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What Does Climate Change Do to Our Heads?

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By Sanjay Khanna

A small yet growing body of evidence suggests that how people think and feel is being influenced strongly by ecosystem transformation related to climate change and industry-related displacement from the land. These powerful stressors are occurring more frequently around the world.

A case in point: When researchers from the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health at the University of Newcastle in Australia conducted interviews in drought-affected communities in New South Wales in 2005, the responses suggested some of their subjects may have been suffering from a recently described psychological condition called solastalgia (pronounced so-la-stal-juh).

Solastalgia describes a palpable sense of dislocation and loss that people feel when they perceive changes to their local environment as harmful. It’s a neologism that Glenn Albrecht, an environmental philosopher at the University of Newcastle’s School of Environmental and Life Sciences, created in 2003.

Albrecht’s work among communities distraught by black-coal strip mining in New South Wales’ Upper Hunter Region convinced him that the English language needed a new term to connect the experience of ecosystem loss to mental health concerns.

“The sense of a home landscape being violated [by strip mining-related environmental damage] seemed to have disturbed the region’s social ecology so much that the psychic or mental health of many people living in the zone of high impact was being affected,” he says.

Albrecht’s stunning insight? That there might be a wide variety of shifts in the health of an ecosystem—from subtle landscape changes related to global warming to desolate wastelands created by large-scale strip mining—that diminish people’s mental health.

In Eastern Australian communities, where the toll of a six-year-long drought has been devastating, interviews with farmers provided additional momentum for the solastalgia concept.

In one such interview, a female farmer poignantly described the loss of her garden oasis. “Our gardens have had to die,” she said, “because our house dam has been dry…. So it’s very depressing for a woman because a garden is an oasis out here with this dust…you know, to come home to a nice green lawn is just… that’s all gone, so you’ve got dust at your back door.”

While persistent drought and open-pit coal mining may be extreme cases, if the environmental degradation of the past hundred years is any indication, our contemporary lifestyles, built on a dwindling resource base, have failed to acknowledge how much the mental health of people and ecosystems is interrelated.

This may imply that the unrelenting media focus on weather-related and economic aspects of climate change does not adequately take into consideration the challenge of mitigating the psychological impact of global warming. How might we feel when the heat is relentless and our surrounding environment changes irrevocably? How might our mental health be affected?

In a recent WiredWired magazine article on Albrecht and the concept of solastalgia, “Global Mourning: How the next victim of climate change will be our minds,” writer Clive Thompson sensitively characterized as “global mourning” the potential impact of overwhelming environmental transformation caused by climate change. Thompson cogently summed up Albrecht’s view of what solastalgia might look like were it to become an epidemic of emotional and psychic instability causally linked to changing climates and ecosystems.

Albrecht also emphasizes that feelings of melancholia and homesickness have previously been recorded among Aboriginal peoples in the Americas and Australia who were forcibly moved from their home territories by U.S., Canadian and Australian governments in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sanjay Khanna: You speak of psychoterratic and somaterratic illnesses. What are they?

Glenn Albrecht: Psychoterratic illness involves the psyche or mind and terra or earth. So a psychoterratic illness would be an earth-related mental illness, where both nostalgia and solastalgia are examples of people being made “mentally ill” by the severing of “healthy” links between themselves and their home or territory.

Somaterratic illness, on the other hand, involves soma or the body and relates to damage done to the human body, its physiology and/or genetics, as a result of the loss of ecosystem health by, for example, toxic pollution in any given area of land.

SK: You note on your blog that there are antecedents to solastalgia.

GA: Yes, David Rapport, a past professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is a pioneer in the study of the health of natural ecosystems and their relationship with humans. In the 1970s, he described “ecosystem distress syndrome,” which was what happened when an ecosystem couldn't restore its balance after an external disturbance.

Once I fully appreciated this concept, I realized there must be a human equivalent to ecosystem distress syndrome, that is, a home environment so profoundly disturbed that it affected the balance of well being or the mental health of people within their social ecology.

The interviews of affected people I conducted along with Nick Higginbotham and Linda Connor in strip-mined areas of the Upper Hunter Valley showed that people’s sense of place was being violated and that this was profoundly disturbing them. Their home environment was being desolated and it seemed to us that the vital link between ecosystem health and human health, both physical and mental, was being severed.

SK: Can you tell us a little bit more about the origins of solastalgia?

GA: Solastalgia’s Latin roots combine three ideas: The solace that one’s environment provides, the desolation caused by that environment’s degradation and the pain or distress that occurs inside a person as a result.

Solastalgia brings into English a much-needed word that links a mental state to a state of the biophysical environment. The need for new concepts in the face of what is happening under climate change has seen other cultures develop new terms that have affinities with solastalgia.

The Inuit, for example, have a new word, uggianaqtuq (pronounced OOG-gi-a-nak-took), which relates to climate change and has connotations of the weather as a once reliable and trusted friend that is now acting strangely or unpredictably. And the Portuguese use the word saudade to describe a feeling one has for a loved one who is absent or has disappeared. The upshot is that under the pressure of climate change, your preferred climate and ecosystem might well be thought of as a lover gone missing or turned bad.

SK: How might your research impact on psychiatry and the diagnosis of psychoterratic illnesses such as solastalgia?

GA: Alongside five other researchers, our four-person team co-wrote a summary of our research on the mental health impacts of mining and drought for psychological and psychiatric professionals. The paper, “Solastalgia: the distress caused by climate change,” was published in Australasian Psychiatry, a publication of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, in November 2007.

Our team has mused that people badly affected by solastalgia would benefit from a set of professionally developed diagnostic tools so that solastalgia could be listed as a condition that required diagnosis and professional attention.

We’re happy for other people to take that challenge up and there are some academic psychiatrists who are interested in exploring these ideas further. However, given that key aspects of solastalgia are existential, the traditions of environmental philosophy and medical psychiatry may not come together so harmoniously. The melancholia of solastalgia is not the same as clinical depression, but it may well be a precursor to serious psychic disturbance.

That said, it’s worth remembering that up until the mid-twentieth century, the medical profession viewed nostalgia as a diagnosable psycho-physiological illness in which, for example, soldiers fighting in foreign lands became so homesick and melancholic it could kill them.

Today psychiatrists would see the condition of rapid and unwelcome severing from home as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an outcome of an acute stressor such as warfare or a Hurricane Katrina.

Solastalgia on the other hand is most often the result of chronic environmental stress; it is the lived experience of gradually losing the solace a once stable home environment provided. It is therefore appropriate to diagnose solastalgia in the face of slow and insidious forces such as climate change or mining.

SK: Would you tell us a little bit about the transdisciplinary team that you participate on?

GA: Nick Higginbotham, a social psychologist colleague who specializes in epidemiology and health matters, is working to gather empirical data for our solastalgia research. He has developed a much-needed environmental distress scale (EDS) that teases out the specific environmental components of distress from all the other things that go on in a person’s life. We will be using this scale in the new AUS$430K grant the team has received from the Australian Research Council to extend our earlier work by addressing “the lived experience (ethnography) of climate change” among people in the Hunter Valley.

Linda Connor, an ethnographer and social and medical anthropologist, handles the ethnography or cultural experience of all this. So collectively we have empirical (Higginbotham), cultural (Connor) and philosophical (me) interpretations of health and climate change. Finally, Sonia Freeman, our research assistant, has co-authored a number of papers.

SK: What implications might the recent apology by Kevin Rudd, the new Prime Minister of Australia, to the “stolen generations” of Australian Aborigines have in relation to solastalgia?

GA: The apology by Kevin Rudd to the stolen generations is about seeking forgiveness for the government-sanctioned taking of Indigenous children from their families and from their home territories (their “country”) from 1909 until 1969. There have been profound mental and physical health impacts from this process and many of the remaining stolen generations are now ageing but with a 17-year shorter life expectancy on average than non-indigenous Australians. Those who are alive today may be experiencing genuine nostalgia for a once-sustainable past and solastalgia within contemporary pathological and depressed home environments.

SK: Do you see a relationship between the conquest of Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia, the state of environmental degradation and the experience of loss that we are seeing today? If so, what is that relationship from your perspective and research?

GA: The answer is, yes, there is a relationship between the two colonial cultures: the two continents were colonized only by the systematic dispossession of complex and formerly sustainable Indigenous societies.

Traditional Indigenous cultures in the Americas and Australasia displayed a profound appreciation of the relationship between human and ecosystem health, something global culture is trying to rediscover under the label of sustainability.

Remnant aboriginal cultures are still being pushed aside by the dominant global model of economic growth and progress. Even today, their chronic health problems are likely related to social and political issues that are connected to ongoing dispossession.

I’ve had recent firsthand experience of the lives of Indigenous people leading semi-traditional lives in Northern Australia to see the importance of the connections between human health and ecosystem health. In Arnhem Land, Aborigines who live on what are called “outstations” have been able to maintain much stronger and healthier links to their traditional land. Their physical and mental health status is, as a consequence, much better than those whose links to their own land have been severed and who now live in crowded, dysfunctional communities.

SK: Some of the solastalgia symptoms you describe are similar to the loss of cultural identity, including the loss of language and ancestral memory. Loss of place seems an extension of this new global experience of weakened cultural identities and Earth-based ethical moorings.

GA: I have written on this topic in a professional academic journal and expressed the idea of having an Earth-based ethical framework that could contribute to maximizing the creative potential of human cultural and technological complexity and diversity without destroying the foundational complexity and diversity of natural systems in the process.

Our history shows that some people and cultures have a tendency to create pathological ways of thinking, but if we want to support a life-affirming ethic in the twenty-first century, we are in need of reform and change.

SK: In the context of accelerating environmental change, what would you say to young people about the planet they are inheriting? What does sustainability mean in the context of the overwhelming pace of environmental and economic change that we're seeing today?

GA: This is a tough one because the children of today face the double whammy of the escalating pace and scale of changes under the global forces of development and those of climate chaos. I’ve suggested to my own teenagers that what is happening is unacceptable ethically and practically and they should be in a state of advanced revolt about the whole deal.

From my perspective, supporting and maintaining the status quo is no longer a reasonable response to these big picture issues. At every point, we must challenge and refute this kind of thinking in a society that is clearly on a non-sustainable pathway.

Unfortunately, the lot in life of the youth today is to undo much of what has been done in the name of growth and progress in the last two hundred years. However, this does not mean a return to the past: As Herman Daly (the ecological economist) once said, you can have an economy that develops without growing.

On a personal level, I’m an optimistic, energetic philosopher and I believe that we must get our values more life orientated. I’m not willing to give up on encouraging change towards sustainability even in the face of what look like overwhelming negative forces.

The four-year grant recently awarded to our team will allow us to study the lived experience of climate change at a regional level. We’re happy that we’ll be able to start contributing data on how climate change is shifting culture, values and attitudes.

The next four years are critical. As a member of a research team, I believe that we’re right at the leading edge of change research and we are very committed to supporting the network of ecological and social relationships that promote human health. There’s hope in recognizing solastalgia and defeating it by creating ways to reconnect with our local environment and communities.

###

Sanjay Khanna is a writer and foresight researcher based in Vancouver, Canada. He can be reached at sk AT khannaresearch DOT com. His blog is at www.realisticsanctuary.com.

Photo by Paul Mathews

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Comments

i'm glad this has a name now. "topophilia" was lonely without its dark partner.

adult people're walking away from overpriced mortgages in this credit crunch. i think that's what kids will end up doing with most of our civilization. why pay the bills?


Posted by: hapa on 22 Mar 08

wonderful article. As a climate-conscious Australian living through drought (in a different area) I am glad to see a name put to the mourning I have been going through, and the pain experienced by my community.

It is also sadly fitting to see Australian researchers leading the way in this area - in many ways our beautiful continent is the canary in the mine of climate change.

Please fix the link to Herman Daly...


Posted by: imogen on 22 Mar 08

Thank you for this article. The particular vocabulary is less important than the real phenomenon, which we be aware of once it is pointed out and named.

My hope is that we can discover in ourselves a real sense of COMPASSION in relation to climate change. These changes are enormously stressful, at a basic physiological and psychological level. People under stress are suffering, and might make unwise choices. We need big hearts to help each other as the Earth undergoes these changes.

I support encourging people to say no to the current unsustainable way of being. AND I also support encouraging people to be forgiving, compassionate, and kind when people begin to crack under the pressure of climate change. Instead of just getting mad at people's behavior, please let's take a breath and remember that this is really hard for some people to deal with.

When someone is having trouble coping with a big change, you don't get impatient with them or lecture them logically. You just hold them and help them deal with it. Can we do that for our fellow citizens of Earth, even as we dismantle the current unsustainable ways?


Posted by: Kim on 23 Mar 08

It's a shame we need to recognize and name this phenomenon. But I've witnessed it first hand myself. Saddest of all is the helplessness that accompanies the feeling, as you feel forces larger than yourself are at work transforming and destroying the landscape.
http://www.bravenewleaf.com


Posted by: Brave New Leaf on 24 Mar 08

I'm must have succumbed to solastagia several decades ago. There was a moment growing up when I could see quite clearly where this colossus of global civilization was headed, and I made a fundamental shift to apply my life's energy towards working with the old ways. This meant taking on the production of my own food, clothing and shelter with my own hands, by the simplest means. And even after this Quixotic and idealistic beginning, it's easy to see how mission-creep slowly set in. The need to make a living, raise a family, and pay a mortgage led to a greater reliance on complex machinery, and soon enough I was wearing cheap synthetic clothes, building luxuries and adopting all sorts of little compromises to make ends meet. But ultimately, by turning my back on the dominant cultural meme, I learned some very basic and important things that were on their way to being forgotten, and will soon again be a large part of our more labour-intensive post-oil future, so I can now pass these primal skills on to the youth of today, and my peasant lifestyle no longer feels like an anachronism.


Posted by: david on 24 Mar 08

Isn't this just Toffler's Future Shock syndrome wrapped up in Lovelock's Gaia concept?


Posted by: tony on 24 Mar 08

Compassion is such an important aspect of addressing the phenomenon of solastalgia. We need to look out for those whom we know might be very sensitive to the emotional impact of environmental change.

As to whether solastalgia is "just Toffler's Future Shock syndrome wrapped up in Lovelock's Gaia concept," I'm not sure I'd put it that way. Toffler was not specific about how people would become overwhelmed by the transition to an industrialized technocracy except to predict that accelerating change would be shocking for many. Now with solastalgia, we can surmise there will be a multiplier effect caused by the psychological impact of environmental change combined with the emotional toll induced by an unstable global economy.


Posted by: Sanjay Khanna on 24 Mar 08

I think the author of this article, and the persons that authored the study, are well and truely daft. The fact that drought and personal dislocation are stressors is not news. To tie it to a supposed special syndrome caused by injury to the earth says much more about the mindset of those that named the syndrome that those that suffer from it. The world changes constantly with little regard for humans and with no recognition of our presence. Foolish people who personalize the "world" or create names for conditions which don't really exist for the sole purpose to validate their own idealogy only damage their credibility with anyone but the truely committed.


Posted by: Wilson on 25 Mar 08

Wilson:

While it is not news to state that "drought and personal dislocation are stressors," it is news to report that climate change may well accelerate both these phenomena and that there needs to be an adequate public health response to the issue as well as the ability to have insight into the overall state of well being in one's community. Naming the phenomena allows for conceptualizing an appropriate response to an emerging public health challenge.

Note to readers: While disagreement is just fine, kindly refrain from personal invective.


Posted by: Sanjay Khanna on 25 Mar 08

So what's next?
Global Warming as a defense for robbing the 7-11?

"Your Honor, my client suffers from solastalgia, so therefore is not guilty."

Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 25 Mar 08

Wilson: I have a tiny bit of sympathy with you, in that this piece seems to have a blindspot for ecopsychology's insights into this sort of phenomenon. However, aside from the brash invective, I've a couple of issues.

I didn't really see any trace of or need for "personalizing" the world in this piece, so I'm not sure why you brought that up. Still, I would defend sophisticated takes on what is usually called anthropomorphism or "the pathetic fallacy", because in the form of animist culture, they are ways that humans can encapsulate highly complex relationships to the environment in a pragmatic, usable way. The period for which animism served to sustain human populations - often through conditions much more challenging than our cushy Holecene interglacial - positively dwarfs our recent experiments with a detached view onto a depersonalized world. From an evolutionary point of view, I think current secular dismissal of animism is rooted more in Christian philosophy than in any objective assessment of its contributions to sustaining human societies. (Sustaining them, that is, in relation to the environment - in relation to other human populations, of course, animists have fared terribly next to the more powerful cultures who see the world as a dead resource.)

As to creating names for conditions which don't really exist - well, it's a good point to bear in mind. Naming is always creative as well as descriptive. The battle about how much it's one or the other is a political one, and your flat objection to it says as much about your ideology as using it does about Albrecht's. Given the current ecological situation, and the political necessities it implies, it seems quite obvious whose ideology is healthier and more useful.


Posted by: Gyrus on 26 Mar 08

Jeffrey: I think this line of thinking is really about the American-influenced legal culture of victimhood and denial of personal responsibility, and shouldn't influence attempts to identify the complex causes of poor mental health. I don't think people should sue a cafe if another customer spills hot coffee on them there, but I wouldn't deny they suffered pain when it happened, or deny that they need the pain alleviating.


Posted by: Gyrus on 26 Mar 08

I am reminded of the children, of parents who were emotional over the Cuban Missles in 68, the Cold War, and Vietnam.

I remember the trama of those children.
Nightmares
Headaches
Sleeplessness etc.

And now it's global warming.
sigh....

Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 26 Mar 08

http://coastwatch.glerl.noaa.gov/cgi-bin/stat/statistic?region=m&template=stat

Link shows that the Great Lakes are actually cooling down the last few years.

Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 26 Mar 08

I agree with the comments of Jefferey Nihart and would add that people of faith in The Living God creator of Heaven and earth realize that the earth and life itself are constantly changing. The solution is to find hope for now and the future in God,Who does not Change !


Posted by: Collins Perry Malphrus Sr. on 26 Mar 08

I need to add that faith does not deny the reality of what you are speaking of,we all experience real hurts but faith recognizes that there is ONE who created me and my world and can heal those hurts.


Posted by: Collins Perry Malphrus Sr. on 26 Mar 08

Interesting comments. I agree that Toffler is significant but he focussed on time-based change, whereas solastalgia is more concerned with spatial- (place) based change. In an article I wrote for the journal PAN, I point out that "Alvin Toffler in Future Shock promoted the idea that “[f]uture Shock is a time phenomenon, a product of greatly accelerated rate of change in society”. Toffler also predicted epidemics of psychiatric disease connected to such shock. See A. Toffler (1970) Future Shock, The Bodley Head, London, p. 13."

I also suggested that a transdisciplinary approach to defeating solastalgia was necessary:

"The defeat of solastalgia and non-sustainability will require that all of our emotional, intellectual and practical efforts be redirected towards healing the rift that has occurred between ecosystem and human health, both broadly defined. In science, such a commitment might be manifest in the full redirection of scientific investment and effort to an ethically inspired and urgent practical response to the forces that are destroying ecosystem integrity and biodiversity. The need for an “ecological psychology” that re-establishes full human health (spiritual and physical) within total ecosystem health has been articulated by many leading thinkers worldwide. The full transdisciplinary idea of health involves the healing of solastalgia via cultural responses to degradation of the environment in the form of drama, art, dance and song at all scales of living from the bioregional to the global. The potential to restore unity in life and achieve genuine sustainability is a scientific, ethical, cultural and practical response to this ancient, ubiquitous but newly defined human illness."

As for Gaia, Lovelock now realises that humans can destroy the unity of life and that Gaia cannot self-regulate its way back to health. Humans must now act so as to return Gaia to full health; recognising then defeating solastalgia just might be part of that healing process.


Posted by: Glenn Albrecht on 26 Mar 08

Are you speaking of the ancient Greek God called Gaia?
Is your environment, now named Gaia?
And are we to worship this Gaia?

Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 27 Mar 08

This seems like a sensationalist article. The tie between the Australian drought and global climate change is never substantiated in the article. Are we now to just assume that all weather patterns are the fault of anthropogenic climate change?

Furthermore, to claim that we may all develop psychological conditions as a result of a warming earth is over the top. If you want to talk about problems effecting human psychology, talk about alcohol and drug addictions, climate change is not even on the radar.


Posted by: Tim Simmons on 27 Mar 08

Solar scientists predict that, by 2020, the sun will be starting into its weakest Schwabe solar cycle of the past two centuries, likely leading to unusually cool conditions on Earth.

Beginning to plan for adaptation to such a cool period, one which may continue well beyond one 11-year cycle, as did the Little Ice Age, should be a priority for governments.

It is global “cooling”, not warming, that is the major climate threat to the world, especially Canada.

As a country at the northern limit to agriculture in the world, it would take very little cooling to destroy much of the food crops, while a warming would only require that we adopt farming techniques practiced to the south.

Meantime, we need to continue research into this, the most complex field of science ever tackled, and immediately halt wasted expenditures on the King Canute-like task of “stopping climate change.”

But Global Warming advocates can’t see it.
And don’t want to see it.

Warmest Regards,
Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 27 Mar 08

These wonderfully wise comments on the article are not mine, but those of a friend.

What Does Climate Change Do to Our Heads?

The more important question (or a necessary reframing of the question), and the one that remains unasked by supporters of the status quo, is "What does intentionally destroying our life support system to do our heads?" A phenomena related to deliberate destruction is the removal or disruption of people's
connection to the land, such as through either the enclosure of the commons, or the myth that humans are separate from, and must control, the external _and_
internal wilderness. These both lead to psychic and spiritual pain, as well as deterioration of physical health.

Asking "What does climate change do?" is a victimization question that removes personal and social responsibility. This responsibility takes various forms, but mainly falls into two broad categories: harmful actions where we could choose alternatives, and silence (lack of opposition) toward the stories that create it.

All of this combines to cause people to think that global warming is acting against them on its own, when it is really a manifestation, a festering
symptom, of a deeper, root cause -- fear based control hierarchies of domination and exploitation of the other for personal benefit.

Ecopsychologists have been dealing with this for decades now, and deep ecologists such as Joanna Macy have been simply and directly calling it our despair and grief for the world and her suffering children. But all of this was known to Thoreau and others long ago. Unfortunately, the Western scientific mind needs a label to stick on it, which is actually just another form of separation.

If Albrecht is searching for an Earth-based ethical framework, he could start with Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess, bioregionalism, and permaculture. Pioneers of
systems science, such as Ludwig von Bertalanffy and Ervin Laszlo, have been pointing out the importance of the human-nature connection for 50 years, and
the importance of developing in a manner that works with the creative life force of natural systems principles.

All that said, though, I don't disagree with anything Albrecht is saying in his work to put some of these concepts into a form that can help awaken awareness.
He's just leaving out parts of the bigger picture, and not addressing the root cause (although he does make the important connection to growth). The main
drawback I see is that we don't need yet another reason (diagnostic category)to give people Prozac, or to develop additional therapeutic methods to make
people feel sane about living in an insane world. Although Albrecht doesn't advocate this, it is the outcome of the framework he's working within.

Where we should be concentrating our efforts is in inspiring and motivating people to kill the beast and create systemic change toward a sustainable future
based on ecological wisdom and social justice. This is what the processes of relocalization and reconnecting with nature do. This is what is necessary to heal the Earth and all her children, and bring them to a state of well-being (holistic integration) where natural expectations of fulfillment can be met.

For the Earth...
_dave_(this entire message is composed of recycled electrons)
Natural Systems Solutions
http://www.attractionretreat.org/NSS
Sustainable lifestyles, organizations, and communities


Posted by: Wanda Ballentine on 27 Mar 08

So what you are saying is: " Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health" ?

Jeffrey Nihart


Posted by: Jeffrey Nihart on 27 Mar 08



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