The limits of my language mean the limits of my world: a new lexicon for a troubled planet.

The scale of the climate crisis leaves us bereft of a language to adequately conceive of it. But can deliberate and provocative thinking around that language offer us tools to cope? A conversation between environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, and writer and science communicator Britt Wray.

Satellite imagery of The Dasht-e Kevir, or Great Salt Desert, the largest desert in Iran. Photo by USGS on Unsplash.
“There are ways of thinking that are embedded in our language that limit the way that we can think about the future…  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.”

When we try to put words to our relationship with a changing Earth, we quickly push up against the limits of language. We test out the mouthfeel of concepts like “climate grief” and “eco-anxiety” but they’re not quite… enough. What are you supposed to achieve by holding up a word like anxiety against an Australia or a California on fire, a Barrier Reef depleted, Pacific islanders without their islands anymore, Great Lakes bereft of fish?

The first time we heard the word “solastalgia”, it hit a little differently. As the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, the man who coined it, defines it, solastalgia is “the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.” It’s the chronic homesickness you feel when when your home is under attack. It’s that feeling in your gut that things are not ever again going to be as they were—you won’t feel that comfort you once felt in that place you know best.

Neologisms don’t need to be perfect. They’re provocations, designed to point you towards gaps in your mental models—the words themselves don’t matter so much as the idea that there’s something that needs to be framed. Words like Anthropocene, for instance, which for better and for worse provoke critical conversations around the consequences of us. If solastalgia pins down a particular form of dread, it also then unlocks the possibility for more hopeful and constructive ways to work with that dread. In his 2019 book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Albrecht sets about that work in detail, framing a broad series of concepts that might allow us to conceive of a better place past here. A place, an epoch even, he calls the Symbiocene, where humanity exists in a genuinely symbiotic relationship with all else on the planet.

The author and broadcaster Britt Wray has also been grappling with the psychological implications of climate change for a good while now, most notably in her excellent weekly Substack Gen Dread, which she calls “a newsletter about staying sane in the climate and wider ecological crisis” (she also has a great TED Talk if you like those!). One of the main reasons we love what Britt’s doing with Gen Dread is that she’s not defeated or overwhelmed—she’s on a systematic quest for tools, coping mechanisms and fellow travellers offering practical modes of hope, or at the least, for means of not losing our marbles.

So, we thought, wouldn’t it be great to listen in on Britt and Glenn in conversation on all of this? Not just on the common ground they have, but their different ideas around the usefulness of concepts like “resilience” and “anticipatory grief”? To our delight, both of them agreed.

This conversation, presented in collaboration with Britt and Gen Dread (you should subscribe!), has been edited for clarity and length.


Glenn: 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 'terraphtora'—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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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 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?

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, how people were trying to cope with this horrendous near term future that was about to break over them like a massive tsunami. This disaster euphoria was an idea that was put forward in that context. 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.

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

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 band aid 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. 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.

Jebel Kissu, in northwestern Sudan. The bright orange trails are truck tracks. Photo by USGS on Unsplash.

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?

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 to 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.

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 supergluing themselves to the infrastructure of society, just to say, 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.

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.

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.

The Valley of the Moon, Jordan. Photo by USGS on Unsplash.

Clearly, you're a big believer in the power of words. How do you think we should be considering language in our quest to positively transform the future into something that is life sustaining? What is the role of terminology in this massive transformational moment that our species is in?

Well, it's a complex question, and there are numerous avenues that I would try to address. One of them is the fact that the earth is now changing, and has been changed by humans to such an extent that the subtitle of the book remains relevant, which is "new words for a new world". So as a result, this new doesn't necessarily mean that it's good. It means that it's transformed in such a way that many of the past ways of thinking, the past language that we use to describe that older world, has either become redundant or it's been lost in the cultures and the languages of this world that have gone extinct. And the major point that I make in the book is that many of those older terms have now been appropriated or misappropriated by the forces of destruction. So, our older terms like sustainability, even the word "the environment" have become meaningless. I've listed a whole pile of words that have become an impediment to change rather than something that offers a pathway to transformation. Included in that is words like ecology, which I now see as becoming entirely meaningless. And in fact, is preventing us from seeing a future Symbiocene.

Why do you find the word ecology meaningless now?

The reason is because it's now being used with an eco in front of just about everything you can think of. Plus the word comes from the Greek oikos which is the root word for economics as well. Eco and economics have the same route. And the definition of oikos is the management of the household. So if you've got in mind that ecology is all about the management of our relationship to the rest of nature, then you're already on the path to industrial capitalism and putting dollar values on nature.

When we use the word, eco (hyphen) something, what does it actually refer to? Is there such a thing as an ecosystem? Of course, there isn't unless you put some content into it. It’s like a spray on solution for something that you don't have an objective or meaningful description of. I find that part of our conceptual problem is that we can't think beyond the eco any longer. And the world of business now uses ecosystem to describe virtually everything that it's doing. The same applies to the appropriation of sustainability.

The word resilience is now being used as a replacement for the concept of anthropogenic climate change under the old regime of Trump. I've written in some detail about perverse resilience, you know, things that are resilient but that should go away as quickly as possible. I've critiqued the concept of the environment, because it's obviously conceptually setting up humans as external to the rest of life in nature. That too is a kind of throwback to a time when we got our relationship to nature completely wrong. Another problem with eco in front of everything is that it does a disservice to Indigenous belief systems, it's a form of colonial thinking that replaces culturally imbued meanings with a system science one. That, again, is something that I find not a useful way of adding to the debate about our emotional and psychological relationship to the rest of life.

What are some of the forms of resilience you think we should do away with?

Well, at the moment, it's a technical term, which means we should bounce back to a formal way of existence. At the moment in Australia, for example, our government is talking about bouncing back to a previous state after COVID. And for them, that means that we should be reviving our fossil fuel industries, fracking more gas, exporting more coal. And that's all being presented to the Australian public as a form of resilience—that we need to return to a state that enabled us to achieve our great way of life. Well, the very thing that we ought not to be doing is being presented as resilient. So resilience is a dangerous concept and can be used to justify precisely the things that we should be avoiding or moving away from.

Is there anything else you want to add to that idea, just to give everyone a sense of what's preoccupying your heart and mind?

I'm very critical of the concept of grief being used in connection to ecology or climate change, because it devalues what's going on in humans, particularly during a pandemic of COVID-19. People are dying in the millions. But the climate, or ecosystems, whatever they might be, have not died at all. We haven't lost our relationship to them. It may be bruised, it may be damaged, or as Aldo Leopold called it, that we live in a world of wounds, but the wounds can be repaired and returned to health. And that's my task in life, it is to reject the idea that we are actually killing or murdering the sides of life. If I had reached that conclusion, I would be sitting in the corner rocking back and forth with my hands on my head. I reject entirely that response to the dilemma that we're in. So the writing of ‘meuacide’, the extinction of our emotions, is also going to involve a more substantial critique of grief and its applications.

Okay, that's very interesting. So you must then reject the idea that people can grieve their idea of a future that had ecological stability, which now is getting wiped away as they anticipate further climate change? There are a lot of people in the mental health and climate change space who speak of eco-grief as something that can be anticipatory. Where one expects unraveling and degradation of one’s community and traditions, because something in the landscape is disappearing that defines who you are as a people, for example. I'm just wondering if you reject grief in that context? And does that also mean that you're taking issue with people who say it's legitimate to grieve the future you thought would come that now you believe no longer will, in order to change your life appropriately?

It is just a misuse of the English language for a start because we have concepts like dread, which is precisely directed at a future that we don't wish to be in. Grief is something that most adequately describes a relationship that ceases to exist between people when somebody dies. It's the cessation of that which we would normally expect to continue to occur. That's what's so upsetting about death for most of us. It’s that this is a permanent cessation of that which was incredibly valuable in our life.

So when we see tens of thousands of people grieving because they can't be with their loved ones as they're in hospital beds, asphyxiating under COVID, or being buried in almost mass graves because of the sheer numbers, that's a really intense and extreme form of grief. If we're worried about the future, we have in the English language rich possibility and concepts to use, and grief is not one of them. Dread certainly is one. Anticipating the grief aspect of it is likely to distract us or prevent us from seeing what we need to do next. It's going down into that dark hole of prepperism and various other forms of maladaptive responses.

It’s not that I hate grief, I think I understand it reasonably well. I've experienced it in my own life. It's more that it’s useless. It's not providing us with something that Generation S can find useful.

Well, what about the intense emotions you might feel for the nonhuman world when you reckon with something like 3 billion animals that perished in Australia's Black Summer?

Well you can have a form of empathy for those creatures that died, but you didn't have a relationship with them. So far as I know, none of those species have gone extinct. So we can have a form of grief with respect to extinction when something is no longer present. But at the moment, there's only one species on the planet that's gone extinct because of climate change and that's a small mouse somewhere in the Torres Strait islands of Australia. Well, there is an element of grief in me about the loss of that species.

Trauma and other concepts that we have are relevant when it comes to the bushfires. Right where we live we had a massive bushfire, right on the borders of our property, so, I understand the fire issue. I just think that by throwing these old concepts around and pushing them together where they're not appropriate is not helpful. I don't say that because I'm just being difficult. I'm saying that we need a new language to describe the feelings that we have.

How on earth can the public understand what it is that we're talking about, if they don't even have a personal or deep psychological attachment to something like the term ecology? So then you even take away the cultural nuances of a cultural relationship to nature from Indigenous people. That's another huge loss. And then we expect people, that somehow they're going to emphasize or understand or even be able to respond to their own inner feelings, because we've put eco in front of grief? Well, I'm sorry, I'm just not impressed with that move. It's not adequate.

Solastalgia was created because we needed a term in the English language to describe a particular form of distress that's connected to the desolation of the environment. Well, that's what's going on, on a planetary scale right now. The new world that we started this conversation with is one that is being desolated. So we need more than solastalgia as a new way of describing what's going on.

What I'm saying is that we need to create a whole new lexicon in our language to describe these negative and positive feelings, emotions, states of mind that we have. And this is a really important task because by not doing this adequately, and just by being lazy, pushing together existing terms where people are comfortable within existing disciplines, is not actually very helpful.

I see your point. I'm wondering then how you think about the trade off between using language that the public is familiar with, has a grasp of, and knows how to mobilize in their own storytelling, and the hard work of introducing new unfamiliar terms that may sound academic, philosophical, perhaps highbrow and over the heads of the average person? Particularly since we're trying to collectively devise understandings around these concepts that are still relatively ignored and dismissed in society over all. What do we do about that trade off?

Well, I think we're really good at critiquing the fossil fuel industry and other forms of carbon intensive living and we now understand concepts like decarbonisation, or carbon neutral. I'm willing to do the same thing for our languages.

Also, I know, you've written about and interviewed people on the decolonial project. Well, the decolonial project is almost the same as the kind of project that I'm arguing for, with respect to our emotional engagement with the rest of life. If we discuss this whole situation in terms that are only comfortable for us within our past anthropocentric ways of thinking, then we're not going to make much emotional progress. Our emotional literacy is going to remain pretty well static or non existent.

So it is a difficult thing to get your head around. But I think it's better to be disruptive than it is to be ineffective. I'm keen to disrupt constructively, if there is a point to my being critical of the use of some of these terms. And I’m being critical of myself too because I've stuck eco in front of things in the past, in a way that now I cringe because I think, well I was just being lazy. I didn't really think about what was going on here. And it needs to be rethought. I'm not saying that I'm holier than thou, I'm just saying that this project, to be effective, has to be relentless and consistent. And it's like the decolonial project. There's virtually nothing that's untouched by it, including the psychoterratic. So it's a really important task and one that's relentless—a bit like trying to achieve the Symbiocene.