Solastalgia or Climatic Anxiety: What It Is and How to Cope
Wildfires, lockdown, isolation. Do you feel anxious?
Posted Sep 11, 2020
I’m writing from San Francisco. Today is September 10, 2020. Two days ago, the sun just did not show up. It was morning. I was busy with an interesting webinar to host. The seminar involved students from the Bay Area and other scholars from all over the world. It was 9:00 a.m. and still, the sun was not out.
An instinctive sense of primordial panic took me. My students seemed to be calm. My coping mechanism was to make poor jokes about this night that was stretching out into our day. I was clearly nervous.
At the end of the seminar, I texted the people I know in the Bay Area. In the past two years, I have been living in Switzerland. I experienced the wildfires here but I never saw anything as bad as this. The people I contacted were as calm as my students. Maybe resigned. They were sharing jokes and telling me to be calm.
Around 11:00, the light came but it was not properly light. A dark orange colored all my familiar places in an ominous way.
I have been writing about Solastalgia or Climatic Anxiety in these months for my academic work. Now I’m in the middle of it. I dream of yelling in Italian at people who leave their car’s engine on while the car is parked on the street. I feel my chest becoming heavier and I wonder if it’s because of the very unhealthy air quality or if it’s just this strange anxiety that got me.
What is solastalgia and what does it involve?
Solastalgia is a neologism coined by the philosopher Albrecht (2005) to indicate the sense of emotional anxiety that derives from climatic impact on the environment. The term was first introduced in 2003 at an Ecohealth Forum in Montreal. This word expresses the lost sense of comfort (in Latin, solacium) combined with the consequent growing distress (from Greek, algos—ἄλγος) that arise from seeing one’s own space changing because of climatic problems.
Different from homesickness, solastalgia is a form of anxiety directed toward a place that still exists but disappeared while the individual was inhabiting it. This state of anxiety originates, in fact, from a very complex notion of place (Galway et al., 2019).
Where is my place?
What is peculiar to this form of anxiety is the sudden loss of the place of belongingness. Similarly to what happened with COVID-19, in this climatic crisis, one’s own space of existence shrinks: You no longer have a park to walk in, a school to go to, a church to pray in.
The place, which was considered essential for the emotional and physical survival of the individual and its community, is endangered. Jean-Luc Nancy describes the notion of place as the space of community or being-with the Other as an opening of being to itself as a common space (1993, p. 78). I think it is this notion of place that comes to collapse in cases of solastalgia.
I cannot find an answer to the genuine existential question—where’s my place?
The lockdown: The inside that expands outside
The collapse of familiar places, such as workplaces, playgrounds, gyms or churches, leads to a loss of sense of belongingness and consequent contamination of the inner space to the outer space. The inner space expands outside, the emotional space of interiority becomes the space where to encounter the other, yet lacking the tension of alterity proper to the place, this space cannot be contained, shaped, and acquire meaning according to the encounter with alterity. In each part of this space, we encounter first ourselves; the others that belong to our world can reach us so easily and cannot help us to bring new meanings in our life.
During these months of lockdown, we had to learn a new way of interpreting our place. Suddenly, we found ourselves confined to our home, the spaces to which we used to belong collapsed and took with them a piece of ourselves. We stopped beings students, professionals, friends; we stopped getting dressed to go to work, feeling touched by the ones we love, finding shelter in a classroom away from problematic parents, all these forms of spatial alterity that used to shape us in the same way a glass gives shape to water disappeared, leaving us with our inner world becoming larger and larger.
There was, of course, the space to gather these identities within ourselves, but it required a new effort that felt unnatural. The space of natural belongingness paced by our society disappeared and we had to learn how to tame our inner space so that it would not take all the space left empty outside from the disappearance of our place. Learn how to co-live with our loved ones, how to work with our colleagues from home, how to keep in touch with our friends without hanging out outside.
Learning how to belong
How to cope with this new anxiety, then? When I presented my study at a conference at Oxford, a scholar raised a good point—do we really need to talk about solastalgia, too? Anxiety is anxiety.
My answer was "yes!"; I think we need to understand this peculiar form of anxiety, especially in these painful days of climatic change. Anxiety is a plague that invests, every day, a growing slice of the population. Each form of anxiety is different according to its hidden target. Existential anxiety is different from climatic anxiety, for example.
Climatic anxiety had to do with the temporary or permanent loss of the familiar place. It has to do with a sense of belongingness and exclusion. The alterity of the place goes missing and we lose our chance to connect and find meanings. This is highly draining and dangerous for our will to live.
When the belief in the alterity of the space is lost, then there is no space for us to belong and in which to feel safe. So, then how can we cope with solastalgia?
Instead of letting the place disappear into the black hole of one’s own isolated inner life, it is important to keep our sense of belongingness open. It is essential to find new ways to recreate the space of alterity and belongingness while compassionately witnessing one’s own emotional reality and loss.
Albrecht, G. (2005). Solastalgia: a new concept in human health and identity. PAN Partners.
Albrecht, G., Sartore, G., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., & Pollard, G. (2007). Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15, S95–S98.
Albrecht, G. (2005) Solastalgia. “A New Concept in Health and Identity”. PAN Philos. Act. Nat.3,41.
Nancy, J.-L. (1993). The Experience ofFreedom, Bridget Mac-Donald (trans.) Stanford,Calif.: Stanford University Press.