A philosopher invented a word for the psychic pain of climate change

The emotional impact of climate change is one of dislocation.
The emotional impact of climate change is one of dislocation.
Image: Steffen Kastner/Unsplash
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In 2014, the writer and critic Zadie Smith published an essay in the New York Review of Books that drew a word-map around the perimeter of a feeling for which she felt we lacked language. “There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words,” she wrote. Amid abstract global temperature trends and unfathomable volumes of melted sea ice, the everyday intimacy of climate change goes under-acknowledged.

The feeling Smith wanted to describe was a type of loss—the loss of her home environment in England. That year, historic floods washed over the UK in the wettest winter England and Wales had seen since record keeping began nearly 250 years prior. Climate change had made extreme rainfall more likely for the region. Changes like that were stealing away the steady predictability of Smith’s surroundings, the pacing of a yearly cycle that made the English countryside her ecological home. She called the essay “Elegy for a country’s seasons.” An elegy is a poem for the dead, a lament. In her’s, Smith wrote:

People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise, the guilty and ashamed. The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.” “It’s the new normal,” I think, as a beloved pear tree, half-drowned, loses its grip on the earth and falls over. The train line to Cornwall washes away—the new normal. We can’t even say the word “abnormal” to each other out loud: it reminds us of what came before.

As climate change progresses, the loss is accumulating. The psychological toll of climate change is only beginning to be investigated—papers have been published on farmer suicides in India going up in tandem with crop-scorching heat, and on the mental-health issues accumulating throughout the US as average temperatures climb higher and storms intensify. Last year, the American Psychological Association validated “ecoanxiety” as a clinically legitimate diagnosis.

But where is the language for the grief itself?

In the early 2000s, a philosopher named Glenn Albrecht at the University of Newcastle in Australia began to look for the words. “With my wife Jill, I sat at the dining table at home and explored numerous possibilities,” he wrote in 2005. “One word, ‘nostalgia’, came to our attention as it was once a concept linked to a diagnosable illness associated with the melancholia of homesickness for people who were distant from their home.”

But what of people who are not at a geographic distance from the object of their homesickness? What words are there for people who are watching the earthly elements of their home morph into something that feels remote, while they stay put? Spatially, nostalgia wasn’t right. Albrecht coined the term “solastalgia” (perhaps along with Jill, though she does not make another appearance in the paper explaining the term).

Solastalgia is a combination of three elements: “Solas” references the English word “solace,” which comes from the Latin root solari meaning comfort in the face of distressing forces. But it is also a reference to “desolation,” which has its origins in the Latin solus and desolare, which both connote ideas of abandonment and loneliness. “Algia” comes from the Greek root -algia, which means pain, suffering, or sickness.

Solastalgia, Albrecht writes, has the added benefit of being a “ghost reference” to nostalgia, sounding similar enough to evoke the feeling of longing contained in that word. “Hence, literally, solastalgia is the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory,” he writes. Solastalgia, then, is a very intimate word, describing a psychic pain with very specific origins. Here are the best parts of Albrecht’s definition:

[Solastalgia] is the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.

Solastalgia is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it about seeking another place as “home.” It is the “lived experience” of the loss of the present as manifest in a feeling of dislocation; of being undermined by forces that destroy the potential for solace to be derived from the present. In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at “home.”

Other thinkers recognized the symptoms described by solastalgia as a type of sickness long before the word was coined. For example, Albrecht writes that he was influenced by the Australian environmental thinker Elyne Mitchell, who wrote a warning as early as 1946 of the harm that befalls society when humanity loses its stable bond to Earth’s cycles and systems. In her book Soil and Civilization, she wrote that when healthy ties between people and their ecological environment are severed, “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 wrote.

If our wholeness is predicated on our natural environment, the grief Zadie Smith describes watching her pear tree drown is all at once deep sorrow for the tree, for the seasons, and for herself. In 2018, life can feel in need of a dirge for the whole world, with scarcely the language to write it. As climate change reaches its fine tendrils into every ecosystem, reorganizing our corners of the planet and our lives in subtle or brutal ways, a lack of language to describe the sense of dislocation that comes with it is dislocating in itself. We need more “intimate words” for this feeling. Solastalgia is a start.