The era of climate change has created a new emotion
From above, an open-cut coal mine looks like some geological aberration, a sort of man-made desert, a recent volcanic eruption, or a kind of terra forming. When the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht first gazed at a series of such mines while driving through his home region in southeast Australia, he stopped and got out of his car, overcome “at the desolation of this once beautiful place,” he wrote in his book, Earth Emotions.
As a scholar, Albrecht was drawn to pondering language about and human relationships to the natural world. As a person, he also cared deeply for this place, which had been his home since 1982—Australia’s Hunter Region, a sublime area of dairy farms, wineries, and wallabies. The valley here offers a stopover along a flyway that runs from Alaska and Siberia all the way to New Zealand, and Albrecht’s enthusiasm for bird conservation led him to understand how coal mining was threatening the well-being of the valley’s feathered and human residents. From 1981 to 2012, the amount of land occupied by open-cut mines in the Hunter, akin to the mountaintop-removal mining that has devastated Appalachian landscapes, had increased almost twentyfold. The process leaves a permanent and raw scar, devoid of topsoil. Such mines can also discharge toxic metals into water supplies.
Albrecht understood all of this in the abstract, but witnessing it directly was more visceral—“an acute traumatic event of environmental destruction,” he wrote, air “thick with dust” and the smell of coal, a “dull roar” from a mine detonation, a “cloud of orange smoke.”
The coal industry, Albrecht felt, was wrecking his home. His observations marked the beginning of his relentless inquiry into what it means when the places we call home are remade or altered, sometimes violently.
Over a period of decades, Albrecht has devoted himself to searching for language that might describe a type of sadness, shock, and loss that now seems more and more common—grief of displacement, unease with our surroundings, a sense that damage and disaster might lie just down the road. He would feel the same rush of grief and concern in 2009 when he moved to the Perth metropolitan area in Western Australia, where he had grown up. There, thanks partly to the early impacts of climate change, regional rainfall had dropped by about 15 to 20 percent since the 1970s, and the jarrah trees he had loved since he was a child—eucalypts with lustrous wood—were dying en masse.
As he studied his own and others’ emotional responses to such damages, he was on the cusp of something, a sentiment that now might easily define our time: We live in an era of radical change, when it feels like everything is being remade and altered. What do we call this unprecedented moment of home instability?
In moments of collective distress, people have tried to name the pain that comes from the disruption of home: a complex set of feelings that includes longing, love, grief, existential angst, and even a lurking sense of dread. Loss of home can evoke the pain of dispossession, profound cultural and personal disorientation, and righteous anger, all of which can haunt a society for generations.
After the English invaded Wales in the 1200s, the word hiraeth (pronounced “here-eyeth”) became a fixture in the Welsh language, in part to express the societal disruption of living under colonial rule. “Hiraeth is a protest,” writes the essayist Pamela Petro. “It’s a sickness [that comes on] because home isn’t the place it should have been.” In 1688, Johannes Hofer, then a medical student at the University of Basel in Switzerland, assembled a set of case studies to document the pain of home disruption. Hofer was born in southern Alsace two decades after the Thirty Years’ War—a conflict that turned the region into “a smoldering land, amputated of half its population,” writes the historian Thomas Dodman, and left this part of Europe in a state of economic stagnation and political instability. Later, Hofer’s hometown became a sanctuary to refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. At the time, young Swiss mercenaries, hired out across Western Europe, reportedly suffered a common, chronic heartbreak, la maladie du pays, literally “the disease of the country” in French, or Heimweh, “home-woe” in Swiss German. Hofer gave a scientific name to the pain of home loss that he had witnessed throughout his life. He called it nostalgia, derived from Greek, “composed of two sounds, the one of which is Nosos [now more often spelled nostos], return to the native land; the other, Algos, signifies suffering or grief,” he wrote.
To Hofer, nostalgia was also a medical condition whose symptoms included fever, nausea, sleep disturbance, fatigue, and respiratory problems, along with “palpitations of the heart, frequent sighs, also stupidity of the mind.” Untreated, it could be fatal, and there were documented deaths among Swiss soldiers attributed to this malady. By the 19th century, the symptoms of nostalgia included “tachycardia, skin rashes, hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), hearing difficulties, convulsions, heartburn, vomiting, diarrhea, and any rales or wheezing that a stethoscope might pick up in the chest,” according to Dodman. We would probably now attribute many of these symptoms to other psychological ailments, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the 20th century, the meaning of nostalgia became more detached from home; instead, it signified a longing for the real or imagined comforts of the past.
But in discarding the original notion of nostalgia, we may have underestimated the impact that place and home have on the human body and our ability to navigate our lives. Having a home is part of human well-being; when home is disrupted, it can make us literally sick. It is a kind of trauma. The social psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove has described the pain felt by displaced communities—especially Black communities uprooted because of gentrification, discrimination, and urban development—as “root shock,” or “the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of some or all of one’s emotional ecosystem.” In an era of climate crisis, we will have to reckon with new complexities in our relationships to home, and even more people will experience the shock of being uprooted. In the long run, if we fail to address the crisis, hardly any safe refuge will be left.
Like Hofer, Albrecht thought it would be useful to name the experience of watching one’s home environment unravel. Around the turn of the millennium, he decided to coin his own word. (There are words in Indigenous languages that could have filled the gap, but none had yet migrated into the English language.) “With my wife Jill, I sat at the dining table at home and explored numerous possibilities. One word, ‘nostalgia,’ came to our attention as it was once a concept linked to … homesickness,” he wrote. Hunter Region residents were homesick, but they hadn’t gone anywhere—the place they lived in just no longer offered the kind of comfort, solace, or safety one would expect from home. Albrecht came up with the word solastalgia, using the suffix -algia, meaning “pain,” and the same Latin root in the words solace, console, and desolation. In Latin, solacium means “comfort,” and desolare, “to leave alone,” so the word solastalgia suggested the loss of comfort, the loneliness of being estranged from home. He published the first academic paper on the idea in 2005.
Some neologisms never make it out of the realm of private conversation, and some molder in the corners of academic journals as useless jargon. But occasionally a word like this catches a bit of zeitgeist, like wind, and gets borne aloft into the culture at large.
Over the next several years, Albrecht’s mellifluous word seemed to tap into a kind of angst about life on a warming planet. A British trip-hop band produced an instrumental track called “Solastalgia,” and a Slovenian artist recorded an album also called Solastalgia. At the beginning of 2010, The New York Times Magazine ran a profile of Albrecht and commissioned the sculptor Kate MacDowell to create a porcelain representation of solastalgia—a brain full of delicate trees and Australian wildlife.
The neologism also offered a useful means of describing and studying how the impacts of climate change reach beyond tangible, physical, and economic damages. A team of social scientists identified feelings of solastalgia among people from rural northern Ghana, a region devastated by climate change–related drought and crop failure. A collaboration of environmental scientists and public-health researchers observed solastalgia in communities affected by hurricanes and oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. A Los Angeles physician named David Eisenman stumbled across the idea of solastalgia when interviewing survivors of the 2011 Wallow Fire, the largest wildfire on record in Arizona. Over and over, he heard them express “the sense that they were grieving [for the landscape] like for a loved one.” He and his team found that the more uneasy they felt about the landscape itself, the more at risk they were for other kinds of psychological distress.
Writers, artists, and scholars are now talking more openly about the emotions of the climate crisis. We have even more ways to name the experiences of people living through mega-disasters and the slow attrition of beloved places—including climate grief, ecological grief, and environmental melancholia. In a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of American adults said they’d experienced “eco-anxiety.” We are moving into an era defined by homesickness.
Does it matter if we name or even notice this kind of angst?
Recent years have made it abundantly clear how much our actual, physical homes and lives are at risk, all over the world. In 2019 alone, 24.9 million people around the globe were effectively evicted from their homes by natural disasters and climate-change impacts. Communities that survive disasters, both large and small, face damage that is hard to even tally. Various economists have tried to estimate the harm of climate change to our societies in monetary terms. Others have made calculations of potential economic losses based on factors such as wage-earning potential and gross domestic product. The world could lose up to 18 percent of GDP by 2050 if nothing is done about climate change. But such calculations strike me as profound underestimates of a phenomenon that could easily tear apart the basic fabric of our societies, economically and physically.
In the past several years, a whole field of study has emerged to quantify the intangible losses associated with climate change. Losses related to culture, identity, heritage, emotional well-being, and the sacredness or spirituality of people’s relationship to a place or a community—not to mention experiences such as the joy, love, beauty, or inspiration found in a cherished landscape—are nearly impossible to quantify in economic terms. So scholars of intangible loss are now trying to find other ways to account for them, formally, for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “We have to find a better way to make visible what is often overlooked, ridiculed, dismissed as too personal, not generalizable, not quantifiable,” says Petra Tschakert, who is a geography professor at Curtin University, in Australia, and who has also studied solastalgia in Ghana.
Even these measures, though, do not quite capture what I have long wondered: Have we failed in some more personal realm? Have too many of us convinced ourselves for too long that climate change is the problem of others and that the storms will never rattle our own roof? And if we all faced our grief, would we find the collective will to take the kind of drastic action required to stanch the destruction?
In 2013, I met Glenn Albrecht while I was on a writing fellowship in Perth, a city of Spanish-style architecture, white-sand beaches, brightly colored wild cockatoos, and some of the most profuse biodiversity of any city in the world. He had moved back to the country’s west coast in 2009 to take a post as a professor of sustainability at Murdoch University and was living with and caring for his elderly mother in a house about 30 miles outside Perth that they had nicknamed Birdland. He had also broadened his work beyond solastalgia and was creating an entire lexicon of polysyllabic words related to climate change. At a seminar at a local university, I watched him—a gangly, energetic man—urge the few dozen people in the room to pronounce several other neologisms, waving his arms like a drum major as we sounded out in unison “SUM-BI-OS-IT-Y,” sumbiosity, which refers to a utopian-sounding state in which people live in balance with Earth. (I had doubts about whether this word would catch on, though I appreciated the sentiment.)
Meanwhile, the idea of solastalgia has taken on a life of its own, and in the Hunter, the concept had been used in a 2013 court ruling to stop the expansion of a coal mine by the company Rio Tinto: The solastalgic pain of local residents was named as one of several reasons to halt the project. Albrecht had testified on the negative impacts on citizens and how the project would likely make one village unlivable. It was maybe the first time that something as intangible as love of home had nearly as much legal standing as pure economics. The decision was overturned again in 2015, but the community group there has continued to try to fight the mine.
After Albrecht’s mother died, he returned to southeastern Australia full-time in 2014—to a place at the edge of the Hunter Region that he and his wife named Wallaby Farm, where they could live nearly off the grid with solar power and a farm full of fruits, herbs, and vegetables. But in 2019, wildfires raged around his property—part of the massive outbreak of flames called the Black Summer that would devastate much of Australia and draw international attention. One fire ignited about a mile from Albrecht’s house. Albrecht wore a face mask much of that season to cope with the searing smoke. He kept watch for any embers that might drift through the air and alight on his property. When I spoke with him not long thereafter, he said, “We’re actually in the process of trying to sell it and move. We’re being driven out by climate change.” (I later heard that he and his wife had stayed put.)
In our interview—just after the explosion of the coronavirus outbreak worldwide—he took the same slightly detached, professorial tone that I had always heard from him. I couldn’t hear his emotion in his voice. “The bushfires were a massive psychoterratic experience,” he observed, drawing on another Latinate word he had coined. I asked him about a post he had placed on Facebook during the height of the fires. It was full of expletives and occupied some space between humor and rage. “The land that we love is being fried … because the joint is getting fucking hotter,” he had proclaimed. This post was, he said, an expression of his anger in the Australian vernacular.
When I read it, it was like hearing a battle cry in the distance—a roar about everything we love, everything we are losing, everything we must try to defend.
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