Solastalgia in the Anthropocene

earth03Solastalgia: the sadness caused by environmental change or loss.

 

Solastalgia: the distress caused by the lived experience of the transformation of one’s home and sense of belonging and is experienced through the feeling of desolation about its change.

“Australia is suffering through its worst dry spell in a millennium. The outback has turned into a dust bowl, crops are dying off at fantastic rates, cities are rationing water, coral reefs are dying, and the agricultural base is evaporating,” wrote Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine in December 2007 in a compelling article on “How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds”.

Glenn Albrecht (professor at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle) described his fellow Australians’ reactions:

“They’re getting sad.”
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Australians described a deep sense of loss as they watched the landscape around them change and deteriorate: familiar plants not taking; gardens not growing; birds disappearing… Albrecht believes this to be a new type of sadness, a feeling of displacement. “They’re suffering symptoms eerily similar to those of indigenous populations who were forcibly removed from their traditional homelands,” said Thompson.
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Albrecht gave this syndrome an evocative name: solastalgia. It encompasses the roots of solacium (solace) and nostos (return home) with algia (pain)—yet another paradox that aptly conjures the word nostalgia. In essence, says Thompson, it’s “pining for a lost environment.”
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“The homesickness you feel when you’re still at home,” says Albrecht.
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Yosemite Fire Charges
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“It’s fascinating…to think about the impact of global warming,” says Thompson. “Everyone’s worrying about resource management and the spooky, unpredictable changes in the ecosystem. We fret over which areas will get flooded as sea levels rise. We estimate the odds of wars over clean water, and we tally up the species—polar bears, whales, wading birds—that’ll go extinct.” But, Thompson warns that we should also be concerned about the huge toll climate change will inflict on our mental health.
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During his research, Albrecht noticed that the more quickly environmental change occurred, the more intense the solastalgia. For instance, in the Australian outback, where open-pit mining has created moonscapes seemingly overnight, the suicide rate in the region skyrocketed. In New Orleans, a Harvard study revealed that survivors of Hurricane Katrina reported suffering a “serious mental illness” at about double the rate of the city’s residents three years earlier. Although trauma and personal loss played a large role, one should not discount the powerful effect of physical environmental loss as well.
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Wildfire smoke Nadina Lake
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Where I live I don’t personally experience strong environmental change (with the exception of the odd weather mishap like ice storms and atypical snow).
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stream oldgrowth forestWhile I don’t see the devastation and change around me, I feel it. Acutely. Since childhood, I remember having this feeling, this emotional link to my beloved planet and a growing sadness for what we are doing to it (the reason I pursued a science degree and became an environmental consultant then an eco-fiction and science writer).
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I still remember being sternly lectured by a high school teacher about my “misdirected” efforts to enlighten my school about global pollution. “You’re putting up posters about taking care of the planet when you should be focusing on your neighbourhood,” he chided me. It was then that the penny dropped for me: not everyone thought about their planet like I did.
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earth06But, surely, we are all part of Gaia. Let me rephrase: surely, we ARE Gaia…the woman walking her child to school…the young grocery boy taking your bags to the car… the blooming cherry trees growing along the side of the road…the birds singing on the power lines…the clouds scudding overhead or the rain spattering our faces… We ARE the planet, the living, breathing planet Earth. And the malaise of our planet is our own malaise. Humanity’s malaise.
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Most of us reading this post live in a fast-paced stressful world, where many of us find ourselves coping day-to-day to “survive” the copious demands on our time, energy, brains and feelings. How can anyone in that frame of mind be expected to willingly take on the burden of thinking about the entire planet?!? Are we trapped in a shockwave of fretful living without even realizing it? “In a world of cheap airfares, laptops, and the Internet, we proudly regard mobility as a sign of how advanced we are,” Thompson quips sarcastically, “Hey, we’re nomadic hipster capitalists!…Only losers get attached to their hometowns.” Only losers care about their environment…
METROPOLIS_machine-workers

Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

I am reminded of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the 1927 classic dystopia about the social crisis of a world where the selfish “dreams of a few had turned to the curses of many” (Fritz Lang, Metropolis). There is a scene in this evocative film where creative men of antiquity decide to build a monument to the greatness of humanity, high enough to reach the stars and reminiscent of humanity’s hubristic construction of the Tower of Babel. It is a world dominated by technology and the greed of few; where the bulk of the people are dehumanized workers, who more resemble machines in their jerky rhythmic movements and laconic faces than the oppressed humans they are. It is a world whose “heart” (the intermediary) is missing between its “brain” (those who conceive and run the city) and its “hands” (those who labor to make it a reality).

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babel

The tower in “Metropolis”

I am reminded of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by “brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven.” The rabbinic tradition, described in the Mishnah, teaches that the sin of Sodom was related to property: Sodomites believed that “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.”  Classical Jewish texts describe the sins of Sodom as cruelty and lack of hospitality to the stranger.

There is no room for compassion when we are busy counting our possessions and “making our country great again” at the cost of all others…
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Some Kabbalistic mystics (e.g., Menachem Tsioni; others) described the Tower of Babel as a functional flying craft, empowered by powerful magic and/or technology and originally intended for holy purposes but later misused to gain control over the world. An escape ship, perhaps? A kind of arc?
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We have no flying tower. We just have Gaia. Our home. And what are we doing to our home? Thompson laments, “In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again—even if you never leave.”
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References:
Thompson, Clive. “On How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds.” Wired,  December, 2007. Online: https://www.wired.com/2007/12/st-thompson-27/
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This article previously appeared in The Alien Next Door in 2008. 
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nina-2014aaaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.
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