Fighting the extinction of positive earth emotions

Part 1 of a 2 part interview with environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht

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Up this week we’ve got the first edition of a two part interview with Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. He is the author of the 2019 book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, and inventor of dozens of names for concepts that more aptly describe our relationship with a changing earth, than what the English language provides. Glenn Albrecht is most well known for his concept of ‘solastalgia’, but as you’ll see with this interview, there are many other vital Albrechtian terms for us all to contend with. Our conversation below has been edited for brevity. The second edition of my interview with Glenn will be released here next week.

My well worn copy of Earth Emotions

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BW: Your work has been very influential on my own, particularly this encompassing concept that you use of 'psychoterratic emotions' -- the kinds of emotions that are related to perceived or felt states of the earth, which can be positive or negative. Now you're best known for your neologism 'solastalgia', and that means the homesickness you have when you're still at home, when the environment there has changed so much that it no longer offers you the comfort or the solace that it used to. You came up with that word roughly 17 years ago now. So it's really nothing new and yet it still guides a lot of the public conversations about your work because its relevance to the world is only ramping up now. Yet in your book you discuss a panoply of other terms that you've come up with to describe our complex emotional relationship with a changing earth, such as 'terrafurie', 'global dread', 'ghedeist', and many more. Which of these additional terms do you wish the public paid more attention to, perhaps even out-competing solastalgia? Which ones do you think are particularly crucial for us to grasp now and what do they mean?

GA: All of the positive ones. I've actually had to create a new term, which I call 'meuacide', which is the extinction of our emotions. The extinction of our positive emotions is occurring at a rate that really disturbs me.

The positive emotions are present all the time. Otherwise, we wouldn't be able to experience solastalgia, or the dreads, the anxieties, and all the other things that I write about. So it's this core concept of the 'Symbiocene' which drives the possibility of our positive earth emotions, ones that are connecting us to the rest of life and an appreciation of nature in its totality. Those positive earth emotions, I see as only possible in a future Symbiocene, or as close to it as we can possibly get. Whereas if we keep going on the track we are now on we will lose our positive earth emotions, as the earth is slowly desolated, or even rapidly desolated under worst case scenarios. And then we're left with what I call the 'terraphthorans' or Earth destroyers — those that have only destructive impulses and emotions. They of course, will not only destroy themselves, but destroy the world that they live in. They're on a path to extinction as well.

So the only hope that I have is that the positive earth emotions within us will be able to be nurtured, strengthened, identified. I even argue in the book that we've not had to define them or even paid much attention to them because they were freely available to us. We never even had to think twice about enjoying a walk in the park or a stroll along the beach. But now it's become a negative psychoterratic experience because there's plastic washing up, there are dead birds covered in oil washing up, the forest has been clear cut for wood chips to burn in power stations. You know the story.

"Aerials of Leard State Forest and surrounds." by leardstateforest is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (a coal mine in Australia, not unlike the coal mine that inspired some of Albrecht’s work on solastalgia).

BW: Oh, for sure. And you mentioned 'Symbiocene' there. Could you break that concept down?

GA: It's a term I've created in opposition to the Anthropocene, which is well understood to be the period of the domination of humans over the rest of nature. That relationship of domination is a despotic one. It's one of complete human rule over the rest of life. And we're seeing that that's a very useful explanatory term to describe what's going wrong. And it occurred to me in about 2011 that we needed a meme, a culturally transmissible concept that was either equally or more powerful than that of the Anthropocene. So I came up with the Symbiocene. And Symbiocene means the period of human history where we reintegrate with the rest of life. And that reintegration is, in my understanding, achieved through a symbiotic relationship with other living beings and not an exploitative and destructive one.

So I see symbiosis as a key concept in evolution and as a result, the 'cene' on the end of 'symbio' is simply the next period or era in history. I even argue it can be a geological era, because we will be able to identify the presence of the Symbiocene, when all of the muck and crap of the Anthropocene is covered by some good compost, or what scientists call biofilm. We can begin to see that everything that humans do, has once again become benign, because our evolutionary history is such that we evolved using only the biodegradable, renewable resources of the earth.

BW: And is the term an aspirational one? Or is it something that you see evidence for already in the way that we're living today?

GA: There's some evidence for it, not a lot. But I'd say it is something we don't have any choice in. We either go extinct, or we live in the Symbiocene.

BW: Sure, sure. Let's talk about some of the negative eco emotions for a moment. I'm particularly interested in 'global dread', which you describe as a serious existential condition focused on extreme anxiety about the future where those suffering from it picture a hugely negative dystopia unfolding before them. I have definitely dipped my toe in that condition from time to time, but what I haven't done is what you describe as a reasonable accompaniment to expect to see alongside it. Which is this escape into a kind of euphoria, whether that's through drugs or rampant promiscuity or other kinds of hedonistic preoccupations. And this kind of ecstatic nihilism is often raised by critics as a possible negative outcome of focusing too much on the worst outcomes. You know, the idea being that we'll just party ourselves to our graves, and in doing so give up on our commitments to make the world a better place. So I'm curious, have you actually seen any signs of people coping with feelings of global dread this way? Or does it remain more of a hypothetical possibility?

GA: I think it's more of a hypothetical possibility. Although it's probably deeply ingrained within me when I'm thinking about whether I should have one more glass of red wine at night or not. It's that feeling that things are not going well, you know, the state of the world at various moments is so oppressive, that there is a temptation to sink into some kind of euphoria to try and deal with it. Other people may have different ways of dealing with it. I read widely and it was in a book about the war in Serbia, and how people were trying to cope with this horrendous near term future that was about to break over them like a massive tsunami, and this disaster euphoria was an idea that was put forward in that context. And I thought about it in a general way, that yes, I think one way of coping is this tendency towards escapism in various forms. It can be religious, it can be a form of opiate of the people, it can take all sorts of forms. So it's not something that I see is as yet widespread as a response to the pressure that we're under. But we read every day that worldwide rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, escapism in the form of legal and illegal drugs, including alcohol seems to be an epidemic, maybe even a pandemic. And so, that's why years ago, I spoke about the need for a new meme to try and get us away from that form of negativity.

Jonathan Lear, the wonderful American philosopher wrote about radical hope in the face of cultural disintegration. I move in that direction. In my thinking I don't ever, as yet, sit in the corner with my hands over my head rocking back and forth. It's a struggle that everybody has to go through. And my way of getting out of this is to think my way out, and that has required of me the creation of a language that is adequate for that task. I felt that with the right language, we might be able to move more clearly and more decisively towards a future Symbiocene and avoid global dread.

At the moment, this fear, or this anticipation of a future state that is going to be simply almost too awful to imagine, is a temptation that's all too easy. My particular personality is such that I reject going in that direction, and will work as hard as I possibly can to achieve its opposite. And that's precisely the point of the book Earth Emotions and the rest of the work that I do.

There are ways of thinking that are embedded in our language that limit the way that we can think about the future. I remember that Ludwig Wittgenstein, the logician-philosopher, wrote that "the limits of my language are the limits of my world". Well, if we start expanding our language, we expand those former limits, and there is something new for us to consider, something that challenges the closed system that we were in before. The role of language is to actually open our minds to possibilities that were formerly closed to us and to bust out. It's a radical freeing up of our ability to think.

BW: In that sense, do you consider your own work on expanding the English language to include this new vocabulary a form of personal coping?

GA: Well, it is, there's no doubt about it. I felt solastalgia before I knew what it was, sat down, defined it and spelled it. There was a feeling of distress connected to the earth that didn't have a name or concept attached to it in the English language. So I've always been driven by this need to explain what's going on inside me. And as part of coping, I have to understand that if the world of language doesn't provide me with an ability to understand my own emotional state, then well maybe, the problem is not me. It's probably that the language is inadequate. And it's not so much words, it’s concepts. Behind each one of these new words, is in fact, a whole layered analysis that says, here is a reason why we need a new word or a new way of thinking about this relationship we have to other forms of life and what we call nature, with a capital N.

And so it is a form of coping. But what does coping mean? Coping doesn't mean that it's putting a bandaid on something. It means this intellectual wrestle, that you have to try and understand your own situation has some kind of goal or purpose. And for me, intellectual progress means that you understand something better than you did before. And so we've gone from a state of ignorance to a state of hopefully enlightenment, or at least if not enlightenment, a sense of, ah, yes, I understand this now. And the corollary of that is that you can then share that understanding with others and hopefully, then communication takes place.

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With solastalgia that's obviously worked because people have felt it in themselves and then wished to share it with others, and that's empowering. That provides a mechanism of social change. It's actually a political act as well, an act of community, that you are creating it to share it. If we're looking at a negative psychoterratic state, the thing that causes it is what needs to be changed, not you. You don't need therapy, you don't need any other form of coping mechanism, not even an extra glass of really nice red wine. What you need is a political understanding of the cause of your lack of solace.

"File:Glenn Albrecht-Screenhot from Thinkerview.png" by Thinkerview is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

BW: What you describe as ‘soliphilia’ is the other side of the coin to ‘solastalgia’, which you define as “the giving of political commitment to the protection of loved home places at all scales, from the local to the global, from the forces of desolation.” And I'm wondering, how can we practice soliphilia when so much is consistently unraveling around us? How can we both bear the truth of our increasingly intolerable ecological reality and strengthen ourselves so as to never forsake that which can be protected and saved and nourished? Because you know, there is, after all, this crevice that people can fall through. They can despair, and then get hooked on kind of an apocalyptic train of thinking that they almost come to find as attractive in some way, which then prevents them from taking necessary life protecting actions?

GA: Yeah, that worries me a lot. I'm into deep mitigation, which is, in a sense, the antidote to deep adaptation, which is now being expressed in various forms all over the earth. Ranging from mild forms of escapism to preppers who are buying New Zealand and filling their bunkers with what they think they need to survive in the ugly new world. So I understand that that practice is taking place. I occasionally think myself, well, what at my age should I be doing to make life safer for myself? So there is an obvious selfish element in that. It's just simply a form of self preservation. But at the same time, I'm a realist. So I know that no matter how hard I prep, no matter how much money I throw at it, ultimately the problem is going to crash over me. And that's a total waste of time and money.

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With respect to soliphilia, I've noted how community groups when confronted with issues like the expansion of coal mining or other forms of mining, or even things like freeway developments, airport construction, all these things generate community groups and opposition. And I see them as expressions of soliphilia that these people actually oppose the destruction that is implied by "development" and attempting to bring about change at their local or regional level.

The people of Margaret River in the southwest of Western Australia are still fighting coal mining and resort developments and all sorts of things to try and maintain the integrity and beauty of their place. But I also realized that as the world continues to deteriorate, that I needed something bigger. And that's why the Symbiocene was created—to actually provide a future-oriented state towards which we can begin to move, rather than just simply fighting things at local and regional levels every time something crops up. So a combination of soliphilia and the Symbiocene, I think, will hopefully be more powerful than soliphilia by itself.

The Extinction Rebellion, in some parts of the world, is a good example of soliphilia in action. These people who are trying to defend their part of the earth, giving political expression to something which in the past has just been polite letters to the editor or or a petition to your local politician. They're actually super gluing themselves to the infrastructure of society, just to say, well look, we're not going to accept the outcome of your political indecision or your political support for global dread any longer. We're going to oppose it. In both the United States and Canada, I'm seeing the emergence of soliphilia in action in opposition to gas fracking, oil pipelines, even clear cutting forests for wood pellets to burn to produce electricity.

The other reason why I created it is that solidarity as a concept is perfectly alright, and I'm happy with it. But because it's so closely identified with the left in politics, I decided we needed an apolitical concept that everyone could use comfortably. So I thought we needed a space that depoliticized communitarian belief systems.

BW: That makes sense. Now, my newsletter is called Gen Dread, because it seems to me like an apt description for how many young people are feeling about their ecological futures. And I primarily want people to feel seen, because it can be a very alienating experience to deal with this distress. But the name, of course, is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I firmly believe that there are lots of empowering emotions that one can come away with after going way down into their hopelessness and coming out the other side, with more flexible forms of courage and hope and resolve. You write about Gen S -"Gen Symbiocene" - which is basically the antidote to what we might assume Gen Dread means. So tell me a bit about that.

GA: The soliphilia that I was talking about before, is something that I see emerging across generations. So this idea that there are people across generations who will collaborate to try and bring about an end to the Anthropocene is something that is part of the meme that I'm trying to create, which is that, unless we have a goal towards which we wish to move, it becomes very difficult to imagine anything other than just opposition. Well, opposition by itself, is fairly difficult to maintain for very long. So the idea of Gen S, is to provide a focus around which the idea of the Symbiocene can be promoted, and discussed, celebrated, enjoyed by all generations, but particularly young people. I mean, they're the ones that are inheriting the earth. The best that baby boomers like me can do is just get out of the way, but you know, try and help the transition as they go.

I was particularly concerned about the younger generations, for example, Greta Thunberg's generation. And their job is to mobilize and organize around the Gen S concept, so that what they do makes sense to them, has a future, and a destination towards which they're making intellectual and practical progress.

Having spent 300 years disconnecting from the rest of life, I'm fully aware, it's going to take a little bit longer than next week to reconnect. But that's the point and purpose of the Symbiocene. It’s to say, well, this is the goal of the destination. And it's your job now to use your intelligence and creativity to achieve it. It's a never ending task. It's going to keep everyone busy. There's no unemployment. And it's not something which is gender specific, and nor is it connected to our past colonial forms of oppression. It's open to everyone.

BW: Well, I think the description of the monumental never ending task that we have before us, is a good place to wrap this up. It was really good to meet you and to discuss all of this. Thank you.


If you enjoyed this first part of my two-part interview with Glenn Albrecht, make sure to come back next week for the final edition. Sneak preview: we’ll get schooled by Albrecht on why the concept of resilience can be perverse, why sticking ‘eco’ in front of every environmental emotion (i.e. “eco-anxiety”) is wrong, and why mobilizing the concept of grief in the context of climate and environmental change is a blatant misuse of the English language, among other things. Let the debate between practitioners, scholars and activists in this space begin! :)


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xo BW