Welcome back! Sorry for the hiatus. I just got back from a wonderful spring break and I hope anyone reading this also enjoyed their week. Even two national parks, 25+ miles of hiking, and 48 hours of road tripping isn’t quite enough to keep my mind entirely from what this blog is about, however. Still — so often it was totally and completely entrancing:
However, in my free time, when my breath wasn’t being taken away by the view (or the 10,000+ feet of elevation we climbed over the course of the week), there was plenty to think about when it came to solastalgia.
For example, during our journey, we drove along the Colorado River for a stretch in eastern Utah, and also, many miles to the south, past Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border. They call the Colorado the American Nile sometimes, as it is huge and mighty and cuts through a climate otherwise-uninhabitable by dense human populations. Accordingly, it’s also one of the most over-exploited rivers in the world. In recent years, the Colorado River has rarely even reached its delta — which should empty into the Gulf of California, but now rarely does.
Peter McBride, an award-winning filmmaker from Colorado, made a pretty great short film about this for National Geographic. It’s called “I AM RED”:
The cause of the Colorado’s demise is all the dams that drown sections of its waterway — 15 dams on its main course, irrigating arid Western farms and ferrying water to cities as far away as Los Angeles, with hundreds more dams dotting the mighty river’s tributaries. It is human demand for water (some of which is, frankly, opulent and wasteful) that is making the Colorado River dry up, like this, in the northern Mexico desert:
So, solastalgia is everywhere. At least, everywhere that human actions are degrading the environment — which is a great deal of places, these days.
These days. There is a word for “these days”, actually. It’s the “Anthropocene” geological epoch, a term that saw its first usage by University of Michigan freshwater ecologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980’s, but was first formalized in the May 2000 edition of the “Global Change Newsletter” of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme by Stoermer and Nobel laureate atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry (Germany).
In 2008, the International Commission on Stratigraphy of the London Geological Society agreed on a proposal to consider the Anthropocene, defined by Stoermer and Crutzen, as the current geological epoch.
It’s not difficult to understand the basics of what defines the Anthropocene epoch. The basic idea is that modern human existence on the planet has had a profound and fundamental impact on natural processes, like the circulation of water and air around the globe and the lives of all the organisms that make up the biosphere, and has even created new rocks under our feet. One of my favorite bullet points from the London Geological Society proposal is the article about plastic rocks:
Not all the facts of the Anthropocene Epoch are quite so quirky, however. One of the most significant pieces of evidence for the existence of a new epoch is the mass species extinction that humankind is currently living through — the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. Which means that this topic is Very Serious Stuff Indeed.
If this is the Anthropocene, I would rather not live in it. This is a point on which Glenn Albrecht (philosopher, professor, farmer, and incidentally also the creator of the term “solastalgia”) and I agree. On Dec 17, 2015, he wrote, on his personal blog:
In the Anthropocene, the so-called ‘new normal’, or what I prefer to conceptualise as ‘the new abnormal’, life will be characterised by uncertainty, unpredictability, genuine chaos and relentless change. Earth distress, as manifest in global warming, changing climates, erratic weather, acidifying oceans, disease pandemics, species endangerment and extinction, bioaccumulation of toxins and the overwhelming physical impact of exponentially-expanding human development will have its correlates in human physical and mental distress. I have written about solastalgia or the lived experience of negative environmental change as one emergent form of mental distress (Albrecht 2012a, Albrecht 2012b).
We need to get rid of the foundations of the concept of the Anthropocene before it covers many more decades of history of Earth. If all of the above are the outcome of human dominance of the planet, then I do not wish to be identified with The Anthropocene. I want this period in history to become redundant as soon as possible since, the longer it prevails, the more likely we will suffer catastrophic failure as a species here on Earth. While this would be a tragedy of huge proportion for humans, we will take with us thousands, perhaps millions, of other species as well. Popular literature and film already portray such an apocalyptic turn in human-nature relationships
While we have already tried to build a new and viable society around concepts such as democracy, sustainability, sustainable development and resilience, all these terms have been corrupted by forces determined to incorporate and embed them into the Anthropocene where they become ‘business as usual’. ‘Sustainability’ is inadequate as a concept because it does not specify what is to be sustained and over what time frame it is to be sustained. ‘Sustainable development’, equally, fails to define what it is about development that is to be sustained … except perhaps, development itself (Albrecht 1994). Yet, global-scale development which is diametrically opposed to micro-life and planetary-scale forces puts us on the path to dislocation then extinction.
In order to counter all these negative trends within The Anthropocene we clearly need, within popular politics and culture, visions and memes of a different future. To get the detail into these visions, we will need more novel conceptual development, since the foundation on which we are building right now is seriously flawed and conducive of nothing but great waves of ennui, grief, dread, solastalgia, mourning and melancholia. We must rapidly exit The Anthropocene with its non-sustainability, perverse resilience, authoritarianism and its corrumpalism. The new foundation, built around a new meme, will need to be an act of positive creation.
I argue that the next era in human history should be The Symbiocene (from the Greek sumbiosis, or companionship). The scientific meaning of the word ‘symbiosis’ implies living together for mutual benefit and I wish to use this profoundly important concept as the basis for what I hope will be the next period of Earth history. As a core aspect of ecological and evolutionary thinking, symbiosis and its associated symbiogenesis, affirms the interconnectedness of life and all living things (Scofield and Margulis 2012).
The meaning is clear even if you don’t understand every word. (Albrecht makes skilled use of big words, some scientific and some of his own invention; a favorite of mine is “corrumpalism“, the politico-economic system where elites and corporations “use their power and influence to buy policy and manipulate or minimise regulation”; created from the Latin corrumpere, “to destroy”.)
The meaning is: if we created this geological epoch, we have the capacity to transcend it. And, as our lives depend on it, it is imperative that we do so. Trading in the Anthropocene for the Symbiocene would mean trading in outdated concepts for ones with new vibrancy, applicability, efficiency and truth — even challenging the outdated notions of interspecies competition in a fundamental way. Albrecht writes:
We are now closer to understanding how ecosystem parameters can be guided by key players in the system to maximise benefits for the life-chances of whole species. In essence, there is a form of ‘natural justice’ that prevails. We now know that, for example, health in all forest ecosystems is regulated by what are called “mother trees” that control fungal networks that in turn interconnect trees of varying ages. The control system works to regulate nutrient flows to trees, such as to the very young, that need them most (Simard et al 2015). It also works to transfer information and energy from dying species to those that might continue to thrive, thus maintaining ‘the forest’ (see Fraser 2015). These crucially important insights have yet to be incorporated into ecological thinking applied to politics and human societies.
Suzanne Simard’s work on forest fungal networks that Albrecht cites above is fascinating and well worth a look, especially her short and accessible TED Ed talk.
In short, whenever we look slightly beneath the surface of everyday life, we see the evidence for what Albrecht once called “the age of solastalgia“; heaps and mounds of evidence of how we have mistreated the planet to the detriment of the Earth, our children, and our children’s children. Among other subtle tragedies, one of the North America’s greatest rivers has been landlocked by human greed and overconsumption. If humanity is to continue, this can not.
So, now with a new sense of urgency: What’s next?
A story on the Porter Ranch methane leak in Los Angeles County has been sorely needed for many weeks now, and I have been too slow in finishing it. That project is on deck and should be out shortly, hopefully by the end of the week.
Fracking has also been on my mind recently, perhaps because examples of it lie closer in proximity to my own home in Michigan. If I have digressed too many times lately on the subject, it is because a story is forthcoming. Porter Ranch is on deck and fracking is in the hole. Look for those two stories coming in the next few weeks.
Back to work! Welcome home.