Saturday, 24 March 2007

Link to Healthearth website

More information about Solastalgia and research undertaken by Glenn Albrecht and his colleagues can be found at their website at

Friday, 23 March 2007

Turtle Tears

Turtle Tears

A leatherback turtle
caught in the wrong millennium
comes ashore one last time.

A long life cut short
by a long line of torture
… dying of detritus.

Hooks worm their way into flesh
necrotic nets garrotte the neck
body buoyed down and drowning.

Turtle tears soak the sand
a final sight of its hatching beach
a final sigh that traverses the world.

Ocean waves crash in the death shell
all ears hear the sighs and cries
too late to untangle the extinction.

Copyright: Glenn Albrecht.

[Written on the news (January 2006) of a two metre long, 150 year old, 350 kilogram, leatherback turtle that beached itself on the Victorian coast and died of injuries incurred as a result of entanglement in discarded fishing and boating gear]

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[1]. 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.[2]

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”[3].

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”.[4] 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.[5]

[1] see News in Science, Judy Skatssoon, Drought Prompts New Type of Mental Stress (accessed 22/08/2006)
[2] 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)
[3] see BMJ, UK foot and mouth epidemic was a human tragedy, not just an animal one (accessed 22/08/2006) at
[4] Albert Schweitzer, Civilization and Ethics translated by C.T. Campion. (London: Unwin, A & C Black, 1967), p.11.
[5] See Glenn Albrecht, Solastalgia: A New Concept in Human Health and Identity, in PAN (Philosophy, Activism, Nature) 2005 Issue. 3, 41-55.

Carbon Conservation Parks

The Anvil Hill Carbon Conservation Park

With a new baby granddaughter in the family I have been thinking about buying her a present. I would like to buy her the equivalent of my past lifetime’s worth of carbon dioxide pollution and lock it away so that it never enters the atmosphere. I have been eyeing off the proposed Anvil Hill mega coal mine in the Hunter Valley of NSW as a possible source of the coal that I would put into my carbon safe. I want to prevent Anvil Hill from ever becoming an active coal mine but I want to buy some of its coal, give it to Lilly, and leave it in the ground forever. I think millions of others worldwide would also like to ‘invest’ in the idea of a carbon conservation park.

Lilly will be only 33 in 2040 when carbon dioxide levels, assuming they do not increase any faster than the current rate of 2% per annum, reach 450 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. It is a gloomy thought, but we might already be dangerously close to that mark if the impact of all the greenhouse gases (e.g., methane and nitrous oxide) is taken into account. At this point, many of the world’s top climate science experts agree that a dangerous ‘tipping point’ could occur with the world’s climate spiraling out of control into much higher temperatures, polar meltdown with massive sea level rise and totally unpredictable weather systems. I will have to tell Lilly that largely due to the lack of Australian and USA political leadership, the Kyoto Protocol failed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and that in 2007, no major political party in Australia was prepared to immediately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, I have to tell her that both major parties, just before a national election, committed to major increases in our emissions for at least another two decades.

Coal miners and coal engineers love their children and grandchildren just as much as environmentalists do. We need to give to our children a sense of hope about the future and demonstrate that we are all prepared to make sacrifices right now in order to take excess greenhouse gases out of our economy and our atmosphere. Of course we must immediately cut our energy consumption and engage in massive energy conservation measures. It is equally obvious that a moratorium on all new coalmines and coal-fired power stations must be implemented while the energy conservation measures and the genuinely clean and safe renewable energy technologies of the post-combustion economy are put into place.

However, we still need to do more. A globally set cap on greenhouse gas emissions to bring the concentration down from its present 380 pmm to safer levels (less than 300 ppm) is urgently needed. From now to 2040 the Greenhouse Gas Index (GGI) will be far more important an indicator of our sustainability than the Dow Jones or the All Ordinaries. Right now, at a personal level, other than direct investment into clean, safe renewable energy technologies, the strongest ethical and practical statement we can make about our commitment to reducing the GGI is to buy pure carbon and permanently take it out of our economy. A clear demonstration that this mature, well-educated and affluent generation is prepared to pay for past greenhouse gas intensive lifestyles and forgo the immediate and future benefits of cheap carbon-based energy and leave it in the ground for the benefit of the common good is what the next generation needs to see right now.

We do not have the time (perhaps 20 years) to wait for speculative carbon capture and storage technologies that only partially reduce emissions even if they succeed. Conventional carbon offset businesses also offer only a limited solution to our current emissions. When we grow a new forest as a carbon offset we buy the equivalent of our carbon pollution as carbon dioxide sequestered in the living and dead matter in trees. However, the problems with forest carbon offset schemes are that the actual amount of carbon sequestered is not easy to calculate and that it can be converted into fugitive carbon dioxide by natural or human-made disaster. If a fire goes through our offset forest, and the forest is not regrown, most of our carbon goes up in smoke. Forests are also long term propositions and we cannot wait another 50 years before a significant amount of carbon is locked up in trees.

Other schemes for C02 offsets seem dodgy. Early dry season burning in Arnhem Land, burning methane from coal mines, non-audited alternative energy schemes in developing countries and low energy light bulbs that never get turned on give the whole idea a bad reputation. A radical new approach to carbon accounting is needed.

Let’s examine the proposed Anvil Hill coal mine in the Hunter Valley as a case study in carbon accounting. Over its projected life of about 20 years it produces 10.5 million tonnes of coal per annum. If the coal is sold on the open market, at $50 (Aus) a tonne, the current historically high price, this coal is worth about $525 million per annum for the shareholders of Centennial Coal, minus about 7% for royalties paid to the government (calculated after costs such as washing and transport to port have been deducted). The final value would be less than $500 million per annum. If, theoretically, the carbon dioxide produced by Anvil Hill is captured and sequestered, at the current cost of about $100 per tonne of coal, it would deliver to Centennial a $500 million loss per annum. I can feel a huge public subsidy for carbon capture and storage coming on.

Moreover, if we convert 10.5 million tonnes of dirty coal via combustion to the 27 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (its 100 year global warming impact), then according to the Stern Report, it generates $109 per tonne in costs in damage to the earth and our economies or over $1.0 billion per annum. Again, Anvil Hill makes a $500 million loss per annum. The economics of business-as- usual and carbon capture and storage just do not add up. It is obvious that options other than burning coal are urgently needed.

With a shift in imagination we can think about Anvil Hill’s annual 27 million tonnes of C02 equivalent as a guaranteed and instant pure carbon offset, one that can never be subject to accidental carbon dioxide release. With the current price for carbon offsets in NSW at $20 a tonne, then by selling the pure coal as a carbon offset, the value of the coal would be about $500 million per annum. To offset the 27 tonnes of C02 equivalent per annum generated on average by each person in Australia, it would cost me a mere $500.

After consulting with my carbon accountant, I give baby Lilly on her first birthday a certificate showing her that I have purchased the equivalent of my past 10 year’s generation of greenhouse gas emissions. As my financial situation allows, I will be able to offset the total of my past 54 years of treating the earth as a ‘free’ waste bin for my greenhouse gas emissions.

As others worldwide make similar bequests of pure carbon, never to be used in the future, for their children and grandchildren, we speed up the decarbonisation of our economy. However, I still have to pay more in the here and now for carbon-based fuels in the form of other carbon taxes that are designed bring the GGI down to below 300ppm. No purchase of ‘indulgences’ here where I continue a carbon profligate lifestyle without taking carbon out of the economy. I pay twice for my carbon, once for my past consumption and again as I consume carbon in the last days of the combustion economy. Ultimately, as the economy becomes carbon neutral, my carbon tax noose is loosened. I have offset my lifetime’s emissions and I pay no more carbon taxes in a post-carbon and post combustion world.

The Anvil Hill Carbon Conservation Park option looks like good value as it includes the complete preservation of landscape values, ecosystem services (water supply, arable soil, biodiversity) and no additional cumulative impacts on farmers and residents of the Upper Hunter. The shareholders of Centennial have a return on their investment and the State of NSW gets offset royalties from permanently sequestered carbon. I see no reason why coal from any other working coal mine cannot be bought by those who wish never to mine or burn it; after all, it is a free market.

Moreover, it would be optimally ethical for the State government to invest all of its new carbon offset royalties into clean, renewable and safe energy technologies with all new employment going to ex-coal industry workers. A final bonus is that we will not have to develop hugely expensive ‘cleaner’ coal technology as we save a lot of money by leaving coal in the ground. All this money then goes into developing clean, safe renewable energy. This is a win, win, win situation and the Anvil Hill Carbon Conservation Park will become world famous as a turning point that helped prevent the tipping point into global climate chaos.