The Anthropocene epoch is based on the evidence of dominance of human affairs over all natural processes at a planetary scale. It is also characterised by countless biocidal catastrophes worldwide with mass bee death by insecticides just one that has received world-wide attention. Those sensitive to the scope and scale of these insults to life feel waves of distress in this ‘age of solastalgia’. Before the desolation goes too far, I suggest that we rapidly enter a new era I call ‘the Symbiocene’. The Symbiocene will be characterised by human intelligence that replicates, in all aspects of social life, the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing, life-reproducing forms and processes found in all living systems. In addition to the praxis needed to build the material Symbiocene, we will also need new and old (Indigenous) form of earth-spirituality to reconstruct its integrity. I call this Life- or Earth-spirit, ‘the Ghedeist’, a term which I have created from old Indo-European language origins using the root word, ghehd, with meanings perpetuated in Old English and Germanic words such as ‘together’, ‘to gather’ and ‘good’. I have defined the Ghedeist as; “The spirit or force which holds things together, a feeling of connectedness 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 with, and empathy for, other beings. The Ghedeist is a secular term for acknowledging the life-spirit which all beings share and a way of distinguishing the good (which interconnects) from the bad (which dis-integrates).” I shall argue that to get out of the Anthropocene, we not only need new sumbiosic praxis, we need to create the Symbiocene by embracing and harnessing the transformative power of the Ghedeist.
Exiting the Anthropocene in the Age of Solastalgia
A meme that is in widespread use in recent times is that of the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000). One implication of this claim, that we are in a new geological period, 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 also leave indelible physical signs and signals of their global reach, such as nuclear radiation in the soil, plastic in the guts of fish, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, nitrogen in the soil and the extinction of species. The human species is leaving a dirty fingerprint on the planet that will be able to be read thousands of years into the future. I argue that, if these signs are symptomatic of the Anthropocene, then we must exit the Anthropocene as soon as possible.
Another possible 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 will be sacrificed and the Anthropocene will go cosmic, even universal (Larson 2014).
I suggest that one of the defining emotional responses to the chronic desolation of the Earth as home has been captured by the concept of solastalgia (Albrecht 2005, 2012). I established the concept of solastalgia around the experience of people in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales where open-cut coal mining was desolating hundreds of square kilometres of the valley. I also argued in my first publication on this concept that the Aboriginal people of Australia had experienced something very similar when their ‘country’ was overrun and desolated by colonial powers. I wrote:
Historically, Indigenous people are likely to experience both nostalgia and solastalgia as they live through the destruction of their cultural traditions and their lands. Where a collective memory of an ancient culture such as that of Indigenous Australians still exists, there is no idealisation of a golden past, but a genuine grieving for the ongoing loss of ‘country’ and all that entails. The strength of attachment to country is difficult for people in European cultures to fathom. A translation of a song from the Oenpelli region captures some of this power:
Come with me to the point and we’ll look at the country,
We’ll look across at the rocks,
Look, rain is coming!
It falls on my sweetheart.
(Albrecht 2005:47, Broome 1982:14).
Ironically, Hunter Valley farmers, whose own ancestors had taken land from Aboriginal people now faced similar invasion and dispossession. This time the aggressor was a new power in the form of multi-national mining companies and the State and Federal Governments of Australia. There was now some empathy for the Aboriginal people of the Hunter Valley as the farmers and others directly impacted by the coal mining and pollution from coal-fired power plants had their sense of place smashed.
In that essay in PAN I also explored the extension of the idea of place and home to the global context. I argued that:
However, with media and IT globalisation bringing contemporary events such as land clearing in the Amazon basin into the lounge room, the meanings of ‘direct experience’ and ‘home’ become blurred. I contend that the experience of solastalgia is now possible for people who strongly empathise with the idea that the earth is their home and that witnessing events destroying endemic place identity (cultural and biological diversity) at any place on earth are personally distressing to them. (Albrecht 2005: 46).
In a subsequent article, published in 2007, I speculated that climate change was already creating a set of circumstances where solastalgia was a predictable response. I suggested that “climate change for one, might, unfortunately, be a globally significant source of psychoterratic distress expressed as nostalgia and solastalgia” (Albrecht et al 2007: 96). Planetary-scale distress being felt by many people is now being generated by multiple attacks on life and its foundations by the sheer size of human population and economic growth conducted within neo-liberal notions of progress and development. Within the space of my lifetime (64 years); the world, its climate, landscapes, biodiversity and cultures, have all been altered in ways that are hugely negative to life in general and human life in particular. As Robert Macfarlane has put it, “Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants” (Macfarlane 2016). I would go further than Macfarlane in suggesting that home is becoming increasingly hostile. For example, areas of the planet already very hot, such as the Middle East, the Indian Sub-Continent and parts of Australia, are now experiencing heat waves and maximum temperatures testing, and at times, exceeding the limit of human endurance. By 2050, according to sober climate calescence (Albrecht 2017) projections, many of these places will be so hot that ‘home’ will become not just unhomely, but uninhabitable.
I have created a counter meme to the Anthropocene, one I have called, the Symbiocene (Albrecht 2011). 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 most often for mutual benefit. As a core aspect of ecological and evolutionary thinking symbiosis affirms the interconnectedness of life within the variety all living things. It also implies a homeostasis or balance of interests since domination of one part over the rest would lead to functional failure.
I wish to use the profoundly important concept of symbiosis 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 it offers the prospect of the complete re-integration of the human psyche and culture with nature (Albrecht 2014).
The geological proof of the presence of the Symbiocene will be the observed gradual disappearance of signs of the Anthropocene as the Earth is cleansed of its toxic legacy. In what I hope will be a relatively short period of time (perhaps decades) there will be a point in human evolution where almost 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 very youngest geological strata, there will hardly be a distinctively human presence left on this Earth.
I suggest that the key principles of Symbiocene life will include:
- full and benign recyclability and biodegradability of all inputs and outputs
- safe and socially just forms of clean, renewable energy
- full and harmonious integration of human systems with biogeochemical systems at all scales
- the elimination of toxic waste in all aspects of production, consumption and enterprise
- all species, great and small, having their life-interests and kinship understood and respected
- evidence of a harmony or balance of interests where conflict is recognised as a sub-set of grand-scale cooperation.
In the goodness of Symbiocene time, all that will be left to categorise and fossilise in the natural and human realm will be the naturally occurring elements within a spectrometer scan and the bones and teeth of people who lived within The Symbiocene.
Some Antecedents of the Symbiocene
How utopian and blindly optimistic is the idea of The Symbiocene? Is it an atavistic fantasy? At one level we could argue that, for the bulk of time that Homo sapiens sapiens has been a species on the face of the Earth, we were within a proto-Symbiocene state as nearly all enterprise satisfied the Symbiocene principles I outlined above. It was only at the point of the Industrial Revolution that our own development as a global species began to deviate from the matrix of the rest of life. Pollution of the atmosphere and the use of non-biodegradable and toxic chemicals in industrial processes began slowly but have escalated since the time of my birth in 1953. Even agriculture was, by default, ‘organic’ prior to the Second World War and was changed rapidly by the use of various ‘cides’ as killers of insects, unwanted plants and fungi.
There are many writers and thinkers who have championed the idea that humans do have the capacity to love life and 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 animal and 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.
However, I wish to highlight the contribution of a little known Australian writer/scholar who has influenced my work. Elyne Mitchell (1913 – 2002), who, while writing during the Second World War, drew on early ecological thinking to expound a philosophy of life. Mitchell published her book, Soil and Civilization (1946) before the availability of Aldo Leopold’s famous, A Sand County Almanac in 1949. While there is very little material on Indigenous people and culture within her books, there is just enough to build a more inclusive and integrative philosophy of life that includes an indigenous world view. I am also acutely aware that Mitchell repeated beliefs about Aboriginal Australians that could be considered racist. She was a white, Christian, self-educated woman, it was the 1940s and her reading audience was “White Australia”. Yet, perhaps in defiance of the public orthodoxy of the time, she wanted to acknowledge as a basic fact that prior to colonisation by Europeans, “the nomadic aboriginal was part of the natural balance of the continent” (1946: 28) and that the colonisers had destroyed that balance in less than 200 years.
However, there is enough in her momentary references to indigenous culture to tell us something important about the relationship between nature and humans, culture and nature. Mitchell saw a tragic mismatch between the European mind and the biophysical reality of Australia in 1788 and ‘Soil and Civilization’ is her response to the spiritual and physical degradation of the Australian continent. She suggested:
The natural laws of the undiscovered Australia were incomprehensible to minds moulded in Western Europe. Yet that this land may survive as living earth we must learn to understand the balance that existed when Australia contained only the nomadic aborigines and the slow-breeding marsupials, and condition our relationship with the land by what we learn. (Mitchell 1947: 138)
As observed above, Mitchell mentions the “nomadic aborigines” but seems to accept the universality of the nomadic nature of an Aboriginal hunting and gathering lifestyle and its cultural base. She writes that “… aborigines, who collected grass to grind for baking, sowed no seeds, and no vegetation myths entered into their experience” (Mitchell 1046:7). No doubt, her views would have been seriously challenged by the evidence and ideas presented by contemporary writers such as Bill Gammage’s (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe’s (2014) Dark Emu. However, the idea that Aboriginal people cultivated the soil, used tools such as hoes and harvested grain that was actively planted by them (Pascoe 2014) would have enhanced the thesis of her book, that an agriculture sensitive to the unique Australian conditions was both desirable and possible.
In addition, Mitchell noted that while aboriginal culture did not have specific Greek-type “chthonian Gods” (connected to the underworld, soil and agriculture), it was located within what she describes as a “boundless space” known as “the matrix of the Alcheringa, the dreamland of the aborigines”. Here, she observed the possible unity of “this soil” and “this cosmic vastness” leading to a “permanent culture … of small or larger numbers, as the possibilities of the land allow …” (Mitchell 1947:139). Such a unity also required a “… fusion of ancient wisdoms with all that modern science can discover” (Mitchell 1947:33).
The unusual use of the term ‘dreamland’ deserves some comment as ‘land’ and ‘place’ figure prominently in all of her formal writing. I can only assume that she had available to her early (before WW2) anthropological accounts of the Dreaming and what the “dreamland” might signify. I do not know what her sources might have been, however, Elkin published his popular book on The Australian Aborigines in 1938 and references to The Dreaming lie within it. The debate about the origins of this term have been well discussed in the recent literature (see Nicholls 2014) so I do not need to cover this ground again.
The anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner (2009) is one writer who systematically examined all aspects of the so-called ‘Dreaming’. He saw three major elements that the matrix consisted of; the great marvels of the biophysical world, the common ancestry of all life and species and the rules of social life (Stanner 2009:61). The first element concerns “… the great marvels – how all the fire and water in the world were stolen and recaptured; … how the hills, rivers, and waterholes were made; how the sun, moon, and stars were set upon their courses …” (Stanner 2009:61). Debra Bird Rose also writes about The Dreaming and while noting the cultural and academic nuances connected to this term summarises the second element by suggesting that it provides a profound awareness of connectedness in all life and living systems and, as a consequence, deep human kinship with all living things (Bird Rose 1996:29). The third element, how humans should live and how their institutions should operate connects culture to nature in a seamless totality.
Such a total world view created what I understand as a type of proto-symbiocene. The merging of culture and nature meant that there was very little evidence of a unique human impact on the land as a culture symbiotically connected to the land leaves very few material traces. Even Stanner reached such a conclusion. He argues:
They are, of course, nomads – hunters and foragers who grow nothing, build little, and stay nowhere long. They make almost no physical mark on the environment. Even in areas which are still inhabited, it takes a knowledgeable eye to detect their recent presence. Within a matter of weeks, the roughly cleared camp-sites may be erased by sun, rain and wind. After a year or two there may be nothing to suggest that the country was ever inhabited. Until one stumbles on a few old flint-tools, a stone quarry, a shell midden, a rock painting, or something of the kind, one may think that the land had never known the touch of man (Stanner 2009: 64,65).
Again, Stanner may well have changed his mind on the issue of agriculture and evidence of semi-permanent settlements in parts of Australia, yet his account of the Dreaming does connect to my notion of the Symbiocene. The integration of culture and nature produces a symbiotic and benign result. There is nothing in the air, water soil and landscape that cannot be assimilated back into the vital matrix of life. There is kinship between humans and other life forms and they are mutually supportive. What nowadays would be called ‘environmental ethics’ were built by Aboriginal people to maintain and protect the special relationships between people and place (country) all over Australia. The Symbiocene principles were all in evidence in traditional Aboriginal society.
The politics of traditional Aboriginal society also ran counter to Hobbesian notions of scarcity and the idea of perpetual conflict and aggressive colonialism. Conflict was minimised because people were so materially tied to particular areas of land and the resources contained within it. It also made no psychic or cultural sense to take over the land of others because human identity was tied to intimate knowledge of their country or land. Trade and social intercourse was governed in such a way as to minimise conflict and maximise cooperation (Gammage 2012). Stanner, in ‘The Dreaming’ (1956) has put the case that:
The notion of aboriginal life as always preoccupied with the risk of starvation, always a hair’s breadth from disaster, is as great a caricature as Hobbes’ notion of savage life as ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ … The more one sees of aboriginal life the stronger the impression that its mode, its ethos and its principle are variations on a single theme – continuity, constancy, balance, symmetry, regularity, system, or some such quality as these words convey (Stanner, in Edwards 1987: 235).
It is my view that Mitchell could see the urgent need for a version of this kind of cosmology and governance to enter into Australian colonial life and all of its enterprises. In agriculture, where she could see the soil blowing away and plant life receding in vitality, she was especially critical of a culture divorced from biophysical reality and one lacking a spiritual and ethical constraint on greed and selfishness.
Selectively researching alternatives in the then agricultural context, Mitchell focussed on 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. (Mitchell 1946: 40)
Mitchell encouraged Australians to have a “vital love of the sense of being” by living in unity and harmony with the wider universe and also the phenology of place. An early champion of bioregionalism, she encouraged a cultural re-union with the “essential” Australia via the acquisition of a new “land sense” (Mitchell 1946: 33) and a “real love of the land – a love of the universal Australian earth and an intense love (endemophilia) of the particular place from which each individual comes” (Mitchell 1946:33). Her vision of such a vital reunion even involved a symbiotically inspired cultural revolution:
The courageous decision to build civilization into a symbiosis with a revitalised world, possessing stable, healthy soil, clear streams, unburnt forests and dust-free air, with people working on the land, close to reality, would bring new balance and new life (Mitchell 1946: 137).
These ideas of Mitchell’s are very early attempts within the Australian context to encourage humans to move away from a form of civilisation that destroys its own biophysical foundations and, in the process, destroys psychic and cultural integrity. On the connections between the health of the land and psychological health in people she wrote:
But no time or nation will produce genius if there is a steady decline away from the integral unity of man and the earth. The break in this unity is swiftly apparent in the lack of “wholeness” in the individual person. Divorced from his roots, man loses his psychic stability (Mitchell 1946: 4).
Global psychic instability was manifested in a world at war, yet Mitchell was prescient in seeing that a significant factor in geopolitical instability and war was that “predatory civilisations” arose based on the need for constant colonisation to exploit new resources. Once this process goes global, she mused that “… it will not be in just one small area that the spirit of man will be extinguished, but almost throughout the whole world” (Mitchell 1946: 23). The connections between her notion of ‘psychic stability’ and my concept of solastalgia were made by me right from my earliest thinking about land-psyche relationships.
Science and the Symbiocene
Even in the 1940s, Mitchell was aware that science had understood that there was “a living link” between the roots of plants and fungal growths. Since her time, there have been considerable advances in the scientific understanding of the interconnectedness in life. More specifically, ecological science has now revealed that, at the base 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.
The new science of symbiotic fungi relationships has also transformed our view of competitive Darwinian models of life. For example, the health of the ecosystem is regulated by what are called “mother trees” that control fungal networks that in turn interconnect trees of varying ages and species. The control system works to regulate nutrient flows to trees that need them most, such as very young ones. However, as Simard et al have discovered, 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. As Susan Simard has put it:
We have learned that mother trees recognise and talk with their kin, shaping future generations. In addition, injured trees pass their legacies on to their neighbors, affecting gene regulation, defence chemistry, and resilience in the forest community. These discoveries have transformed our understanding of trees from competitive crusaders of the self to members of a connected, relating, communicating system. (Simard, in Wohlleben 2016: 249)
While competition between individual organisms and species remains within living systems, the role of cooperation and inter-dependence is now more fully understood. Even within the human gut, we are beginning to understand that the human body is only healthy and ultimately kept alive by the actions of trillions of bacteria, of many different kinds, that work with us to nurture and protect our life as well as theirs (Shapira 2016).
The post-Spencerian, post-Hobbesian view of the foundations of life can now be incorporated into the human social and cultural domain. We are no longer imprisoned by a false notion of universal competitiveness in nature used to justify a particular form of competitive society and its separation from nature. Importantly, it is also not fanciful to think about the symbiotic connections between species and the intense collaboration evident within species as a kind of empathetic life ‘spirit’ or ‘Dreaming’ that holds it all together. Life has an affinity with life. Life loves life.
In her publications, Mitchell emphasised that her foundation for a new symbiosis between humans and the land was ultimately dependent on what she variously called a land Geist, land spirt, spiritus mundi and the Vital Spirit (Mitchell 1947, Mitchell 1945). To feel such a land-spirit affinity, Mitchell also thought that the “strange rhythm and harmony that is love” is not isolated within individual humans, but is a fractal of love within the wider cosmos. We can now see that love-literature, Indigenous cosmology and science have contributed to this unified theory of life and love.
We can also see ‘spiritual’ affinities between life and love. Both are only possible when there is voluntary connection, exchange, creation and sharing. The altruism 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 larger scales with the love of the whole community and its interconnections (soliphilia). Here is a union of traditional thinking and modern science to produce a coherent account of why humans have a love of life.
The need for a secular word for ‘spirit’ has also exercised my mind. For too long, ‘spirit’ has been in the ownership of the organised religions of the world. Terms like ‘The Dreaming’ must be owned and applied by the relevant Indigenous people. Fortunately, 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 then 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’. The neologism, ‘Ghedeist’, was thus created by me to account for a secular feeling for the unity of life and the intuition that all things are interconnected. My definition of the Ghedeist is:
The spirit or force which holds things 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 kinship which all living beings share and a way of distinguishing the good (which associates and interconnects) from the bad (which disassociates and dis-integrates). (Albrecht 2016)
It is now possible to unite the idea of the Symbiocene with the notion of the Ghedeist. The unity of life is not simply described by ecological science and new discoveries within the realm of fungi and gut bacteria, it is also supported by a deep-seated spiritual (non-material) feeling of human love and empathy for others. While well supported with the traditions that have written about romantic love between humans, it has been only a brave few who have suggested that human love is a particular reflection or fractal of love writ large within the totality of life on Earth. Love as unification, interrelationship, merging, cooperation and sharing is the human expression of the Ghedeist.
There is nothing new in this revelation. Although we cannot defeat the arrow of time, we can acknowledge that a proto-symbiocene was present in the Aboriginal culture of Australia. The ‘Alcheringa’ gave people a sense of place that connected them to the whole cosmos, from the soil to the stars. The affinity and close kinship with other animals was also crucial for this cosmic sense of place. We can now look anew at our sweetheart, the whole Earth, and feel this love, affinity and the spirit which unites us all.
The era of solastalgia is upon us right now. Climate calescence is no longer simply a theory, its chaotic power is being demonstrated in the lives of people all over the planet. Development pressures, also, are desolating the surface of the Earth, and all species, including humans, given that their homes are no longer capable of offering solace and support, are on the move. The Anthropocene reaches its zenith in the election of political leaders who have no connection to life and living processes that support life (even with their own families?).
The Symbiocene is an idea that re-connects human culture with nature and within nature, the vitality of life. It is just in time to support nature and psyche on the verge of collapse. Ecological science continues to build the case that the natural state of life has, at its foundation, grand-scale symbiosis between ecosystems, within organisms, within organs and between species. Interconnectedness to the Earth and each other is the living norm; isolation and disconnectedness are death. Nature is indifferent to life and death, but life has a particular interest in perpetuating itself within a community of interests. Life is the sumbios … living together! Indigenous culture reminds us that this rule for human society has stood the test of time, yet it now needs to be expressed within a new context, a hybrid, emergent culture that takes us out of the Anthropocene and into the Symbiocene.
The need for a secular term for this optimistic idea of a creative love-land-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 land-life force and the fact that we all need to live together on this one Earth. Without such a united, naturalistic but spiritual love at human scale, there can be no unity with life at the largest scale. The beauty and power of the Ghedeist in the Symbiocene is not alien to us nor overly optimistic … it is how we evolved and it is how we will endure on this Earth.
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