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Solastalgia

The background

One of the sources that lends meaning to the term solastalgia goes back to the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 established the term “nostalgia” based on observations of soldiers who, he concluded, were homesick.

Until the middle of the 20th century, homesickness was perceived as a diagnosable psycho-physical condition. This reflects a period in human history when people travelled far less than they do now. From the middle of the 18th century, nostalgia changed its meaning from homesickness to a sentimental desire to be connected with a positively perceived period or place in the past (Albrecht 2019, p.30). In light of the immense human and “more-than-human” displacement caused by climate change, the Hoferian concept of nostalgia signifying deep place-based distress is highly relevant today. 

The coining of the term

The Australian environmental researcher and philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht coined the term solastalgia, which he based on the words solace (that which gives comfort) and algos (Greek for pain). He argues that if we seek solace in a much-loved place that is being despoiled, we suffer distress. Desolation is associated with feeling devastated, deprived or abandoned (Albrecht, 2019, pp.37-8).

Summarising the above, solastalgia refers to the pain or distress caused by the loss of a comforting place; the sense of desolation people feel, consciously or unconsciously, when their home or land is lost to e.g. road building, dam projects, deforestation and so forth. Albrecht argues that invasive changes like this to one’s home environment are perceived as an attack on one’s sense of place. Solastalgia is a reversed form of nostalgia: it is the homesickness we feel in (rather than for) our own home (Albrecht 2019, p.38). 

Image: Adam Stevenson

Influencing thinkers – phenomenological evidence

Freud’s (1919) concept of the Unheimliche (the Uncanny) shares similarities with solastalgia, in the sense that both terms convey a disturbed, sinister or threatening sense of home life caused by adverse internal or place-based changes of one’s home environment. The fellow Australian Elyne Mitchell who published Soil and Civilization in 1946 was an inspirational source for Albrecht’s work and influenced his conception of solastalgia.

Albrecht’s conception of solastalgia is based on collaborative field-based research in the Hunter Valley in Australia’s New South Wales, for which he interviewed people living close to open-cast mines. Individual accounts reveal participants’ intense and enduring psychological and physical distress of having to live and farm close to the mines: solastalgia is place-based distress (2019, p.49).

Ecosystem health

Solastalgia is closely related to Hippocrates’ notion that human health is closely connected to a healthy environment (Albrecht, 2017), and to Elyne Mitchell (1946) and Aldo Leopold’s (1949) conceptions of the interrelatedness of land health and human health: a depleted landscape where biodiversity is diminished can induce a sense of solastalgia. Mitchell (1946, p.4) was one of many marginalised female voices who pointed out that exploitative practices such as large-scale agriculture and colonisation have contributed to an endemic disconnect between humans and the planet.

In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, emerging insights from science are clarifying the relationship between virus spread and habitat loss – due to exploitative practices such as large-scale deforestation (Mowat, 2020).

The global context of solastalgia

Whilst solastalgia has been felt for many centuries by many cultures, ecosystem distress and climate chaos have intensified the feeling described by the term. It is now used to describe the distress people experience in response to such phenomena as wildfires, flooding, drought, land clearing, overfishing and so forth.

Jules Pretty (2014), who has travelled to many regions where the natural world and people are under increasing pressure from development, reports a deep sense of solastalgia in response to the loss of traditional cultures and irreversible loss of home environments. See also a series of essays compiled by Cunsolo & Landman (2017) that portray ecological grief.

Related concepts

Kriss Kevorkian (2019) coined the terms “environmental grief” and “ecological grief” in 1999. The former describes the grief brought about by the loss of ecosystems as a result of natural or man-made events. He defines ecological grief as the grief resulting from the disconnection from and relational loss of our natural world (Kevorkian, 2019 para. 1 and 2).

Cunsolo & Ellis acknowledge that their own case studies on ecological grief resonate strongly with Albrecht’s concept of solastalgia. They contend that ecological grief is a natural response to ecological loss, particularly for people who retain close living, working and cultural relationships with the natural environment. As more and more people globally experience the impact of anthropogenic activities, ecological grief is likely to increase dramatically (Cunsolo & Ellis, 2018, p.275) and develop into a mental health crisis.

Critique of solastalgia

Albrecht’s notion of solastalgia is not without criticism. De Bruyn (2020, p.13) states that whilst Albrecht deserves praise for his attempt to construct a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene psyche, he also needs to be challenged about a perceived lack of dialogue with other researchers in related fields. There is a sense that Albrecht does not give enough credence to peoples’ ambiguous feelings about place. See De Bruyn, (2020) for a more elaborate critique of Albrecht’s work.

References

Albrecht, G. A. (2017). Solastalgia and the new mourning. In Cunsolo, A., and Landman, K. (eds), Mourning nature: hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp.292-315.

Albrecht, G. A. (2019). Earth emotions. New words for a new world. Cornell University Press.

Cunsolo, A. & Landman, K. (2017). Mourning nature: hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Cunsolo, A. & Ellis, N. (2018). Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss. Nature Climate Change, 8, 275-281

De Bruyn, B. (2020). Review of ‘Earth emotions: new words for a new world’ by Albrecht, G.A. American Imago, 77, 1, 213-222.

Freud, S. (1919). The uncanny. In the Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. Vol 17

Fromm, E. (1964). The heart of man: its genius for good and evil. Riverdale NY: American Mental Health Foundation Books.

Kevorkian, C. (2019). On environmental grief and the rights of nature. [Online]  https://seeingthewoods.org/2019/05/03/environmental-grief-and-the-rights-of-nature/ (Accessed 6 August 2020).

Leopold, A. (1949/1989). A sand county almanac. New York: University Press.

Mitchell, E. (1946). Soil and civilization. Sydney: Halstead Press.

Mowat, H. (2020). Protecting forests will help safeguard our future. [Online]https://theecologist.org/2020/mar/26/protecting-forests-will-help-safeguard-our-future. (Accessed 27 March 2020].

Pretty, J. (2014). The edge of extinction: travels with enduring people in vanishing lands. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.

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