Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of our Changing Environment
Posted by Paul Mason on January 30, 2010
Pelourinho is the historical and cultural drawcard for tourists visiting Salvador da Bahia in Brazil. A lively epicentre of music, dance and restaurants, the area merits its prized holiday destination status. Tourists who visit the Mercado Modelo in Pelourinho might venture beneath this popular market into the slave chambers below and become aware of the tragic history of slavery that haunts the region. What many tourists might not know, however, is that the Pelourinho district underwent massive restoration efforts under the government during the 1970s and the 1990s. The area had become home to the poor and they were offered no more than a month’s wages or nothing at all to vacate and relocate. Studies show that of the 1300 families living in Pelourinho in 1992, only about 200 were able to remain in the neighbourhood (Collins, 2004:212). Those who have seen the changes can tell you how much the tourist development of Pelourinho affected the lives of the people that lived there. But even without a mastery of Portuguese, you don’t have to wander far off the pretty streets of Pelourinho to see a community in disarray. In my own travels, I encountered pregnant women high on drugs, old drunken men wielding screwdrivers as weapons and seven year olds with pocket-knives and guns. You only have to look at the long queue of tourists that line up daily at the tourist-police bureau to understand the amount of crime that plagues the region. Tourists are not being robbed by poor people that hate them, the tourists are being robbed by people who are indifferent to them.
The local government has not stopped removing people from their homes in their bid to increase tourism. There are still attempts to forcefully move people out of the coast-dwelling shanty-towns in order to erect 5-star resorts and luxury wharfs. One of the communities that I worked with in the Alto da Sereia were actively involved in public actions to resist these attempts. There are people who care, but I have to admit that Brazil was the first place where I learnt that indifference really is the opposite of love. So many people have grown up learning to be indifferent to their situation as a psychological survival strategy against solastalgia. This culturally entrained indifference is the source of a lot of crime in Brazil. In my own country, Australia, I am starting to see the cultural entrainment of ‘indifference‘ taking place in another sphere of human concern that affects our homes and where we live.
Solastalgia: noun. From the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain). “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.”
The New York Times has a fascinating article asking “Is there an ecological unconscious?” Starting off with a brief story about Australian researcher Glenn Albrecht who is Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University, the article goes on to discuss ecopsychology which is the study of: “the interplay between human beings and their natural environment.” Albrecht‘s story struck me because the condition of solastalgia is as important to understand as nostalgia. I once thought that nostalgia was a section of the video store containing old movies, or at most a sentiment that old people felt for the “good ol’ days”, but when I read William Fiennes’ The Snow Geese while on my own travels of self-discovery in Europe, I learnt that nostalgia was a real neurological disturbance closely related to depression.
“In 1668 a Swiss physician, Mulhausen, proposed that it be known by the term ‘nostalgia’, a word he had constructed from the Greek nostos, meaning ‘return’, and algos, meaning ‘suffering'”. From the sound of “nostalgia”, one can “define the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.”
The debilitating effects of Nostalgia can occur when you are physically displaced from somewhere you call home. Solastalgia occurs when the environment you call home changes unrecognisably for reasons beyond your immediate control. Solastalgia can lead to distress, but I believe that this distress is felt by people who care. I am not concerned about the psychological effects of solastalgia as much as I am concerned about the psychological defense against solastalgia. The indifference and resignation that the sensitive observer can read on the faces of the poor in Pelourinho, the indifference that can lead a seven year old to hold a gun to a person’s head and demand money, the indifference that can allow a pregnant mother to abuse drugs are all, to my mind, a psychological defence to the debilitating emotion of ‘care’ in a world that has taken away even the most fundamental security of ‘home’ and removed all sense of place. In subtle yet alarming ways, I can see a similar culture of indifference creeping into societies who are beginning to understand that “In a world that’s quickly heating up and drying up, you can’t go home again — even if you never leave.” (Leisureguy)
From my earliest days at primary school in Australia, I can remember learning about pollution, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, global warming, climate change, the destruction of the rainforests, exploitation of marine life, overpopulation and poverty. And yet, today so many of my age group either seem numb to the topics or they simply have a jerk reflex whenever the issues are raised. Often the topic is changed all too easily. Daniel Smith’s article in the New Yort Times, however, has made me think that perhaps another process is at work. Perhaps there is an overwhelming solastalgia that we feel when discussing these topics that leads many of us to avoid the issues, ignore the problems and consciously overlook what we really need to be doing. The idea that the changes that we have begun are irreversible, (or at the very least the changes we have contributed to are irreversible), is an idea that is perhaps too much to bare and in an act of self-preservation, in a defense against overwhelming solastalgia, we have learnt to become indifferent.
Daniel Smith’s article also gives me hope. Albrecht‘s most recent research is about Soliphilia: “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.” Soliphilia is associated with positivity, interconnectedness and personal empowerment. If we can make our psychological defense against solastalgia into the positive manifestation of soliphilia, then we can definitely improve the interplay between human beings and their environment for generations to come.
You can read more about Glenn Albrecht’s research at his blog: Healthearth
p.s. As Greg knows, I have always been a softy for neologisms ;-)