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Solastalgia: environmental damage has made it possible to be homesick without leaving home.

WE HAVE ONE WORD in the English language that very closely connects human distress to the place we live, our home. The word, "nostalgia," was once associated with melancholia, and experienced by people who were distant from home and wanted to return. Right up to the middle of the 20th century, people considered nostalgia (literally, homesickness: nostos = return to home or native land and algia = pain or sickness) to be a serious, medically diagnosable psychosomatic disease, with the potential to cause death in those afflicted.


The Indigenous people of the Earth who have been dispossessed of their land and its cultural meanings are likely to experience the pathology of nostalgia. The nostalgia for a past in which geographical and cultural integration were both highly valued and sustainable is, for them, an ongoing, painful experience. Worldwide, displaced Indigenous people experience physical and mental illness at rates beyond those of other groups. 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, by either force or disaster, will experience the serious distress of nostalgia.

Dispossession is one trigger, but environmentally induced distress also occurs in people who are not displaced. There are places on Earth that are not completely lost, but are radically transformed. People who are neither voluntarily nor forcibly removed from their homes can experience place-based distress in the face of the profound environmental change. Although the people of concern are at home, they feel a melancholia similar to that caused by nostalgia. They experience a breakdown of a healthy relationship between their psychic identity and their home. They lack the sense of solace or comfort that is usually derived from their relationship to home. It seems that we lack an appropriate concept for this lived experience; consequently, there is justification for a new concept to capture the constellation of factors that cause environmentally induced distress.

From Nostalgia to Solastalgia

Apart from nostalgia, there are very 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 to that which gives comfort or strength. A person or a landscape might provide this kind of solace, while special environments might provide solace in ways that other places cannot. If a person lacks solace, then he or she is distressed without the possibility of consolation. If a person seeks solace or solitude in a much-loved place that is being desolated, then she or he 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 from, the present state of one's home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the beloved place in which one resides is under assault (physical desolation). This can be contrasted to the spatial and temporal dislocation and dispossession experienced as nostalgia. Solastalgia is the lived experience of the loss of value of the present and is 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 in which pervasive change to the existing order challenges place identity 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 may 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 of solastalgia. Human-induced change such as war, terrorism, land clearing, climate change, mining, rapid institutional change and the gentrification of older parts of cities can also be causal agents. The concept of solastalgia has relevance wherever 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 of both farmers and landscape occurs. In News in Science, Gina Sartore describes her research on the mental health aspects of drought. She concludes that it is not only large-scale landscape changes, such as loss of vegetation, dust storms or dead and starving animals, but also smaller-scale events, like the loss of a much loved farmhouse garden, that finally tip people over into solastalgically induced depression and illness. Similar situations occur when citizens and communities experience the severe impacts of open pit mining. Dust, noise, machines, explosions and pollution all have their effects; a once loved landscape can be dramatically transformed by such activity. Research in Australia conducted by the author and colleagues shows that in cases of large-scale industrial activity, there are clear connections between loss of ecosystem health and perceived declines in both physical and mental health of those affected.

The concept of solastalgia can also be applied to understanding the social impacts of disease epidemics. For example, in the UK's 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease, government policy intended to prevent the spread of the ailment resulted in the slaughter of as many as 10 million animals. The loss of the animals and their absence from the landscape and economy caused great distress in rural England. A study from Lancaster University found that the epidemic had far-reaching psychosocial impacts. Farmers and community members 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 at risk of rapid and complete transformation. When, for example, thousands of animals must be slaughtered or whole communities and institutions (such as 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 sense of home and family relationships are desolated. In such circumstances, home becomes pathological, and those who are living with the disease as well as their caregivers experience acute solastalgia and a devastating disease burden.

The most poignant moments of solastalgia occur when individuals directly experience the transformation of a loved environment. Consider the people who had their homes and whole urban landscape devastated by Hurricane Katrina or, equally, those who survived the tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004 and remained in their utterly transformed environments. In both cases, chronic distress of a solastalgic kind about the loss of solace from their home environments would persist well after the acute phase of post-traumatic distress. At a less directly traumatic level, witnessing the removal of much loved trees for urban development can be the cause of a profound distress that can be manifest as intense, visceral pain and mental anguish.

The diagnosis of solastalgia is based on the recognition of the distress within an individual or a community about the loss of an endemic sense of place. All people who experience solastalgia are negatively affected by their desolation. Likely responses may include feelings of general distress, loss and bereavement, but these can escalate into more serious health and medical problems such as drug abuse and physical or mental illness. The negative transformation of a much loved place is so powerful an experience for some people, particularly Indigenous people, that suicide is seen as the only form of relief.

Positive outcomes from the negative experience of solastalgia stem firstly from the recognition of the environmental cause of the distress. Clear acknowledgment of that which needs to be confronted can be an empowering experience. Secondly, a commitment to engage in action to 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 stewardship groups have formed in solidarity to offer mutual support for each other and to engage in direct action to restore 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, both mental and physical, is intimately tied to ecosystem health.

Many people sense that something is wrong with our relationship with the planet. This unease just might be an expression of deep-seated solastalgia about non-sustainability. The intense desire to be organically connected to living landscapes is, in part, a desire to overcome solastalgia by finding an earthly home in connection with other living things on this Earth. 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.

Glenn Albrecht is an associate professor in environmental studies in the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle, Australia.
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Author:Albrecht, Glenn
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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