TACOMA, Washington – Climate change is threatening the world’s natural resources. Projections of carbon emissions, sea-level rise and altered weather patterns are nearly impossible to escape in the media. The effects of these environmental changes on the human mind, however, are just beginning to be studied. Researchers have named this phenomenon “solastalgia”. As it happens we are just beginning to discover the impacts of solastalgia.
What is Solastalgia?
Solastalgia, literally ‘solace’ and ‘desolation’ in Latin can occur when someone witnesses degradation in their natural environment. One such example is mining practices that strip the land of its trees and topsoil. Or floods that uproot neighborhoods. Researchers often describe the impacts of solastalgia as anxiety, depression, stress, or aggression.
People in impoverished countries, especially in the global south, are most vulnerable to the impacts of solastalgia. That is because their homelands are more likely to be a victim of climate change, environmental destruction and war. Because of the inequality of its impacts, solastalgia could become the most widespread environmental injustice issue in human history.
Scope of the Problem
As the Earth’s climate warms, many of the processes that occur on this planet will be altered. For instance, researchers predict that Sub-Saharan Africa will experience more frequent extreme heat events. In addition to increased aridity and less predictable rainfall patterns. These events cascade into other negative impacts on the region. For instance, subsistence farmers will struggle to grow crops. Furthermore, rural populations will likely be displaced and migrate to urbanized areas. And also these over-bloated living spaces will be at risk of flooding, disease and increased food prices.
These are some of the socio-environmental impacts of climate change. These types of issues are increasingly researched by experts, and rightfully so, as they are extremely important topics. One aspect of climate change that has been overlooked, however, is the mental health crisis that may develop from these socio-environmental impacts.
Malawi: A Thought Experiment
To understand the impacts of solastalgia, imagine a family of subsistence farmers living along the Shire River in Malawi and their experience as the socio-environmental impacts of climate change unfold. Imagine planting maize in November and anxiously watching the sky each day to see if it will bring rain. With climate change, rain may be less frequent in the region. But when it does come it will pour, drowning the seeds and eroding the river banks.
Imagine the harvest in April, and finding that they produced 50% fewer crops than a typical year. This is their main source of food until next April. Imagine them looking at their home and wondering how it will change in the following decades, and which trees and croplands will survive the erratic rain patterns. Imagine them wondering if their friends and family will stay or migrate to Lilongwe, the capital city.
This is the essence of solastalgia: witnessing a negative change in one’s environment, feeling the uncertainty for the future of one’s homeland and longing for a time when it was different. This particular thought experiment is centered around people who will experience food insecurity in the future. However, not everyone suffering from solastalgia will have insecure food sources.
For instance, fossil fuel burning in India has made its air the most polluted of any nation in the world. One study found a connection between air pollution and anxiety and depression in adolescents. In fact, the causes of solastalgia will be varied and widespread, ranging from sea level rise in Bangladesh to deforestation in Brazil.
What Are Some Solutions to Solastalgia?
The intuitive solution is to simply cut off the source: climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. But of course, preventing these crises are not so simple. The global temperature has already risen 2 degrees F (1 degree C) since the Industrial Revolution. Even if all carbon-emitting processes stopped immediately, the Earth would feel climate change’s effects far into the future.
Considering the inevitability of environmental degradation on Earth, societies will need to learn how to adapt to the changing climate in every aspect of their existence, including mental health. Fortunately, experts have been discovering ways of promoting emotional, spiritual and physiological healing for the impacts of solastalgia.
Somatic Literacy As A Coping Mechanism
Dr. Leah Prussia told the Borgen Project, “I see solastalgia as secondary trauma. We’re not only mourning what we’re seeing now, but we’re also mourning what has already been lost, what our grandfathers and grandmothers connected with and we cannot.” Dr. Prussia is a professor of social work at the College of St. Scholastica and runs her own social work practice, Natural Connections LLC. “I use somatic literacy to help people connect with their bodies and with nature.”
Somatic literacy, or somatic intelligence, is a method of therapy that focuses on grounding the client in reality and connecting them with their physical bodies. The process of gaining somatic literacy involves becoming mindful of the sensations occurring in one’s body as well as extending that awareness to the outside world. Although it doesn’t necessarily erase secondary trauma like solastalgia, it can make emotional distress more manageable.
Art Therapy Is Another Possible Solution
Another innovative coping method for trauma is art therapy. This encourages self-discovery through artistic expression. Art that deals with climate change has become its own subgenre now, which not only expresses the artist’s emotions but also mobilizes people through activism. The visual art featured on the Women Eco Artist Dialog (WEAD) website or Art Works for Change are excellent examples of this. It’s important to remember that every community will react to climate change differently. Likewise, every person will experience solastalgia in a different way, so there isn’t necessarily one coping technique that will apply to everyone.
For people in developing countries, where social workers and psychiatric clinics are less accessible, the impacts of solastalgia are more difficult to assuage. This is especially true for people who may be focused on more immediate concerns, like battling food insecurity. That’s why solastalgia requires global cooperation, with people from every nation working to reduce the social, environmental, economic, and mental health issues borne from climate change.
For Dr. Prussia, the solution to solastalgia as well as climate change itself is internal. “What we’re seeing in the natural world is a reflection of what is happening within us,” she told the Borgen Project. “We need to remember our connection with nature so that we can move into action.”
Solastalgia, this feeling of despair in a changing world, can be more than just a symptom of climate change. Perhaps it can actually motivate people to mobilize themselves and act for environmental causes, becoming a force for the mitigation of climate change.
– Christopher Orion Bresnahan