“Solastalgia”: The sadness caused by environmental change

Here’s an intriguing new word for you: “Solastalgia.” It’s defined as:

… the distress caused by the lived experience of the transformation of one’s home and sense of belonging and is experienced through the feeling of desolation about its change. [snip]

The diagnosis of solastalgia is based on the recognition of the distress within an individual or a community about the loss of ‘endemic sense of place’ and the loss of a sense of control of its destiny. The positive prescription for solastalgia is personal and community involvement in the protection, restoration and rehabilitation of their place/bioregion/’country’ and the return of an endemic sense of place in both individuals and communities.

In essence, solastalgia is the sadness caused by environmental change.

The concept was created by Glenn Albrecht, a professor at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle, after he noticed the depression amongst rural farmers in drought-stricken lands. The drought had caused increased workloads, debt, and fear about future security — and, interestingly, the small changes in their own front yards formed powerful triggers and metaphors for their despair. Albrecht’s studies showed that farmer women would be enormously more upset over the loss of their gardens than their mortgage or income. (“Losing a garden is often quite dramatic,” as a colleague noted. “It’s often the only thing that’s between them and a vast landscape of dust.”)

Albrecht learned that there was no word in the English language that completely expressed this feeling, so he crafted his own: “Solastalgia” combines solacium — solace — with nostos , which means to “return home”, and algos , or “pain”.

But here’s where things get interesting: Albrect designed the word to reflect the human pain wreaked by environmental damage. And obviously you could see this recently with Katrina — or the horrific Kashmir earthquake — where survivors’ houses and towns are destroyed. But many people also feel a less-traumatic form of solastalgia for online locales, when these go through dramatic changes. My friend Morgan, who introduced me to this word, pointed out that he’s felt sadness and displacement when online BBSes like The Well or Echo start to decay. I’ve felt it myself. You go away from an online board for a few months because you need a break, and when you come back, a once-lively zone of conversation has become abruptly depopulated. Maybe everyone got into a fight and huffed; maybe everyone got too busy to talk any more; but either way, all the folks you know aren’t there and everything’s oddly, disquieteningly different.

As Albrecht put it beautifully in a comment to News in Science:

“It’s the homesickness you feel when you’re still at home.”

(Thanks to Morgan Noel for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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