Solastalgia and the Psyche
As a philosopher, I tread with trepidation into the realm of psychiatry. While both disciplines have overlapping domains in the mind/brain nexus, they also diverge into many areas where there seems very little mutual contact. That only psychiatry has a clinical context is also a major point of departure. One area where there is clearly emergent mutual interest is the domain of the psychoterratic or psyche-Earth relationships (Albrecht 2019).
The links that I have forged between psychiatry and philosophy in this category of experience and thought began with my concept of solastalgia[]. Solastalgia, or the lived experience of negative biophysical change, is a concept created by me in 2003 and first published in the journal PAN (Philosophy Activism Nature) in 2005. PAN was an ideal place to publish this neologism, because I mainly work as a transdisciplinary thinker, uniting insights from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, psychology, anthropology, history, politics, geography, ecology and complexity theory. I have always been committed to positive environmental change and personal activism to achieve that change.
The personal context for the creation of solastalgia came from my own confrontation with large-scale open cut (pit) black coal mining in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales in Australia. Here, hundreds of square miles of mines, power stations and coal transport infrastructure had converted the once verdant floor of the valley of the Hunter River into what one local mayor called a “moonscape.”
With colleagues Linda Connor (Anthropology) and Nick Higginbotham (Psychology) at the University of Newcastle, a transdisciplinary research project was commenced to put flesh on the concept of solastalgia, by linking the lived experience of people in the ‘zone of affectation’ of the mines, and the theoretical understanding of place attachment and identity. A combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods was used to gain insight into the psychological, social and emotional impact of desolation of the region (Connor et al. 2003). We were committed to understanding the relationship between the health of biophysical landscapes and human mindscapes. In addition to the conceptual clarification of solastalgia, Nick Higginbotham developed an ‘environmental distress scale’ (EDS) to reveal the empirical dimensions of the form of environmental distress we defined as solastalgia (Higginbotham et al. 2006).
In 2007, with my colleagues, solastalgia was written up in relation to two contexts where solastalgic experiences were being had by rural and remote citizens. One context summarized the coal mining case study approach, while the other was focussed on the experience of long-term chronic drought by rural people in Eastern Australia. Both case studies engaged the psychoterratic, in that mining and drought can have profound impacts on the psyche or mental health, broadly defined. The transdisciplinary team looking at mining impacts worked collaboratively with the team consisting mainly of psychologists and psychiatrists examining drought. The co-authored paper, with me as lead author, was published in a supplement of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry (Albrecht et al. 2007). That paper has been cited many hundreds of times and remains a landmark study of the psychoterratic in general and solastalgia in particular. The conclusion of that paper gave a strong hint as to what direction research on the psychoterratic might take:
There are complex relationships between environmental or ecosystem stressors and human distress. The two research teams are now actively collaborating on how well a psychoterratic syndrome such as solastalgia captures the essence of the relationship between ecosystem health, human health and control (hopelessness and powerlessness) and negative psychological outcomes. While the preliminary research on mining and drought has produced promising new insights into psychoterratic illness, there are many more environmental contexts where chronic environmental stressors negatively affect human health and wellbeing. Climate change for one, might, unfortunately, be a globally significant source of psychoterratic distress expressed as nostalgia and solastalgia. (Albrecht et al. 2007, pp 97-98)
Since that time, the importance of global climate warming as a factor influencing human mental health (broadly conceived) has massively increased.
In my 2005 PAN paper, I connected my thoughts on how negative environmental change affects the psyche with the ideas of Elyne Mitchell, an Australian farmer and writer who produced a book, Soil and Civilization in 1946. Mitchell was strongly influenced by Carl Jung and his identification of the Earth as the “universal soil” that supports all life forms and their vitality. Depletion of the soil (erosion, over-grazing, clearing, pollution) leads to depletion of the vitality of life, all life, including the human psyche. Influenced also by T.S. Eliot, in particular his poems, The Wasteland (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925), Mitchell observes, “In carelessness for the soil, we are turning the physical world into a waste land and wonder why “the dead land”, the “cactus land” is within us too” (Mitchell 1946).
In my view, modern ‘ecopsychiatry’ begins with Mitchell’s diagnosis of the total relationship between humans and nature. She explicitly saw that a break in the “integral unity” between humans and nature in general is reflected in the lack of wholeness in individuals. When she concluded that “[d]ivorced from his roots, man loses his psychic stability”, I saw the connection between my concept of solastalgia and this wise woman’s insight … it was a revelation.
In a case of psychic resonance, I later discovered that another key transdisciplinary thinker, Gregory Bateson, had also commented on this vital connection between the state of the Earth and the state of the psyche. In a moment of brilliant insight, he was able to articulate the enormity of the entwined problem of the pollution of the Earth and the mind. 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 p 460).
Some 20 years after Bateson’s prescient work, Theodore Roszak began to apply his insights on the ecological dimension of the ‘crazy’ or Batesonian ‘insane’ to the very idea of “ecological madness.” The profession of psychiatry had contributed a huge array of syndromes and conditions to the DSM but had not, according to Roszak, considered the human-nature relationship as a vital component of human mental well-being or health. Building on earlier formulations of ‘ecopsychology,’ Roszak was able to commence the systematic study of the nexus pioneered by Mitchell (Jung) and contributed to the further development of this ‘novel’ field of knowledge. In 1996 he critiqued Freud’s rejection of ‘nature’ as a factor in psychic dysfunction and suggested: “[i]n the past 10 years, a growing number of psychologists have begun to place their theory and practice in an ecological context. Already ecopsychology has yielded insights of great value” (Roszak 1996).
Supporting Roszak in this paradigm shift involving the union of the psyche with ecology were many other radical psychologists and deep ecologists worldwide[]. While ecology represented a major paradigm shift in understanding nature, very few were able to apply its insights to understanding the afflictions of the mind. The ecologist, Phyllis Windle, in her 1992 essay “The Ecology of Grief”, pioneered a bridge between professional ecology and psychological grief (Windle 1992, Windle 1995), and her opening of this transdisciplinary space was followed later by the thanatologist Kriss Kevorkian, who explained that desolation in terms she named ‘environmental grief’ and/or ‘ecological grief’ (Kevorkian 2007, 2019 and Rosenfield 2016). These terms, and the ‘anticipatory’ and ‘disenfranchised’ grief theory (Doka 2016) that underpins them, have recently re-appeared in the literature as a response to the climate crisis.
In the essay published in 2005, I also explicitly linked solastalgia to the emergent domain of what James Hillman called an ‘ecological psychology’. Hillman, in his speech delivered in October 2001 about “Justice and Beauty: Foundations of an Ecological Psychology”, could see that the old world was imbued with meaning, via the idea of the anima mundi or world soul, by the Indigenous people of the world. The new world, that being erected under the name of what we would now call the Anthropocene, was systematically removing all vestiges of animism and was replacing it with mechanistic and technological substitutes. In achieving this end, the separation of psychology and the Earth was complete. Anthropocentric psychology had separated humans from their home. As Hillman graphically put it:
… human-centred psychology fosters a disordered, senseless, and enslaved planet. By ripping the human soul from its womb in the anima mundi, the world soul, this mother of all phenomena becomes a corpse, reduced to measurement, experimental dissection and cannibalization of its body parts. Rivers, rocks, flowers and fish, defined as soulless in themselves, can only find value by human assessment. (Hillman 2002).
I could see that solastalgia, indeed the “age of solastalgia”, was one outcome of Hillman’s perspicacious diagnosis of the human-imposed ‘state of the world’. Hillman’s ‘fix’ was to argue that “we need to start again”. His paradigm shift entailed the active creation of an ecological psychology which learns that, in addition to human concerns and interests, humans are embedded in the ecology of life from micro to macro scales. Desolate that ecology, and the human ‘soul’ is also desolated.
Since the late twentieth century the state of the world has considerably worsened. Hardly a week goes by when some new major report is not issued on species extinction, climate chaos, nuclear threats or industrial disasters. Götterdämmerung now has its own discipline, ‘collapsology’, in the twenty-first century (Servigne and Stevens 2020). To the constant threat of nuclear war, we must now add the lived experience of a global scale ecoapocalypse. I fear that the magnitude of the collapse of the foundations of life, as we have known it, is at a critical threshold.
The Individual Vs Structural Dilemma
As an applied philosopher, it is my hope that some of my ideas might have application in helping people understand their Earth distress and to be able to respond to it in constructive ways. While I have no clinical experience, I have, through funded academic field research and pro-bono involvement in community litigation against mining, deep personal concerns about the level of distress humans are now experiencing, as a result of complex, interrelated problems that have reached pandemic proportions. On top of ‘normal’ social stressors, we now have ongoing climate chaos plus the Covid-19 pandemic. The cumulative impacts have delivered a huge blow to the contemporary psyche.
There are two interrelated dimensions to the problems we face. One is clearly structural and will require collective responses to what are now global-scale crises. The other seems personal, yet because of the “tyranny of small decisions” (Odum 1982), we are all, by our seemingly insignificant individual actions, contributing to a massive structural outcome, whether we realize it or not. Therefore, because they are inseparable, both collective and individual responses will be needed to address these problems.
At one level, for ecopsychology to be tackling grand-scale Earth-Mind distress, as identified by its pioneers, it will need to transform itself into ecopolitics. It is the domain of politics (and economics) that is the primary cause of ecocide and climarmageddon, so it is logical to become an activist practitioner and bravely enter this realm of rebellion.
The assumption here is, that if science-based professions such as psychiatry strongly endorse mitigation of climate change and join others in this action, their practitioners will be in the vanguard of a political movement that leverages the political class to enact policy and laws that would prevent or mitigate the structural causes of ecocide, dysbiosis and psychosis.
Such a view is not entirely improbable, as we can see elements of a ‘forced’ political will being played out with the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic. As of February 2021, with over 100 million cases and over 2 million deaths worldwide, Covid-19 has prompted collective political responses to the crisis, at the same time as the global ascendancy of countervailing individualism in political and economic ideology.
The pandemic is producing forms of distress in humans, ranging from mild anxiety about what is to come next, to deep grief about the loss of loved ones, in often tragic circumstances. I have argued in the past that there is even a form of solastalgia experienced during epidemics and pandemics, when whole cities, their infrastructure and suburbs are locked down in order to isolate their inhabitants (Albrecht 2006). There is a lived experience of negative environmental change.
The value and effectiveness of collectivism has been manifested in the imposition of lockdowns and the wearing of masks, to drive down rates of infection, serious illness and death. However, it has been challenged by vestiges of extreme enlightenment atomism, as expressed through the imperatives of individual rights and freedoms. It is this clash between collective and individual good (ethics) that is now being openly contested worldwide, particularly with the equity of the distribution of vaccines to prevent Covid-19. Such inter-global (in)equity issues offer a foretaste of what will happen as a likely tsunami of massive environmental change breaks over our collective heads in the foreseeable future.
Structural Responses: Soliphilia and the Symbiocene
I have attempted to address the need for political solutions to the causes of negative psychoterratic states, such as solastalgia, with the concept of ‘soliphilia’ (Albrecht 2019, pp 121-124). The value of working with others across existing political divides to protect and conserve that which you love is evident in many self-help and voluntary organizations.
As an example of soliphilia in practice, as indicated above, I have worked constructively with community groups to protect rural villages from the incursion of open-pit black coal mining, in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales, only to have success in the courts overturned by political fiat.
At national and international levels, I see social movements such as Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate as expressions of soliphilia. They are going further than the NGOs related to the conservation of nature in that in many cases they are contesting the very model of corporate funding and largess that NGOs have relied on in the past for their survival.
However, despite the actions and good will of these movements, the state of the world continues to deteriorate, and it is easy to become despondent in the face of the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and failure to address the foundations of our collective carbon-intensive global culture. There is global dread about our future.
It is the evidence of ‘failure’ that has prompted many to seek radical adaptive measures as a response to the overall cognitive dissonance. Deep adaptation in the form of either voluntary simplicity or sophisticated ‘prepperism’ has been one avenue for commitment, while another has been to amplify the level of defiant activism, to the point of breaking the law, and being prepared to accept prison for repeated acts of non-violent protest. The personal psychological burden of Kamikaze activism (action at any cost to oneself, including death) is likely to be devastating, yet its adherents will refuse any ‘help’ from the therapy sector as they have consciously chosen the path of anti-carbon martyrdom.
As a result of these failures and ‘defeat’ experiences, I have felt that something stronger than soliphilia was needed to negate the individualism of the Anthropocene and its despotism. To counter the pessimism and the negative psychoterratic burden (including solastalgia) I needed a big-picture act of creation.
In response, I created in 2011, what I believe to be the antidote to the Anthropocene, in the form of the ‘Symbiocene’. This period in human history would be characterized by:
… human intelligence and praxis that replicate the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. This period of human existence will be a positive affirmation of life, and it offers the possibility of the complete re-integration of the human body, psyche and culture with the rest of life. The path to avoiding yet more solastalgia, and other negative psychoterratic Earth emotions that damage the psyche, must take us into the Symbiocene. (Albrecht 2019, p102).
A new meme (cultural replicator), one that is hopefully powerful enough to enable people to see a clear alternative to deep psychic desolation, is a future worth pursuing. The symbiotic re-integration of humanity with the rest of life is now an imperative that is more pressing than any other. To achieve that end, psychologists and psychiatrists, who can see that the structural dysbiosis and psychosis of the Anthropocene requires a structural antidote, will be needed just as much as the engineers and architects who invent the shift from toxic artefacts to what I see as benign ‘sumbiofacts’.[] In Earth Emotions (2019) I made the case for a scientific, technological and emotional transition to the Symbiocene. I continue to work on the Symbiocene as a “this changes everything” theme.
Individual Responses: A Sumbiography
Individual responses are required for us to succeed in getting out of the Anthropocene and I have contributed a potentially therapeutic and educational idea that may be useful. In order to situate the self into some sort of Earth context, I have created the idea of a sumbiography.[]
In Earth Emotions, I attempted to explain to a reader how it came to be that I ended up writing a book about the human emotions connected to the state of the Earth. I argued a sumbiography is:
… the term I use to explain the cumulative influences on my life, from childhood to adulthood, that have culminated in my wanting to write this book about the relationship between humans, other forms of life, and nature. These influences include my immediate family and the writers and themes that have come to define my life and my ability to feel, first hand, the emotional richness of contact with nature. The meaning and importance of the sum total of living together with ‘nature’, people and other beings is what a sumbiography attempts to describe and acknowledge. (Albrecht 2019, p 14)
A sumbiography provides a written account of the cumulative seminal events and influences in a person’s lifespan that constitute their outlook and values on the importance of life, nature, the environment and life-support systems. It is a measure of a person’s positive awareness of what the sumbios or ‘living together’ means or perhaps it reveals a deficit in ‘sumbiosity'[] that could be rectified.
Although an introspective account of the ‘nature’ components of my own life, I believe that this idea could be extended as a form of investigation of the emotional choreography of the psyche, with respect to the human-nature relationship in other contexts. By using a form of ‘sumbioanalysis’, one can delve into a person’s past, and see if it is possible to tease out the biophilic influences from the biophobic.
Where, on a sliding spectrum of ‘attachment’ does a person’s relationship to nature lie? What of their emotional literacy with respect to nature? A sumbiography can reveal just what kind of emotional compass we have with respect to our personal relationship to this planet that supports life. In answering these questions, a ‘sumbiotherapist’ might be able to offer a pathway for a person to move from negative psychoterratic states into positive ones, from not living together (anti-sumbiosic) to living together (sumbiosic).
In past publications on the issue of solastalgia, I have suggested a number of actions that might help the various forms of desolation being experienced by people and communities. With respect to drought, the antidote is simple … rain. However, with the gradual degradation of an endemic landscape by alien species (weeds, feral animals), I have provided examples where land care organizations, particularly those run by Indigenous people in Northern Australia, engage in the active repair of damaged places (replanting) and by the removal of the alien and the restoration of the endemic. It is these actions that restore positive psychoterratic states such as ‘endemophilia’, or love of that which is endemic to your part of the world.
Repair of damaged psyches as a result of damaged landscapes is now a global scale possibility. Many before me have suggested that “a dose of nature” in the form of immersion in wild or cultivated landscapes is critical for the restoration of the health of mindscapes (see Louv 2011). In addition, getting to know place and its non-human inhabitants is another way that individuals can restore their own mental health while restoring their home environment. Here, psychiatry becomes “other than human” and the anima mundi is returned to wholeness.[]
As I age into my late 60s, I worry that the scale and complexity of this world is now so great that it is leading to what I call ‘meuacide’, or the extinction of our emotions, especially our positive ones.[] Yet, I know they are still alive and well when I see people the world over rebelling against biological extinction and other forms of harm. That is only possible when good Earth emotions continue to reside in good people.
However, as our emotions are being manipulated by algorithms, overwhelmed by data and, as the evidence of climate warming hits us in the face, they are being attacked and sublimated and we are all struggling to respond. As participants in the very structure that we must bring down, we are all culpable in the planetary language game that must be named ‘tierracide’ (Earth murder).
At this point I have empathy for the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, when he argued, “[s]o in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would just like to emit an inarticulate sound” (Wittgenstein 1974, p 93). Maybe that, or its manifestation in my own version of what the artist Edvard Munch called a “great infinite scream” passing through nature, when describing his famous painting.
What my most positive thoughts now tell me is that we must resist so-called ‘deep’ adaptation to an increasingly solastalgic world. That path is an almost criminal abrogation of our personal and collective obligation to the future and the life-chances of children. Rather, we must offer, at personal and structural levels, grounds for optimism, that we humans can actively shape a future that not only avoids the worst of possible catastrophic projections, but offers something beautiful as well. As James Hillman so eloquently put it:
Beauty astounds and pulls the heart’s focus toward the object, out of ourselves, out of this human-centered insanity, toward wanting to keep the cosmos there for another spring and another morning. This is the ecological emotion, and it is aesthetic and political at once. (Hillman 1996).
Deep mitigation of the pollution of the psyche and society is still an option that is available to us all in the form of the meme of the Symbiocene. The Symbiocene goes beyond what Jonathan Lear has called ‘radical hope’, or a hope “that is directed at a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” (Lear 2006, p 103)
We now understand that the future must creatively reunite humans with nature and that this will entail the symbiotic emotion. The Symbiocene offers both personal and structural guidance about a direction towards a sane and viable future for life. It offers ‘radical anticipation’, in that we must get to that good and beautiful end point as soon as is humanly possible.
[Note: This is an unpublished draft of an essay written in 2020-21].
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[] Solastalgia has its origins in the New Latin word ‘nostalgia’ (homesickness) and its Greek roots nostos (return home) and algia (pain, grief or sorrow). However, it is based on two Latin roots, ‘solace’ (comfort or consolation) and ‘desolation’ (deprivation of comfort). In essence, although a combination of words from Greek and Latin, solastalgia is primarily a New Latin neologism.
[] See, for example, the Australian John Seed and his essay written in 1994 where he concludes “I call again for an eco-psychology, psychology in service to the Earth, to help usher forth homo ecologicus, a psychology with a future (Seed 1994).
[] This term is derived from the Greek sumbiosis (companionship), sumbion (to live together) sumbios (living together) and, of course, Greek bio (life) and graphy (from the Greek graphein, to write).
[] Sumbiosity is an emergent state actively generated by humans that conserves and/or achieves an ongoing homeostasis and permanent interdependence between humans, all other life forms and the life support systems of the Earth (biogeochemical cycles).
[] In Earth Emotions (2019) I refer to a secular spirituality I call the ‘ghedeist’ (united spirit). Here, all vestiges of formal religious spirituality, including the ‘soul’ are exorcised, as is the animism of past human cultures. Animism is replaced by the science of symbiosis, particularly that aspect of symbiosis where what was formerly unknown and invisible, has now become known and visible (e.g., the human gut microbiome).