The Symbioment

Birdsnest Fern

 At both the microscopic scale and the macroscopic, life has no ‘environment’, if the environment is defined as that which is outside of or surrounds our life. The term the ‘environment’ makes no sense. Our human life is interrelated and engaged in maintaining a constant balance between the micro (microbiomes), the meso (coherent bodies) and the macro (macrobiomes). When all that interaction is ‘balanced’ and non-toxic, we are healthy, when it becomes imbalanced, we experience ill health. The health metaphor applies at all scales.

Our language and thinking have evolved on the assumption that we are not in the environment but are islands separate from it. It is time to redirect our language to reflect the reality of our total immersion in nature and natural processes. As a consequence of the new scientific knowledge of symbiotic co-existence, I submit that we actually live within the ‘symbioment’. This term comes from ‘symbiosis’ meaning ‘to live together for mutual benefit’.

‘Symbioment’ is similarly derived from the Greek sumbiosis or companionship (sumbioun, to live together, and sumbios, living together).  Plus, it has derivations linked to bios, meaning life; and ‘ment’ providing a process or condition. It is a recognition that at its foundation, life is all about the sumbios or living together with each other and other types of beings. Life works with life to further life. That is now the philosophical and scientific basis for how we can think about everything else. We must abandon the ‘environment’ which does nothing but perpetuate our separation.


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Ecoagnosy: ignorance of ecology (agnosy is a synonym for ignorance)

As each subsequent generation separates from nature and life there is a gulf opening that Kahn has called “environmental generational amnesia” (Kahn 1999). With such limited experience of nature to pass onto the next generation, each generation accepts as the ‘norm’ an objectively impoverished environment. Perhaps another term is needed to capture the essence of, not only that we are forgetting something that we once knew, as amnesia suggests, it is also that we actually experience less and know less about ecology in nature with each generation. Hence we cannot forget that which we have never known. Ecoamnesia can, perhaps, be reversed within some people of a certain age with a re-awakening of childhood memories of a once verdant and rich natural world, however, ecoagnosy or ignorance of ecology leads to nothing but a path to extinction.

Therefore, our children are suffering from ecoagnosy, a socially induced form of ecoretrogression, which is the disturbing idea that the current generation is less ecologically literate, less ecologically attuned, less ecologically aware and less ecologically emotional than previous generations. As a consequence, they are unable to respond to the enormous risks posed by ecosystem distress and climate calescence.


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Yellow fungi 2


Do we urgently need the opposite of ecocide?

Ecoliben: [Eco (home or environment), liben (Old High German, lebēn, to live, from Germanic libēn.)]

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Solastalgia in the Anthropocene and the Ghedeist in the Symbiocene

 Peacock Carpenter Bee IMG_8554


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.

The Symbiocene

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.

The Ghedeist

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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Albrecht, Glenn A. (2016) Sumbiophilia:

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Shapira, M. (2016) Gut Microbiotas and Host Evolution: Scaling Up Symbiosis. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Volume 31, Issue 7, p539–549, July 2016.

Simard, S. (2015). Note from a Forest Scientist, in Wohlleben, P. (2015) The Hidden Life of Trees, Greystone Books, Vancouver.

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Lark Singing

An overarching philosophy of life. Sumbioism is the collective and cumulative art and science of ‘living together’ within the matrix of all life.  A sumbioist is a person who reflects on, writes about and professes this philosophy.

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A neologism created to adequately describe the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society, but feel unable to change the direction of such tierracide and ecocide. The anger is directed at challenging the status quo in both intellectual and socio-political terms. It is not violence for its own sake; it is targeted anger at those who command the forces of terraphthora (earth destruction).

[Middle English furie, from Old French, from Latin furia, from furere, to rage.]

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Directionality Theory: Neo-Organicism and Dialectical Complexity  

Wood 3

Glenn Albrecht (Draft 12/4/2000)  Published in Democracy and Nature Vol. 6, Number 3, November 2000. pp. 401-422.

For some light reading on life, love and complexity.


In this paper I shall examine the evolution of directionality theory expressed as organicist, dialectical approaches to the nature of reality and conclude with an assessment of its newly expressed form, that of complexity theory. In the history of ideas before complexity theory, Hegelian philosophy came closest to providing a systematic, organicist and evolutionary approach to the comprehension of life as a complex adaptive system moving in a particular direction and of knowledge as a conceptual complement of the achievements of self-organised physical and biological evolution. In the work of Murray Bookchin, we find a Neo-Hegelian iteration of the directionality thesis expressed as the theory of dialectical naturalism. Beyond Bookchin, in the last few decades we have seen the emergence of new ways of understanding complex systems. Complexity theorists have provided novel insights into the way complex systems evolve and produce increasing states of complexity and diversity. I shall argue that these new insights provide important links to the directionality tradition of Aristotle and Hegel. However, the elements of chance and uncertainty within complexity theory are at odds with the more deterministic aspects of dialectical naturalism. The tensions between these two perspectives shall be resolved through the synthesis of dialectical complexity.

A brief overview of Directionality

From ancient times to the present humans have attempted to comprehend the world they find themselves in. As a newly emerged species in evolutionary terms, humans have lived within a physical world and biological and ecological diversity and complexity that predates them by billions of years. Explaining how this pre-existing complexity and diversity arose and the place humans have within it has been a major preoccupation of all human cultures.  Cosmology, religion, philosophy, art and science have all made their contributions to this most human of projects.

Claims about directionality have been made within all types of changing systems, be they social or biological. I shall focus on the domain of ethics in this paper because it is within ethical theory that directionality has been applied to the resolution of one of the most pressing issues in the history of ideas; what is the ideal relationship between humans and nature? The link between a direction or movement in the evolution of the world or cosmos and human choice is one that has provided key insight into ethics. Humans can, as it were, go with the direction of the greater flow or swim against the tide. Different approaches to the issue of directionality have included the following:

  • That directionality is provided by God or gods and that humans can live within such guidance or be excluded from it (external teleology)
  • That directionality is provided by the self-organised orderly unfolding of latent potential in the cosmos that was present in its formation (internal or immanent teleology)
  • Directionality is provided by the application of rationality (logic and science) and that humans can move from states of ignorance to states of complete knowledge.
  • That religion and science provide no objective guidance on such matters and that there is no directionality present. (nihilism, post-modernism)

Ancient Views on Complexity and Directionality

 In Western traditions in philosophy, it was the Pre-Socratics who first attempted to comprehend human existence within an overarching framework that gave it meaning and coherence. They saw within the diversity of life and its physical foundations an underlying organic order which transcended the chaotic and the contradictory. In addition, the interconnections between human communities and natural systems, was one that the ancient Greeks well understood. Seemingly hostile elements (air, fire, water, earth; hot, cold, moist and dry) can be reconciled in a state of delicate and dynamic balance. Out of chaos there can be order; from the appearance of ‘strife’ (Heraclitus) can come the reality of process and a natural order. Reality is in constant transition from the elementary to the complex, it unfolds or develops over time. Human knowledge must, on the basis of understanding that there is a distinction between appearance and reality, look for the underlying unity and order that is present.

In the works of Plato, the idea that a union of interests (harmony) can be achieved through a reconciliation of opposites, is to be found in the Dialogues. In the Symposium, Eryximachus argues:

… when … the elements of hot and cold, moist and dry, attain the temperate love of one another and blend in chastened harmony, they bring to men, animals, and plants health and plenty … whereas the wanton love, getting the upper hand and affecting the seasons of the year, is very destructive and injurious, being the source of pestilence, and bringing many different kinds of diseases on animals and plants … [1]

With Aristotle, a new and important contribution is made to the understanding of natural order. The idea of ‘inner teleology’ or the notion that all development and activity can be understood as being guided by an internal necessity or purpose is fundamentally Aristotelian. When applied to nature, but in particular, the human mind, such an idea conveys the sense that development is the process of self-realisation from potential to fulfillment. It is the form of life itself and living things are engaged in a normative process of self-realisation … the end or logos is actualised at the end of development (an entelechy).

Within human social life Aristotle argues that the potential of human beings as social animals can be achieved. In the city-state citizens achieve self-sufficiency and the best form of human social life or the ‘good life’. In The Politics, Aristotle argues that out of all previous forms of human association comes the realisation of the final form. He argues that such an association:

… is the end of those others and its nature is itself an end; for whatever is the end product of the perfecting process of any object, that we call its nature, that which man, house, household, or anything else aims at being. Moreover the aim and the end can only be that which is best, perfection and self-sufficiency is both end and perfection. [2]

In this passage Aristotle sets down a pattern of thought that can be found repeated in many subsequent philosophical and related writings.  This is the idea that human society moves through various phases or stages from an immature to a mature state.  This movement is in a sense pre-determined because the end is immanent in the very beginning of the process. Internal or immanent teleology describes the evolution of form via what might be called the ‘laws’ of order and development. As is the case with the development of an individual organism, all development can be understood as determined by a final cause, not external, but internal to that which is developing. Such a view gives Aristotle’s philosophy an organic view of both the unity of purpose within the related ‘parts’ (unity) of a whole and its development (directionality).

Hegel, the Dialectic and Organic Complexity

Even in Hegel’s early theological writings there is evidence that he was searching for an internal principle which could account for the special type of unity to be found within organic wholes. In the essay on Love, Hegel (1797-1798) identifies the process of development whereby internal development differentiates itself, yet remains unified. Using a metaphor that plays a central role in his mature writings, Hegel suggests that all types of organic development follow a common pathway:

The seed breaks free from its original unity, turns ever more into opposition, and begins to develop. Each stage of its development is a separation, and its aim in each is to regain for itself the full riches of life … Thus the process is: unity, separated opposites, reunion. [3]

Within a human community, love can be understood as exemplifying such a ‘dialectic’. There is unity within diversity if a common principle animates the whole. Hegel, in a passage that presages a key element of complexity theory in the late twentieth century  argues:

In love man has found himself in another. Since love is a unification of life, it presupposes division, a development of life, a developed many-sidedness of life. The more variegated the manifold in which life is alive, the more places in which it can sense itself, the deeper does life become.[4]

In his early writings Hegel was convinced that philosophical thought was incapable of giving adequate expression to the unified totality that is life and reserved that role for religion.  Abstract thought simply divided life into an infinite number of discrete parts and only within the ‘spiritual’ realm of religion, “a reality beyond all reflection”[5] did true unification take place.

However, an early expression of the dialectic, or Hegel’s method of explicating the dynamic, self-generated continuity of organically unified entities, does emerge from the early writings. Hegel, in the Fragment of a System (1800), argues that the infinite regress of terms and relations in abstract thinking about the totality of life can be thought of as the union of opposition and relation or that “union is opposed to non-union”.  To avoid this contradiction Hegel suggested a better formulation of life as “… the union of union and non-union”. [6]

This formulation of life replaces the earlier conception based on love and is refined itself in the mature Hegel’s writings with the concept of identity. The common theme running through all formulations is the attempt to present a philosophical account of the distinctive features of organically unified entities, those of identity and continuity despite difference, unity despite diversity. Hegel’s philosophical project within his early philosophy was to “think pure life” [7] and his later works remained true to this aim.

Hegel’s mature organicism reinstates Aristotle’s view that it is human intellectual development that is the culmination of the self-developing system of life. While the system of physical and living things (nature) changes over time, Hegel argues that it is only by understanding the evolution of the human mind that directionality within this ceaseless movement that can be discovered and defended.

In the Phenomenology of Mind (1807) we find Hegel’s mature expression of the dialectic as the “progressive evolution of the truth”. Despite the appearance of contingency and contradiction in the development of human consciousness, Hegel identifies one continuous stream of development from infancy (potential) to maturity (actualisation). As is often the case, Hegel illustrates this thesis with an example from the organic realm:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as another; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes from the outset the life of the whole. [8]

The aim of the Phenomenology was to disclose the systematic development in the stages of human consciousness from genesis to maturity. The dialectic was used by Hegel to show that the apparently self-sufficient determinations of human consciousness are never really complete, but are always part of an immanent progression. Hegel’s internal or immanent teleology can be contrasted with external teleology. External teleology applies where the apparent function or purpose of a thing is linked to an external agent. Hegel has nothing but contempt for the trivial application of such thinking where, for example, “the wisdom of God is admired because he causes cork trees to grow, that we might have bottle stoppers”. [9]

The idea of infinite or internal teleology is forwarded by Hegel to highlight the inherent, self-organising activity characteristic of living organisms and consciousness. According to Hegel, there is, immanent in organic life and human consciousness, an inherent goal or end state that is a determining factor in all development. In opposition to seeing purpose as externally applied, Hegel argues:

To see purpose as inherent within natural objects, is to grasp nature in its simple determinateness, e.g. the seed of a plant, which contains the real potential of everything to the tree, which as purposeful activity is therefore orientated solely towards self-preservation. Aristotle had already noticed this notion of purpose in nature, and he called the activity the ‘nature of a thing’. This is the true teleological view, for it regards nature in its proper animation as free, and is therefore the highest view of nature. [10]

I indicated above that Hegel sees the most developed manifestation of inner teleology as the process of self-realisation in human consciousness. He saw human self-consciousness as a conceptual manifestation of the same underlying structure of all reality, but a reality (nature) actively achieving its own potential, a potential that lay immanent in the system at the very beginning. Although operating at qualitatively different levels of reality, both mind and nature are inherently purposive, self-determining dimensions of the one evolving organic totality. Philosophy (Mind) as the active and conscious expression of the development process can then reconstruct the unconscious development of nature. As Hegel argues, we can comprehend the progressive evolution of truth only at the leading edge the process of its development:

The truth is the whole. The whole however is merely the essential nature reaching its own completeness through the process of its own development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only at the end is what it is in every truth; and just in that consists its nature, which is to be actual, subject, or self-becoming, self-development.[11]

Hegel’s system of philosophy opens many avenues for the evaluation of human social and intellectual development. The fact that something exists does not make it ‘actual’. Actuality, for Hegel, is the correspondence of a thing with its inner essence (wesen). As part of their developmental process, things might deviate, be inadequate or be ‘untrue’ with respect to their essence. The stages from immaturity to maturity might also be used to evaluate where in the continuum something lies. As shall be seen below, an appreciation of Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of dialectical naturalism is crucially dependent on understanding these key normative dimensions in Hegel’s philosophy.

Bookchin, Directionality and Dialectical Naturalism

Bookchin is quite explicit in his debt to Hegel’s organicist philosophy. In The Ecology of Freedom he identifies the “logic of differentiation” that is common to all forms of organic development. Differentiation must be understood as occurring within an overall larger framework or process. Bookchin argues:

By wholeness, I mean varying levels of actualization, an unfolding of the wealth of particularities, that are latent in an as-yet-undeveloped potentiality. This potentiality may be a newly planted seed, a newly born infant, a newly born community, or a newly born society. [12]

He then immediately quotes that “remarkable passage” from Hegel about “the “bud, blossom and fruit” (above) to illustrate what he means by the process of “self-consummation” or the achievement of full potential.

In The Philosophy of Social Ecology Bookchin defends his interpretation of the dialectic against that of those who have abused its explanatory and ethical potential. He criticises popularisers of dialectical thinking such as Engels and 20th Marxists who created ‘dialectical materialism’. Of Hegel, Bookchin suggests that he rejected the idea of evolution in the biological world and that, as a result, his dialectic was unduly idealistic and ‘spiritual’.[13] Bookchin, in turn, rejects the Hegelian idea that the process of dialectical development ends in the Absolute or the complete realisation of all the potential within the evolving system[14]. He sees such an “archaism” as a “socially reactionary trap”[15] rather than the expression of truth. By contrast, he argues that his own version of the dialectic:

… does not terminate in a Hegelian absolute at the end of a cosmic developmental path, but rather advances the vision of an ever-increasing wholeness, fullness, and richness of differentiation and subjectivity.[16]

Bookchin, in creating his philosophy of Social Ecology, develops his own version of the dialectic. While accepting the Aristotelian and Hegelian tradition with which his own ideas have affinities, he wanted to “ecologise” and “evolutionise” the dialectic and remove all hints of dualistic thinking and false forms of teleology. This issue is important for Bookchin because a naturalistic account of self-organisation could supplant those that could be interpreted and used to support authoritarianism and hierarchy. He argues that religious, Hegelian and pseudo-scientific thinking can pervert freedom in the same way since “truth wears an unseen crown in the form of God or Spirit, for nature can never be trusted to develop on its own spontaneous grounds…”[17] The affinities between natural, spontaneous self-organisation and anarchistic thinking are immediately obvious.

In addition to the explication of the foundations for ethics from the philosophical perspective of inner teleology, Bookchin attempts to provide a case for the objective foundation for ethics from his analysis of the relevant scientific literature. In The Ecology of Freedom (1982), he reviews the then current bio-evolutionary literature, relying in particular on Cairns-Smith (1974), Trager (1970), Margulis (1981) and Lewin (1980) to reach the conclusion that within evolution there is an ethically significant sense of the interdependence of all life and the way this interdependence promotes the continuity of life.

 The insights from modern biological and ecological thinking could be incorporated into a new version of the dialectic, one Bookchin calls ‘dialectical naturalism’. A naturalistic dialectic seeks to identify human social development within an ongoing process of increasing complexity and diversity. Bookchin sees the free development of natural complexity and diversity as an entirely natural phenomenon.  He argues:

Hence our study of nature … exhibits a self-evolving patterning, a “grain”, so to speak, that is implicitly ethical.  Mutualism, freedom and subjectivity are not strictly human values or concerns. They appear, however germinally, in larger cosmic and organic processes that require no Aristotelian God to motivate them, no Hegelian Spirit to vitalize them.[18]

From the perspective of Social Ecology, human society has, for the greater part of its own evolution, created communities that have been consistent with this emergent natural order.  The scope, scale and organisation of society was shaped by the spontaneous natural organisation from which it arose and in which it remains embedded. As a consequence of the importance of the interrelatedness of the elements within complex systems, Bookchin stresses cooperation and symbiotic interrelationship (mutualism), rather than competition and struggle as fostering the most important outcomes of evolutionary history.

Bookchin’s Aristotelian-Hegelian philosophical background comes to the surface with his explanation of the emergence of increasing degrees of intentionality and subjectivity from spontaneous natural organisation.  Life, in spontaneously producing itself, also produces a material substance that “… eventually yields mind and intellectuality.”[19] Intentionality and self-consciousness lay as potential that remained latent in life until the evolution of complex organisms with brains. Hence, for Bookchin, directionality is the freedom manifest in life to evolve toward ever-increasing interrelated diversity and complexity.

Based on such a view of life Bookchin argues that the social values that arise out of a naturalistic ethic: unity in diversity, spontaneity and non-hierarchical relations, are objectively grounded in this understanding.  He advocates a type of ethical realism when he argues that such social values are the “elements of an ethical ontology, not rules of a game that can be changed to suit one’s personal needs.”[20] Value exists independently of any human valuer (objectivity) but can be discovered alongside other facts about the nature of reality. Bookchin suggests of dialectical naturalism, that it is:

… integrally wedded to the objective world – a world in which Being is Becoming. Let me emphasize that dialectical naturalism not only grasps reality as an existentially unfolding continuum; it also forms an objective framework for moral judgements. The “what-should-be” can be seen as an ethical criterion for the truth or validity of an objective “what-is”. Ethics is not merely a matter of personal taste and values; it is factually anchored in the world as an objective standard of self-realization. Whether a society is “good” or “bad”, moral or immoral, for example, can be objectively determined by whether it has fulfilled its potentialities for a rational and moral society. Potentialities that are themselves actualizations of a dialectical continuum present the challenge of ethical self-fulfilment – not simply in the privacy of the mind but in the reality of the processual world.[21]

Bookchin sees the values of mutualism, freedom and subjectivity as “implicit in nature” and must be made explicit by humans, who can act as the “self-reflexive voice of nature” in the production of an ecologically inspired rationality and ethic.[22] Hegel had thought of such a state of affairs as “Nature as absorbed in itself”.[23] Humans are in a position to do this since their sense organs, language and intelligence are themselves the products of natural evolution and have the potential to reflect the structure and processes of nature in a conceptual form.  Bookchin believes that we must find concrete social expressions of these naturalistic ethical values and they will be manifest in ideas and action that assist the “grain of nature” in that they will support the movement of “self-organising reality toward ever-greater complexity and rationality”.[24]  By contrast, the fight against homogeneity and anti-rational forces is a fight against the forces that might wish to destroy the diversity of life and the order (unity) it promotes.

According to Bookchin, actions that would support or complement the direction or grain of nature include technologies that are based on an array of renewable energy resources and are on a human scale and in harmony with the environment, direct democracy, decentralised urban communities and forms of organic food production.  All of these strategies and actions would have to be artistically and intimately integrated to create eco-communities. The eco-community is a human response to the imperative to live with the grain of nature and to find human expressions of unity within diversity.

Contemporary complexity theory

 The ancient idea that within life and the cosmos there might be fundamental ordering processes which provide a basis for directionality has received support from contemporary theorists of complex adaptive systems. Such support suggests, in line with the traditions of inner teleology of Aristotle and the dialectical traditions of Hegel and Bookchin, that spontaneous self-organisation is an inherent property of many types of simple and complex systems. Such self-organisation may be the product of ‘laws of order’ that operate beyond other known ordering factors such as natural selection and genetic inheritance. As one of the leading theorists in this area has claimed:

… in sufficiently complex systems, much of the order found is that spontaneously present in the class of systems under selection. Therefore, I have made bold to suggest that much of the order seen in organisms is precisely the spontaneous order in the systems of which we are composed. Such order has beauty and elegance, casting an image of permanence and underlying law over biology. Evolution is not just “chance caught on the wing.” It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection.[25]

Theorists of complex systems have contributed a great deal of new insight into how it is possible for there to be emergent order through spontaneous self-organisation. There has been a consistent emphasis in what is now a large theoretical and research foundation on how open systems far-from-equilibrium (open to energy and materials flows from outside the system), as they dissipate or disperse energy, engage in self-organising behaviour that increases complexity and diversity. As described by Prigogine and Stengers:

We now know that far from equilibrium, new types of structures may originate spontaneously. In far from equilibrium conditions we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos, into order. New dynamic states of matter may originate, states that reflect the interaction of a given system with its surroundings. We call these structures dissipative structures to emphasize the constructive role of dissipative processes in their formation.[26]

Such open systems are able to maintain or increase their level of organisation because they are more efficient at using energy than the wider system within which they exist and are also able to efficiently export their waste (entropy) into the larger surrounding system.[27] Energy and materials gradients allow throughput of energy, materials and information through the system. In the non-living context, cyclones, twisters, autocatalytic chemical reactions and lasers are examples of such coherent structures that maintain order at the expense of the wider environment. Living systems are more obvious examples of self-organisation that retain coherence by the same process of exporting entropy into the environment. The complex systems that humans create through technology and social organisation (e.g., cities) have also been studied from the perspective of dissipative structures and processes.[28]

In addition to a Darwinian perspective, evolution can be understood in terms of dissipative structures. This suggests that biological systems are engaged in an endogenous (modern science) or immanent (Hegelian nature philosophy) movement toward complexity and that this feature of life leads, unlike in Darwinian theory, to the idea that the direction of evolution is irreversible. That is, an evolving system, cannot within its own dynamic, return to an earlier and simpler state.  As argued by Depew and Weber it is a feature of systems explicated in terms of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to be:

… irreversible not just in fact, but in principle, because, lacking inertial states to which they would tend to return when forces are removed, the entities in the system are defined historically – in terms of the entire sequence of their interactions over a series of irreversible changes …[29]

Once biological systems are conceptualised as non-equilibrium dissipative structures (NEDS), the self-generated movement from simplicity to complexity in living systems provides a measure of support for Bookchin’s philosophical and evolutionary arguments that there is directionality in nature. The order which arises out of increasing complexity in biological systems is not then something which can be treated in atomistic and reductionistic terms. The creation of order-in-complexity when understood in eco-evolutionary terms and NEDS is the outcome of the interaction of energy systems over very long periods of time.  Although periods of stability may occur in geological time, changes that create new levels of complexity will be the result of fluctuations or perturbations in that system.  The stability we have now in biogeochemical systems is itself the product of irreversible movement from simplicity to complexity over deep time.

According to the first law of thermodynamics, the amount of energy in a closed system is constant, however, the classical formation of the second law suggests that in a closed system the amount of useable energy (gradating from high to low) available for any process will always decrease. There is a gradient or ‘directionality’ within such systems from high level energy to useless waste heat, and ultimately to the “cessation of all interesting activity throughout the universe”[30] or what is termed “equilibrium”. Similar considerations apply to open systems.

However, dissipative structures in non-living and living systems seem to defy this process; they manifest an opposing ‘directionality’ in that they increase complexity and diversity at local levels while entropy continues to increase at the global level. A reformulated second law makes this apparent contradiction understandable. As explained by Schneider and Kay[31] a restated second law suggests that:

As systems are moved from equilibrium, they will utilize all avenues to counter the applied gradients. As the applied gradients increase, so does the system’s ability to oppose further movement from equilibrium.

 Hence, it is to be expected that complex systems should adapt to change and self organize to negate the influence of an imposed energy gradient. The earth as a whole could be considered just such an open system as it has a large energy gradient imposed upon it by the sun. This view has been used to argue the case that the great diversity of life on earth is mainly a response to the thermodynamic imperative to dissipate energy in the gradient from high quality (useable) to lower quality (difficult to use) energy. As argued by Schneider and Kay, “as more high quality energy is pumped into an ecosystem, more organization emerges to dissipate the energy. Thus we have order emerging from disorder in the service of causing even more disorder”.[32]

As evidence supporting such a hypothesis, Schneider and Kay point out that at the earth’s equator, where 5/6 of the earth’s radiation occurs, the greatest species diversity is present. They argue that:

Trophic levels and food chains are based on photosynthetic fixed material and further dissipate these gradients by making more highly ordered structures. Thus we would expect more species diversity to occur where there is more available exergy (energy available to perform useful work).[33]

The theory of dissipative structures gives us a new perspective on directionality. There is an emerging perspective that dissipative structures develop in an irreversible way through self-organization, to states of increased complexity.  As Depew and Weber argue:

It is an essential property, as we have seen, of dissipative structures, when proper kinetic pathways are available, to self-organise and, when initial boundary conditions are specified, to evolve toward greater complexity… Thus if we grant that biological systems are constrained by the same physical laws that made their emergence possible, we can expect that such systems – organisms, populations, species, clades, ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole – will evolve, and evolve toward greater complexity.[34]

The fossil record also supports the directionality thesis in that it shows increasing complexity and biodiversity over geological time. Directionality is also present in the current distribution of plants and animals on earth, from high biodiversity at the equator to low biodiversity at the poles. As argued by the leading biologist, E.O. Wilson[35] ‘progress’ from simple to the complex as an expression of directionality is not simply a philosophical assertion, it is supported by a wide range of evidence:

During the past billion years, animals as a whole evolved upward in body size, feeding and defensive techniques, brain and behavioural complexity, social organization, and precision of environmental control – in each case farther from the non-living state than their simpler antecedents did… Progress, then, is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals. It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.[36]

The search for the fundamental principles of order in the creation of life has seen the suggestion that “attractors”, or states toward which a dynamic system eventually settles, play an important role in the maintenance and creation of diversity.  In Complexity Theory there is a recurrent theme that very complex and seemingly chaotic systems can give rise to regularity and order. The order that is achieved, is, however, not always stable, it can be delicately poised between order and instability. As Goodwin summarises:

For complex non-linear dynamic systems with rich networks of interacting elements, there is an attractor that lies between a region of chaotic behaviour and one that is ‘frozen’ in the ordered regime, with little spontaneous activity. Then any such system, be it a developing organism, a brain, an insect colony, or an ecosystem will tend to settle dynamically at the edge of chaos. If it moves into the chaotic regime it will come out again of its own accord; and if it strays too far into the ordered regime it will tend to ‘melt’ back into dynamic fluidity where there is rich but labile order, one that is inherently unstable and open to change.[37]

 Complexity theorists have developed the concept of a point called ‘the edge of chaos’ to account for the dialectical interplay between the forces of order and disorder and the creation of new levels of complexity. As a system reaches its most chaotic state, it also has the ability to self-organise into a new form of order. Such creative self-organisation is possible because of the richness of the interactions that occur with maximum potential for the constructive exchange and processing of information.[38] There are identifiable influences that can pull the system one way or the other and theorists have termed these influences ‘attractors’. What attractors do is act to pull a complex dynamic system out of instability or chaos into order or vice versa.

Different attractors can influence a complex system in different ways causing new forms of order/disorder to emerge. Major system shocks or ‘perturbations’ might also act so as to push or pull the system toward a new attractor and the establishment of a new pattern. Thus self-organised criticality can be understood as a ‘general type of attractor’[39] that assists in the understanding of systems that exhibit patterned behaviour. Cascades of change in all types of dynamic systems might follow power laws and such laws are in principle discoverable.

Goodwin has applied this type of thinking to explain the evolution of the eye, a structure that has evolved independently in about forty different evolutionary lines. Following patterns layed out in embryonic development and other forms of cellular growth, the recognisable form of an eye is the result of pattern emergence within a sea of possibilities. As Goodwin explains it, “I’m saying that there’s a large attractor in morphogenic space that results in a functional visual system”.[40] Rather than a situation of infinite flexibility and possibilities, certain ‘laws of form’ might operate in all kinds of contexts where complexity exists and emergence is possible. As argued by Kauffman, “morphology is a marriage of underlying laws of form and the agency of selection, the task is to find the laws and hallow the marriage.”[41]

The application of Complexity Theory to all types of complex, dynamic systems has produced renewed interest in a project that unifies all natural phenomena under common natural laws.  Biological and physical entities are subject to the same natural forces and different levels of biological organisation are also subject to common principles of organisation.

In addition to throwing light on how it is that order can emerge from disorder, complexity theory has now been able to link with other known producers of order, natural selection and genetics. Schneider and Kay see genes and biodiversity as “information databases of self-organization strategies that work”[42] and their role in the continuity of life is critical. Innovation and increasing complexity and diversity is the inevitable product of unstable thermodynamic forces while maintaining the survival of that complexity and diversity (successful self-organisation) is the role of genes and populations of diverse species.

The constructive role of disorder and perturbation in the creation of complexity and diversity has also emerged within conventional ecological theory in the last decade. From within ecological biology itself, has come the additional argument that nonequilibrium determinants of ecological order may be far more significant in the production of the biodiversity currently present on the planet than are the processes that are tied to the maintenance of equilibrium. The role of natural disturbance in the form of flood, storm and fire, for example, is such that it creates new energy gradients and hence new opportunities for evolution, and subsequently, biological diversity as the system in question recovers from the impact of the last perturbation or change. The biologist, Seth Reice argues:

I suggest that the normal state of communities and ecosystems is to be recovering from the last disturbance. Natural systems are so frequently disturbed that equilibrium is rarely achieved.[43]

Such a view of the control of community structure transforms the way we see the origins of ecological complexity. High levels of complexity are caused and maintained by regular disturbance that is continually prompting dynamic readjustment from within the ecosystem in question. According to Reice:

Disturbance should be viewed as both natural and beneficial to the world’s biodiversity. The most diverse systems are the ones that are frequently disturbed – such as streams, pine savannas, prairies and grasslands, tropical rain forests and coral reefs. The positive impact of disturbance on biodiversity is apparent.[44]

The traditional emphasis in ecology on stability and equilibrium within so called ‘climax communities’ is the result of not applying a sufficiently long time frame to investigation and understanding of the system in question. As argued by Reice:

In some systems the return frequency of disturbance is so long that the impression of equilibrium conditions develops. This is what underlies the traditional idea of climax communities. However, careful observation reveals that disturbance is ubiquitous and frequent relative to the life spans of the dominant taxa.[45]

The new nonequilibrium view of complex adaptive living systems has profound implications for the way that humans interact with nature. If biodiversity is valued because it represents the cumulative ability of genes, species and ecosystems to create order from disorder, life from decay, then the maintenance of existing and further evolutionary development of biodiversity (higher level order) may well depend on subtle and intelligent interaction between human induced disturbance and the spontaneous emergence of complexity in natural systems.

Policies and technologies that permit a degree of disturbance to complex systems can generate an adaptive response that could lead to greater complexity and diversity. Such is the case in biological systems when anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic disturbance allows a recolonisation response by species that maintain or increase complexity and diversity. Overemphasis on stability and equilibrium in ecosystems leads to a failure to see human beings as legitimate agents of change within natural systems and as potentially creative ‘disturbers’ that contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity.[46]

The emphasis on the maintenance of complexity and biodiversity within natural systems introduces one way of evaluating human action. According to Reice, from the perspective of the world’s biodiversity, if human action moves a complex adaptive system from heterogeneity to homogeneity, lowers the level of disturbance and as a consequence arrests the opportunities for recolonisation, then it is likely to be undesirable and ought not to be done.

Bookchin, Systems and Complexity

Bookchin explicitly connects his dialectical naturalism to the early expressions of complexity theory. Based on Bergson’s idea of life as a “counteracting force to the second law of thermodynamics”, he argues that the evolution of order is an expression of matter’s own “inherent self-organising properties” in the production of “increasingly complex forms”.[47] The achievement of stability and new variety in the face of the second law is, for Bookchin, both scientifically and ethically important.

Bookchin, however, has expressed major reservations about the implications of complexity theory and its applications. He argues that the whole theoretical framework is incompatible with the understanding of eco-evolution as explicated by dialectical naturalism.  He comments with regard to Prigoginian systems theory that:

… I feel obliged to note that a system of positive feedback allows for no concept of potentiality.  We know only from Prigoginian “fluctuations” that when a system approaches a “far from equilibrium” situation … there is no way to determine whether the system will simply fall apart into “chaos” or assume an immanently predictable form. Given “far from equilibrium disorder”, or a succeeding orderly system, speculative thought is reduced to mere observation. In the succession of systems, development seems to give way to thermodynamics and phases of growth to “dissipative structures.” Prigogine’s emphasis on the irreversibility of time, appropriate as it may be in exorcising a mechanistic dynamics based on time’s irreversibility, is not congruent with process and evolution… Indeed, in Prigoginian systems theory, it is chance and stochastic phenomena that act as “mediating” phases between one “dissipative structure” and another, not potentiality and immanence.[48]

Bookchin’s continued advocacy of ‘immanence’ and ‘potentiality’ as the driving forces of directionality in the face of chance and chaos is driven by his concern that such fluctuations within an evolving system could produce the Post-modernist version of Chaos theory where everything is open and indeterminate. Such outcomes Bookchin quite rightly sees as leading to relativism and the inability to make any kind of ethical judgements.

In addition, Bookchin castigates those system theorists, who, influenced by Prigoginian versions of complexity, then use such theory in “careless” ways and see the market and capitalism as prime examples of self-organisation. He is also critical of systems theory for its “mechanistic mentality” leading to the reduction of organismic thinking into mathematical abstraction.  However, there is a concession that “randomness is subject to a directive ordering principle”[49] so Bookchin does seem to be prepared for the possibility that there can be greater understanding of such ordering principles.

Bookchin also demonstrates familiarity with the arguments about the need to understand the role of diversity in ecosystem stability. He correctly sees stability in natural systems as the outcome not of homogeneity, but of heterogeneity. He argues that wholeness in ecosystems must be understood as a “dynamic unity of diversity” and that:

In nature, balance and harmony are achieved by ever-changing differentiation, by ever expanding diversity. Ecological stability, in effect, is a function not of simplicity and homogeneity but of complexity and variety. The capacity of an ecosystem to retain its integrity depends not on the uniformity of the environment but on its diversity.[50]

However, the one area where Bookchin seems at odds with the new developments in complexity theory and contemporary biology is with the creative role of chance and uncertainty in the production of complexity and diversity. The uncertainty of far from equilibrium situations that Bookchin identifies is a part of the new picture, however, their irreversibility or directionality, if “appropriate boundary conditions are maintained”[51] is particularly relevant for biological systems understood in terms of non-equilibrium dissipative structures (NEDS).

In addition, the rich interactions that are possible at the edge of chaos are the very things that allow the potential for greater complexity and diversity to emerge. Hence, the qualities and properties that Bookchin identifies as desirable; potentiality, development and immanence, are only possible when complexity and complex processes are understood as events that can emerge at the edge of chaos. From this point onwards, under the influence of the greater complexity generated by the ‘laws of form and order’, there is spontaneous self-organisation and the creation of greater complexity, diversity and unity. Such a perspective is a post Darwinian and post-systems theory view of complexity, one that Bookchin has not fully appreciated as having profound implications for his own work.

Dialectical Complexity and the Future of Social Ecology

Bookchin has long championed the cause of social and cultural diversity. He also has a voluminous list of publications, going back to the 1950s that argue that such social diversity should be located within natural diversity. His arguments for social and natural diversity have been partly philosophical and partly empirical. The union of the dialectical tradition in philosophy and ecological science certainly places Bookchin at the centre of a new and important contribution to the project of ‘thinking life’. I have argued in this paper and elsewhere[52] that the dialectic has now moved once more and that we now have the emergence of ‘dialectical complexity’. New science and theory have produced profound new insights into the nature of complex systems, including ecological and social systems. Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism can be incorporated into this new dialectic without contradiction, as emergent directionality remains a centrally important component. However, ‘emergent’, rather than immanent teleology is the most appropriate way to describe such directionality. The direction of increasing complexity and diversity in life is the outcome of necessity (order) and chance (chaos), or what might be termed ‘the order of order and disorder’. Such a view may well be more Hegelian than Bookchin’s own position.

Bookchin and those influenced by social ecology have an expanded foundation on which to make and defend claims about the need for a human ethic that complements the underlying laws of order and process in natural systems. For example, as an integral part of the critique of globalisation, its entropy maximising tendencies and the homogenisation of social systems, social ecologists can draw the biophysical limits of human settlements and institutions, at specific places on earth. The form of such settlements and social structures can be designed in terms of entropy minimising dissipative structures and dynamic, self-organising systems as well as the creative and aesthetic response humans have to such sustainability foundations.[53]

It has taken the whole of the 3.5 billion years of evolutionary history to achieve the complexity and diversity we see extant on the planet today. However, in the last three hundred years since the industrial revolution, humans have embarked on a wholesale removal of such complexity in both biological and cultural contexts. In the early twenty first century, humans are creating vast global monocultures (agribusiness) and failing dissipative structures (cities) that put at risk the long-term order and stability that self-organising systems have produced. Such human created systems (e.g., highly engineered rivers) are susceptible to dangerous fluctuations and potentially lethal changes.  Similar considerations apply to the global pollution (anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions) humans are now inflicting on what were formally self-regulatory systems connected to a relatively stable climate.

As a response to such uncertainty humans can choose to support the ongoing free evolution of self-organised systems or work to impose structures that destroy complexity and diversity. Bookchin strongly advocates that we engage in human praxis that works within the free unfolding of self-organised systems. He sees human involvement in such systems, as Charles Elton had observed, as “more like steering a boat” in a complex stream than applying rigid rules to a fixed system.  Bookchin suggests that such sensitive management of human activity requires detailed knowledge and that “what ecology, both natural and social, can hope to teach us is the way to find the current and understand the direction of the stream”.[54]  As I have argued in this paper, understanding the underlying directionality within the emergence of complexity provides a framework, as Bookchin puts it, to “… help us distinguish which of our actions serve the thrust of evolution and which of them impede them”.[55]

While it may be possible to understand the immediate implications of complexity theory to the design and construction of the built environment and agriculture, it is more difficult to envisage the way micro-economic and political activity can be shaped by its insights. The application of the broad principle that we should simultaneously maintain or increase the complexity and diversity of both natural and social systems will drive the creation of whole new ways of doing economics, politics, technology, education, art and architecture. To permit such new social evolution to occur within the context of self-organising, dynamic systems has additional profound implications to the way that order is currently achieved. The earth and its inhabitants are currently under the dominant influence of an elite group of manipulators and regulators who artificially maintain the global system in a state that suits their vested and sectional interests. This artificial equilibrium is achieved only with the exercise of considerable force and engineering at local levels. The lesson from complexity theory is that the stresses inherent within such a system will ultimately cause a radical spontaneous reorganisation of the system as a whole. Such radical reorganisation may well put social development on an unsustainable path. A safer route is to allow greater freedom for the system to self-regulate at local levels and permit local adaptation and re-organisation in the face of the pressure to change.

Bookchin’s advocacy of ecocommunities run by participatory democracies (municipal libertarianism) can be defended as one of many appropriate political responses to the challenge of new understanding we have of complex, dynamic systems and the way they can self-organise to increased states of complexity and diversity. Local and regional involvement in the maintenance and creation of complexity and diversity is a non-negotiable element of human social sustainability.

References and Notes

[1] The Symposium, (Jowett trans.), (Great Britain: Sphere Books, 1970) p.200 (186d)

[2] The Politics (Sinclair trans.) Middlesex: Penguin, 1975), p.28.

[3]  G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings (Knox trans.) (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), pp.307, 308.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, pp. 278-279.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, p.312.

[6] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, p.312.

[7] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegels Theologische Jugendscriften (Nohl, ed.) (Frankfurt, Minerva,1966) p.302.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind (Baillie trans) in Hegel Selections (J. Lowenberg, ed.) (New York, Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1957), pp.2-3.

[9] G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Nature (Petry trans and ed.) (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1970), p.196.

[10] G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Nature, p.196.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Mind, p.16.

[12] Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, (Palo Alto, Cheshire, 1982), p.31.

[13] I have argued elsewhere that Hegel did accept evolution in the natural world but saw it as of no great philosophical significance. See G. Albrecht, ‘Hegel and Darwin: A Reassessment’, Dialectic, Vol. 27, 1986.

[14] Hegel can be interpreted as suggesting that the Absolute is both the fullness of the present and a position in the future which represents the culmination of philosophical progress up to that point. Hence, there is no terminus, but a perpetual destination, where the Absolute is the rear-view vision of the journey from the advantage of each stop along the way at any one point in time.

[15] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.363.

[16] Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, (Montreal, Black Rose Books,1990), p.30.

[17] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.363.

[18] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 364.

[19] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 364.

[20] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 365.

[21] Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, p.35.

[22] See his article ‘Recovering Evolution: A Reply to Eckersley and Fox’, in Environmental Ethics, 12 (1990) pp. 255-256.

[23] G.W.F. Hegel, Logic, (Wallace, trans) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1892), p.180.

[24] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.365.

[25] Stuart Kauffman, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution, (New York, Oxford University Press 1993) p.644.

[26] I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, Order Out of Chaos, (New York, Bantam, 1984), p.12.

[27] P. Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, London, Unwin, 1989), p.85.

[28] See C. Dyke, ‘Cities as Dissipative Structures’ in B.Weber, D.Depew, and J. Smith, (eds.,) Entropy, Information and Evolution: New Perspectives on Physical and Biological Evolution, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1988), pp. 355-368.

[29] D. Depew and B. Weber, ‘Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition’ in .Weber, D. et al (eds.,) Entropy, Information and Evolution, p.333.

[30] Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, p.19.

[31] E. Schneider and J. Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’ in M. Murphy and L. O’Neill (eds) What is Life? The Next Fifty Years, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p.165.

[32] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.170.

[33] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.168.

[34] David Depew & Bruce Weber, “Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition” in Weber, et al (eds.), Entropy, Information and Evolution, pp. 337-338.

[35] E.O. Wilson is recruited here to support the directionality thesis from the perspective of the evolution of biodiversity. He does not, as far as I understand, support complexity theory.

[36] See E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (London, Penguin Books, 1992), p.175.

[37] Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: the evolution of complexity, (London, Phoenix Giants, 1995), p.169.

[38] It is this idea that Hegel anticipated with his linking of variety with the potential for complexity.

[39] Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots: The Evolution of Complexity, (London, Phoenix Giants, 1995), p.175.

[40] in R. Lewin, Complexity: Life on the Edge of Chaos, (London, Phoenix, 1993), p.40.

[41] Kauffman, The Origins of Order, P.xvii.

[42] Schneider and Kay, ‘The thermodynamics of complexity in biology’, p.171.

[43] Seth Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, in American Scientist, Vol. 82, September-October, 1994, p.434.

[44] Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, p.434.

[45] Reice, ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’, p.434.

[46] Equally, over-emphasis on disturbance could lead to catastrophic change and the cessation of evolutionary succession.

[47] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.357.

[48] Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, pp. 192-3.

[49] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.84.

[50] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.84.

[51] Depew & Weber, ‘Consequences of Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics for the Darwinian Tradition’, p. 333.

[52] See also, Glenn Albrecht, ‘Ethics and Directionality in Nature’ in A. Light (ed) Social Ecology After Bookchin, (New York, The Guilford Press, 1998), pp. 92-113.

[53] See Glenn Albrecht, Social Ecology and Organic Environmental Design, in Birkeland, J (ed) Rethinking the Built Environment: Proceedings of Catalyst ’95, (Canberra, The University of Canberra, 1995).

[54] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 25.

[55] Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p.342.

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