The impacts of the late Anthropocene, the age of human dominance over the planet, are now headline news. Visions of a pessimistic future for present and future generations are regularly presented to audiences in public and scientific forums. From the IPCC to cli-fi, the message is one that constantly reminds us that the hot breath of the apocalypse is on our necks.
The Anthropocene has evolved under the influence of a fundamentally flawed set of dominant themes and ideas. Our cultural, scientific and technological evolution has taken most of humanity onto a path that reduces life to isolated atoms, transforms cultural and biological diversity into homogeneity, worships gigantism, smashes symbiotic connections between species, transgresses Earth-system boundaries, and introduces toxic elements that are beyond the evolutionary experience of all organisms.
The dominance and hubris of humans has taken us to the brink of what has been called the sixth great extinction (biodiversity) and is now forcing us to gaze into the abyss of the seventh great extinction … humanity.
To avoid such a fate, creative thinking is urgently needed to guide us and provide inspiration to all generations, but especially to the young. I argue that creative thinking inspired by the science of symbiosis can lead us into the Symbiocene, a new era that nurtures all aspects of being human in a world we share with all other beings.
Emotional Upheaval and Solastalgia
Global-scale negative environmental and climate changes are generating seismic global emotional upheaval felt by people in particular locations. We now live in an ‘age of solastalgia’, or the lived experience of negative environmental change. We have become homesick within our Earthly home. Many more negative psychoterratic (psyche-earth) emotions such as ecoanxiety and ecoparalysis are erupting in people all over the planet.
If the Anthropocene is now increasingly associated with negative Earth emotions such as solastalgia, deep-seated pessimism about the future and feelings of hopelessness, then we need an urgent counter to the ruthless pessimism that churns out of those who accept its inevitability.
The biosciences, in the last fifty years, have made hugely important discoveries about life on Earth that ought to have revolutionised our thinking about ourselves and our place in nature. In particular, as championed by Lynn Margulis, the central role of symbiosis in the structure and function of life has been shown to be profound. The scientific meaning of symbiosis implies ‘organisms living together’, most often for mutual benefit. It also implies an overall homeostasis, or balance of interests, since domination of one part or organism over the rest would lead to functional failure.
In fields as diverse as botany and human physiology, discoveries have been made that reinforce the centrality of symbiosis from micro to macro levels as vital for life. For example, we know that the chloroplast, now fully integrated within plants, was once an independent cyanobacteria and that the human gut microbiome is home to trillions of symbiotically interacting micro-organisms taking in nutrition for themselves and playing a role in maintaining physical and mental health for us, their host.
From the wonder of the ‘wood-wide-web’ of the plant world to the menagerie of the human microbiome, the biosciences have gradually assembled enough evidence for us to fully appreciate the centrality of symbiotic co-existence between diverse species as a foundation for life. Evolution is driven by both cooperation and competition and science is only just beginning to shed new light on the cooperative and shared foundations of life.
Small is Vital
The implications of this revolution for our thinking are profound. For one, rather than being inspired by the largest and most powerful things in life, we should be empathising and inspired by the smallest. It is time to turn our attention away from, for example, the ‘big tree’, ‘big whale’, ‘big man’ view of status and importance, and focus on the pre-eminence of the microscopic in all life. Further, big picture systems theory and other animistic Gaian ways of thinking tend to favour managing the big system over allowing the micro to spontaneously build the macro.
From the perspective of micro-symbiosis, ‘Gaia’ is the net result of trillions of micro-events happening within and between organisms throughout the habitable parts of the planet: it is not the prime mover of those events. The same thinking can be applied to the human being: we are not what we thought we were. We are a collection of diverse but united organisms, known as a holobiont, vitally connected by a shared life, not inherently atomistic, isolated, egocentric individuals.
Living Together: The Sumbios
The ideas derived from this understanding of symbiosis have yet to be fully integrated into the diverse domains of human activity. A Greek root of symbiosis, sumbios, or “living together”, becomes the core for a new set of concepts.
Humans must become ‘sumbiocentric’ thinkers in order to get out of the anthropocentrism of the Anthropocene. Using the new transdisciplinary discipline of ‘sumbiology’, to fully understand the inter-connections in life, enables us to give priority to the maintenance of symbiotic bonds in what we can now call the ‘symbioment’. We must say goodbye to ‘the environment’ as all it has done is perpetuated the myth of human separation from nature.
Some humans have done well in the short-term defying symbiosis in globalized, industrial gigantism and monoculture, but it is now time for all humanity to re-join the diversity and unity among all living beings.
The term, ‘the Symbiocene’ was first used by me in a blog post I wrote in 2011. The very idea of the Anthropocene outraged me and I wanted out of it. It felt like a metastasizing cancer. In order to imagine a new pathway for an optimistic future, I created the cultural replicator or meme of the Symbiocene to form the basis of what I hope will be the next period (cene) in human history.
Sumbiology delivers a new form of thinking that shows us how the symbiotic and mutually supportive processes that are found in life can be incorporated into human social and technological systems. The thinking required to achieve this is massive, but it also presents an exciting and optimistic challenge for all humanity, one that also entails huge amounts of creativity and employment. Symbiotic growth is good and it needs to replace all growth in conventional economic terms (GNP).
In what I hope will be a relatively short period of time (perhaps decades), there will come a point in human social development where almost every element of culture, agriculture, economy, habitat and technology will be seamlessly re-integrated back into earthly symbiotic life. An important consequence of re-integration will be that our psychoterratic emotions will again become positive. Solastalgia will be ‘on the run’ by the 2070s and our biophilia, topophilia, endemophilia and eutierria will once again be freely experienced.
In order to get to that preferred state of living, I suggest that some of the key organizing principles of the Symbiocene must include: the full elimination of toxic-to-life substances; the complete and safe biodegradability of all materials in human use; exploitation of non-polluting forms of safe, renewable energy; priority use of the renewable resources of locality and regions; respect for the shared life or biocomunen of all holobionts; and the creation, protection and repair (if necessary) of the symbiotic bonds between species at all scales.
As all of these principles are applied, there will appear, on the very youngest soil strata on Earth, a new, thin film of organic substances that will cover everything. This emergent biofilm will mark the proper geological commencement of the Symbiocene. From that point onwards, as we rapidly build the Symbiocene, that ‘organic’ layer will completely cover the multitude of sins left by the Anthropocene.
There cannot be anything less than the complete adoption of the Symbiocene principles, since there are now nearly eight billion people on the planet, and their collective impacts are massive. I suggest that all of the principles are easy to comprehend and technically feasible within decades.
Already, we are seeing the emergence of self-repairing bricks made from fungi, edible coffee cups and bioelectricity produced by bacteria in the walls of one’s home. Small steps, but the Symbiocene is already being built, brick by brick, one coffee or tea at a time and powered by living beings, not lithium.
The idea of the Symbiocene stimulates all humans to create a future where positive Earth emotions will prevail over the negative. To have a commitment to action requires symbiotic science, sumbioethics and radical anticipation of actions that will lead to good outcomes. The Symbiocene gives all, especially those that I call Generation Symbiocene (Gen S), reason to be committed to a future that unlocks human creative potential and returns humanity to the great Earth project of a shared life. Once you start thinking about the Symbiocene, you are already in it.
*This essay was originally written for The Ecologist in 2019 and published under the title ‘After the Anthropocene’. See: https://theecologist.org/2019/feb/27/after-anthropocene. It has been revised and updated and will be translated into Italian for publication in the journal Zest.