“We’ve followed the science” parrots a politician from a daily press conference podium. Defending themselves against charges of inaction or incompetence, the same politician responds in a monotone voice, from a pre-scripted reply that “we’re straining every sinew”.
Words are important, but what is crucial is what they really mean – what is behind them. We have taken words for granted, abused their use, and in many cases, they have become meaningless, yet we have a growing number of feelings, or circumstances connected with our relationship with the world around us for which it is difficult to find words which do them justice.
“Earth Emotions” by eco-philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht steps up to meet the need to better express the evolving relationships between our sense of place, our emotions and our wider biophysical health. His work first twitched my antennae when I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland”. He had been discussing the work of radical biologist Lynn Margulis who looks at how human beings are not a species apart (however superior a being we might think we are), but are what she calls ‘holobionts’, who, as Albrecht describes, are collaborative compound organisms, ecological units “consisting of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that coordinate the task of living together and sharing a common life.”
Part of Macfarlane’s book which most captivated me was where he looks at language, and the challenge to get beyond the literal – for example, the ‘language of plants’, rather than just the language that is used to speak ‘of plants’. He shines a light on Potawatomi; a Native American language in which not only humans, animals and plants are alive, but most objects we consider inanimate – like mountains, boulders, winds and fire too. Seven in ten words are verbs, compared to three in ten in standard English. Since most things are animate, it shapes the way that the people not only relate to each other, but to the world around them.
At this point, Macfarlane introduces us to two words that Albrecht has developed in the book “Earth Emotions”.
The first is “Symbiocene” – the name Albrecht wishes to rechristen and remould the current geological and climactic epoch – the “Anthropocene” – which has seen human activity have such a dominant, overwhelming, and almost certainly scarring impact on our planet, and prospects for future survival.
‘Symbiocene’ is characterised in terms of social organisation ‘by human intelligence that replicates the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems…. such as the wood wide web.’
That being said, many mainstream scientists don’t even yet accept that we have entered the ‘Anthropocene’, preferring instead to rely on the previous classification of ‘Holocene’, negating the overwhelming, exponentially increasing impact of human endeavour on the planet’s finite resources and life support systems.
The second is ‘solastalgia’, a term coined by by Albrecht to mean a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’ – a distinctive kind of unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control, so a very specific kind of homesickness. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, solastalgia tends to be irreversible.
I have regularly felt that ‘howl’ deep inside, so to discover there was someone who had been doing wider work on explaining and articulating it, yet not receiving much mainstream attention meant it was definitely a book that was to go on the top of my ‘to read’ list. I’ve long described such feelings in an almost physical sense – almost like I’m subject to a long-standing, low-level dose of electrical current – no ‘shock’, just mild ‘unease’. The emotional resonance of his work was strong, and I wanted to discover more about it – both his method, and his thinking.
The book did not disappoint. Each word or term it added to our lexicon did more than add a label – it unravelled more understanding and scope for reflection about our relationship with where we live on so many levels, and as a result, how things just might be done differently.
The most obvious, and strongest interest is in the lexicon itself, and how it interacts with my own pre-existing interest in issues to do with ‘place’ (a bastardised word if ever there was one in modern public policy-making); ‘the particular’ (the detail, the unique, the small things which seem to disappear each day with ever increasing homogeneity demanded by the dominant economic model); as well as with the environment more generally, and with local history, and how all manner of public policy splices through all of these at various levels. The book helpfully provides a glossary of all the ‘psychoterratic’ terms at the back of the book, for ease of cross-reference. ‘Psychoterratic’ is a term coined by Albrecht relating to states of our positive and negative wellbeing linked directly to the Earth and the environment.
But of more of a surprise was his device towards the beginning of the book – his ‘sumbiography’. What initially sounds like nothing more than a linear piece of life story becomes a fantastic tool to unlock the various threads of identity from the people and places which go to make the cumulative influences in Albrecht’s transition from childhood to adult life, and help to explain his emotional story – his values, attitudes, and how he interacts with people, places and the planet today. It begins in the South West of Western Australia for the first two decades of his life, before switching to Newcastle in New South Wales, and in particular, the Hunter Valley. It helps define and give meaning to those relationships, and his ability to ‘feel’. By unpacking all of that at first hand in an almost autoethnographic fashion, it helps with his wider ‘psychoterratic’ mission.
For me, it validates such an approach to understanding my own responses to place, and my own lived environment, with a particular focus in my own case on not only my experiences, but those of my parents, my grandparents and their ancestors, who have lived in this same corner of Hampshire for centuries. It has helped reinforce to me why social, economic, political, cultural and historical factors are important in this respect, but now better understanding that they are informed by environment and nature at their heart.
I did move away for almost 30 years, but I have returned to live in the very house I grew up in, in the same village my Mum has lived in all her life, and her parents before her – which explains why the heathland on the Common is as important to me as it was to them, and its biodiversity to the identity of our patch. There are two trees at the back of my neighbour’s garden that talk to me – and have done for almost 45 years. When I did move back home, I was desolate to discover the ‘big tree’ that we used to race to at the end of the street had been felled. I still am!
When exploring all the aspects of what goes to make up a ‘place’, as with the fragment pieces of a family tree it can become more difficult to discern with each year if you don’t already know the story. With roots still in place, those connections flourish, with nourishment from the back story. With concerted effort over time, even with a dose of ‘place-faking’, there is no mistaking the ‘retro-fitting’, and the homogeneity is overwhelming, as they grow from the same ‘research’ and central investment, rather than an expression of the particular local biodiversity.
It feels churlish to cut to the chase, but the book is at its strongest as it pulls together these new words in a ‘glossary of psychoterratic terms’, as well as highlighting a couple of others which might be useful in this endeavour, so here goes:-
Endemophilia: Created by Albrecht, and central to his love of place. It covers the “particular love of the locally and regionally distinctive in the people of a place.” He argues that “Once a person realizes that the landscape they have before them is not replicated in even a general way elsewhere in the country or on their continent or even in the world, there is ample room for a positive Earth emotion based on rarity and uniqueness. The more of the uniqueness is understood in, for example, Australia, as a unique assemblage of plants, fungi, digging marsupials and soil, the more it can be appreciated.”
Eutierria: Created by Albrecht, that “feeling of total harmony with our place, and the naïve loss of ego (merging subject and ego) we often felt as children, have become rare in this period of what Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder”…I realized that such a state of harmony, especially when connected to the Earth, is another emotion that is strangely missing in the lexicon… I created ‘eutierria’ to rectify this situation, and it is a positive feeling of oneness with the Earth and its life forces, where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated, and a deep sense of peace and contentedness pervades consciousness.” So many snatched moments when we grab this emotion, especially out on walks, for example, along a beach, or listening to birdsong.
Mermosity: Created by Albrecht, “an anticipatory state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar, and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably in one’s sense of place.” How do we possibly process the overwhelming information about climate change, and how it will impact on the places we know? The answer is that many of us will choose to mourn.
Meteoranxiety: Created by Albrecht, this term is one that was particularly apposite prior to the pandemic, and it will continue to be so. It is “the anxiety that is felt in the face of the threat of the frequency and severity of extreme weather events”, which for the most part, are due to climate change.
Solastalgia: Created by Albrecht, this word is arguably the main event of the book. “The pain or distress caused by the loss or lack or solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory. It is the lived experience of negative environmental change. It is the homesickness you have when you are still at home.” Spot on!
Sumbiocentric: “Taking into account the centrality of the process of symbiosis in all of our deliberations on human affairs”. An ethical position, taking to maximising, and maintaining those symbiotic bonds. As a result, this will have to lead to a ‘Sumbiocracy’ – new forms of mutually beneficial government. It’s why I’m such a fan of sortation in public policy-making.
Sumbiophilia: The love of living together. I would argue that our enforced isolation with pandemic has actually helped us identify that for ourselves, and celebrate how we can achieve it, despite being physically apart.
Terrafuric: Coined by Albrecht, “the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society and feel they must protest and act to change its direction.” Particularly in evidence in the year running up to the run-up to the onset of the pandemic with people like Greta Thunberg and movements like Extinction Rebellion – and not set to evaporate anytime soon.
Terranascia: Earth creating forces, as coined by Albrecht.
Terraphthora: Earth destroying forces, as coined by Albrecht.
Topoaversion: “The feeling that you do not wish to return to a place that you once loved and enjoyed when you know that it has been irrevocably changed for the worse.”
Topophobic: “Fear of entering a biophysical place” which might explain a lot of contemporary behaviour, especially when linked with a systematic fear of ecosystems and life as subsequent generations separate from nature and life (expressed as Ecophobia and Biophobia).
Biophilia: an older term, first deployed by Eric Fromm in 1964, to mean a love of life, and a reverence for everything in humanity that enhances life and growth in nature, establishing it as an ethical good. It was developed by Edward O. Wilson in 1984 to firmly root it as a ‘deep conservation ethic’. The benefit of biophilic experiences, it is argued, is that they can also increase health and well-being. It is also suggested that we have a genetic connection to the natural world built up through generations.
Topophilia: an older term, first used by W. H. Auden in 1948 in the introduction to a book of John Betjeman poetry. It means a love of peculiar places, so it is about a strong sense of place, but infused with cultural and historical identity. There is no escaping however an association with the unique biosphere and environment of a local area which are usually responsible for creating the rhythms which have contributed to creating those identities.
This book is fantastic for helping to articulate how we might be feeling. Personally, I feel it is less strong in helping to advance practical strategies for reaching that better world – it has to be read in tandem with other work on seeking to understand power and economics. It does touch on wider concepts associated with ‘Gaia’ Theory as formulated by James Lovelock and co-developed by Lynn Margulis in the 1970s (viewing the world and all the organisms in it as a single, self-regulating complex system); and more broadly, more diverse yearnings for some kind of secular spirituality, which might help bring about the symbiotic, more collaborative state of play Albrecht outlines.
However, I’m not so convinced when it touches on other political or activist strategies for change which at times seemed to give a green light for ‘ends justifying the means’, when the whole ethos of the symbiocene should surely be to ‘do as you would be done by’, and live and breathe the life it advocates. Maybe I’m just become too much of a hippy, or betraying that I’m someone who once flirted with the Quakers, but I don’t want to take on the personality of those that I’m ‘taking on’, especially when it comes to use of ‘masculine muscle’. Sumbiocracy should be as much a journey as a destination. Imaginative tactics which seek to ‘trip up’ or embarrass those entrenched powers ranged against the symbiotic ethic are one thing – and Extinction Rebellion is an example of the dance moves which can be executed in this respect, but anything more brutish is ultimately futile.
In terms of helping us better use language to understand how we feel about, and explore and explain our relationship with our planet and the places we live in and shape, and to equip us to make better connections, Glenn A. Albrecht’s book “Earth Emotions” has been a revelation. What we choose to do with the insights on a personal, on a community, and on a global level is another matter.
More on “Earth Emotions” in this “Ecologist” article.