TACOMA, Washington – Although the physical impacts of environmental degradation on the planet are well documented, its effect on the human mind is just beginning to be studied. Researchers have named this phenomenon “solastalgia”.
Kelsey Jones Casey, who runs the environmental consulting practice, Weave Collaborative, and her fellow researchers define solastalgia as: “the distress caused by the unwelcome transformation of cherished landscapes resulting in cumulative mental, emotional, and spiritual health impacts.” Unwelcome transformations may be as specific as the construction of a coal power plant or as general as gradual climatic shifts.
Indigenous people and those in impoverished countries are most vulnerable to the impacts of solastalgia, as their homelands are more likely to be victims 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.
Solastalgia in Developing Countries
In developed countries, media reports describing the doom and gloom of climate change are the primary cause of solastalgia, but people in developing nations experience a more direct form of the phenomena. About 2 billion people in the developing world work as subsistence farmers, who grow food primarily for their own consumption and not for the market. These people directly depend on their surrounding environment to sustain their livelihoods and are extremely vulnerable to weather events such as drought or floods.
In Malawi, for instance, unpredictable rainfall patterns caused a famine in 2001 that resulted in millions experiencing food shortages. The people who live through environmental disasters like Malawi’s famine often suffer from solastalgia-linked conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder and depression.
Solastalgia is intrinsically related to environmental hardship, and as climate change worsens, so will the emotional states of the people connected to the land. Unfortunately, the people who will suffer most from the impacts of solastalgia are also the people who have the least access to psychological services that could potentially lessen the mental hardship of witnessing the unwelcome change in their communities.
Indigenous Peoples and Solastalgia
Indigenous peoples, especially those who have been victims of colonialism, may be the most vulnerable to the impacts of solastalgia, as their environment has been threatened not only by environmental degradation but also by the settlement of other peoples.
For instance, indigenous populations in Brazil were historically calculated to contain 6 million people. Today, only 310,000 indigenous people remain. This change was a result of European settlement in the region. The destructive legacy of colonialism continues today as the Amazonian tropical forests erode.
Deforestation and climate change are the main threats to indigenous homelands in Brazil in the 21st century. Indigenous homologation, the process of securing land rights for indigenous people, does seem to assuage solastalgia in these communities, however, homologation doesn’t prevent the threat of illegal logging and mining.
In most countries that have a legacy of colonization, such as Brazil or the United States, the indigenous people are subject to solastalgia in addition to other environmental injustices. As Kelsey Jones-Casey said in her interview with The Borgen Project, “Indigenous peoples feel a layered trauma with solastalgia.”
The intuitive solution to solastalgia is to simply prevent climate change and other forms of environmental degradation from occurring, but of course, that is a difficult task. The global temperature has already risen 2 degrees F (1 degree C) since the Industrial Revolution, and even if all carbon-emitting processes stopped immediately, the Earth would still feel the effects of climate change far into the future.
Considering the inevitability of environmental degradation on Earth, the present and future generations will need to learn how to adapt to the changing climate in every aspect of their lives, including mental health. Fortunately, experts have been discovering ways of promoting emotional, spiritual and physiological healing for the impacts of solastalgia.
“I see solastalgia as secondary trauma. We’re not only mourning what we’re seeing now, we’re mourning what has already been lost, what our grandfathers and grandmothers connected with and we cannot.” Dr. Leah Prussia told the Borgen Project. 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, and although it doesn’t necessarily erase secondary trauma like solastalgia, it can make emotional distress more manageable.
Art therapy is another innovative coping method for trauma, which encourages self-discovery through artistic expression. Art that deals with climate change has even become its own subgenre now, which expresses the artist’s emotions and mobilizes people through activism. The visual art featured on the Women Eco Artist Dialog (WEAD) website or Art Works for Change are excellent examples.
It’s important to remember that every community will react to climate change differently, and 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 manage. This is especially true for people who may be focused on 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 caused by 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