Have you ever heard of the term “Anthropocene”? The term defines this current period of time in which human activity is altering the Earth’s systems. Typically, the periods of time used to define Earth’s history (like epochs and ages) are based on rock layers and the fossils contained within them. While Anthropocene isn’t officially recognized by the International Union of Geological Sciences, this term has still gained support.
What this term tells us: this is a distinct period in time, defined by increasing environmental destabilization from human activity (specifically, destabilization from the extractive and exploitative systems, enforced by an absurdly wealthy ownership class).
What it doesn’t tell us: what’s next?
Dr. Glenn Albrecht has a proposition. Albrecht is a contemporary environmental philosopher and author that has coined many unique terms, including:
- Solastalgia: the homesickness you have when you are still at home, and your home environment is changing in ways you find distressing
- Mermerosity: being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably within one’s sense of place
- Terrafurie: anger targeted at those who command the forces of Earth destruction; protective anger
which help us understand our psyche beyond broad terms like:
- Ecoanxiety: relates to feelings like stress, grief, panic, and guilt toward climate change; persistent and intrusive worries about the future of the Earth
In response to characterizations of the Anthropocene, Albrecht also suggested a new term for our inevitable sustainable future: the Symbiocene.
Why do I say a sustainable future is inevitable? The current state of human activity is unsustainable. Unsustainable here doesn’t just mean it’s dirty or undesirable. The modern systems of food production, water extraction, and energy production are incapable of continuing on indefinitely in their current forms. Already, communities around the globe are facing catastrophic consequences and there is no evidence of them subsiding in any near future. Various environmental issues are projected to continue impacting more people, shutter global supply chains, and catastrophically alter Earth systems. A small percentage of the population has been allowed to overextract from the Earth, hoard resources, and control decision-making while the majority face the consequences. This control has enabled pollution, exploitation, inequality, and racial injustice.
If humans are to survive through 2-3° C of warming and beyond, we’ll need to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts. Part of this process will be changing the structure of our systems to be in balance with ecological ones. There will be no other choice and the systems that emerge in the process will be capable of achieving something every other species on Earth is capable of. We will one day live differently and in balance.
Into The Anthropocene…
The Anthropocene has been plagued with human supremacist language that’s failing to illustrate the ecological issues around colonization, slavery, and imperialism. The ecocide and human suffering born from it has commonly been hailed as economic development. Emissions have risen exponentially as a result. We can compare when emissions have risen the most with points of capitalist expansion around the globe. Exploitative industries that were formed and crafted during industrialization have shown that hypercapitalism is the problem. The communities most vulnerable to this so-called development are often exploited the most and suffering the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
The dominant cultures in the Global North that have streamlined overconsumption are a primary issue in our society today. It’s the reason that we have entered the Anthropocene. Many countries in the Global South have resources systemically stolen from their lands and this has become a way of life in the Anthropocene. It was found that the Global North drains 10 trillion USD in net resource exchange annually. These figures help identify key issues of how capitalism operates primarily to the benefit of wealthy companies based in the Global North. The resulting waste and environmental destruction is disproportionately harming the communities and countries being exploited.
We’ve already seen that right-leaning political groups will use the same human supremacist frameworks that enable this extraction and blame immigrants of color. This is easier than addressing complex social issues and systemic failures. These ideologies are a continuation of the racist beliefs that enabled planetary-scale disaster. In 2019, an individual that followed eco fascist principles murdered Mexican shoppers at Walmart, enraged that the environment was getting worse and convinced that migrants were the ones making it worse. This type of anti-immigrant rhetoric hasn’t been exclusive to the United States. Many white supremacists worldwide have adopted these principles and viewpoints towards migrants. The cultural mindset of human supremacy is dangerous. The connections between the Anthropocene and colonial mindsets rooted in white supremacy must be made clear.
This extractive way of thinking, and the resulting systems and way of life, is incapable of being sustained indefinitely. Whether it’s because peak oil is reached, biodiversity and habitat loss cost our planet a livable biosphere, or the social connections of our society erode lending to further failure of resource flows, the globalized and extractive systems we observe today will fail on their own accord (and already are).
What might emerge after? How can this inform our work in the climate movement today?
We can find a unique answer to this question from Albrecht in his coining of the term Symbiocene. It’s derived from ‘symbiosis’ which is derived from the Greek sumbiosis (companionship), sumbion (to live together), sumbios (living together), bios (life) and cene (period). Put simply, it’s an era of interconnectedness and companionship, where life on Earth is once again in a balanced coexistence with humans. This will involve changes to how food is grown, how groundwater is used, how business is conducted, and more, as we redefine what it means to be human.
This is more than a novel approach. Language in the climate movement is continuously evolving in response to information and developing crises. Ideas like “sustainability” and “sustainable development” are being challenged by or replaced with calls for “regeneration” and “degrowth”. For example, sustaining our current system may seem like a noble and ecological goal, but for many that means sustaining the ongoing harm and extraction we observe in the world today. The creation of the term Anthropocene is an example of a cultural meme. Having terms like Symbiocene, and resulting groups like Generation Symbiocene that champion them, presents people with a new ecologically-based cultural vision to head toward, rather than being adopted and converted to the current status quo as has happened with sustainability, net-zero, and sustainable development.
What does this mean for us?
There is much that has to change to achieve social tipping points and systems change that will make a symbiotic society a reality at scale. These changes are happening in small pockets around the world, but will not occur in time to prevent the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Frontline communities know this well. Our Symbiocene may be characterized by local systems, economic equality, racial justice, wellbeing economies, regenerative agricultural practices, community organizing, a renewed sense of responsibility toward our environments, and much more.
I believe we’re heading toward major cultural shifts. As conditions worsen, more solutions will be enacted. People will not simply roll over and the day to day normalcy built on the destruction of the world will not be maintained with the same glossy-eyed coolness. People will have to respond to immediate threats and realities, which will engage more people and shift mindsets.
As people become increasingly aware of climate issues (whether through lived and vicarious experience, increases in climate education, or the creation of symbiotic and regenerative systems), there will be a heightened emotional response. More people will anticipate and embody the changes needed on a larger scale, creating a positive force. We’re already witnessing this. There’s a risk of despair and climate doomism, but also a reality that this emotional catalyst leads to personal change and responsibility. It’s likely that more guides running practices like Climate Cafes to help people talk about their responses to environmental changes without judgment will step up. These types of grassroots models are rooted in anti-capitalism and connected towards the community, rather than most mental health services which are individualized and expensive.
The Symbiocene is already being created by people that share a deep love and affinity for the Earth (aka, biophilia). Our work now is helping to invite people to this heartspace through culture, creation, and invention.
The deep roots of the Anthropocene cannot be understated.
If you’ve been following me awhile, you might remember my Climate Emotions Scale which I created after discovering Albrecht’s work. Recently, I began a new event series with my friend Kalpana Arias from Nowadays On Earth and named it Symbiocene (We hosted in London, New York, and hopefully Los Angeles. TBD!). I received these comments on Instagram from Glenn and (I assume) his friend following the event.
Glenn never reached out to me directly. There was no excitement and love about how younger generations are building on the foundations laid by our elders. This was an attempt to call me out and I’m tired. I’ve paid tribute to Glenn and his work since releasing the Climate Emotions Scale in 2020. I’ve never claimed ownership. I direct more people to him and his work. I paid tribute to his work before, during, and after the event. I’ve helped uplift his work on numerous occasions, including crediting him in our Symbiocene event.
This is another reality of the Anthropocene, the behaviors that define it, and life as young activists of color working in the climate movement. White academic scholars can make words and say they want their words to be used, revealed or available, but actions like these reveal the present lack of symbiosis in our movements stemming from capitalism, individualism, and elitism. To me, this is about how bringing transformative principles into the emergence of arts is an intergenerational effort. In fact, using this term in new ways helps further popularize his work creating networks of collaboration. I bring this up so this story might remind others that assumptions and disconnect will bring us further away from justice, not closer.
As someone working to uplift Albrecht’s work and creation (and live by the principles) I felt a flurry of confused emotions, as I admire and respect his work and what it represents. I’m making this post to make it clear that I support intergenerational dialogue, knowledge sharing, and Albrecht’s contributions, while hoping to also illuminate the challenges young people of color and activists face and help us all collectively do better. White supremacy will not go away overnight. Neither will academic elitism. However, the Symbiocene is not going to be defined by individualism: it will be collectively realized, especially by budding younger generations even beyond myself. We must begin realizing this future now to save what we can.