Dawn of the Symbiocene, Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald, 2019
In 2013, after giving up her professorship to rally the world about the moral imperative to save life on Earth, environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore asked
“If you house is on fire what should you do? […] Of course, you put out the fire – there are children in that house, there are billions of children in that house…”
In 2019, Greta Thunberg embodies Kathleen’s concerns:
“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
Dara and his mother in Hollywood Forest (2016) Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald
This article is for a young boy I know who is called Dara. His name is the Irish word for Ireland’s great Oak tree, trees that signalled Ireland’s once rich ecological past and former beautiful lands. Dara has long loved my Hollywood Forest Story work. He says ‘It’s epic!’ and loved our late dog Holly dearly, who was the namesake and co-founder of my forest-art work. I heard recently his biggest wish is that his grandfather, a farmer, might give him 2 acres to plant as a permanent forest with many, many Oak trees.
The planetary emergency we are facing is a crisis of Western civilization
The planetary emergency is specifically a crisis of dominant Western civilization that has over millennia viewed itself separate from and superior to the natural world. In Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests (2004), US writer Derrick Jensen recounts that the earliest written records of Western civilization tell of King Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia felling great cedar forests for glory and power.
Today human activities affect planetary processes. Geologists describe this unprecedented epoch where one species is affecting the viability of life on Earth as the Anthropocene – the age of man. While some geologists debate that the Anthropocene age begins with the Great Acceleration of industrialization after World War II, the story of Gilgamesh reveals Western civilization’s pattern of ecocide probably arose thousands of years ago.
Welcome to the Anthropocene
In 2012, climate scientists were trying valiantly to convey the planetary crisis and some began to use the Anthropocene to frame the planetary emergency. Some commissioned audio-visual communicators and one video produced and shown at the 2012 Planet under Pressure summit went viral – it was called ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’. Given this global platform, the idea of the Anthropocene entered the humanities and some contemporary art discourse.
In the short ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ video I initially admired the Earthrise-type imagery. The animations graphically depicted the effects of man on Earth thousands of years ago. And, it collated masses of recent scientific data to visualise ‘the great acceleration’ of destruction occurring by man’s activities in recent decades. But instead of declaring alarm, a narrator comfortingly conveyed admiration for our Anthropocene and suggested that we had the ability, the science, the technology to overcome difficulties. I wrote an essay soon after as I felt that this Anthropocene story was problematic.
The Age of the Sociopath
For the developing story of the Anthropocene, I more identify with Jensen’s arguments against it. Jensen argues this Anthropocene story is ‘grossly misleading and narcissistic’. He argues that ‘[m]ankind aren’t the ones “transforming” – read, killing – the planet. Civilized humans are!’ He identifies that the Anthropocene story all too easily obscures the fact that indigenous people, as in his area, existed for thousands of years without destroying their environments.
Jensen argues the Age of the Anthropocene has been an era of gross ecocide and violence against more Earth-aligned cultures and that it should instead be called ‘The Age of the Sociopath’. The US sociologist Charles Derber’s extensive thesis confirms modern industrial civilization is a sociopathic society and the late Native American writer Jack D Forbes’ insists that Columbus’ conquest of North America is a form of cannibalism against life, ‘wetiko’ in his language, that extends to modern times. More recently, I feel the story of the Anthropocene exemplifies a globalising identity of white privilege that overlooks the other.
The Capitalocene, or the Plantationocene, or the Chthulucene
Others have offered alternatives to the Anthropocene, Jason Moore offers the Capitalocene which identifies unrestrained capital accumulation as the main culprit of the recent Great Acceleration. Donna Harraway argues the Capitalocene is useful, and she also introduces the related term Plantationocene. Coined in 2014, the Plantationocene resonates strongly with my focus that significant harm to the Earth has been inflicted by industrial culture’s anti-ecological monoculture plantation practices. Naming any violence, like domestic violence or ecocide, is an important first step to overcome cultures of harm.
But when we know our Earth is on fire and that monoculture madness is causing Earth’s life support systems to collapse, ideas to help us move away from our erroneous ecocidal world-view are urgently needed. When today’s climate scientists are pronouncing an endgame in a decade unless we radically change our ways, Harraway’s next move to depart from pinpointing the causes of the Anthropocene, to formulate the Chthulucene, her concept of a living, thriving interconnected Earth composed of man and other species, is relevant. She argues this more encompassing term might more fully acknowledge humanity’s ecological past and envision its slim possibility of restorative relations with the Earth and its inhabitants.
However, in 2016, I was immediately impressed with an essay entitled ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’ from Australian Philosopher and former Professor of Sustainability, Glenn Albrecht. Albrecht’s Symbiocene follows his significant work to develop new words and concepts, like solastalgia, now used internationally by eco-psychologists and legal experts to identify and argue the validity of severe emotional distress and mental health conditions experienced by people living next to destroyed environments.
The Symbiocene is where humanity has to go if it wishes to survive. Albrecht’s term Symbiocene offers a similar vision to Harraway’s Chthulucene as they both refer to revelations of new symbiotic science. Albrecht offers an extensive philosophical and psycho-social framework and new terminology for the Symbiocene age in his book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.
Symbiotic science helps envision an ecological era
Having previously worked in science research, and with my interest in ecological forestry, I had been following the new science of symbiosis. As I already viewed my eco-social art practice in advocating ecological forestry, as fundamentally restoring symbiotic biodiversity, I recognised the importance of Albrecht’s work for the planetary emergency.
Albrecht’s Symbiocene directly connects with symbiotic science that confirms that life survives and thrives through interrelated mutuality between many species. As Albrecht writes, ‘symbiosis has now emerged as a primary determinant of the conditions of life’(Ibid.) Supporting this argument, Professor of Forest Ecology, Suzanne Simard has particularly popularised advances in symbiotic science through her public TED talks on ‘Mother Trees’ and forests. Her and others’ research confirms different tree species in forests signal and send nutrients via vast networks of fungi – the wood-wide web. Importantly her symbiotic studies reveal that forests, the most complex and adaptable systems ever to evolve, do well because ‘forests are super-cooperators’. Simard’s and others’ symbiotic science is revolutionising the still dominant story of evolution as competition toward a radical understanding that life exists from a cooperation between all species.
Simard also recognises, like Jensen, that indigenous people’s cultural activities helped ensure their forests flourished. Correspondingly, as most of the Earth’s biodiversity remains in areas where indigenous people live, there is much to learn from other nonWestern cultures. Albrecht also makes an important observation for young women when he highlights the considerable pushback against Simard’s peer-reviewed forest science and other early champions of ecological and symbiotic thinking who were female is evidence of the ‘threat to the patriarchy, reductionism, and mechanism that have long ruled in academia, science, commerce, and industry’.
Evolution as competition, expressed in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, emboldened The Enlightenment Age to view mankind as independent from and superior to the rest of life. With Christian religion more concerned with the hereafter, modern Western society was given permission to view other life on Earth as a resource for progress. Albrecht reflects the other deadly delusions promoted by the Enlightenment; individualism, dualism and human exceptionalism underline today’s prevalent and now globalized anti-ecological worldview, adding today’s neoliberal ideology hasn’t helped.
‘New Words for a New World’ – ‘Soliphilia’
Albrecht’s new book is important and I can only touch on some of his key Psychoterratic concepts and terms that he uses to construct a vision of the Symbiocene. Importantly, he visualises the Earth’s next-generation, Generation S (shortened as ‘Gen S’) having an increased awareness of how life is dependent on symbiotic wellbeing. He believes that this will foster specific emotional states to protect life locally. This promotes what he calls ‘soliphilia’, a deep love of place that inspires communities toward a newfound ecological yet secular spirituality, and critically, toward embracing life-sustaining politics.
Soliphilia expands my perception to understand the agency, the social power to protect ecosystems, that regularly arises from situated eco-social art practices (my term for ecological art practice). My ongoing eco-social art practice in which I have explored ecological forestry to transform the monoculture plantation I live in, fosters strong soliphilia in me. As this small 2.5 acre forest, that we call Hollywood, provides me with air, occasional fuel to keep me warm, much solace and birdsong, it only took a few years after I began my practice to notice a keen sense to protect this forest’s thriving permanently.
After consulting a lawyer colleague, I knew I could not legally prevent Hollywood being clear-felled once I wasn’t on the land. But with dialogue with leading Irish foresters who were beginning to explore European continuous cover forestry and with my connections to the Irish Green Party, I found my self advancing national ecological forest policy and then successfully lobbying support for the late Polly Higgins’ ecocide law.
Hollywood, ‘the little wood that could’ is a small 2-acre Close-to-Nature continuous cover forest growing under the Blackstairs Mountains, in South County Carlow, Ireland. Photo: Martin Lyttle
In this way, I was surprised but proud of how my practice had enabled Hollywood forest to become the story of ‘the little wood that could’.
‘Sumbioregionalism’ – fostered through eco-social art practices
My creative practice is very modest in scale. I am observing with interest, others’ like Northern Ireland artist-researcher Dr Anita McKeown’s more extensive situated eco-social art practice that is unfolding over several years with the support of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. In her co-designed, resilience project, ‘Co-Des-Res’, she has established a multidisciplinary ecology and art team that is building localised ecoliteracy for and with the community who live in the Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry (see the newsletters on this site to gain an overview of all the community engagement). At the moment, McKeown is framing the work through extensive knowledge of creative permaculture and place-making and employing the colourful, and increasingly understood symbols of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, I can see such work is contributing to what Albrecht sees as an inevitable ‘sumbioregionalism’ and that this is a contribution to the Symbiocene.
Albrecht defines a ‘sumbioregion’ as an ‘identifiable biophysical and cultural geographical space where humans live together and engage in a common pursuit of the reestablishment and creation of new symbiotic interrelationships between humans, nonhuman organisms, and landscapes’. The cultural and environmental programmes of the West of Ireland’s Burrenbeo Trust is another great example.
Importantly, as a past Professor of Sustainability, Albrecht is well versed to understand that the UN’s sustainable development concept has failed to halt ecosystem collapse. In his new work he shares that in the development of a jurisprudence system for Earth Justice, the United Nations has endorsed his Symbiocene framework when it confirmed that ‘current approaches to the Anthropocene epoch needs to be expanded.’ He quotes the UN (2016) which states:
concepts such as the Symbiocene, an era when human action, culture and enterprise would nurture the mutual interdependence of the greater community and promote the health of all ecosystems, are more promising and solution-oriented.’
However, perhaps we might ask is the Symbiocene is an overly optimistic framework? Yet Albrecht doesn’t shy away from troubling transitional and possibly violent periods ahead. These realities are unfolding as UK Professor Jem Bendell’s (2018) paper on confirmed nonlinear climate breakdown and how to navigate the ensuing societal collapse affirms. Bendell’s paper, downloaded over 300,000 times in recent months, calls for truth, emotional support, activism and much work for what he is framing as a necessary deep adaptation to collapse. Here I argue that Albrecht’s detailed preview of the emotional, moral, generational, cultural, spiritual, technological and political aspects of the Symbiocene, covers how we might deeply envision and honourably adapt to an uncertain future. As the Earth’s children are rising, a clear detailed framework on how to achieve a better, more beautiful world with other extraordinary lifeforms is surely of immense value.
In 2014, the late Dr Chris Seeley, an artist, action researcher and sustainability educator nominated me to attend a global New Story Summit at Findhorn, Scotland. Over 300 attendees: young people, indigenous people, scientists, environmental lawyers, game developers, storytellers, educators, group workers and a few eco-artists came together for a week in Findhorn’s Universal Hall. The theme of the Summit took inspiration from the great geo-theologian Thomas Berry’s seminal essay ‘The New Story’ in which he emphasised that the World desperately needs a new story that conveys an ecological worldview. To me, the Symbiocene is the New Story.
Cathy Fitzgerald, PhD, is a New Zealander, eco-social artist, researcher and educator now living in Ireland. She completed her PhD by Practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with Forests to articulate eco-social art practice using Guattari’s ecosophy and action research, in 2018, at the National College of Art and Design in Ireland. She continues her ongoing Hollywood Forest Story adventures with new rescue dog Willow. She is currently sharing her ecoliteracy learning to other creative workers through online courses at www.haumea.ie
This paper was supported by Dr. Nessa Cronin, Irish Studies, National University of Galway and Professors Karen Till and Gerry Kearns, Maynooth University, Ireland for the Art & Geography: Art, Activism and Social Engagement in the Age of the Capitalocene panel at the 7th EUGeo Congress in Galway, Ireland, 16 May, 2019. I also wish to acknowledge Dr Frances Fahy and Dr. Kathy Reilly (EUGEO Conference Co-Chairs and organisers) for the bursary that enabled me to attend the Congress. This paper was also presented at the Trinity College Dublin ‘Art in the Anthropocene‘ 3-day International Conference’, on 7th June,2019, through the invitation of Professor Steve Wilmer and Dr. Yvonne Scott.
This article is re-published in the book “Plasticity for the Planet: On Environmental Challenge for Arts and its Institutions” by editor Magdalena Ziolkowska,Centre for Contemporary Art U-jazdowski Castle, Warsaw. Milan: Mousse Publishing. This book accompanies the international exhibition Human-Free Earth (2019) curated by Jaroslaw Lubiak.
- Dean Moore, ‘If Your House is on Fire’, 23 September 2013, https://youtu.be/6IRbqKYOcrY
- G. Thunberg, ‘“Our House is on Fire:”: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate’, The Guardian, 25 January, 2019.
- D. Jensen The Myth of Human Supremacy. New York: Seven Stories Press, (2016).
- Jensen & G. Draffan, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests. New York: Green Books, Totnes, UK. (2004)
- IPCC , Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. 2018.
- Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, Cornelia Ludwig ‘The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration’, The Anthropocene Review, Volume: 2 issue: 1, 2015: 81-98.
- See: C. Fitzgerald, The Anthropocene: 10 000 years of ecocide, https://hollywoodforest.com/2012/05/12/the-anthropocene-10-000-years-of-ecocide/
- D. Jensen, ‘Age of the Sociopath’. Spring. Earth Island Institute, 2013, http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/age_of_the_sociopath/
- C. Derber, Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2013.
- J.D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press; 1978, revised edition, November 4, 2008. See also http://artforclimatechange.org/geo-engineering-is-wetikoism-at-its-worst/?fbclid=IwAR3fuDc6XllWxuOoCXYO_7a2vjOS2dDlQuKB3X3nDIa9jGGaN-0ypgvI-GM
- J. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.
- D. Harraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’. Environmental Humanities, Vol. 6, 2015: 159-165.
- C. Fitzgerald, The Hollywood Forest Story: Living Well with a Forest to Explain Eco-Social Art Practice, free-to-download audio-visual eBook, Apple iBook Store, 2018: 77, https://books.apple.com/ie/book/the-hollywood-forest-story/id1441958722
- Glenn Albrecht, ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’, https://www.humansandnature.org/exiting-the-anthropocene-and-entering-the-symbiocene
- Glenn Albrecht, ‘The Age of Solastalgia’, http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337
- Glenn Albrecht, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019. Kindle edition.
- Cathy Fitzgerald, ‘Mother Trees – the Earth’s network for Resilience’, https://hollywoodforest.com/2013/03/10/mother-trees-the-earthss-networks-for-resilience/
- Suzanne Simard, How trees talk to each other, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs&feature=youtu.be
- See 20.
- Glenn Albrecht, ‘Solastalgia, Soliphilia, Eutierria and Art’, https://glennaalbrecht.com/2016/06/27/solastalgia-soliphilia-eutierria-and-art/
- C. Fitzgerald, ‘Continuous Cover Forests Key in [Irish] Green Party’s New Forest Policy’, 2013, https://www.greenparty.ie/continuous-cover-forests-key-in-green-party/
- C. Fitzgerald, [Irish] ‘Greens unanimously adopt motion to end ecocide; a new legal framework to prevent fracking and other pollution’, 2013, ‘https://www.greenparty.ie/greens-unanimously-adopt-motion-to-end-ecocide-a-new-legal-framework-to-prevent-fracking-and-other-pollution/ See also http://www.stopecocide.earth
- G, Albrecht, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019. Kindle edition.
- See 30.
- J, Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. IFLAS Occasional Paper 2. 2018. https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
- T, Berry ‘The New Story’, Teilhard Studies, 1978, no. 1 (winter). [A video excerpt of Thomas Berry discussing his 1978 Teilhard Studies monograph entitled “The New Story” at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1984. This is one in a series of Thomas Berry videos which were recorded by Lou Niznik and re-mastered by Wes Pascoe. Lou’s video library was donated by Jane Blewett to the Thomas Berry Foundation in 2012. The re-mastered video series was produced by Don Smith of Calgary, Alberta with executive supervision by Mary Evelyn Tucker. https://youtu.be/rS5byHRScVY
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