Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Climate Change--Part 2: Solastalgia

Solastalgia: 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 last December 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.”

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.

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.”

“The homesickness you feel when you’re still at home,” says Albrecht.

“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.

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.

All this reminded me of the nightmare I suffered last month and the nagging thoughts of climate change that have lingered with me since then…nay, since my earlier experience of that unseasonal tornado in Louisville, Kentucky. Albrecht has given what I feel a name: Solastalgia.

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 for this Mediterranean climate). In fact, we are having a wonderful spring season here, with the cherry trees and the crocuses in my garden already blooming and tulips not far behind. But, while 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). 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.

But, 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.

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...

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).

And 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,” which was interpreted as lack of compassion. Classical Jewish texts describe the sins of Sodom as cruelty and lack of hospitality to the stranger.

In the Bible, God said: Now, this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen—Ezekiel 16: 49-50.

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? We have no flying tower. We just have Gaia. Our home. And what are we doing to our home?

Laments Thompson, “In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again—even if you never leave.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Unknown said...

A fine piece about how we're all affected by this. A sick planet plagues every inhabitant.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent post, Nina. I love the phrase 'we are the planet' So true. I happen to have the movie 'Metropolis' on DVD restored.

Nina Munteanu said...

That movie affected me before I even saw it, Jean-Luc... I just saw a segment of it twenty years ago (that first scene of the workers, machine-like, carrying out their duties as if choreographed by some giant machine-intelligence) and the imagery has stayed with me since. I only saw the restored version recently (my brother got it for me)


Nina, the New York Times finally caught with you, on january 31 2010, they ran a piece by daniel b. Smith about solastaliga in the Sunday magazine. profile of Dr Albrecht and some other people. Great story. You were there first!

Nina Munteanu said...

LOL! Yes, Danny, I was first but NY Times is giving it far more exposure! And a good article too--good information on Albrecht and others. Entitled, "Is There an Ecological Unconscious?" here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/magazine/31ecopsych-t.html

Promise to come back here and leave your comments!

And, yes, Jean-Luc... we ARE the planet... Check out my post on Climate of Our Future about tipping points here: http://climateofourfuture.org/tipping-flickering-and-squealing-herald-change/

Sue said...

Hello there, SF Girl. Googled my way in on your quote about the Dalai Lama saying "The world will be saved by Western women."

I can relate to solastalgia. I live in Australia where we came through such a big drought. I will never again take for granted our water supply and every few months feel joy at the news that our catchments have filled because the drought has broken here in many places.

I now live in the leavy greenness of Belgrave in the Dandenong Ranges, a place that was once rainforest, and so the weather is cooler here, where I can feel her breathe through the trees, and it gives me some sort of solace. But yes, I can relate very much so to solastalgia. Sometimes I feel it could drive me mad.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks so much for sharing, Sue... Yes, our planet--and our water--is precious. We need to look after Her... :)