Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of our Changing Environment

“As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffereing in return?” (Daniel Smith, 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 ;-)

33 thoughts on “Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of our Changing Environment

  1. Pingback: International Community for Ecopsychology › Psyberspace

  2. Yes, Paul loves a neologism, constantly pushing his readers’ vocabulary into an appreciation for the infinite generative possibilities within language. Much appreciated, even if it often leaves me confused.

    Interesting piece, Paul. I’ve been thinking about this, too, because I keep hearing the Generation Y is going to be more ecologically aware and environmentally activist than my generation (the early edge of Gen X). I just don’t see it. In fact, I’m more than a little mortified at environmental callousness demonstrated by young people frequently, especially if they face a choice between consumption and conservation.

    Your post has me thinking again about how we discuss huge problems, and if the effort to persuade holdouts in the environmental discussion that there IS a problem actually contributes to the demobilization of those who already care because we bombard the public indiscriminately with depressing images of the environment under assault. That is, if the messages meant to prod the indifferent can actually overwhelm those who are concerned, breeding greater insensitivity. Sometimes I wish politicians and leaders would do more to sell the positive, post-transformation vision of what conservation, higher efficiency, and simpler lifestyles could do for us in a positive sense — the cleaner, less stressful, simpler life as an inducement, rather than always the horror stories to frighten people into action.

    • Thanks Greg! I hope readers of this post also read your remarks. I feel that you present a clear picture that is more succinct than my own.

      It would also be great if politicians, policy makers and public relations officers also take note of your positive and constructive comments!

  3. Pingback: Nostalgia, solastalgia, and some other pains « Dead Voles

  4. Thanks for the link. I enjoyed this post and will read Smith’s article on Albrecht’s research. There are many times when I feel my own concern for the environment and the havoc we are causing is just to much to bear and yet I can not ubderstand why others seem totally unaware of what is going on.

    I’m adding you blog to my reader,

  5. This is a very important article, and both author and Dr Albrecht
    deserve high praise for this effort. As more and more climate refugees
    flood the northern regions of the world in the next 500 years, racing
    against time to find safe refuge in climate refugee settlements in
    Alaska, Canada, Russia, New Zealand and Tasmania, living in what I
    have dubbed polar cities — google the term — they will suffer
    exactly from solastalgia, and by giving us this word to contemplate Dr
    Albrecht has done the world some good. Some very good! Words give us
    visions and by speaking the word solastalgia and coming to understand
    what Dr A means by it, we and future generations will become more
    concious of where we are headed during the Great Interruption from
    2500 to 3500 AD. Bravo to Dan Smith for a very good piece of
    journalism. Bravo a thousand times!

  6. Hello Paul, thanks for the great discussion of the key ideas in Daniel’s article. Just one thing or two.

    Nostalgia was created by Johannes Hofer in a dissertation, written in Latin in Basel in 1688. The new word was a translation into Greek and New Latin of the German word heimweh or the pain for home. Similar concepts have been used in other languages for the feeling of loss when a person is separated from their home environment. Nostalgia (from the Greek nostos – return to home or native land – and the New Latin suffix algia – suffering, pain or sickness from the Greek root algos) or literally, the sickness caused by the intense desire to return home. According to Hofer, the symptoms of nostalgia included “ … continued sadness, meditation only on the Fatherland, disturbed sleep either wakeful or continuous, decreased strength, hunger, thirst, senses diminished … even palpitations of the heart” (Feines 2002:106)[ the Snow Goose … yes, a wonderful novel/book]

    The Leisureguy link should be to Clive Thompson and his WIRED article @ http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/16-01/st_thompson

    I have created the concept of ‘ecoparalysis’ to describe much of what concerns you. I will be putting this concept on my Blog shortly.

    My regards,

    Glenn.

  7. you know, on re-reading the times article, i feel the story was hijacked by the New Age therapists in Northwest of USA, pure New Age gobbeldeegoo, the story should have focused just on Dr Glenn’s work, he is an activist a thinker. those shrinks are just shrinks. in the end, that article sucked. dan smith, you let us readers down.

  8. Paul,
    Greg Downey has given you a great lead – and I am pleased that you have taken note of it.
    Try to cut through the complexity of “matter” and strike at the heart (deliberately, constructively and succinctly)

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  10. I have the feeling that there is a growing recognition of the problems with the way environmental messages have been constructed and I agree with Greg that people need to find ways to promote the positive side of more sustainable living. As I mentioned in a recent post on Culture Matters, people are starting to realise that environmental discourse has been very good at stating what it’s against, but much less successful at promoting what it’s for. There is also a death’s head lurking behind much of the language about climate change — imagery of a burning planet and so on. People are reminded of decline, decay and death. Never mind if it’s objectively true or not, it’s language that produces a gut level sense of repulsion in many people.

    George Monbiot has recently tried to theorise the psychology of climate change. Interestingly he bases his argument on the work of an anthropologist, Ernst Becker, who argued back in the 70’s that a fear of death can produce various kinds of “immortality projects”, and even behaviours that hasten people towards the deaths that they so fear.

    And finally, I was just reading this post about the dangers of too much technology in the lives of kids. The arguments about the restorative powers of nature and the production of indifference through technology are very similar to the solastalgia ones.

  11. RE: my above comment: “you know, on re-reading the times article, i feel the story was hijacked by the New Age therapists in Northwest of USA, pure New Age gobbeldeegoo, the story should have focused just on Dr Glenn’s work, he is an activist a thinker. those shrinks are just shrinks. in the end, that article sucked. dan smith, you let us readers down.”

    A friend read this and told me “Danny, chill.” He wrote: Danny, I really enjoyed reading Dan Smith’s article. It highlights important things that help get the word out. Chill out and appreciate quality when it happens.”

    I accept that, too.

    But I also feel that even climate activists like Joe Romm and Daniel Smith and Glenn Albrecht are in climate denial. Why do I say this? It’s in regard to a comment made by DAVID of CAPE TOWN SOUTH AFRICA on the NYTimes site:

    “Daniel Smith’s implicit assumption in the article seems to be that the move to a ever more industrialised, technological future is inevitable and desirable and unavoidable, but that somehow we can turn to psychology to game our way past the mental dis-ease that will increasingly overtake us as we over-develop and destroy our environment.

    I suspect he is wrong, and that there will be no way, other than a deep “green” future, to restore our deep mental health.

    It seems to me, for example, that there are different orders of “climate change denialism”, and that those who acknowledge climate change yet imagine that it is a problem that can be resolved through deploying new technologies are simply on a different part of the “denial” spectrum elsewhere occupied by those who refuse to acknowledge even the existence of human-induced climate change.

    I write as a one-time technological utopian,” he wrote.

    DANNY BLOOM adds to NYTimes comments page and here:

    After reading the comments to SMith’s articlem, all 95 of them, pro and con, i can
    only conclude that everyone here, more or less, is in denial about
    climate chaos coming out way in the distant future. Even Daniel B. Smith is
    in denial, even Dr Glenn Albrecht is in denial, all the therapists
    interviewed for the article are in denial, Kahn and Hasbrach etc, and most comments here and at the Times blog too
    are in denial. You still think there is a fix. In fact, there is not
    fix. No engingeering fix, no geoengineering fix, no technologcail fix,
    humankind is coming to a major impasse, and billions will die in a
    series of massive die-offs in the next 500 years — not now — and
    about 200,000 remnants of humankind will make it to polar cities in
    Alaska and New Zealand to serve as breeding pairs to keep the human
    species alive, and later, maybe year 10,000 AD, these remnants will
    repopulate the Earth when the climate clears again. This is the
    direction we are headed in. I am not in denial. I completely accept
    this fate for humankind. Those who do not accept this, you are in
    denial. you want life to continue as is, therapy sessions and all. get
    over it. we are headed to a place where ”Mad Max” meets ”The Road”.
    Prepare. Well, not now. Now is okay. Help future generations prepare, is what I mean.

  12. My own reaction is that everyone, most everyone, is
    in denial about what climate change is really going to do to Earth and
    the human species, even Bill MicKibben and George Monbiot, the
    radicals, they are in denial. Of course, the denialists are in denial,
    but so are most climate activiists. Most people think there will be a
    fix: techno fix, geo-engineering fix, future fix. Wrong. This time
    there is no fix. We done got caught with our hands in the cookie jar
    and Mother Earth is angry, over the top. The only solution, far
    distant, but worth planning for today, as i am sure the CIA and
    Homeland Security are doing at this very moment, is adaption
    stratagies to save those remnants of humans who survive. Therefore:
    polar cities. 30 generations from now. An ecotherapist in the Pacific
    Niorthwest tells me just today, after veiwing polar cities images
    online: : I’m not sure what sort of response you’re looking for,
    Danny, though I do appreciate your message.
    I find the images of the polar cities and “Climate Retreat Living
    Pods” to be both beautiful, from a design perspective, and somber. I’m
    reminded of a combination of images from a 1930s “city of the future,”
    a 1950s nuclear fallout shelter, and a 1970’s era “futuristic”
    eco-home. Outside of their obvious practical utility, these
    structures strike me as a good example of the adaptive use of the
    psychological mechanism of anticipation.

    http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

    But another visionary, with very good ideas, disagrees with me,
    saying: Danny, the worst form of denial is the attempt to exclude all
    other voices from a collective debate. If you cannot be constructive
    in debates and discussions that everybody has a legitimate interest
    in, then it is better to keep out and leave the hard work to those
    prepared to put constructive work in. There is nothing easier than to
    be hypercritcial once other people do all the creative work.
    I have no desire to debate or argue this point with you.

    Note: Danny adds — And I am an optimist. I see survival. But it’s
    gonna get rough. The Great Interruption is not going to be a pretty
    Madison Avenue picture. We are at war: this is World War Three. Will
    last a long time. Man the lifeboats! Woman the lifeboats. They don’t
    call me James Lovelock’s Accidental Student for nothing. Sigh.

    Are you in denial? Think about it

  13. Pingback: Solastalgia, Soliphilia and the Ecopsychology of our Changing Environment « Later On

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  18. Thanks for sharing this. The idea of making a new English word to
    highlight the climate depression is brilliant.

    But, as a Persian, I can remember lots of Persian poetry in which you
    see a firm association between the beauty of love and the beauty of
    the surrounding nature.

    There are lots of instances of Persian couplets composed by Hafez,
    Nezami, Saadi, among many others, that in the first one you see an
    exquisite praise of your love and in the second one you read some
    natural features and context that shaped your memory of that love,
    either metaphorically or literally.

    Therefore, each time you read most of such poems you not only miss the
    loved one or the lovely scene you had with him or her but also feel a
    great miss for the environment in which your story happened. In other
    words, human love and nature love make up a gestalt. You cannot
    separate them now and will remember both of them in the future.

    A most well known example of such poetry is the works of Rudaki, the
    first great literary genius of the Modern Persian, see this couplet
    for just a glimpse of a too rich literature of Solastalgia and
    Soliphilia :

    Farsi (Persian): Booye Jooye Moolian Ayad Hami

    English: Here comes the scent of Moolian brook

    Farsi (Persian): Yade Yare Mehraban Ayad Hami

    English: Here comes memory of the good comrade

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  21. Very interesting. I am a neighbor to the now hopefully defunct Vasse coal mine in wa and have much empathy with solastalgia sufferers. I do understand first hand soliphilia. I practice spence of place in my professional life. Love to chat with you. 0411592187

  22. Pingback: What is Solistalgia? | Wings, Worms, and Wonder

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