Democracy is, by definition, anthropocentric, and capable only of partial answers to human-biased questions concerning the body politic. That human bias is now revealed as its greatest weakness as the multiple crises enveloping the planet require global answers that must incorporate non-human life in all of its forms.
In addition to that fundamental flaw, democracy, in the contemporary context, has been affected by a form of corruption I call ‘corrumpalism’ (from the Latin corrumpere, to destroy). I define corrumpalism as the ability to systematically corrupt and destroy the integrity of a social system and its biophysical foundations (Albrecht, 2015).
The body politic has transformed what is supposed to be self-rule by the people (demos) into rule by corporate elites. The ‘revolving door’ between corporate advisers, legislation and policy formulators, and elected politicians has become normalized. Political parties are now ‘captured’ by corporate donors such that the revolving door has a guaranteed future. In addition, genuine corruption of due process occurs via bribery and intimidation in many parts of the world where supposedly democratically elected authoritarian regimes allow only their form of ‘order’ to prevail.
Democracy that has been corrumpalized in the ways outlined above works to ensure outcomes that support only extreme and despotic versions of the Anthropocene. Clearly, a new form of decision-making will be needed to replace the ecocidal revolving door.
In order to avoid death by anthropocentrism, I have suggested that sumbiocentric thinking (taking into account the centrality of the process of symbiosis in all of our deliberations on human affairs) must produce a novel form of political decision-making. We now have a very sophisticated understanding of how the natural world works and, as it was here and functioning before humans evolved as Homo sapiens, it is we that must fit in with its process and functioning.
As currently understood, life on Earth has evolved in two ways. Firstly, with Darwinian evolution by natural selection for fitness in a given environment; and secondly, with Margulisian evolution by the process of symbiogenesis (Margulis, 1991) for mutualism between species to share a common interest. It is this latter process that has revolutionized our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to other species in the last 50 years.
Sumbiocentric epistemology acknowledges that humans, like other species, are holobionts or multiple species co-existing within one body and collaborating for a common interest: life. In addition, sumbiocentric thinking must also acknowledge the existence of the vital role the microscopic world plays in the workings of all life. The emergent understanding of human gut microbiomes, for example, has revealed that humans are holobionts who share a common life with trillions of other micro-organisms in the same time-space. In turn, humans and their microbiomes exist within meso-biomes (ecosystems) and macro-biomes (continents and islands).
The core message of the concept of the Symbiocene is that life is inter-connected and that the idea of autonomous individuals is mistaken. Life is a collective enterprise requiring collective and non-hierarchical forms of governance.
The creation of a system of governance that reflects the way life works will be a major task in the transition away from Anthropocentrism. This system will incorporate the very best of past ideas of a more inclusive form of governance including, for example, the ideas of deliberative democracy, green politics, and Deep Ecology. From these beginnings, I hope to see the emergence of what I call ‘sumbiocracy’ .
Sumbiocracy (from the Greek sumbiosis, from sumbioun, to live together, from sumbios, living together) is a form of government where humans govern themselves with respect for all the reciprocal relationships of the Earth at all scales from local to global. Organic form (all biodiversity including humans) and organic process (from microbiomes to Gaia) are present in this new form of government. Sumbiocracy is rule for the Earth by the Earth, so that all living beings might live together.
Sumbiocracy requires those who govern humans to have a thorough understanding of total ecosystems and the mutually beneficial or benign symbiotic interrelationships that enable them to function. The basic idea here is that if the processes that nurture ecosystems and biomes are identified, protected, and conserved, species within such healthy ecosystems will also flourish. As that foundation flourishes, the larger system will also grow and remain healthy. Gaia, or the totality of life at a global scale, will be the outcome of all this interaction, but not, in my view, its instigator. Gaia has no agency; micro-organisms do.
If, for example, an aspect of human development is known to have a long-term toxic impact on a basic life process such as metabolism, then it simply cannot be permitted to take place; or if it is already being undertaken, it must be urgently phased out of existence (e.g., as have been lead in petrol, chlorofluorocarbons in refrigeration, asbestos in building supplies, phalates in toy plastic).
The success in phasing out single-use plastic in many countries should give us hope that the removal of further toxins and harms to all life should not be difficult. After all, who actually wants substances harmful to life and Earth systems in the food chain, the water, or the atmosphere?
In Earth Emotions, I have argued that new symbiotically inspired industries and technologies will drive a form of life-affirming economic growth in the Symbiocene. As the GNP goes down, the GSP or the indicators of ‘gross sumbioregional product’ start going up. Cancerous growth is replaced by normal growth, that is, growth that assists the continuity of life within the envelope of Gaia. The Symbiocene represents a form of green thinking that is anti-growth in all contexts that fail to respect symbiosis, but pro-growth of new types of enterprise that do.
Governance by scientifically and traditionally informed humans (including citizen science) at all places and all scales must determine the interconnections between elements of complex systems before they commit to action that impacts system health. While tempting in a period of crisis, exclusive governance only by scientifically informed ‘sumbiocrats’ is not in the interest of achieving the Symbiocene. Science, traditional knowledge, and the ‘wisdom of the learners’ (all ages) are all needed for good governance in the Symbiocene.
We must remember that place is critical to effective sumbiocracy, as only those with close and intimate ties to particular places are in a position to best know their place and to make decisions about its health and vitality. Sumbiocracy must reflect the way life works, from the small to the large or, as it was once known, from ‘the grass roots’ up. We now know that attached to the roots are fungal mycorrhiza and within them bacteria and viruses that help or hinder plant growth. Hence, sumbiocracy must occur from ‘the microbiome up’.
Trans-terroir issues can be addressed by regional forums and a global structure similar to the current United Nations. However, rather than economics dominating the agenda, economics, like all other human domains, will take its lead from the structure and function of symbiotic systems.
Draft of material from:
Albrecht, G.A. (2020) Negating Solastalgia: An Emotional Revolution from the Anthropocene to the Symbiocene. American Imago, Vol. 77, No. 1, 9–30. © 2020 by Johns Hopkins University Press. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/753059