/arj/beesrvw.htm
Piazza, Jo, (January 11, 2010) Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues, Special to CNNhttp://edition.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/01/11/avatar.movie.blues/
Mitchell, E. (1946) Soil and Civilization, Halstead Press, Sydney.
Worthy, Kenneth (2016). The Green Mind, Soliphilia and Other Ways of Loving a Planet, Can it help to name our love for Earth and our despair for its destruction? Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-green-mind/201605/soliphilia-and-other-ways-loving-planet
Soyinka, Wole (2004) The Reith Lectures: Climate of Fear http://search.bbc.co.uk/search?q=ecophilia&Search=Search&uri=%2Fradio4%2Freith2004%2Fle ctures.shtml then,http://www.bbc.co.uk/print/radio4/reith2004/lecture3.shtml?print
Tuan, Yi-Fu, (1974) Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, And Values, Prentice- Hall, Inc., New Jersey.
Wilson, E.O. (1984) Biophilia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.
 I make no claims about the film from a critical perspective. An exercise in eco-criticism would, no doubt, find many issues to debate as would criticism from feminist perspectives. I am interested only in how people emotionally reacted to the film after it concluded within a cinema.
 I see the full range of these psychoterratic emotions as sitting between the extremes of positive and negative responses. In the spirit of systematically ‘re-placing’ our language I have decided to give these poles of experience names that suitably define the terrain. The full range of the psychoterratic can be circumscribed within the poles of Terraphthora (earth destroyer) (tera for ra) (Terra, from the Latin “earth”, the Greek (phthorá) or “destruction”) and Terranascia (earth creator) (tera nas cia) (Terra, from the Latin “earth”, and the Latin nātūra, “to be born”). The dialectic between terraphthora and terranascia is now being expressed in all forms of human creativity and destruction and it is my hope that the typology as a whole can assist in the ecocritical evaluation of ideas and actions that relate to our home environment at all scales. The explicit giving of names to that which had previously been intangible or subliminal is empowering and enables those who participate in the named drama to be collaboratively creative and engage in a community of scholarship, politics and criticism.