Saturday, 6 September 2008

Against Marohasy on Climate Change

We need to take a good hard look at the type of ‘facts’ Jennifer Marohasy (JM) presents before signing on to her view of the world. Also, take a good hard look at the above photo supporting the article. It shows a river with many dead trees (river red gums?) on its edges. The caption says “Catastrophe Averted: Salinity levels in the Murray have halved, but you won’t hear that from global warming zealots”. Is Marohasy and her paymaster (The Australian) actually suggesting that the landscape in the photograph shows a system in recovery? It looks more like a catastrophe to me.


For an updated PDF of the material presented below

Also, see my new ethicsclimate Blog (follow link)

Monday, 4 August 2008

Global Solastalgia

People in the front line of environmental change are now telling their stories of distress in the face of unwelcome disturbance to their homes. The Inuit of the Arctic Circle now use the word, “uggianaqtuq” to liken the weather to a once reliable and predictable old friend who is now acting very strangely. Solastalgia is a new concept in the English language I have developed to help explain the distress that comes from the lived experience of such unwelcome environmental change to a person’s sense of place.

As case studies the regions of Appalachia and the Hunter Valley of Australia have much in common. Both places were once seen as places of great beauty where humans could live in harmony with their bioregion. The Hunter Valley was once described as “the Tuscany of the South” while Appalachia has been praised in poetry, music and dance:

From The Bridge: The Dance
by Hart Crane

I took the portage climb, then chose
A further valley-shed; I could not stop.
Feet nozzled wat’ry webs of upper flows;
One white veil gusted from the very top.

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!—wisped of azure wands,
Excerpt taken from:

Martha Graham named her ballet ‘Appalachian Spring’ after the lines from Crane’s poem and Aaron Copeland’s famous music for the dance is known by this title. In her Blood Memories, Graham said that her choreography
… is essentially a dance of place. You choose a piece of land, part of the house goes up. You dedicate it. The questioning spirit is there and the sense of establishing roots.
(Martha Graham, Blood Memories: See )

Despite the rich natural and cultural histories, both places are now being transformed by the simultaneous processes of large scale coal mining and climate change. In response to the double pressures of ecosystem distress and a climate that is beginning to act in hostile and unpredictable ways, many people are experiencing solastalgia, a feeling of existential distress about negatively felt change. These people are feeling a kind of homesickness yet they are still at home. As your home is being desolated, that which once gave you solace is now giving you solastalgia.

There is no more graphic illustration of how people respond to a shift or change in the environment than with the case of mining. Mining literally takes your environment away from you; it undermines your sense of place. In Appalachia, mountain tops are removed; in Australia, the land becomes scarred like burnt flesh, new mountains of spoil and waste are formed while massive voids are carved out of the land.

As if this physical desolation was not enough, the climate, under the influence of global warming, is also becoming unpredictable and it is on the move. In coastal eastern Australia, you would now have to live about 150 kilometres further south than your present location in order to experience a climate similar to that of only 50 years ago. Earlier and warmer springs in the USA and Canada have already changed the sense of place and many species are moving their range further north and into higher altitudes. In order to stay in their home, some of the residents of our ecosystems are packing up and moving further north or south … depending on the hemisphere. Yet we humans remain rooted to the spot and wonder what is going on? For those sensitive enough to notice and bear witness to these unwelcome changes to well-being and sense of place, this addition to Healthearth will show that they are not alone and that solastalgia must be defeated in the simultaneous restoration of human and ecosystem health.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Solastalgia: The Origins and Definition

As an environmental philosopher at The University of Newcastle I had a reputation within my region as an activist and advocate for environmental conservation and I had published a number of academic and media articles on the environmental history and sustainability of the Hunter Region.

From about the year 2000 onwards, residents within the region would often ring me at work and talk to me about their concerns about particular environmental issues and I would advise and help as best I could.

However, I began to notice the increasing number of people who were concerned about the sheer scale of the environmental impacts in the Upper Hunter Region of NSW. In their attempts to halt the expansion of open cut coal mining and to control the impact of power station pollution, individuals would ring me at work pleading for help with their cause. These people were clearly distressed about the relationship to their home environment and the threat to their identity and well-being from changes to their environment. A visit to the Upper Hunter and close examination of the mining affected landscape confirmed the sheer scale and intensity of the negative changes to the environment.

I had been thinking about the relationship between environmental change, ecosystem distress and human distress for some time. Under the influence of Canadian ecosystem health guru David Rapport and his concept of ‘ecosystem distress syndrome’ I had been working through some of the influences on my own thinking about this relationship. The two major influences at this time were Aldo Leopold and his own concept of ‘land health’ and the Australia’s own pioneer environmental thinker, Elyne Mitchell.

I sought a suitable concept to describe the distress the people in the Upper Hunter were suffering. One word, ‘nostalgia’, came to prominence 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. It seemed very close to the condition that Upper Hunter people were manifesting yet had an obvious limitation in that I was dealing with people who were not distant from their home.


Nostalgia (from the Greek nostos - return to home or native land - and the New Latin suffix algia - pain or sickness from the Greek root algos) or literally, the sickness caused by the intense desire to return home was considered to be a medically diagnosable psycho - physiological disease right up to the middle of the C20. Found in the English language from 1757, nostalgia has been defined differently in different epochs. In 1905 nostalgia was defined as “…a feeling of melancholy caused by grief on account of absence from one’s home country, of which the English equivalent is homesickness. Nostalgia represents a combination of psychic disturbances and must be regarded as a disease. It can lead to melancholia and even death. It is more apt to affect persons whose absence from home is forced rather than voluntary" (William Fiennes 2002:122).

Nostalgia was particularly evident in soldiers fighting in foreign countries who experienced homesickness to the point where they became ill and unable to perform their duties. The cure for nostalgia was a prescription for afflicted soldiers to return home to recuperate and restore their well-being and health. According to Feinnes, nostalgia was still being discussed in journals such as War Medicine in the 1940s and “as late as 1946 was termed a possibly fatal ‘psycho-physiological’ complaint by an eminent social scientist”.

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 connection to the geographical or spatial ‘home’ and suggests a temporal dimension or ‘looking back’, a desire to be connected with a positively perceived period in the past. Typically, there is a longing for a cultural setting in the past in which a person felt more ‘at home’ than the present. For individuals who see the past as better than the present there is the possibility that nostalgia remains a very real experience that can lead to deep distress. For example, for Indigenous people who have been dispossessed of their lands and culture, the nostalgia for a past where former geographical and cultural integration was both highly valued and sustainable is an ongoing painful experience.

In the Upper Hunter, people were suffering from both imposed place transition (place pathology) and powerlessness (environmental injustice). In overview, there seemed to be some justification for the creation of a new concept that captured the conceptual space or territory connected to this particular constellation of the factors that define place and identity. The people I was concerned about were still ‘at home’, but felt 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 lacked was solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to a ‘home’ that was being desolated. In addition, they felt a profound sense of isolation about their inability to have a meaningful say and impact on the state of affairs that caused their distress. ‘Solastalgia’ was created to describe the specific form of melancholia connected to lack of solace and sense of desolation in the everyday and lived experience of people within their ‘home’. The English language lacked such a concept.


Solastalgia has its origins in the concepts of nostalgia, solace and desolation. Solace is derived from the Latin verb solari (noun solacium or solatium), with meanings connected to the alleviation or relief of distress or to the provision of comfort or consolation in the face of distressing events. Solace has connections to both psychological and physical contexts. One emphasis refers to the comfort one is given in difficult times (consolation) while another refers to that which gives comfort or strength. 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 and in need of consolation. If a person seeks solace or solitude in a much loved place that is being desolated, then they will suffer distress.

Desolation has its origins in the Latin solus (noun desolare) with meanings connected to devastation, deprivation of comfort, abandonment and loneliness. It too has meanings that relate to both psychological and physical contexts … a personal feeling of abandonment (isolation) and to a landscape that has been devastated.

In addition, the concept of solastalgia has been constructed such that it has a ghost reference or structural similarity to nostalgia thereby ensuring that a place reference is imbedded.

Hence, solastalgia has its origins in the New Latin word ‘nostalgia’ (and its Greek roots nostos and algos), however, it is based on two Latin roots, ‘solace’ and ‘desolation’, with a New Latin suffix, algia or pain, to complete its meaning.

Solastalgia is the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory. It is the 'lived experience' of negative environmental change. It is the homesickness you have when you are still at home. It is that feeling you have when your sense of place is under attack. While I claim responsibility for creating the concept of solastalgia and its meaning, I am aware that that the existential experience underlying it is not new ... only that it is newly defined in English (but possibly represented in many other languages). The experience of solastalgia might well be ancient and ubiquitous and under the impact of relentless environmental change, ecosystem distress and climate chaos, it may well become much more common. It is my sincere hope that the negative experience of solastalgia can be overcome by the restoration of ecosystem and human health via every form of creative enterprise at our disposal.