The Extinction of Rights and the Extantion of Ghehds

The Extinction of Rights and the Extantion[1] of Ghehds

This article has been accepted for publication in The Griffith Law Review for 2021, published by Taylor & Francis.

March 2021, Griffith Law Review 29(2):1-21, DOI:10.1080/10383441.2020.1878596


The need to move away from the grip of the Anthropocene in all of its manifestations is now urgent. As Einstein might have said, ‘you can’t solve the problems of the Anthropocene by using the same anthropocentric thinking that created those problems in the first place’. In addition to scientific and technological change, there must be, in lock step, cultural, ethical and legal change. Radical change is needed in all of these domains as many of our older practices and concepts have, sadly, become redundant for all cultures (old and new) on the planet. The Anthropocene is a powerful colonizing agent and it ultimately desolates all that it touches. The antidote to the dysbiosis of the Anthropocene is the Symbiocene. Here, a powerful new meme based on the mutualistic features of grand-scale symbiosis in life can inform every aspect of humanity. Rights, it is argued, have crucially served to entrench separation between human and non- human beings in a competitive and adversarial legal and political system. I offer ‘ghehds’, as a concept befitting the Symbiocene, a more life-inclusive, descriptive ethical approach to all interspecies relationships. Ghehds (from the root ghehd, to unite, with etymological connections to modern words such as: to gather, together and good) will help bring about the extinction of rights and its applications to nature. Instead of a hierarchy of competing rights, assuming autonomous individuals or entities in a contested domain, ghehds respect entitlements of coalescence, vagility, passage, movement and flow within organically and symbiotically unified wholes. Rights assume division, competition and exclusion; ghehds assume unity, cooperation and inclusion. The concept of ghehds is offered as a way of avoiding biological and other forms of extinction.  


In this article I wish to focus on the intellectual context and cultural ethos from which the concept of rights arose. My concern is not so much with the past failure[2] of rights and other approaches in relation to the protection of humans or nature, but to apply revolutionary advances in the contemporary scientific understanding of life and the relationship between humans and nature. This change, it will be argued, presents a serious challenge to the role of rights, as they have historically evolved.

The extension of human rights to the rights of nature seems like an obvious and welcome move to make, especially in the context of the sixth extinction[3] and other hugely negative impacts humans are having on all aspects of nature. The granting of personhood and rights to the non-human is now seen to be at the leading edge of thinking on the protection of life and biodiversity. There is a world-wide effort to establish the rights of nature.[4]

As an integral part of an argument that ‘we’ (humans), in the light of climate chaos and the mass extinction of life, need to re-think ‘everything’, I provide a transdisciplinary[5] analysis of the historical context that made conceptual sense for the invention of rights. I also examine some examples of what might be called ‘proto-rights’ in an attempt to see the context from which they arose. Rights, in the modern context, it shall be argued, only make sense in a society characterised by atomism, reductionism and competitive individualism. Identifiable forms of politics, law, ethics and economics all follow from this ethos of individualism.

I will then establish the case that a radical new context for ethical issues has arisen, one that requires a new key concept to drive the human-nature relationship. The relatively new science of symbiosis (living together) is the catalyst for this new context. I have created the meme[6] of the Symbiocene, or the next era in human evolution based on the reintegration of humans and the rest of life, as the new ‘home’ for a new context for ‘doing the right thing’ by each other and Earth. Doing what is good for life becomes the core of a new ethical concept, ‘ghehds’[7], where scientific, Indigenous and emergent ‘citizen’ wisdom provide a descriptive view of the meaning and applications of this term.

My aim with this hopefully ‘disruptive’ new term, is to challenge the use of the concept of rights, especially its extension to the rights of nature, and to encourage the building of a new ethical framework based on the Symbiocene and the vital role of ghehds within this new meme. A ghehds-based ethical framework commences with a new understanding of life as animated by the biological process of symbiosis from micro (the microbiome) to macro (Gaia or the Earth) scales. If successful, the creation of ghehds will help bring a halt to the cultural, emotional and biological extinction cascade now afflicting humanity and Earth.

The Right Thing to Do

While the modern conception of human rights has strong affinity with the idea of the exercise of reason in formal government, there are contexts where past understandings of ‘the right thing to do’ in informal community settings were clearly articulated. Prior to detailed knowledge of cultures deemed ‘exotic’ to Europeans, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), for example, was of the belief that hunters and gatherers, because they had no formal government, had no concept of rights.[8]

Contrary to Bentham, the Indigenous people of the world manifest many aspects of the rules and regulations that apply to community-based land resource issues. For hunting and gathering people, the fact that humans are essentially social animals means that communal responsibilities and obligations have always played a role in the running of human affairs and in particular, resolving disputes over what constitutes a fair share (justice) or a ‘right standard’ of conduct. Doing what is ‘right’, using right or logical reason, becomes the foundation of what much later in history will be called ‘rights’.

I consider that the context for proto-rights in what are loosely called ‘traditional’ societies were two types of interrelated communities. At its foundation was the community of life where all things were seen by humans to be interconnected at all scales. The other community was that of human beings. Humans, all over the world, developed different types of culture, dependent, among other factors, on climate, geography, geology, biology and water supply. Human life was seen as inseparable from the larger community of life so human ethical conduct, the good, consisted of ‘doing the right thing’ in both communal contexts.

Given the communitarian context for social life, rules for the distribution of food between kin and clan members must have always taken into account the special needs of those who could not feed themselves, for example, young children and the elderly. In addition, prohibition on eating plants or animals that had totemic significance also placed special obligations on individuals both to not eat taboo food and to protect and conserve the ‘increase sites’ where such totemic beings resided.

Right conduct between geographically separated tribes and clans also involved rules. One good example in Australia concerned the lighting of fires. The use of fire for ‘farming’ and landscape management was strictly controlled and it was mandatory for one clan to notify neighbouring clans that fire was to be used and that due care about wind conditions needed to be heeded.[9] Signalling with fire was also used to seek permission to enter the territory of another clan.

Security of land tenure was built into the structure of what Bentham called ‘savage nations’. Contrary to Bentham, in 1840, Governor Gawler of South Australia wrote that

The natives have … very distinct and well defined proprietary rights. These rights afford them protection from other tribes and bodily support – they hunt the game upon, catch the fish in and eat the roots of their own districts just as much as the English gentleman kills the deer and sheep upon or the fish in his private park. The property is equally positive and well-defined.[10]

Clearly, on the basis of nothing other than poorly documented and communicated hearsay, the Benthamite idea that ‘savages’ lacked government, rules and hence rights is a good example of what nowadays would be called racism or the unjustified treatment of other human beings as not only ‘different’ but inferior. This is not a good foundation on which to build formal rights based on organised government and systems of justice and the law. In addition to slavery and patriarchy, colonialism, or the forced subjugation and ongoing domination of the ‘New World’ by peoples of European descent, is derived from and justified by such racism.

That challenge is also a conceptual one where key differences in the meaning of location and cultural identity have emerged. Barry Lopez, for example, writing in the context of the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s thoughts on the concept of place, suggested that a local sense of place or land was formed by a combination of shared memories and experiences, a creative effort on the part of a human community. The difference between a ‘place’ and a ‘space’ in the creation of meaning is critical. He concludes in the context of traditional land that

The observation that it is merely space which requires definition before it has meaning—political demarcation, an assignment of its ownership, or industrial development—betrays a colonial sensibility.[11]

In the Australian context, the colonisation by the British based on the doctrine of terra nullius (land without owners or unoccupied land) was founded on the fundamentally racist idea that Indigenous Australians had no natural right to their own land because they ‘lived with no government’ and that their land was merely a space in need of ‘civilised’ occupation before it could have meaning.[12] The subjugation of community-rights was predicated on the erasure of the concept of community-defined ‘place’ by an invading ‘colonial sensibility’.

Beware the Oikos

Prior to the development of the formal concept of legal rights in the seventeenth century, ancient Greek society also provided a model of how rules of entitlement and ownership were regulated within the context of the household and the family. The Greek household was named the oikos. That word becomes the root (eco) for modern terms such as ecology and economy. As explained by Donald Worster, with respect to the term oecologie (ecology) as created by the German evolutionary scientist Ernst Haeckel in 1866

Haeckel derived the new label from the same root found in the older word “economy”: the Greek oikos, referring originally to the family household and its daily operations and maintenance. Before the advent of modern political economy, men assumed that national economic affairs could be conceived of as merely extensions of the household keeper’s budget and larder.[13]

Running and ruling the oikos involved the head of a household (a male) managing the affairs of his family, his property and the functioning of the house (oikonomia). A male that rules an oikos had status in law to own property, vote on public affairs and obtain and hold positions in public office. Females and slaves had no such entitlements or ‘rights’ and could not participate in government. Being male and having entitlements to property and political power were inherent aspects of the formation of democracy in the 5th century BC.[14]

Again, the idea that these ‘rights’ excluded some humans (women, slaves, people of colour) is not a good foundation for inclusionary ethical concepts in the early 21st century. Patriarchy, male chauvinism, racism and slavery were all features of ancient Greek society and even the idea of proto-rights arising out of such an inegalitarian society raises doubts about the conceptual providence of any attempt to found rights on the oikos and the public policy and ‘management’ of all by privileged males in the polis.[15]

Modern Rights: From Communitarian to Individualistic contexts.

While ‘rights-type’ concepts were evident in ancient Greece, it was not until the 17th century that the modern conception of rights fully developed. It was John Locke (1632 – 1704) and other enlightenment philosophers and jurisprudence scholars who developed the modern concept of rights as adhering to individual humans and their entitlement to property in a contested public domain.[16]

John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government (1690) put the case that rights, in particular the entitlement to property, belong to individual humans who by virtue of ‘the labour of his body’ transforms raw nature into something that becomes the private property of his person.[17] The invention of the autonomous individual, potentially coming into conflict with the right of others to access the commons, had entered philosophical discourse.

On the basis of Locke’s theory of rights, the conversion of common rights to private rights proceeded with the rise of agricultural and industrial society. The material signs of such enclosure, privately owned property surrounded by fences, walls or hedgerows, although commencing in the 12th century, proceeded rapidly into the 17th century, and culminated in the General Enclosure act of 1801 in Britain.[18]

In addition, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789) took the philosophical works of Locke and Rousseau into the asserted realm of the natural and unalienable rights of man. The connections between liberty, freedom and rights (ethical and legal) were then set into the constitutions of nation states.

Rights, particularly legally protected property rights, were created and refined as a form of protection against the arbitrary exercise of despotism by ‘old’ powers such as represented by Feudal chiefs, the crown and the church. They also afforded protection against ‘new’ powers such as rule by a ‘possessive’ colonial as exemplified by Great Britain in the case of the independence of the USA.

Rather than informal rules regulated within the community, the conceptual shift involves having individual rights connected to an independent government as an institution specifically set up to regulate human affairs within a legal framework. Rights and the idea of a social contract between individuals and the political state to protect and enforce those rights became the basis for modern democracy and law.

Contrary to the views of Locke and other political philosophers such as Hobbes, the violence and horror of the French revolution prompted a new round of ethical thinking that did not attempt to justify rights on the basis that they are ‘natural’. That ‘rights’ needed to be an active creation of human intelligence, not the outcome of natural law, was made clear by Bentham. Going beyond the idea that ‘primitive’ people did not have formal rights he argued that there was no such things as natural rights. In 1796, Bentham famously argued that ‘Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, —nonsense upon stilts.’[19]

The Development of Rights

The diminution of the significance of communitarian ‘proto-rights’ revolved around the obliteration of the valid status of community and communitarian values and their replacement by the assertion of the individual as the atomistic foundation for all moral standing.

In modern, Western philosophy, the individual as the focus of ethical attention has created a number of competing traditions. These traditions have all stressed that it is the individual adult (rational) human being that is the centre of ethical attention. 

It is, however, a rights-based view of individuals and the good that has come to dominate ethical language in the context of the freedom of the moral agent to make choices and enter into contracts or reciprocal relationships in society and the market place. Moreover, the language of rights has now permeated a great many more contexts where clashes of interests or ethical dilemmas occur. 

Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1984) produced an important critique of the concept of rights.  In this work he argues, ‘the concept of rights was generated to serve one set of purposes as part of the social invention of the autonomous moral agent’.[20] He suggests that this context was new in human history for the formal concept of rights did not exist in any language until the end of the Middle Ages.[21]

As we have seen, the justification for the existence of rights for humans was that they ‘purport to provide us with an objective and impersonal criterion’ for moral rightness.[22] What was required was a secular, rational justification for moral choice to replace the older foundations of ethics as mentioned above.

That philosophers such as Locke, and subsequent rights-based moral philosophy have failed in this project, MacIntyre takes as self-evident, and his conclusion about their weakness is based on his view that ‘every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed’.[23] One clear reason for the failure is the ongoing assumption that there are no limits to human relationships other than those ‘set by our private and competing interests’.[24]

The net result of this confusion is, according to MacIntyre, the extensive use of notions like rights by autonomous moral agents against other autonomous moral agents, equally concerned to assert their rights in opposition.  By locking ourselves into these ‘manipulative modes of relationship’, especially within an adversarial legal system, MacIntyre claims that we now possess an incoherent conceptual scheme for ethical thought.[25] 

With the ethical and legal extension of rights to elements of the natural environment we have the potential to escalate the number of clashes that MacIntyre warned us about. In a 1995 paper that extended MacIntyre’s general critique of rights to the environmental and sustainable development (SD) contexts, I speculated that

As private property rights are extended to the environment, and hence, the concept of SD, we have the potential for clashes of the type MacIntyre warned us about, with resolution likely only through ‘manipulative modes of relationships’ dominated by those with the most power.[26]

Since the publication of that paper, there have been many more critiques of the concept of rights and its relevance to the protection of nature and the prevention of the extinction of species. Indeed, the whole concept of rights has been subject to ongoing criticism, especially in contemporary contexts where ‘minority’ groups and their injustices have been prominent. Profoundly important cultural movements, despite the presence of universal and country-specific constitutional ‘rights’, such as the ‘Me Too’ movement and ‘Black Lives Matter’ (BLM) indicate an ongoing concern about the resolution of rights. ‘Me Too’ revives Ariel Salleh’s 1994 pioneering, ecofeminist critique of patriarchy where competitive males and their ‘hierarchical power structures’[27] have a vested interest in, as Nash put it, ‘masculinist rights’ within a male dominated and competitive ‘hierarchy of rights’.[28]

The BLM movement has provoked an examination of the historical connections between white supremacy, racism, slavery, colonialism, anthropogenic climate change, species extinctions and rights (historical and legal) even to the extent of a popular uprising that literally pulls down symbols of racism such as statues depicting white supremacy and power built on the institution of slavery.

The very issues that were ignored or were ‘too hard’ for the founding fathers of human rights theory have returned with a vengeance. In an era of ‘consequences’, ‘cancel’ culture, public shaming and Covid-19 conflict over personal freedoms and individual rights[29], the incoherence built into the concept of rights has amply fulfilled MacIntyre’s prediction.

In overview, the ‘rights’ pathway seems, at best, ineffective as a way of resolving disputes in contemporary societies, as the clash of rights and/or the failure of rights to protect the innocent and non-consenting (children) in issues like climate change is now overwhelming. Even The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) seems fatuous in an era when, for example, the Rohingya people of Myanmar are forcedly removed from their ‘home’ and ‘enclosed’ in a massive refugee camp in Bangladesh, as the Uyghur Muslim people of China are being forced into what are euphemistically called re-education camps and the Palestinian people have yet to have their long-suffering claims to justice met. The plight of climate and war refugees from North Africa and the Middle East in the global context of the rejection of their alleged human right to seek asylum is the final nail in the coffin.

Rights and the Environment

Despite the inherent conflict within ethical and legal rights, rather than rights ‘disappearing’ in the twenty-first century, they have expanded in scale and scope. The rights-based approach to ethics and law has certainly come to prominence in the environmental context where, for example, Roderick Nash’s book, The Rights of Nature, on the history of environmental ethics in the USA, explicates the progressive extension of the concept of ‘rights’ from human to non-human contexts.[30]

Nash gives an excellent overview of the expanding protective umbrella of modern rights in the C20, starting with Christopher Stone’s pioneering essay, Should Trees Have Standing (1972).[31] Yet even in the late 1980s, as Nash wrote his book, he foresaw that the Lockean foundation of legal rights in property could be a factor in future problems for environmental protection. He argues, long after Locke’s time, ‘the sanctity of property would create a problem when environmentalists sought to treat the environment itself as having rights superior to ownership.’[32]

Such a position becomes even more difficult to navigate when corporations, now a dominant form of commercial entity, are granted the status of personhood. When corporations are treated as if they are individual humans, with legal rights, the potential for conflict between them and real persons or communities with interests incompatible with theirs becomes high.

The success of neo-liberalism in challenging community-based rights in the courts is, in part, attributable to the privatisation of rights within a market society. In this context, the idea that corporate or legal rights could be challenged by the rights of nature or the environment becomes even more implausible than challenges that come from individual humans as bearers of rights.[33]

The tenuous viability of the concept of rights and its extension to the environment has been revealed in a number of well-publicised case studies world-wide. Most prominent in recent history has been the country of Ecuador and its 2008 declaration of ‘pachumama’ or the rights of nature within its constitution. Unfortunately, due to pro-development pressures, the rights of nature within Ecuador have been unable to be used so as to fully protect its biosphere reserves and ecosystems.[34]

In the minerals sector, large deposits of gold, copper and silver have seen legislation in 2019 to open up the country for more mining at the expense of its environment. The discovery of good reserves of rare earth metals such as lithium has also pushed corporate rights over the rights of nature.  As one recent evaluation of the situation in Ecuador summarises

The result is that there has not yet been a strong step in the direction of implementation of the rights of nature. Meaning, that environmental decision making in Ecuador – including how the central government reviews and considers activities and practices that will impact nature – is not yet consistent with the rights recognized at the constitutional level.[35]

There is a similar story in Bolivia although the political situation there is even more complex than that in Ecuador. While rights of nature legislation was championed under their first indigenous leader, President Evo Morales (from 2006-2019), and was incorporated into the constitution, it is evident that political turmoil both before and after the ‘resignation’ of Morales on November 10 2019 has seen both human and natural rights come under extreme pressure. One flash point is Bolivia’s lithium reserves located under extensive salt lakes such as Salar de Uyuni, where it is estimated that up to half of the global reserves of lithium lie.[36]

A more optimistic case study for the rights of nature involves the Whanganui River in New Zealand (NZ). The context for this issue was the ongoing failure of dialectical or adversarial approaches to economic, cultural and ecological conflict over the right thing to do by the river. It was to be hoped that a more ‘dialogical’ approach to human conflict resolution could mirror the complexity and internal relationships in the culture, catchment and ecosystems of the Whanganui.[37]

By 2017 that dialogical approach to conflict resolution produced in NZ what could be called ‘dialogical rights’. As an outcome of a land claim by indigenous Maori people, Te Awa Tuua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement Act 2017), the river has been granted the status of a living entity with personhood. This change in status allowed the self-preservation of both people and the river with legal rights so as to permit its Maori guardians to permanently secure, in law, traditional access to resources, traditional cultural connections to the river and the active management of human and ecosystem health.[38]

The headlines of the change in status of the river seem praiseworthy, yet the detail in the act indicates that it does not extinguish prior property rights and that it continues to support the extraction of water from the headwaters of the river for hydropower and water security in times of drought.[39] The separation of the rights of the river and the control of water presents a major conceptual and practical problem for Te Awa Tuua. Further problems arise with water quality issues as the dairy and beef cattle industries are contributing to increased sediment loads and E. coli contamination in most NZ rivers, but including the Whanganui.[40] With old issues such as prior catchment rights in dairy cooperatives and the pressure to sell them to new overseas owners, there is potential for further conflict over ‘whose’ rights prevail.[41]

Following the lead of NZ, many other countries and legal entities have extended the concept of rights to the non-human. The declaration of the rights of rivers and lakes in the USA, Colombia, India and other countries has proceeded apace. All case studies are difficult to evaluate because of the lack of extended time and data to show efficacy, but the experience of the city of Toledo in the USA highlights the problems in having rights of nature that run counter to corporate interests.[42] In 2019 a bill to protect Lake Erie from pollution was passed as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR) and it included this foundation statement

And since all power of governance is inherent in the people, we, the people of the City of Toledo, declare and enact this Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which establishes irrevocable rights for the Lake Erie Ecosystem to exist, flourish and naturally evolve, a right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo, and which elevates the rights of the community and its natural environment over powers claimed by certain corporations.[43]

In late February 2020, after a challenge by the Drewes Farm Collective, Judge Jack Zouhary in the US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio ruled that LEBOR was invalid.[44] Judge Zouhary concluded that the LEBOR was unconstitutional and the rights for the lake identified in the proposed legislation were so ‘vague’ as to be ‘void’ of legal precision or guidance.[45]

While the legislative strength of corporate rights in the USA is exceptional by international standards, under the personhood status they carry, the decision was not to be unexpected. As individual corporations extend their rights over those of individual citizens, they clearly present a formidable front to the extension of rights to discrete ‘parts’ of nature.

From Rights to Ghehds?

The context where rights were created has now substantially changed. They were perhaps important in an era where the ‘autonomous moral agent’ and the principle of plenitude in nature still prevailed (if they ever did). In the 2020s, a new context exists where biological autonomy is being re-thought and the principle of plenitude has long gone in the Anthropocene where various risky Earth-system thresholds, including the carbon balance, have been crossed.[46]

As has been argued above, the concept of rights had its origin in part, in the ‘social invention of the autonomous moral agent’ based on a view of life that was dependent on pre-Darwinian notions of a mechanistic and conflict-driven view of nature and human nature.

The social Darwinism of the 19th century, particularly in the hands of people like Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) only reinforced that Hobbesian view of nature as conflict-ridden with survival only of the fittest. Indeed, Spencer’s phrase, ‘survival of the fittest’ came from a conservative view of economics and enabled the easy transfer of a social theory about competition between individual humans in society into an account of competition in nature within Darwinian theory.

In a predictable reaction to a reading of the science, it seemed that strengthening the ‘rights’ of individuals and corporations was a reasonable ethical and legal response to the need to defend private ownership of property for wealth accumulation and to have any rights to exploit protected in law. The ‘selfish gene’ hypothesis cemented the earlier connections made between individualism, individual rights and capitalism. Such a position was presaged in the 1960s by Ayn Rand, when she argued, ‘if one wishes to uphold individual rights, one must realise that capitalism is the only system that can uphold and protect them’.[48] That Rand’s views have found favour with neo-conservatives and the ‘greed is good’ entrepreneurs of the early twenty-first century should come as no surprise.[49]


At the same time as ‘individualist’ thinking and its expression in private property rights were becoming embedded in economic rationalism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservativism and free-market environmentalism, a new view in bioscience was beginning to take a foothold in the scientific world.

In the late 20th century, under the influence of Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene (1998)[47], the notion of autonomy was further justified by the idea that individual life-forms could be reduced to their genes and that genetic selfishness (self-replication) was a dominant foundation for life.

Following the account of ‘mutual aid’ delivered at the beginning of the twentieth century by Peter Kropotkin,[50] under the leadership of Lynn Margulis (1938 – 2011) the idea of symbiosis, or mutual living, between organisms was a challenge to the neo-Darwinian view of life characterised solely by competition.[51] The importance of symbiosis as a factor in life was at first resisted within biology, however, the idea that eukaryotic cells (with a nucleus) were the result of the union of several types of prokaryotic (without a nucleus) cells, or organelles, is now well established in bioscience as is the fact that chloroplasts in plants are a symbiotic union between photosynthetic cyanobacteria and the cells within early plants (Cambrian era).

By the early 21st century, symbiogenesis or evolution by symbiosis with other organisms, became well established as a legitimate part of bioscience alongside Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Since the death of Lynn Margulis there have been many more breakthroughs in how symbiotic life is understood by science such as the explosion of knowledge of symbiosis in plant-fungi relationships[52] and the mapping of the human gut microbiome.[53] The scale and extent of symbiosis as a factor in the diversity of life is no longer disputed.

The cumulative knowledge gained in these domains amounts to a revolution in both epistemology and ontology. The epistemological implication is that the idea of autonomy is an abstraction from the symbiotic interconnectedness that unites life. Life is a shared property, one that I call the biocomunen (see below) between multiple organisms at all scales.

Humans, like all complex organisms, are holobionts[54] or multiple species co-existing within a non-bounded body (at microscale analysis), all interacting in homeostatic feedback relationships (when healthy). The focus on individual members of ‘species’ in conservation is understandable from a crude perception perspective, however, it fails to consider the idea that the members of individual species are abstractions … the being in question is actually multiple beings coalescing in the same space/time sharing a common life.

Such concepts entail rethinking most of our commonly used approaches to conservation as to be understood within organisms, species and ecosystems. I argued in Earth Emotions

In addition, given the explosion of discoveries, epistemology must also acknowledge the vital role the microscopic world plays in the workings of all life. The emergent understanding of human gut microbiomes, for example, has revealed that we share a common life with trillions of other micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi and viruses). Humans are not what we think we are.[56]

Life is a gift held in common by healthy holobionts. The idea of life as a shared or common property of living collectives is of such scientific importance I suggest we should give it its own name. I call the shared property of life within holobionts the “biocomunen.” Life is precious; it is the reason for all the complexity, diversity, and relationships that animate it. Given that the whole sustainability paradigm of the past four decades failed to acknowledge this vital aspect of life, it is no wonder its principles failed to achieve “sustainable development”.[55]

With respect to our concept of ecosystems, it must now be acknowledged that the idea of small-scale ‘system’ boundaries that can set limits on our treatment of life must also be challenged. While a convenient way for humans to demarcate parcels of land, life obeys no such boundaries. The invisible networks of fungi that unite forests, for example, extend over a huge area and are counted as perhaps the largest organisms on Earth.[57] Trees do not exist in isolation; they are integral parts of interconnected communities of diverse life forms. There is a deep Earth microbiome that has only recently been discovered[58] and the role of microbiomes of the troposphere and the oceans in cloud formation and rainfall is also an emerging domain of bioscience. The coalescing and coalitions of life within Gaia, the planet with a biocomunen, is only just beginning to be fully revealed.

As consequence of our past beliefs, environmental impact assessment is founded on a mistaken concept of life and being. Individual ‘discrete’ species and identifiable ecosystems are abstractions and lead to the mistaken idea that we can ‘manage’ ecosystems much like we manage households or economies.[59] The oikos approach to environmental management within what is now called ‘regenerative’ capitalism[60] becomes enmeshed in the idea that identifiable parts of nature can be accounted for by conceptualising them as off-sets, enclosable, assets, biobanks and valued as ‘natural capital’ or ‘stock’ in the shop of life.[61]

The tensions between the science of life and the ecocidal economics of life-exploitation are now so great that forms of knowledge suppression in conventional impact assessment are conducted by pro-capitalist governments in order to maintain policy settings that protect, among other things, the right of individuals and corporations to continue to exploit discrete natural ‘resources’ and make profits despite overt negative impacts.[62]

While it can be argued that the well-intentioned expansion of human rights to nature might temporarily overcome some of the past failures to protect species, biodiversity and ecosystems,[63] there remains the residual problem of the compatibility of a rights approach with symbiotically unified life and the shared biocomunen.

The evolution of rights, as we have seen, has been in lock-step with the rise of private labour, private property and capitalism and is now an essential component of its global ‘success’ under neo-liberal and conservative political ideology. The problem with ‘rights’ is that they are entirely compatible with a natural capital approach and fully supported by the abstractions of species and ecosystems.[64] There is no doubt that ‘rights of nature’ and ‘natural capital’ are good bedfellows and this union is at the core of our extinction and climate crises on Earth right now. That bad marriage needs a divorce, not further counselling.

If symbiosis represents a new context for core human ethical concepts, then ‘rights’, along with their atomistic conceptual, ideological and economic supports, have become redundant. The study of being (ontology) must now overcome deeply held, but mistaken intuitions and beliefs about what humans are. As argued by Nicole Rogers, being human now entails recognition of non-human-beings within a framework of ‘universal inclusiveness’,[65] a concept that runs counter to individual exclusiveness (privilege). The very idea of the autonomy of individuals, of possessive individualism, as the basis of a naturalistic conception of the good, rights or ethics, is not founded on logic or science.[66]

The Symbiocene

So significant is the symbiotic turn in knowledge is that it gives generously of a possible new view of the future, one that I have called the Symbiocene.[67] 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, within human social systems.

The core message of the concept of the Symbiocene is the fact that life coalesces with life and that even the idea of autonomous individuals ‘networking’ or having ‘entanglements’ with other autonomous life is inadequate. Networks, webs and entanglement imply atomism at their core. They are sticky conceptual traps. The meme of the Symbiocene opens up the possibility of new ways to critique and replace the anthropocentric thinking that is characteristic of the Anthropocene.

To mirror the foundational idea that life is a symbiotically unified collective, inclusive, dynamic and holistic attributes within ethics or the ‘good’ will be required. In addition, the issue of scale will need to be addressed as we now know that the context for life traverses the microscopic to the macroscopic from the invisible to the visible. Life does not respect any ‘enclosure’ and it builds complexity and diversity from the microbiome up.[68] Sumbiocentric[69] thinking negates anthropocentric thinking.


To develop a new concept that transcends atomistic rights and sits comfortably within the new context of the Symbiocene and its meta-theme of symbiosis, I have looked into ancient root words that might help. One old word jumped out at me … ‘ghehd’. ‘Ghehd’, meaning to unite, is an old root word in Indo-European languages and has connections to Old English and Germanic words such as ‘together’, ‘to gather’ and ‘good’. To have a primordial foundation for ‘the good’ was a great start, but for this term to be also definitionally connected to the ‘sumbios’ in ancient Greek, was perfect.[70] After creating the concept of ghehds[71] I applied it to the critique of rights

I suggest a replacement of the rights concept be called “ghehds”, where instead of a hierarchy of competing rights, assuming autonomous individuals or entities in a contested domain, ghehds are the entitlements of vagility, passage, movement, and flow within organically and symbiotically unified wholes. The good of the whole is guaranteed by the protection of ghehds that connect and hold things together. “Rights” assume division and exclusion; “ghehds” assume unity and inclusion.[72]

The emphasis in this definition is conceptual and material protection or defence of the passage or vagility[73] of life (the biocomunen) within and between the coalitions of life-forms and the assessment of the way different life-forms manage to coalesce and form larger entities. Ghehds are the equivalent of a ‘lore’ or body of culturally mediated knowledge that helps humans determine ‘the right thing to do’ with respect to the human-nature relationship. They help us distinguish between associative and dissociative ways of living.

 Ghehds may have many areas of overlap with traditional indigenous knowledges, however, given that many of the discoveries in symbiotic science involve that which was formerly unknown and invisible, no past culture has been able to incorporate many aspects of symbiosis into past lore.[74] I see ghehds as similar in function to the song-lines of Australian Aboriginal people, they tell people how to live successfully on land or ‘how to do the right thing’ by it.[75] Ghehds also provide guidance on how human communities ought to live within a new communitarian ethos as outlined within the concept of the Symbiocene.

Ghehds as lore also enable humans to more accurately evaluate past practices that lead to extinction of species and ecocide.[76] It is the breaking of symbiotic bonds within and between species that is a primary cause of cascades of extinction in life; conserving those bonds helps ensure the extantion[77] or continued existence of life.

The ghehds of Gaia

The ghehds of Gaia (the Earth) will be a formal system of descriptive bodies of knowledge that supersede prescriptive human rights in society and the putative rights of nature. Ghehds entail ethical realism and return human ethics to ‘doing the right thing’ based on the very best knowledge systems we have.[78]

The application of the ghehds of Gaia into law will guarantee the priority of life as a systematically interconnected whole and will set the context for limits to all forms of human development and its regulation. The concept of ghehds has practical outcomes based on the application of a set of Symbiocene principles.[79]

In order to bring human impacts back into the envelope of a universal shared life, the first priority will be the protection of the remaining symbiotically connected parts of the Earth. Protection of places like the Amazon become reasons for life affirmation and its protection on a large scale. There is a ghehd to life. The Amazon, like the Great Barrier Reef, at this moment in history, while under ecocidal attack, continues to exemplify the unity and diversity of the biocomunen despite all efforts to render its associated cultural and biological diversity extinct.

At the same time, damaged places on Earth require active and urgent repair and human ‘investment’ in seeing the biocomunen restored to full health. Where the damage has already seen the extinction of life, human creativity and work to put into place emergent, hybrid symbiosystems will, cumulatively, re-establish planetary scale interconnections in life, but from the microbiome up.

Ghehds will also give priority to the symbiotic repair of Gaia by the rapid elimination of toxic-to-life substances; the complete and safe biodegradability of all materials in human use; and the exploitation of non-polluting forms of just, safe, renewable energy at local and regional scale.

The cumulative impact of the application of ghehds at all scales will see the cessation of past biological extinction processes and make clear the imperative of deep mitigation of global warming.[80] Ghehds are the expression, in law and policy, of the formal creation of the Symbiocene.

The idea of ghehds also invites new approaches to issues of injustice where, for example, indigenous land was appropriated and then must be fought to be returned in Western court systems based on competing claims about land ‘rights’.  Decolonization and a return of indigenous people to a living, symbiotic relation to their own land could also be a form of ghehds-based radical justice.

Finally, as all the ghehds of the Symbiocene are applied, there will appear, on the very youngest soil strata on Earth, material evidence of a biofilm that will eventually cover everything. This biofilm will mark the proper geological commencement of the Symbiocene, one that can be verified by science. From that point onwards, as we rapidly build the Symbiocene, that ‘organic’ layer will completely cover the pollution and dysbiosis of the Anthropocene.


It should come as no surprise that the context that produced human rights in the 17th century has radically changed by the 21st century. It is testament to the power of the concept of individual rights that it has persisted over three centuries. As this paper has argued, the context for all humanity has now radically changed and rights must go.

I have argued in my book, Earth Emotions, that many of the key concepts in the past 100 years that relate to the human-nature relationship are based on redundant knowledge or have been corrupted by forces determined to use them for despotic ideological purposes. Terms such as environment, resilience, ecological, regenerative, and sustainability have all been usurped by forces determined to bring them into the gravitational field of the black hole of capitalism. I have suggested that these conceptual mistakes must be replaced and that Science has provided humanity with the information needed to deliver non-corruptible alternatives.

The concept of individual rights, as developed in ‘Western’ intellectual traditions, has become another such mistake. A ‘new’ context has emerged where we can more clearly see that rights have been inextricably implicated in the colonial, patriarchal and imperialist race to planetary-scale destruction and extinction. The union of colonisation and rights has been a success story for corporate capitalism (until now).

However, as the enclosure (privatisation) of the variety of life and land has proceeded, there have followed other forms of enclosure. The enclosure of the commons has led to biological extinction and when global in scale has also led to the extinction of cultures, agri-cultures and languages.[81]

Such an extinction cascade is now being rebelled against by those who clearly see that endpoint as suicidal. Moreover, the ‘enclosure of the mind’ and its ability to connect with the variety of life has led to the ‘extinction of experience’.[82] Following-on from this extinction event is another one, the ‘extinction of our emotions’ or what I call ‘meuacide’.[83] The ultimate form of rebellion against the extinction of life stems from ‘that which moves’ us or emotion. To resist or rebel against the extinction of positive Earth emotions regarding life, is the foundation for all other forms of rebellion.

Biological extinction is now the outcome of actions undertaken by those humans who lack both the scientific and emotional literacy to comprehend and respond to the sheer disaster that is unfolding before them. By rejecting rights as the ethical foundation for law, we not only liberate humans from an incoherent and dangerous form of power manipulation, we help avoid the sixth and seventh (us) great extinctions.[84]

To champion ghehds as a new context for both lore and law seems ‘radical’, yet such a shift in thinking just might help save us from all forms of extinction. It gives generously of what Jonathan Lear has called ‘radical hope’ or a hope ‘that is directed at a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’[85] If the active destruction by humans of symbiotically unified life is to be avoided, then rights will need to be replaced by ghehds. Ghehds are a conceptual and practical replacement for rights. They provide a new ethos or positive way of life for humanity in a future Symbiocene, one that reunites us with the evolving biocomunen.


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End Notes

[1] ‘Extantion’: A state of ongoing existence in life. An extantion celebration is an action that values the existence of life. That which is still in existence (extant) should be celebrated for its continued presence on this Earth; extantion is the opposite of extinction.

[2] I take past failure as a given, otherwise humanity would not currently be confronting the possibility of simultaneous biological and societal extinction events.

[3] Kolbert (2015).                                                                                     

[4] Nash (1990), Burdon (2010).

[5] While a philosopher by training, I work and write as a transdisciplinary environmental thinker. Hence there is no one discipline context from which I write, with the possible exception of the sub-domain of philosophy known as ethics. This paper is mainly concerned with the historical and contemporary ethical context for human rights and their extension to nature and does not attempt to tease out the origin or uses of legal rights.

[6] The important concept of a meme was created by Richard Dawkins and is defined as a ‘unit of cultural transmission’ of information. See Dawkins (1978) p 206.

[7] Ghehd, from the Indo-European root ‘ghehd’, to unite, with etymological connections to modern words such as: to gather, together and good.

[8] Bentham (1843).

[9] Pascoe (2014) p.118.

[10] Gawler as quoted by Reynolds (1996) p 27.

[11] Lopez (1986) p 279.

[12] In part, the foundation of the Mabo vs Queensland No. 2 (1992) case. The High Court of Australia determined that ‘racist’ discrimination of so-called ‘backward’ Indigenous peoples in the C19 that took away their right to their own land could no longer be accepted within law in the C20. See: Butt and Eagleson (1993).

[13] Worster (1977) p 192.

[14] Aristotle (1962) 30-54, Cox (1998).

[15] Managing the economy of nature, as if it was the same as managing a household, is discussed below.

[16] Davidson (1993).

[17] Locke 1690 (1963).

[18] Monbiot (2020) Malchik (2020). 

[19] Bentham (1843) p 501.

[20] MacIntyre (1984) p 70.

[21] MacIntyre (1984) p 69.

[22] MacIntyre (1984) p 70.

[23] MacIntyre (1984) p 69.

[24] MacIntyre (1984) p 250. 

[25] Formal law is quite capable of reconciling some conflicts within the context of legal rights, however, even here, the ethical precursors of formal law are under challenge from multiple directions including from those critiquing its foundations based on racism, colonialism, sexism and anti-environmentalism.

[26] Albrecht (1994) pp 102-108.

[27] Salleh (1984) p 343.

[28] Nash (1990) p 146. For a more systematic ecofeminist critique of rights see Darling (2012).

[29] See: Beckett (2020), Dick (2020).

[30] Nash (1990). For a more recent account see Boyd (2017).

[31] Stone (1972).

[32] Nash (1990) p 14

[33] Whyte (2019).

[34] Pecharroman (2018).

[35] Margil (2020). For further analysis see Hayden (2020).

[36] Samar (2020).

[37] Sunde (2008).

[38] See Te Aho (2016).

[39] See Te Awa Tupua (2016) and Lurgio (2019).

[40] Neilson (2020).

[41] Grear (2017).

[42] Butler and Falk (2019).

[43] City of Toledo (2019).

[44] Drews Farms Partnerships and State of Ohio v City of Toledo (2020).

[45] Zouhary (2020).

[46] Stockholm Resilience Centre (2020).

[47] Dawkins (1998).

[48] Rand (1964) p 92.

[49] Freedland (2017).

[50] Kropotkin (1901).

[51] See Margulis (1998), Margulis and Sagan (1997).

[52] Simard, in Wohlleben (2016), Sheldrake (2020).

[53] National Institutes of Health (2020).

[54] Margulis (1991).

[55] Albrecht (2019) p 100.

[56] Oliver (2020).

[57] Casselman (2007).

[58] Borgonie and Lau (2017).

[59] Hence, environmental management itself can become, for example, a crucial element of the colonial conquest of Indigenous people and their isolation from their own ‘country’. See Muller et al (2019).

[60] Elkington (2020).

[61] Hawken et al (1999), Hawken (2017).

[62] Driscoll et al (2020).

[63] Pecharroman (2018).

[64] Burdon (2020).

[65] Rogers (2020) p 123.

[66] There can be no blame attached to past humanity on this issue as religious and philosophical traditions did not have any knowledge of the microcosmos and, as a consequence, missed one of the most important elements in the study of existence or being and conceptions of the good.

[67] Albrecht (2011), Albrecht (2019), Albrecht (2020b).

[68] See Haraway (2016).

[69] From the Greek sumbios or living together.

[70] It must be remembered, the source word from the Greek for the scientifically created discipline (concept) of ‘symbiosis’ was ‘sumbiosis’ (OUD) or companionship, and the concept of ghehd combines ‘the good’ with ‘living together’. The word, ‘right’, is also constructed with ‘gh’ and is not considered linguistically difficult. Words such as ‘ghost’ start with a ‘gh’ and are also not considered problematic.  

[71] Albrecht (2017).

[72] Albrecht (2019) p 108.

[73] From the Latin vagus, meaning, wandering.

[74] It will be up to Indigenous scholars, if they see merit, to incorporate the idea of ghehds into emergent hybrid epistemology and sumbioethics. I do not wish to speak for them on this issue, however, I am hopeful there is the potential for mutual support.

[75] Yunkaporta (2019), Pascoe (2014).

[76] Higgins (2010).

[77] Albrecht (2018).

[78] I make no attempt to develop ghehds into a systematic ethic in this publication as my major aim has been to introduce the imperative to change from a rights-based approach to ethics and law to a ghehds-based one. To address the extinction problem, radical questioning of all past foundations of global capitalism, including the law, will be needed for a future Symbiocene. The details of the Symbiocene will be the subject matter of my next major publication.

[79] Albrecht (2019) p 104.

[80] Deep adaptation is not only ecocidal, ensuring the extinction of the non-human, but also ultimately suicidal.

[81] Shiva (2005).

[82] Pyle (1993). 

[83] From meuə– an Indo-European root for words such as remove, motion and emotion, plus, cide, meaning to kill).

[84] A similar case could be made for concepts like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nation’. Sovereignty is a form of enclosure that prescribes the boundaries of nation states, yet, no such boundaries exist in biophysical systems nor as hard boundaries in most Indigenous cultures. The use of these terms, alongside rights, invite further deconstruction and decolonisation, a task for radical Indigenous academics.

[85] Lear (2008).