Albrecht, G.A. (2010) Solastalgia and the Creation of New Ways of Living, Chapter 13 in Pretty, J. and Pilgrim S., (eds), Nature and Culture: Rebuilding Lost Connections, London, Earthscan, pp.217-234.
Introduction: The global transformation of place and psychoterratic dis-ease
Cultures all over the world have concepts in their language that relate psychological states to states of the environment. The Hopi have used the word koyaanisqatsi to describe conditions where human life is disintegrating and out of balance with the world. The Portuguese use the word saudade to describe a feeling a person has for a loved one, perhaps a loved place, who or which is absent or has disappeared. People in the front line of environmental change are now telling their stories of distress in the face of unwelcome disturbance to their home environments. As they tell of their experiences, words and concepts in their native languages reveal deep culturally-defined relationships to nature. The North Baffin Inuit of the Arctic have recently applied the word uggianaqtuq to the changing climate and weather. The word means to behave unexpectedly or in an unfamiliar way and has connotations of a “friend acting strangely” or in an unpredictable way. But now it is the Arctic weather that has become uggianaqtuq to them.
Despite the importance of connections between environmental health and human health (physical and mental) in many cultures, we have very few concepts in English that address environmentally-induced mental distress and physical illness. In order to rectify that deficiency, I have created two new diagnostic categories: psychoterratic and somaterratic health and illness. These make the connection between the state of the earth (terra) and mental (psyche) and bodily (somatic) health (Albrecht et al., 2007). Psychoterratic illness arises from a negative relationship to our home environment, be it at local, regional or global scales. The negative relationship involves a loss of identity, loss of an endemic sense of place and a decline in well being. Conversely, an enduring and positive relationship to a loved home environment delivers the benefits of a strong endemic sense of place and well-being.
While conventional diagnoses of psychological and psychiatric conditions are possible for some forms of psychoterratic illness, in general such conditions are “existential” in that they represent a diminution of the quality of existence or well-being. Such existential syndromes can manifest as anxiety, mild distress, forms of depression and in extreme instances, suicide. In order to more fully understand the suite of negative psychoterratic conditions, I wish to revive a pre-existing psychoterratic syndrome, nostalgia. This needs to be re-evaluated as a legitimate form of psychoterratic dis-ease to be seen alongside solastalgia, a new concept I have introduced to assist our understanding of old and emergent environmentally-induced health and illness. Nostalgia was formerly a concept specifically related to physical separation from a loved home environment. Solastalgia, by contrast, I have defined as relating specifically to the place-based distress that is delivered from the lived experience, within a home environment, of unwelcome environmental change.
As a consequence of relentless interconnected global development pressures and global warming, both somaterratic and psychoterratic illnesses are likely to increase. As ecosystem and climatic health decline, we will see corresponding erosion of the vitality of human psychic and somatic health. Unfortunately, synergistic interactions between biophysical and psychic distress are now implicated in many types of earth-related pathology.
Cases of Psychoterratic Distress
There is no more graphic illustration of how people respond to a negatively-perceived shift or change in the environment than with the case of mining. Exposure to mining activity literally takes people’s environment away from them; it undermines their sense of place. Two place- based case studies in environmentally-induced psychoterratic distress, the regions of Appalachia in the USA and the Hunter Valley of Australia, have much in common. They are now being extensively mined for their coal resources but both places were once seen as exemplifying great beauty where humans could live in harmony with their bioregion. The Hunter Valley landscape was once described as “the Tuscany of the South” and its beauty has been celebrated by both Indigenous and colonial cultures. Appalachia has had its spring beauty celebrated in dance and music. However, in the last few decades, both regions are being desolated by coal mining with open cuts in Australia creating mountains of spoil and “voids” full of toxic water, and mountain top removal in the USA creating “valley fills” and smothering streamlines they once contained.
People in both the Hunter Valley and Appalachia are now giving expression to their existential distress about the imposed changes to landscape quality. They are responding to the double pressures of ecosystem distress and a climate that is beginning to act in hostile and unpredictable ways. The victims of imposed place based distress feel that their home is being desolated by forces that they have no power to control (Higginbotham et al., 2006).
Despite the forces of international mining companies and government pitted against them, many in these mining affected regions have been brave enough to acknowledge the distress but still fight the environmental injustice. Maria Gunnoe, who was awarded The Goldman Environmental Prize in April 2009 for her battle against mountain top removal for coal in Appalachia, has given graphic expression to this loss of solace from her home environment:
“I’m settin’ there on my porch, which is my favorite place in the whole world, by the way – I’d rather be on my front porch than any other place in the world and I’ve been to a lot of places. As it stands right now, with the new permits I saw last week, they’re gonna blast off the mountain I look at when I look off my front porch. And I get to set and watch that happen, and I’m not supposed to react. Don’t react, just set there and take it. They’re gonna blast away my horizon, and I’m expected to say, “It’s OK. It’s for the good of all.”
Am I willing to sacrifice myself and my kids, and my family and my health and my home for everybody else? No – I don’t owe nobody nothin’. It’s all I can do to take care of my family and my place. It was all I could do before I started fightin’ mountain top removal. Now that I’m fightin’ mountaintop removal, it makes it nearly impossible. But at the same time, my life is on the line. My kids’ lives are on the line. You don’t give up on that and walk away. You don’t throw up your hands and say, “Oh, it’s OK, you feed me three million tons of blasting material a day. That’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s for the betterment of all.“
In the Hunter Valley, open cut or open pit mining for coal has produced similar reactions in people living in what are euphemistically called “the zones of affectation”. One female grazier had also been fighting the coal industry in the Hunter Valley, but the relentless assault on her quality of life with a mine next door to her home finally became too much. In an interview with a research team she describes the psychological and physical pain on her and her farm manager associated with the assault on her rural grazing property from coal mining:
“Well, I noticed when this business with [mine name], when I was really fighting here. And my manager would come to me and say he didn’t sleep last night. The noise, because they’re loading right near the road, he’s just across the creek from the road. And you hear a drag line swinging around and dumping rocks into a truck. And then the truck would back away … beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. And then the next one would roar in. He used to say to me “we just can’t cope any longer” … I lost a lot of weight.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach like that (note: clenched fist), and think, what am I going to do? We’re losing money, they won’t listen to me, what do I do? Do I go broke? I can’t sell to anybody, nobody wants to buy it because it’s right next to the mine. What do I do? And I was a real mess” (“Eve”, as quoted in Connor et al., 2005)
Another resident of the Hunter coalfields reported in an interview that she found the destruction of her home landscape distressing and she went on to say, “it almost reduces me to tears to think about it [mining]. When the coal is gone, the people … will be left with nothing but the final void” (Connor et al., 2005). I imagine that mining-affected communities all over the world have their Marias and Eves telling similar stories.
An Indigenous man in the Hunter Valley, reacting to the massive changes to his traditional lands, expressed his disgust when he was being interviewed as part of a research project undertaken by the author and colleagues. He explained that he drives hundreds of unnecessary miles to avoid witnessing the desolation of his place: “It is very depressing, it brings you down … Even (indigenous) people that don’t have the traditional ties to the area … it still brings them down. It is pathetic just to drive along, they cannot stand that drive. We take different routes to travel down south just so we don’t have to see all the holes, all the dirt … because it makes you wild” (in Albrecht et al., 2007)
The original people of the Hunter Valley have a documented history of occupation in the Hunter Region going back at least 20,000 years. They were hunters and gatherers, living off the natural productivity of the land. The river valley and the bioregion was seen as an edible landscape, full of emu, kangaroos, fish and fresh water mussels and many types of edible plants. A Dreaming Story of the indigenous people at the mouth of the Hunter River tells that coal was originally on the surface of the earth but that the ancestors covered and buried it.
They say that there was a time when a great darkness came over the land and blotted out the sun. The darkness originated from a fire burning from coal deep within the earth. The elders decided that in order to bring back the light, the darkness had to be stopped from escaping from the hole. All the people gathered rocks, trees and plants and covered the hole and put out the fire. They also covered coal wherever they found it on the surface of the earth. Then, as thousands of generations of people walked over their country, the coal was rendered safe as it was compressed and remained deep underground.
The Hunter region is famous for the abundance fossil plants imbedded in the local shale and coal seams so the indigenous explanation for the presence of these fossils long predates that of Western scientific geology. Despite the Aboriginal Dreamtime warnings about the burning of coal, under the impact of coal mining, this “country‟ of the indigenous people has been massively transformed and is now a major source of carbon emissions produced in the valley and all over the world. The open cuts emit fugitive methane into the atmosphere and the coal is burnt locally in massive power stations. The great bulk of the coal is now exported through the Port of Newcastle at the mouth of the Hunter River. It is now the largest black coal exporting port in the world. The intense reaction of this indigenous interviewee to the coal mining can now be more empathetically understood. Moreover, Dreamtime warnings about the dangers of burning coal and the science of global warming seem not that far apart.
Other indigenous peoples worldwide have been in the front line of environmental transformation for centuries. Their identity and sense of place, based on the long term and careful management of renewable sources of sustenance have been „sacrificed‟ so that a different culture, one based on finite non-renewable resources and the non-sustainable exploitation of renewable “natural resources‟, could be developed in its place (Berkes, 2008).
The mental and physical health problems of indigenous people worldwide are connected to a significant extent with this severing of personal and cultural identity and sustenance from place. Many Indigenous people suffer from psychoterratic or earth-related mental health syndromes caused by forced separation from a much loved place. They also suffer distress when their remaining home territory is transformed in ways that offends traditional and formerly sustainable connections to place.
For example, indigenous people, when confronted by some modern forms of natural resource exploitation such as forestry for paper products, express profound distress responses. David Suzuki reported that a chief of the Haida people in Western Canada exclaimed when he came across a recently clear-felled forest that he “couldn’t breathe” and for him “it was as if the land had been skinned of life”(Suzuki and Knudtson, 1992).
Other types of unwelcome change to home environments deliver similar anxiety and distress in non-indigenous people. I listened to the testimony of a citizen of Salt Spring Island (West coast Canada) about the noise of float planes as they used Ganges Harbour for takeoff and landing. His life had been made intolerable by the constant noise and the very reason why he chose to live on SSI had been overwhelmed by a force that he had no way of controlling. Indeed, as no formal airport has ever been declared at SSI, no regulation of the airline industry has been undertaken.
Other forms of disturbance to loved environments cause equally intense forms of human distress. From an Australian website we have the following testimony:
“I heard a bloke say that watching his cherished patch of forest being cleared for development was like losing a child. He was having trouble trying to express the heartbreak. Now more than ever we need a word to describe the pangs of grief and loss felt when witnessing a loved environment being destroyed.” (http://realdirt.com.au/2008/11/21/riverstalgia-how-coal-companies-are-stealing-our- rivers/ )
In addition to mining and intrusive development, anthropogenic change to our climate is now also having an impact on our physical and mental health. The climate, under the influence of global warming, is becoming less predictable and it is on the move. In coastal, eastern Australia, someone would now have to live about 150 kilometres further south from their present location in order to experience a climate similar to that of only 50 years ago. Earlier and warmer springs in the USA and Canada have already changed the endemic sense of place and many species are moving their range further north and into higher altitudes. In order to stay in their “home” comfort zone, the residents of ecosystems are seeking to move further north or south … depending on the hemisphere.
Some species are favoured by warmer temperatures while others are disadvantaged. Insect populations can explode in warmer temperatures with a now classic but tragic case being the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). This beetle, a native to the forests of western Canada (British Columbia) and the USA, has emerged from obscurity to international prominence because it is destroying whole forests of lodgepole pine trees (Pinus contorta) and other pine species (www.for.gov.bc.ca/HRE/topics/mpb.htm). Its numbers were once controlled by severe winter temperatures and short cool summers. But now that the winters are warmer and summer warmth stays longer, the beetle and its larvae are completing an annual life cycle in such numbers that they are transforming whole landscapes into graveyards of dead and dying trees. Now the mountain pine beetle epidemic is affecting the US states of Colorado and Wyoming, and many people fear that the forests will be dead within three to five years. In the eastern states of the USA there are unprecedented outbreaks of spruce budworm and hemlock looper, which are also threatening the viability of forests. The anxiety about changing and disappearing forests has been discussed informally by people on the web. One person, when discussing the pine beetle epidemic commented:
“The entire landscape for hundreds of kilometres has been transformed, and now in the last stages of the epidemic vast areas of immature and non-merchantable trees have been killed too. When I finally grasped the extent of this last insult I found it difficult to remain optimistic about the future of our economy, never mind the effects on the scenic values and the recreational experiences we were used to having. It is indeed sad.” (Torsten bautforum)
What these case studies and the lived experiences of people illustrate is that one of the most powerful relationships we have is to our home environment. Our sense of place is the outcome of the intersecting ecologies of home, head and the heart. Our physical and mental health is tied to this vital relationship and when it is threatened, we can become distressed; when it is broken, we become dis-eased. The changes to home environments that can be the source of threats to our mental health and sense of well being are often the result of development impacts and now, anthropogenic global warming. Climate change is a particularly powerful driver of distressing change because it will negatively affect those who must move out of increasingly risky and hostile home environments as well as those who have no choice but to remain within them.
Clearly there is the need for a typology of psychoterratic conditions where we can more clearly see how both negative and positive relationships to place are connected to our mental states and sense of existential well-being. I shall start by examining one of the oldest known forms of place-based distress, nostalgia.
The concept of nostalgia was first created by Johannes Hofer in a dissertation written in Latin in Basel in 1688. The new word was a translation into Greek and New Latin of the German word heimweh or the pain for home. Similar concepts have been used in other languages for the feeling of loss when a person is separated from their home environment. Nostalgia (from the Greek nostos – return to home or native land – and the New Latin suffix algia – suffering, pain or sickness from the Greek root algos) or literally, the sickness caused by the intense desire to return home can be the source of profound psychological and related physiological distress. According to Hofer, the symptoms of nostalgia included ” … continued sadness, meditation only on the Fatherland, disturbed sleep either wakeful or continuous, decreased strength, hunger, thirst, senses diminished … even palpitations of the heart” (Feines 2002).
Found in the English language from 1757 onwards, nostalgia was considered to be a medically diagnosable psycho – physiological disease right up to the middle of the 20th century. In 1905 nostalgia was defined as “…a feeling of melancholy caused by grief on account of absence from one’s home country, of which the English equivalent is homesickness. Nostalgia represents a combination of psychic disturbances and must be regarded as a disease. It can lead to melancholia and even death. It is more apt to affect persons whose absence from home is forced rather than voluntary” (Fiennes, 2002).
Nostalgia was particularly evident in soldiers fighting in foreign countries who experienced homesickness to the point where they became ill and unable to perform their duties. The cure for nostalgia was a prescription for afflicted soldiers to be repatriated (sent back to the father‟s land) to recuperate and restore their well-being and health. According to Feinnes, nostalgia was still being discussed in journals such as War Medicine in the 1940s, and Lowenthal notes that it was, “as late as 1946 … termed a possibly fatal “psycho-physiological‟ complaint by an eminent social scientist” (Lowenthal 1985).
However, in general, reference to “nostalgia” as a sickness or melancholia resulting from a longing or desire to return home while away from “home” is no longer in common use. The more frequent modern use of the term loses its connection to the geographical or spatial “home‟ and suggests a temporal dimension or “looking back‟, a desire to be connected with a positively perceived period in the past. Typically, there is a longing for a cultural setting in the past in which a person felt more “at home‟ than the present. For individuals who see the past as better than the present there is the possibility that nostalgia remains a very real experience that can lead to deep distress. For example, for indigenous people who have been dispossessed of their lands and culture, the nostalgia for a past where former geographical and cultural integration was both highly valued and sustainable is an ongoing painful experience.
However, as explained by Casey (1993), “[n]ostalgia, contrary to what we usually imagine, is not merely a matter of regret for lost times; it is also a pining for lost places, for places we have once been in yet can no longer reenter”. Casey systematically explores the contexts where symptoms of “place pathology” are presenting problems for both indigenous and colonial culture. He asserts:
“It is a disconcerting fact that, besides nostalgia, still other symptoms of place pathology in present Western culture are strikingly similar to those of the Navajo: disorientation, memory loss, homelessness, depression, and various modes of estrangement from self and others. In particular, the sufferings of many contemporary Americans that follow from the lack of satisfactory implacement uncannily resemble (albeit in lesser degree) those of displaced native Americans, whom European Americans displaced in the first place. These natives have lost their land; those of us who are non-natives have lost our place” (Casey 1993)
The anthropologist, W.E.H. Stanner, writing about the plight of indigenous people in Australia and New Guinea during the colonisation process of the 19th and 20th centuries wrote about a similar kind of syndrome based on the cumulative distress linked to homelessness, powerlessness, poverty and confusion (Stanner, 2009). He wrote:
“What I describe as “homelessness‟, then, means that Aborigines faced a kind of vertigo in living. They had no stable base of life; every personal affiliation was lamed; every group structure was put out of kilter; no social network had a point of fixture left … In New Guinea, some of the cargo-cultists used to speak of “head-he-go-round-men‟ and “belly-don’t –know-men”. They were referring to a kind of spinning nausea into which they were flung by a world which seemed to have gone off its bearings. I think that something like that may well have affected many of the homeless Aborigines.”
As alluded to above, historically, Indigenous people are likely to experience psychoterratic distress as they live through the destruction of their cultural traditions and the transformation of their lands. In rural and remote locations where a collective memory of a continuous culture such as that of indigenous Australians still exists, there is no idealisation of a golden past, but a genuine grieving for the ongoing loss of “country‟ and all that entails. The strength of attachment to country is difficult for people in European cultures to fathom, however Deborah Bird Rose (1996) captures the essence of this attachment when she provides an account of what “country” means to Aboriginal people in Australia:
“Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place, such as one might indicate with terms like „spending a day in the country‟ or “going up the country‟. Rather, country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind and spirit; heart’s ease.”
Both the loss of country and the disintegration of cultural ties between humans and the land are implicated in all aspects of the „crisis‟ within many Aboriginal communities in contemporary Australia. The difficulty or inability to find “heart‟s ease” is a root cause of the identity problems faced by indigenous Australians. Many authors have identified the social problems experienced by traditional indigenous cultures worldwide and their connections to loss of culture and the support provided by a nurturing home environment. In the Australian context, indigenous people experience physical and mental illness at rates far beyond those of other Australians. Their social problems; unemployment, alcoholism, substance abuse (particularly glue and petrol sniffing in youth), violence against women and disproportionately high rates of crime and custody and an epidemic of deaths in custody, lead to community dysfunction and crisis. Both loss of home and pathological home environments are implicated in the dysfunctionality.
In general, despite the emplaced distress of Indigenous people, the major focus of place-based literature has been on „lost places‟ and displaced people. Yet, in the Hunter Valley it was the distress of those who remained in their home environment that was the focus of my concern.
The places that I was interested in were not being completely „lost‟; they were places in the process of negatively perceived transformation. The people I was concerned about were not voluntarily or forcedly being removed from their homes/places, however, their place-based distress was remarkably close to the feelings of homelessness of nostalgia, indigenous vertigo- in-living and koyaanisqatsi. In the Upper Hunter, as is clearly the case in many other contexts worldwide, people were suffering from a negative experience of place transition and felt powerless to stop the process delivering such unwelcome change.
In the light of my experience of distressed people and an empathetic understanding of placed- based distress in other people worldwide, there seemed to be a real need and justification for the creation of a new concept in English that captured the conceptual space or territory connected to this immediate and existential constellation of the factors that define place and identity distress. The situations I have focussed on are where people are still within a home environment in a state of transition, but feel a similar melancholia as that caused by genuine nostalgia. Such melancholia or sadness is connected to the breakdown of the normal relationship between their psychic identity and their home. What these people lack is solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to “home‟, and so I created the neologism, “solastalgia‟, to describe this specific form of melancholia.
Solastalgia: the Origins
I had been thinking about the relationship between ecosystem distress and human distress for some time, well before my own direct experience of the distress in people affected by mining in the Hunter Region of NSW. The breakdown of a healthy connection between human health, broadly conceived, and the health of the biophysical support environment, or “home‟ at various scales, has been carefully considered by many thinkers from Hippocrates onwards (see Albrecht et al., 2008).
Aldo Leopold with his own concept of “land health‟ and Australia’s own pioneer environmental thinker Elyne Mitchell were two people who had earlier thought about such relationships. In the USA, Aldo Leopold with his ecologically-inspired concept of the Land Ethic in A Sand County Almanac (1949) not only broke new ground in the emergent domain of environmental ethics, he also created the concept of “land health‟ defined as “the capacity of the land for self renewal”. However he did not see in his contemporaries any connection made between “sick landscapes” a sense of shame or pathological psychological states connected to ownership of degraded land.
In Australia, even before Leopold’s ideas on land health were published posthumously in A Sand County Almanac, Elyne Mitchell, in her book Soil and Civilization (1946) was attempting to explain to Australians the importance of the connection between human mental health and ecosystem health. In the context of the impoverishment of the Australian environment by agricultural activity she wrote, “but no time or nation will produce genius if there is a steady decline away from the integral unity of man and the earth. The break in this unity is swiftly apparent in the lack of “wholeness” in the individual person. Divorced from his roots, man loses his psychic stability” (Mitchell 1946).
As the scale and impacts of post-war industrial society began to enlarge, the transdisciplinary thinker, Gregory Bateson, gave creative expression to the feelings I had about the essential connections between ecosystem and human mental health. He argued in the context of the Great lakes of North America, “you decide that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience” (Bateson 1973).
Despite this prescient insight into the vital eco-mental relationships between ecological and psychological domains, they remained poorly articulated. It was not until I was influenced by David Rapport’s concept of “ecosystem distress syndrome” (Rapport and Whitford, 1999) that I began to contemplate the human conceptual correlate of such distress. In what follows, I shall take old nostalgia and some of the history of “eco-mental‟ thinking into the new context for an emergent psychoterratic condition, that of solastalgia.
Solastalgia (Albrecht, 2005, 2006) has its etymological origins in the concepts of nostalgia, solace and desolation. Solace is derived from the Latin verb solari (noun solacium or solatium), with meanings connected to the alleviation or relief of distress or to the provision of comfort or consolation in the face of distressing events. Solace has connections to both psychological and physical contexts. One emphasis refers to the comfort one is given in difficult times (consolation) while another refers to that which gives comfort or strength. A person or a landscape might give solace, strength or support to other people. Special environments might provide solace in ways that other places cannot. If a person lacks solace then they are distressed and in need of consolation. If a person seeks solace or solitude in a much loved place that is being desolated, then they will suffer distress.
Desolation has its origins in the Latin solus (noun desolare) with meanings connected to devastation, deprivation of comfort, abandonment and loneliness. It too has meanings that relate to both psychological and physical contexts … a personal feeling of abandonment (isolation) and to a landscape that has been devastated. In addition, the concept of solastalgia has been constructed such that it has a ghost reference or structural similarity to nostalgia thereby ensuring that a place reference is imbedded. Hence, solastalgia has its origins in the New Latin word „nostalgia‟ (and its Greek roots nostos and algos), however, it is based on two Latin roots, „solace‟ and „desolation‟, with a New Latin suffix, algia or pain, to complete its meaning.
I describe solastalgia as the pain or sickness caused by the ongoing loss of 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 manifest as an attack on one‟s sense of place. It is characteristically a chronic condition tied to the gradual erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation (loss of well being). In direct contrast to the dislocated spatial and temporal dimensions of nostalgia, it is the homesickness you have when you are still located within your home environment.
The factors that cause solastalgia can be both natural and artificial. In particular, chronic environmental stressors such as drought can cause solastalgia, as can ongoing war, episodic terrorism, land clearing, mining, rapid institutional change and the gentrification of older parts of cities. Urban transformation is an area of expanding solastalgic experience that many now relate to. I claim that the concept of solastalgia has universal relevance in any context where there is the direct experience of transformation or destruction of the physical environment (home) by forces that undermine a personal and community sense of identity. Loss of place leads to loss of sense of place experienced as the condition of solastalgia.
The most poignant moments of psychoterratic distress occur when individuals directly experience the transformation of a loved environment. Watching land clearing (tree removal), for example, can be the cause of a profound distress that can be manifest as intense visceral pain and mental anguish. With constant and graphic news (with pictures) of ongoing land clearing in locations such as the Amazon, many people distant from the actual events begin to feel solastalgia as they emphasise and identify with distant places and the ongoing destruction that is taking place. I contend that the experience of solastalgia is now possible for people who strongly empathise with the idea that the earth is their home and that chronic processes that are destroying endemic place identity (cultural and biological diversity) at any place on earth can be personally distressing to them.
A “diagnosis‟ of solastalgia is based on the recognition of the degree of distress within an individual or a community that is connected to the loss of a sense of place, especially an endemic one. All people who experience solastalgia are negatively affected by their desolation and likely responses can include the generalised distress outlined above but can escalate into more serious health and medical problems such as drug abuse, physical illness and mental illness (depression, suicide). It is possible to view solastalgia as an existential syndrome with somatic expressions or as a psychosomatic illness with conceptual and empirical dimensions. There is, though, a danger in “medicalising‟ solastalgia as it would lose its philosophical origins and meanings.
With an understanding of the psycho-dynamics of solastalgia, the problems of a pathological or toxic home and a lack of “heart‟s ease” can be explained with greater cross-cultural sensitivity and relevance. I argue that the “dis-ease‟ of indigenous people can, in part, be explained as a response to solastalgia. Both social and medical epidemics that afflict some indigenous people can be partly understood as their attempt to relieve themselves of the distress and pain of solastalgia. Perhaps solutions to such problems can come from the diagnosis of solastalgia and its negation by empowered indigenous people being directly involved in the repair and restoration of their „home‟. In areas where people still have strong, direct connections to country, the defeat of solastalgia can come from actions that strengthen the endemic and weaken the exotic. Such actions could, for example, range from Indigenous responsibility for the removal and management of exotic species (flora and fauna) to the active promotion of Indigenous culture. In urban areas where links to land are more tenuous, reinforcing old and building new culturally creative sources of solace will assist in the creation of heart’s ease.
An example of the relationship between a healthy landscape and human health is provided by traditional owners in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Some indigenous people maintain their connections to their traditional land by living on what are called “outstations‟. These are small family-based communities that allow traditional cultural values to be transmitted and a degree of hunting and gathering on the land. In this context, people have been able to maintain a healthy ecosystem (country) with documented benefits for their total wellbeing, including physical and mental health. Johnston et al. (2007) writing about this issue argue:
“The indigenous testimony of the nexus between human and landscape health is entirely consistent with previous anthropological research in Australia. Moreover, the identified benefits to both people and country are consistent with the more limited epidemiological and ecological research. But policies designed to improve Aboriginal health have barely begun to integrate Aboriginal perspectives, underscoring the inherent Western view that human health is largely decoupled from the natural environment.”
The results of decoupling of human health from supportive home environments can also be seen in non-indigenous people under the impact of persistent drought and other forms of rural environmental decline (e.g. dryland salinity) in parts of Australia. In rural and regional Australia in particular, there are reports of increasing rates of depression and suicide, particularly in men. The standard explanations for increasing rates of suicide and depression in the rural context include rural reconstruction in the face of economically rational “deregulation‟, high indebtedness and financial problems, unemployment, distress over loss of family owned property and heritage and easy access to chemicals and firearms. However, rarely is the state of the relationship between humans and their biophysical environment considered as part of the matrix of health.
In Australia in general, the psychological health of farmers is closely related to the health of the environment. In the grip of drought, when stock die of malnutrition and thirst, the dams are empty, the pasture is barren and even the wildlife begins to die, severe depression about such a state of affairs is not uncommon. The impact of prolonged drought on rural gardens can also be a cause of solastalgia with the loss of the house garden a tipping point of distress. In collaboration with colleagues from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health in NSW, the transdisciplinary team has conducted funded research on farmers and the stress created by persistent drought. One interviewee, a female farmer explains: “Well I guess we’re coming into our fifth year of the drought……. our gardens have had to die because our house dam has been dry…so it’s very depressing for a woman because a garden is an oasis out here with this dust…you know, to come home to a nice green lawn …that’s all gone, so you’ve got dust at your back door” (Albrecht et al., 2007).
During “natural‟ events such as drought, the morale of farmers, their families and the local community decline and with drought-breaking rains, joy and confidence in the future returns. Solastalgia is negated by the natural restoration of the home environment to something that is full of creative and productive potential. Unfortunately, under global warming, some of the negative changes that are taking place such as decades of declining rainfall, loss of biodiversity and more frequent and severe bushfires cannot be negated by one-off solastalgia–breakers.
They have become a permanent feature of many climes and landscapes worldwide. It is therefore possible to make more general and global comments about the existential and psychological implications of the decoupling of humans from supportive home environments. The WHO predicts that depression will be the second leading burden of illness worldwide by 2020 and I would suggest that under extreme climate change scenarios, this burden is likely to increase even further.
Soliphilia and the Love of Life
We have seen how solastalgia is a human response to the lived experience of an emerging negative relationship to a home environment. It is instructive to think further about the very opposite response, one of strong identity and positive affiliation with a loved home environment. As with negative land relationships, humans have a long history of expressing their positive feelings, their love of home and landscape in art, prose, poetry and philosophy. However, it is again surprising that few systematic attempts have been made to clearly articulate a particular love of place in the English language.
In 1923 Rudolf Steiner created the concept of “love life” in relation to the life of bees. He argued:
“That which we experience within ourselves only at a time when our hearts develop love is actually the very same thing that is present as a substance in the entire beehive. The whole beehive is permeated with life based on love. In many ways the bees renounce love, and thereby this love develops within the entire beehive. You’ll begin to understand the life of bees once you’re clear about the fact that the bee lives as if it were in an atmosphere pervaded thoroughly by love … the bee sucks its nourishment, which it makes into honey, from the parts of a plant that are steeped in love life. And the bee, if you could express it this way, brings love life from the flowers into the beehive. So you’ll come to the conclusion that you need to study the life of bees from the standpoint of the soul” (1923 Prelude 2-3).
Steiner, as a pioneer in the study of organic interconnections, actually saw life and love explicitly in ecological terms. He argued in his 1923 lectures on bees that to understand life; “[Y]ou need to take a deep look into the entire ecology that nature has to offer” (Lecture 7, page 127, see Matherne 2002).
The concept of an ecological or interconnected life of love and love of life was first clearly articulated by Eric Fromm in the 1960s. He distinguished between “necrophilia‟ which involved the love of destruction and death and “biophilia‟ which he described as the “love of life”. In the Heart of Man (1965), Fromm develops the idea of biophilia in the context of human character development, productivity and ethics. In the tradition of Albert Schweitzer he argues “The full unfolding of biophilia is to be found in the productive orientation. The person who fully loves life is attracted by the process of life and growth in all spheres. He prefers to construct rather than to retain.” He further goes on to state “biophilic ethics have their own principle of good and evil. Good is all that serves life, evil is that which serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces”.
Fromm‟s pioneering concept of biophilia links love of humanity with love of life and nature in a nexus that anticipates many themes within late twentieth century and early 21st century environmental ethics. In his “Humanist Credo”, published in On Being Human he linked biophilia to a comprehensive ethic:
I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom (Fromm 1994).
To develop Fromm’s life-based concept of biophilia even further into an empathetic and ecological understanding of life we might wish also to talk about “ecophilia‟ (Soyinka, 2004), an idea long overdue for further development. E.O. Wilson (1984) uses the term “biophilia‟ in a way different from the psychosocial character development of Fromm in that he argued biophilia was biologically-rooted. Wilson argued for a “deep conservation ethic” based on innate biological affiliation with all other organisms as a counter to destructive and exploitative relationships with the rest of nature.
The concept of “topophilia‟, or love of place, was developed by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1974) and he highlighted the suit of human “affective ties with the material environment”. Tuan argued that on most occasions, topophilia is a mild human experience; an aesthetic expression of joy about connection to landscape and place, but that it can become more powerful when human emotions or cultural values are „carried‟ by the environment. He acknowledges the work of the anthropologist Strehlow in providing insight into the depth of positive place attachment held by Aboriginal Australians and what happens when place attachment is severed (Tuan 1974). He acknowledges that topophilia can be a powerful human emotion for humans who are closely connected to the land.
As a response to the likely increase in chronic environmentally induced distress at all place scales, from local to global, I have created a counter to solastalgia, the concept of soliphilia. This “philia‟ is a culturally and politically inspired addition to the other “philias‟ that have been created to give positive biological and geographical conceptions of connectivity and place.
Soliphilia, put simply, is the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept the political responsibility for them at all scales.
Soliphilia is now added to love of life and landscape to give us the love of the whole and the solidarity between humans that is needed to keep healthy and strong that which we all hold in common. In order to negate all the „algias‟ or forces that cause sickness and extinction we require an positive love of place, expressed as a fully committed politics and as a powerful ethos or way of life. Soliphilia goes beyond the left-right politics of the control and ownership of cancerous industrial growth and provides a universal motivation to achieve sustainability through new ways of symbiotic living that are life-affirming.
It is ironic, but at the very moment globalisation and technology enables us to connect as a single species, we begin to see the value of the endemic, and the locally and regionally unique. That great philosopher of place, songwriter Joni Mitchell argued long ago that “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got til its gone”. Joni was worried about the erosion of the distinctiveness of rural and regional USA as it disappeared under the parking lots of supermarkets and junk food outlets. Endemic USA was in the process of being replaced by a culture going global. Now, that concern about a loss of the regionally distinctive and endemic applies to the whole planet. We are at risk of losing a sense of place about the whole Earth within a few decades of the first ever images of the living planet, Gaia, taken from space by the Apollo 8 astronauts only 40 or so years ago.
It seems that many people in a variety of contexts sense that something is wrong with our relationship with our planet home and their unease just might be an expression of deep-seated solastalgia about non-sustainability. Most of us are now acutely aware of the issues affecting the future of this planet and have no desire to lapse into eco-anxiety or worse, forms of eco- paralysis and the melancholia of solastalgia. We want to do something meaningful right now to put the world back onto a sustainable pathway. All the good philias combine into new and all- encompassing emotion that is a foundation for hope and the deeply rooted urge to love to present generations and security and safety to future generations. Soliphilia can be the foundation of expressions of new ways of being that reunite us as people and with the foundations of life.
Jonathon Lear in Radical Hope (2006) writes powerfully about Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation in America. Coups’ world and culture was almost completely desolated by the invasion of white settlers and the loss of the bison on traditional hunting lands. Right now, in the turmoil of a fiscal, ecological and climate crisis all of us are in the position of the Crow and all other indigenous people who, despite having the norms of their culture and place utterly changed, have been able to find the courage to imagine and work for a viable future.
The Crow lost their bison and with them, for a while, everything else. However, with inspired ethical leadership, Plenty Coups was able to reconnect elements of his culture’s past with a vision of a future containing hope. What is needed now in this period of global collapse is ethical commitment and inspired leadership to usher in a sustainable future that we cannot yet fully see but is likely to transcend almost everything that is comfortable and familiar to us now.
The love of live and a life filled with love is a most profound starting point for a sustainable future. At present, we are certainly not united by a universal sense of our shared fate. We are not bees but we do now live in a globally-interconnected hive where there is the potential for a human ethic based on love of life to pervade the whole earth. Our love of the whole, the soliphilia, will stimulate dynamic and sustainable responses to human-induced local, regional and global ecosystem distress (including climate distress) by creative people and their affiliations from all cultures and walks of life.
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