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Expired · 21st February 2010
Ray Grigg
Words give form to experience. An amorphous and disturbing array of sensations and emotions can bother us for moments or even years until someone examines and isolates the many components, consolidates them into a concept and then labels them with a single word. The effect, like getting a definitive medical diagnosis for a strange spectrum of symptoms, comes as a profound relief. The undefined is defined, bewilderment is replaced by insight, and the new word both recognizes causes and suggests relief. "Solastalgia" is such a word (so-las-tal-gia).

Combining the Latin word for "comfort", solacium, with the Greek word for "pain", algia, solastalgia was invented in a 2004 essay by Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. He coined this addition to our language and consciousness after visiting the Upper Hunter Valley in the southeast of his country, "an oasis of alfalfa fields, dairy farms and lush English style shires" that was slowly being ripped apart and polluted by coal mining (Daniel B. Smith in the New York Times, Jan. 31/10).

As Albrecht explained, "people have heart's ease" when they're on their own land. If you force them off that land, if you take them away from it, "they feel the loss of heart's ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life" – think of any indigenous people who have been displaced from a location that is inseparable from their identity. In the case of the people of the Hunter Valley, they were not being removed from their "home" but their "home" was being removed from them. They were feeling "anxious, unsettled, despairing and depressed ‹ just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley" (Ibid.).

Albrecht defines solastalgia as "the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault... a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home'" (Ibid.). People don't have to be physically displaced to suffer from this form of "place pathology", they just have to feel that the "home" they love is threatened by some form of ecological deterioration.

This feeling should be familiar because the planet is abounding with examples – every place being local to the people who live there. Solastalgia can be caused by climate change bringing unusual droughts in Ghana and Somalia, or by once-in-a thousand-year floods in Cumbria, England, or record monsoons in Mumbai, India, or unprecedented melting of sea-ice in the Arctic. It can be caused by the loss of Amazonian and Indonesian jungles, or by oceans with their dead zones, acidification and depleted fish stocks. Solastalgia is what Newfoundlanders experienced when they lost their beloved cod fishery. And it is now happening to the commercial salmon fishers of BC.

A failed salmon run on BC's Fraser River has a similar emotional effect, as does the disquieting absence of orcas in the Broughton Archipelago or humpback whales in the Gulf of Georgia. The loss of special trees or the logging of a familiar forest produces a similar feeling. So, too, does the failed return of native songbirds or butterflies. The silence and the stillness are not peaceful and reassuring. Instead, the emptiness is worrisome and sobering, an aching and heartfelt absence that cannot be wished away by imagining that it were otherwise. The uneasiness expresses itself as "dis-ease", the anxiety that comes from a barely recognized loss. Unlike healthy change, solastalgia is change that may forebode personal or collective calamity.

No one can look at the vast tracts of BC's dead interior forests without a twinge of inward discomfort. This monumental attack of mountain pine beetle is a disquieting and devastating event that erodes our sense of security and trust in predictability. If this can happen, then what else? The question haunts us like a nightmare from which we cannot awake. Jobs, family, community, regularity and safety are put in jeopardy ‹ all the normalities that we once took for granted.

Such loss, and the anticipation of even more loss, is the likely force that motivates environmentalists, whether as individuals, small groups or large organizations. Instead of being passively victimized by solastalgia, they are attempting prevention and cure. The consequence is CoalWatch in the Comox Valley, a gathering of citizens concerned about the effects of a proposed coal mine in their home territory. It is the Friends of Strathcona Park, another band of citizens trying to protect a vast and beautiful place from logging, mining and commercial development. It is the Friends of Bute Inlet who are opposing the desecration of a majestic and dramatic place by a huge run-of-river hydro project. It is the Friends of Clayquot Sound who cherish this magnificent remnant of West Coast ocean and old-growth forests. It is the Georgia Strait Alliance who are trying to preserve the integrity of one of the most biologically rich and diverse inland seas on the planet. It is also salmon enhancement societies, stream restoration groups, Raging Grannies, organic farmers... the list goes on and on.

Those engaged in this heroic effort to prevent and cure solastalgia are proliferating. All around the world this new word is being used to identify the awakening flood of concerned people who are trying to maintain their inner sanity by halting the outer degradation that is engulfing the places so dear to their identity and security. They arise as concerned individuals or they gather as groups because they feel "an unusually strong sense of interconnectedness" with the place they live and with each other, notes Albrecht (Ibid.).

Sometimes all this upsurge in awareness and effort achieves success. Then a park or protected area is declared, species are safeguarded, pollution is stopped, toxins are removed or an ecologically destructive project is halted. The psychological result is emotional relief arising from the knowledge that at least these places are safe for now, that these crucial parts of home will, for the moment, remain as they are remembered and cherished.