Update: 6 July 2019 This article has been accepted to the US MindingNature online journal for their Fall 2019 edition. Many thanks to Jeremy Ohmes of the US Center for Humans and Nature who contacted me just when I had published this article. He advised I try submitting it to their journal!
Update: Sun 2 June 2019
I have been invited to present this paper again at the Trinity College Dublin ‘Art in the Anthropocene‘ 3-day International Conference’, on 7th June, and also I’m part of an accompanying exhibition to the conference. See details here.
Last Thursday (14 June 2019), I was delighted to be invited by Dr. Nessa Cronin, Irish Studies, National University of Galway and Professors Karen Till and Gerry Kearns, Maynooth University, Ireland to speak for the Art & Geography: Art, Activism and Social Engagement in the Age of the Capitalocene panel at the 7th EUGeo Congress in Galway. 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.
The recording, article and slides I presented are below:
Anthropocene – Hello Symbiocene 🙂
eco-social art practices for a new world
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, young 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.”
This paper 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 project. 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 culture. The 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 (Jensen 2004).
Today human activities effect 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.
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 communicators and one video from 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 3 minute ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ video I initially admired the Earthrise-type imagery. The useful overlayed 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
For the developing story of the Anthropocene, I more identify with Jensen’s (2013) 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 (2013) and the late Native American writer Jack D Forbes’ (1978) 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.
Others have offered alternatives to the Anthropocene, Jason Moore (2016) offers the Capitalocene which identifies unrestrained capital accumulation as the main culprit of the recent Great Acceleration of destruction. Donna Harraway (2015) argues the Capitalocene is useful, and she also introduces the related term Plantationocene. Coined in 2014, the Plantationocene resonated 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 supports 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 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 ecopsychologists 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 published this month Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (2019).
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 (2019) writes, ‘symbiosis has now emerged as a primary determinant of the conditions of life’. Supporting this argument, Professor of forest ecology, Suzanne Simard has particularly promoted and popularised advances in symbiotic science through her public TED talks on ‘Mother Trees’ (2011) 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’ (see her TED talk, 2018). Simard’s and others’ symbiotic science is fundamentally overturning the story of evolution as competition toward a radical understanding that life exists from cooperation between all species.
Professor of Forest Ecology, Suzanne Simard’s viral video ‘Mother Trees’ (2011)
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 (2019) 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.
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 clearfelled 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 (2012) and then successfully lobbying support for the late Polly Higgin’s ecocide law (2013).
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’.
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 support of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. In her co-designed, resilience project, Co-Des-Res, she has establised a multidisciplinary ecology and art team that is building localised ecoliteracy for and with the community who live in the Iveragh Penisula, Co. Kerry (see the newsletters on this site to gain an overview of all the community engagement). At the moment Anita 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 (2019) 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 need 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.’ (Albrecht, 2019)
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 non-linear 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, spritual, 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 Earth New Story summit in 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 emphasied that the World desperately need ‘a new story’ that conveys an ecological worldview. To me, the Symbiocene is the New Story.
The Slideshow for the talk above, that I presented at the EUGeo 2019 congress is below:
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ALBRECHT, Glenn (2019) Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World. New York, Cornell University Press. Kindle edition.
ALBRECHT, Glenn (2016) ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’. Minding Nature, 9 (2), 12-16. https://www.humansandnature.org/exiting-the-anthropocene-and-entering-the-symbiocene
BENDELL, JEM (2018) Deep Adaptation:A Map for NavigatingClimateTragedyIFLAS Occasional Paper 2. https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
BERRY, THOMAS (1978). ‘The New Story’, Teilhard Studies 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
DEAN MOORE, Kathleen (2014) ‘Questions for a Resilient Future’. What does the Earth Ask of Us Series: US Centre for Humans and Nature. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6fMiCm-4dU [Accessed 11 November, 2014].
DEAN MOORE, Kathleen (2013) ‘If Your House Is On Fire’ https://youtu.be/6IRbqKY0crY
DEAN MOORE, Kathleen (2018) ‘What role can imagination play in our efforts to achieve a sustainable world?’ BiFrost video https://youtu.be/VgTxD0mQ9GM
DERBER, Charles (2013) Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Forbes, Jack D (1978) Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press; Revised edition (November 4, 2008). See also http://artforclimatechange.org/geo-engineering-is-wetikoism-at-its-worst/?fbclid=IwAR3fuDc6XllWxuOoCXYO_7a2vjOS2dDlQuKB3X3nDIa9jGGaN-0ypgvI-GM
HARRAWAY, Donna (2015) ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’. Environmental Humanities, Vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.
IPCC (2018) 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.)].
JENSEN, Derrick (2016) The Myth of Human Supremacy. New York: Seven Stories Press.
JENSEN, Derrick (2013) ‘Age of the Sociopath‘. Spring. Earth Island Institute.
MOORE, Jason (ed.) (2016) Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.
THUNBERG, Greta (2019) ‘”Our house is on fire”: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate’, The Guardian, 25 January, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate