An Invitation to the Symbiocene – By Glenn Albrecht.

The impacts of the Anthropocene, the age of human dominance over the planet, are now headline news. Climate chaos, cascades of extinction, over-exploitation of fisheries and avalanches of toxic pollution are presented to us on a daily basis. These hugely negative changes have gone beyond being ‘inconvenient’, they are now causing cascades of human misery and distress within the landscapes of the Earth and the mind. The urgent need to change direction before it becomes too late is now being actively discussed by humans the planet over.

The period in history known as the Anthropocene has socially evolved over the last 300 years under the influence of a fundamentally flawed set of dominant themes and ideas. Our economic, scientific and technological evolution has taken most of humanity onto a path that reduces the diversity of life, both biological and cultural, into one globalised, homogeneous and interconnected economic and technological system. It is this ecocidal system that is putting life at risk.

To avoid such a fate, a new meme for the future is needed to guide our thinking and provide inspiration to all generations, but especially the young. I suggest that systematic symbiotic thinking leads to the Symbiocene, a new era that nurtures all aspects of being human in a world of other beings.

Emotional Upheaval and Solastalgia

Global-scale negative environmental and climate change are generating seismic global emotional upheaval felt by people in particular locations. I have written in the past that we now live in an ‘age of solastalgia’, or the lived experience of negative environmental change. We have become homesick within our Earthly home.

The Anthropocene is increasingly associated with negative Earth emotions such as solastalgia, eco-anxiety, tierratrauma and ecoparalysis being felt by people in all regions of the world. In order to counter these negative Earth emotions and deep-seated pessimism about the future we need an urgent counter. Humans need a new meme that champions extreme optimism in the face of the ruthless pessimism that churns out of Anthropocene collapsology.


The scientific meaning of the word ‘symbiosis’ implies ‘organisms living together’, most often for mutual benefit. This important word and branch of bioscience has its origins in the Greek sumbios, meaning to “living together”. Symbiosis also implies an overall homeostasis, or balance of interests, since domination of one part or organism over the rest would lead to functional failure.

The biosciences, in the last fifty years, have made hugely important discoveries about how life is united by symbiosis. In fields as diverse as botany and human physiology, knowledge breakthroughs have been made that reinforce the centrality of cooperative symbiosis from micro to macro levels as vital for life.

For example, the work of Suzanne Simard in revealing the ‘wood-wide-web’ and the role of the mother trees of the plant world has gifted a whole new layer of meaning to our understanding of plants. Another arena where research discoveries are almost a weekly occurrence is the human microbiome. We now know that our physical, emotional and mental health is intimately tied to the menagerie of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live within us. We have also become acutely aware that the balance present in our microbiome can be easily disrupted. Covid-19 has brought the role of the microcosmos into the centre stage of our lives.

The implications of this revolution for our thinking about life are profound. Firstly, rather than being seduced by the ‘big’ or gigantic things in life for inspiration, we should be focussing on the smallest. It is time to turn our gaze away from the big tree, big whale, big man views of status and importance in life. Small is not only “beautiful”, it is vital for life.

Another implication of the symbiotic revolution is that our view of the self must be re-evaluated. The idea that humans are autonomous entities having only ‘external’ relationships with other entities or beings has been shown to be mistaken. We are ‘holobionts’ or multiple organisms, all living together, sharing a common life or what I call the biocomunen.

Exiting the Environment and the Anthropocene

We must say goodbye to ‘the environment’ as all it has done is perpetuate the myth of human separation from nature. In life, there is no strict ‘outside’ to which the term the environment refers. All living beings have internal interconnections to other living beings via their microbiomes. We all share in the life present in meso-biomes (ecosystems) and our macrobiome (the Earth). The more we look, the more we discover the symbiotic relationships between species that exist within bodies and between them in intimate associations.

The ideas derived from this understanding of symbiosis have yet to be fully integrated into the diverse domains of human activity. They ought to have already stimulated a new way of thinking that is ‘sumbiocentric’ or thinking that replicates the associative dimensions of life. As opposed to being anthropocentric or human-centred, to be sumbiocentric means that one is taking into account the harmony of life-interests in the total symbioment (formerly known as the environment). Sumbiocentrism is a philosophical position which argues that maintaining diversity and harmony within symbiotically unified complex systems is the highest good.

Embracing the Symbiocene

The term, ‘the Symbiocene’ was created by me in a blog post I wrote in 2011 and I have published on this theme since 2014. The very idea of the despotism of the Anthropocene outraged me and I wanted out of it. In order to imagine a new pathway for an optimistic future, I created the cultural meme of the Symbiocene to form the basis of what I hope will be the next period (cene) in human history.

The Symbiocene will be characterised by sumbiocentric 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. The Symbiocene will be that period in Earth’s history where humans symbiotically reintegrate themselves, emotionally, psychologically and technologically, into nature and natural systems.

Symbiocene Principles

In order to get to that preferred state of living, I suggest that some of the key organizing principles of the Symbiocene must include: the full elimination of toxic-to-life substances; the complete and safe biodegradability of all materials in human use; exploitation of non-polluting forms of safe, renewable energy; priority use of the renewable resources of locality and regions; respect for the biocomunen of all holobionts; and the creation, protection and repair (if necessary) of the symbiotic bonds between species at all scales.

I argue that all of these Symbiocene principles are easy to comprehend and technically feasible within decades. Already, we are seeing the emergence of self-repairing bricks made from fungi and organic waste, clothing made from mushroom leather, electrical energy from bacteria, and coffee grounds recycled into biodegradable coffee cups. Small steps, but the Symbiocene is already emerging, as the imperative of supporting life drives innovation.

As all of the Symbiocene principles are applied, there will appear, on the very youngest soil strata on Earth, a new biofilm that will cover all past pollution. This emergent biofilm will mark the proper geological commencement of the Symbiocene. From that point onwards, as we rapidly build the Symbiocene, that ‘organic’ layer will completely cover the bad way of living or ‘dysbiosis’ of the Anthropocene.

The idea of the Symbiocene stimulates all humans to create a future where positive Earth emotions will prevail over the negative. To have a commitment to action requires hope that the action will lead to good outcomes. The Symbiocene gives all, especially those that I call Generation Symbiocene (Gen S), reason to be committed to a future that unlocks human creative potential and returns humanity to the great Earth project of a shared life.

The Symbiocene offers both personal and structural guidance about a direction towards a sane and viable future. It also offers ‘radical anticipation’, in that we must get to that good end point as soon as possible.

Image Source:
© Photo by Paulius Dragunas on Unsplash
© Portrait by Réda Settar

Glenn Albrecht, symbiocene

Glenn Albrecht

Environmental philosopher and author of the book Earth Emotions.