Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Solastalgia: A new psychoterratic condition
Cultures all over the world have concepts in their languages that relate psychological states to states of the environment. The Hopi have used the word koyaanisqatsi to describe conditions where life is disintegrating and out of balance. The Portugese use the word saudade to describe a feeling one has for a loved one who is absent or has disappeared. The North Baffin Inuit of the Arctic have applied the word, uggianaqtuq, ((pronounced OOG-gi-a-nak-took) is) to the climate and weather. The word means to behave unexpectedly or in an unfamiliar way and has connotations of a “friend acting strangely” or in an unpredictable way. The weather has become uggianaqtug for them.
Worldwide, under the relentless impact of development and climate change, humans are experiencing epidemics of physical and mental disease that have connections to the environment, yet we have very few concepts in English that address environmentally induced distress and illness. I propose two new categories; psychoterratic and somaterratic illness that make the connection between the state of the earth (terra) and mental and physical health. In addition, I suggest that one very old concept, nostalgia, needs to be re-examined as a legitimate psychoterratic disease to be seen along side solastalgia, an important new concept in our understanding of environmentally induced health and illness. What with relentless development pressure and climate chaos (global warming + climate change = climate chaos), both somaterratic and psychoterratic illnesses are likely to increase dramatically.
We have one word in the English language that very closely connects human distress to the place where we live, our ‘home’. The word, ‘nostalgia’, was once a concept linked to a diagnosable illness associated with melancholia experienced by people who were distant from their home and wanted to return. Nostalgia (nostos = return to home or native land, algia = pain or sickness) or literally, ‘homesickness’, was considered to be a serious medically diagnosable psychosomatic disease with the potential to cause death in those afflicted right up to the middle of the C20.
The indigenous peoples of the earth who have been dispossessed of their lands and its cultural meanings are also likely to experience the pathology of nostalgia. The nostalgia for a past where former geographical and cultural integration was both highly valued and sustainable is for them an ongoing painful experience. Worldwide, displaced indigenous people experience physical and mental illness at rates far beyond those of other groups of humans. Their social problems; unemployment, alcoholism, substance abuse, violence, disproportionately high rates of crime and incarceration, lead to community dysfunction and crisis. People, who are dispossessed, either by force, or via disaster, will experience the serious distress of nostalgia.
However, in general, reference to ‘nostalgia’ as a sickness resulting from a longing or desire to return home while one is away from ‘home’ is no longer in common use. The more frequent modern use of the term loses its intense connection to the geographical ‘home’ and suggests a ‘looking back’ to a positively perceived period in the past.
Dispossession is one trigger for environmentally induced distress. But what about the idea of environmentally induced distress in people who are not displaced? There are places on earth that are not being completely ‘lost’, but are being ‘transformed’. People who are not voluntarily nor forcibly removed from their homes can also experience place-based distress in the face of the lived experience of profound environmental change.
It seems that we lack an appropriate concept for the distress humans directly experience that is caused by environmental change. There is therefore justification for the creation of a new concept that captures the space or territory connected to this particular constellation of the factors that define environmentally induced distress. The people of concern are still ‘at home’, but feel a similar melancholia as that caused by nostalgia connected to the breakdown of the normal relationship between their psychic identity and their home. What these people lack is solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to ‘home’, and so, a new form of psychoterratic illness needs to be defined.
From Nostalgia to Solastalgia
There are few words in English that closely connect psychological and environmental states. One such word is, ‘desolation’ and its meanings refer both to a personal feeling of abandonment (isolation) and to a landscape that has been devastated. The word ‘solace’ also relates to both psychological and physical contexts. One meaning refers to the comfort one is given in difficult times (consolation) while another refers that which gives comfort or strength to a person. A person or a landscape might give solace, strength or support to other people. Special environments might provide solace in ways that other places cannot. If a person lacks solace then they are distressed without the possibility of consolation. If a person seeks solace or solitude in a much loved place that is being desolated, then they will also suffer distress. In both contexts there is anguish or pain (algia).
Therefore, I suggest ‘solastalgia’ to describe the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under assault (physical desolation). It can be contrasted to the spatial and temporal dislocation and dispossession experienced as nostalgia. Solastalgia is the ‘lived experience’ of the loss of the value 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 immediate and given. In brief, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at ‘home’.
Any context where place identity is challenged by pervasive change to the existing order has potential to deliver solastalgia. Transformative technologies and emergent disease (for human and non-human life) have enabled change to occur to cultural and natural environments at a speed that makes adaptation difficult if not impossible. While some might respond to such stress with nostalgia and want to return to a desired past place or time, others will experience solastalgia and express a strong desire to sustain those things that provide solace.
The factors that cause solastalgia can be both natural and artificial. Natural disasters such as drought, fire and flood can be a cause solastalgia. Human-induced change such as war, terrorism, land clearing, mining, rapid institutional change and the gentrification of older parts of cities can also be causal agents. The concept of solastalgia has relevance in any context where there is the direct experience of negative transformation or desolation of the physical environment (home) by forces that undermine a personal and community sense of identity, belonging and control.
In areas affected by prolonged drought desolation to both farmers and the landscape occurs. Research undertaken on the mental health aspects of the drought have concluded that it is not just large scale landscape change (loss of vegetation, dust storms, dead animals, starving animals etc), it is also smaller scale events like the loss of a much loved farmhouse garden that finally trip people over into solastalgically induced depression and illness. Similar situations occur when citizens and communities experience severe impacts from open caste mining. Dust, noise, machines, explosions and pollution all have their effects and a once much loved landscape can be dramatically transformed by such activity. Research in Australia conducted by the author and colleagues has found clear connections between the loss of ecosystem health and felt declines in both physical and mental health of those affected by large scale industrial activity.
The concept of solastalgia can also be applied to understanding the social impacts of disease epidemics. For example, in the epidemic of foot and mouth disease in the UK in 2001 between 6.5 million and 10 million animals were slaughtered prevent the spread of the disease. The loss of the animals and their absence in the rural landscape and economy was a cause of great distress in rural England. A study from Lancaster University found that the epidemic had far-reaching psychosocial impacts. Those farmers and people in their communities directly affected by the sudden change to the environment felt “distress, feelings of bereavement, fear of a new disaster … flashbacks, nightmares, and uncontrollable emotion”.
With an increasing incidence of emergent diseases such as HIV AIDS, Asian Bird Flu and SARS, whole social environments can be rendered rapidly ‘at risk’ of complete devastation and transformation. When, for example, thousands of animals must be slaughtered or whole communities and institutions (e.g., hospitals) must be isolated from the rest of the world, solastalgia is a likely outcome for those affected. The HIV pandemic in Africa affects community integrity so profoundly that all sense of ‘home’ and family relationships is desolated. In such circumstances ‘home’ becomes pathological and those who are living with the disease as well as those who are their carers experience acute solastalgia as well as a devastating disease burden.
The most poignant moments of solastalgia occur when individuals are directly involved in or directly experience the transformation of a loved environment. Living through the terrorism of 9/11 2001 or a hurricane such as Katrina in 2005 and watching houses and whole urban landscapes of New Orleans devastated by subsequent flooding would be a traumatic case of solastalgia. Those who were voluntarily displaced but then return ‘home’ to such devastation would manifest distress of a solastalgic kind. Equally, those who survived the tsunami in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand in December 2004 and remained in their utterly transformed environments would have experienced deep solastalgic distress. At a less directly traumatic level, witnessing the removal of much loved trees for new development in an urban environment can be the cause of a profound distress that can be manifest as intense visceral pain and mental anguish.
A diagnosis of solastalgia is based on the recognition of the degree that distress within an individual or a community is connected to the loss of an endemic sense of place. All people who experience solastalgia are negatively affected by their desolation and likely responses can include the generalised distress and feelings of loss and bereavement outlined above but can escalate into more serious health and medical problems such as drug abuse, physical illness and forms of mental illness. So powerful is the connection between a loved place and the experience of negative transformation, that for some people, suicide is seen as the only form of relief from psychoterratic distress (particularly indigenous people).
Positive outcomes from the negative experience of solastalgia stem firstly from the recognition of the psychoterratic cause of the distress. There is potential empowerment in the clear acknowledgment of that which needs to be confronted. Secondly, a commitment to engage in action to cooperate with and support distressed people and heal distressed environments is itself a profoundly healing act. As was found in the British context of foot and mouth disease, engagement in human support networks is an important counter to the solastalgic distress caused by various forms of disaster.
In Australia, voluntary land care groups have formed to offer mutual support for each other (solidarity) and engage in direct action to restore and repair of distressed environments. Indigenous communities in Northern Australia have been able to achieve important advances in human health while at the same time actively repairing their damaged biophysical environment. In all cases, it is clear that good human health (mental and physical) is intimately tied to ecosystem health.
Many people sense that something is wrong with our relationship with the planet and their unease just might be an expression of deep-seated solastalgia about non-sustainability. Climate chaos is already causing profound changes to our sense of place. The intense desire to be organically connected to life and living landscapes is, in part, a desire to overcome solastalgia by finding an earthly ‘home’ in the connection with living things and life processes on this planet. As put simply by Albert Schweitzer, “ethics is nothing else than reverence for life”. In all aspects of life; social, cultural, psychological, political, scientific and economic; humans need to redirect their energy and intelligence to an ethically inspired, urgent practical response to overcoming the causes of solastalgia.
 see News in Science, Judy Skatssoon, Drought Prompts New Type of Mental Stress (accessed 22/08/2006) http://abc.net.au/science/news/stories/s1374921.htm
 See L. Connor, G. Albrecht, N. Higginbotham, W. Smith, & S. Freeman, (2004) Environmental Change and Human Health in Upper Hunter Communities of New South Wales, Australia, EcoHealth Vol. 1, Supplement 2, pp. 47-58. (Published online: 28 October 2004, Hard Copy Vol. 1 (Suppl. 2), 47-58)
 see BMJ, UK foot and mouth epidemic was a human tragedy, not just an animal one (accessed 22/08/2006) at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-10/bmj-ufa100605.php
 Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics translated by C.T. Campion. (London: Unwin, A & C Black, 1967), p.11.
 See Glenn Albrecht, Solastalgia: A New Concept in Human Health and Identity, in PAN (Philosophy, Activism, Nature) 2005 Issue. 3, 41-55.