Solastalgia

I want you to listen carefully to this extraordinary story for it is yours as well as mine. Just 15 minutes of your time, after which you may decide what you want to do with this information.

I wish to speak to you about solastalgia; a word barely a decade old but that has infected communities around the globe. Its reach is pervasive and undiscriminating.

It is felt by the indigenous Awá tribe of the Amazon who stand solemnly as their rainforest is ripped apart and thinned as though plagued by a virulent case of Alopecia.

Solastalgia lingers upon the cracked banks of Lake Poopò, once the second largest lake in Bolivia, now a stinking puddle. The residents who manned these shores for centuries have fled their home along with 75 different species of birds. Only the elderly remain.

Solastalgia is a term invented by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher and environmentalist, and it describes the kind of homesickness that emerges from staying put. It speaks of powerlessness and involuntary farewells, the whispered goodbye to a familiar place, landscape or home as it is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action. Solastalgia cannot be undone or abated like its brethren nostalgia, as what was lost would take centuries to return. It is the creeping sense of distress we feel when we realise that the world has reached its nadir and yet no one is doing anything to stop it. Solastalgia is part of the emerging lexis that gives a name to the environmental changes occurring in plain sight around us.

Its reach is pervasive and undiscriminating. It is felt by the indigenous Awá tribe of the Amazon who stand solemnly as their rainforest is ripped apart and thinned as though plagued by a virulent case of Alopecia. Solastalgia lingers upon the cracked banks of Lake Poopò, once the second largest lake in Bolivia, now a stinking puddle. The residents who manned these shores for centuries have fled their home along with 75 different species of birds. Only the elderly remain. Solastalgia is a term invented by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher and environmentalist, and it describes the kind of homesickness that emerges from staying put. It speaks of powerlessness and involuntary farewells, the whispered goodbye to a familiar place, landscape or home as it is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action. Solastalgia cannot be undone or abated like its brethren nostalgia, as what was lost would take centuries to return. It is the creeping sense of distress we feel when we realise that the world has reached its nadir and yet no one is doing anything to stop it. Solastalgia is part of the emerging lexis that gives a name to the environmental changes occurring in plain sight around us.

polluted river mongolia
Picture taken from Photographic Book: “Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot”. Author/Editor: Tom Butler

Less than 24 hours into her tenure at Number 10 news broke that Theresa May, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, has dissolved the Department of Energy and Climate Change in a tirade of sweeping reform.

This suicidal omission of climate change from the political agenda occurs one week after the publication of a report from the Independent Committee on Climate Change ascertaining that Britain was “poorly prepared” for the inevitable impacts of global warming in the coming decades.[1] This builds upon the 2015 national security strategy which ranked climate change as a firm equal to international terrorism in the threat it poses to the UK. Oxford Street remains one of the most polluted streets in the world, breaching EU limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions for the entire year in a mere 7 days. The effects of this invisible killer are manifold; 9,000 premature deaths per year in the capital alone are attributed to air pollution while its festering particles attack our skin ageing us 10% faster than those living in the countryside.[2]

“My explanation of the CCC report is not enough. The words are not big or frightening enough to contain the enormity of our climate cataclysm. Look around you. Look at this absurdly perfect, balanced environment. Start taking pictures of it. 1 in 10 species will be extinct by 2050.

The report painted an apocalyptic picture of the next 20-30 years if fossil fuel emissions are not drastically curtailed. London, a sizzling 48° degrees in August luring in a cohort of Zika-bearing mosquitos and dengue fever; the winter months spent fighting the ravages of vicious flooding expected to affect one million homes each year. NASA part funds a report warning that systemic collapse is ‘difficult to avoid’.[3] Food supply chains interrupted, soil erosion and contamination rendering harvest impossible and a swath of climate related war and migration as we battle it out for the last scraps of habitable land. The message is simple: keep this up and it’s a hot, flooded, dead Earth.

Bleached Coral
Dead coral reefs of Lizard Island, Australia, as a result of rising sea temperatures. Photograph Copyright: The Ocean Agency.

So why is it that the fate of our home is consistently downgraded from the political agenda?

Besides the obvious spoils of environmental exploitation, climate scepticism goes hand in hand with the tilt towards far right politics that currently plagues much of Europe. But as Brian Cox astutely pointed out in his article in The Guardian, suspicion of experts and denying the truth about the world around us is the way back to the cave.

Warnings of climate change go unheeded not because there is not enough data or research, but because they fall like feathers upon our profit obsessed and hardened governments. My explanation of the CCC report is not enough. The words are not big or frightening enough to contain the enormity of our climate cataclysm.

Look around you. Look at this absurdly perfect, balanced environment. Start taking pictures of it. 1 in 10 species will be extinct by 2050.[4]

For many people it is easier to imagine the demise of our planet than an overhaul of our political economy and yet our Earth is the only thing that transcends the barriers of culture, class, nationhood that we have so assiduously constructed.

And so it falls to us, the people, you and me. It falls to us even though 10% of all waste is contributed by households. It falls to us because “the world is not inherited from our ancestors but borrowed from our children”. 

Climate change asks hard questions of us all.

It asks us to think temporally in deep time, Earth time, the paths that run parallel and ahead of our own lifespans. It asks us to pull our heads out of the sand and look brutally at the impact we have made upon this planet. It asks even harder questions of scientists. Do we plough ahead with assisted migration to try and save the creatures we have left? Or will our involvement in their battle for survival create hybrid animals that pose threats to existing ecological systems?

Climate debates are not aided by the fact that we have to push and scream to even gain a foothold on the agenda about changing the world. Promising noises were made at the Paris Climate Convention in December last year during which 195 countries agreed to adopt a universal action plan limiting global warming to 2°C. But a mere 6 months later, Obama’s attempts to implement the necessary reforms have been stymied by the infantile politics of the Republican party who continue to deny climate change as a national concern. Theresa May has closed the department responsible for meeting carbon targets absorbing it into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Action where climate policies will have to fight to be heard above economic proposals for the flagging post-Brexit economy.

Bangladesh
Picture taken from Photographic Book: “Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot”. Author/Editor: Tom Butler

And so it falls to us, the people, you and me. It falls to us even though 10% of all waste is contributed by households. It falls to us because “the world is not inherited from our ancestors but borrowed from our children”[5].

At first look the task seems enormous, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of environmentally propped up capitalism. But we have to learn to hope with teeth.

Take comfort in the successes we have made so far. Look to campaigns such as Blackfish and realise our own potential to effect change on global organisations when it is packaged just right. Sign petitions and protest with Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Rainforest UK. Stop buying toothpaste with micro-beads that leaving the ocean clinking and wheezing like an antique armchair. Reduce your meat consumption. Support Sadiq Khan’s campaign to clean up the air in London’s cities. Plant trees. Support the switch over to renewable energy and glory in the revolutionary technologies that have been created that might just be enough to tide us through this epoch of geological adaption; Scott and Julie Brusaw’s revolutionary solar panels roads for one are worth checking out.  The Earth has a remarkable capacity to heal itself if we just let it breathe. And above all, do not be passive, lend your voice wherever you can because if the politicians defending the EU referendum result have taught us anything, it is that we as a democracy will be listened to if we shout loud enough.

“There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it.” – China Miéville, Limits of Utopia

 

[1] 2017 Committee for Climate Change Report. Available at: https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/uk-climate-change-risk-assessment-2017/

[2] Study conducted by Chinese Dermatologist Association and Olay Skincare.

[3] Review of the NASA Study: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/14/nasa-civilisation-irreversible-collapse-study-scientists

[4] Extinction Risk from Climate Change, (2004) C.D Thomas.
Available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v427/n6970/abs/nature02121.html

[5] Quote taken from: Wendell Berry The Unforeseen Wilderness (1971).