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Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change

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Abstract

Solastalgia is a new concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress. As opposed to nostalgia--the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home--solastalgia is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. The paper will focus on two contexts where collaborative research teams have found solastalgia to be evident: the experiences of persistent drought in rural NSW and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process. Qualitative (interviews and focus groups) and quantitative (community-based surveys) research has been conducted on the lived experience of drought and mining, and the findings relevant to solastalgia are presented. The authors are exploring the potential uses and applications of the concept of solastalgia for understanding the psychological impact of the increasing incidence of environmental change worldwide. Worldwide, there is an increase in ecosystem distress syndromes matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes. The specific role played by global-scale environmental challenges to 'sense of place' and identity will be explored in the future development of the concept of solastalgia.
41 / PAN No 3 2005
‘Solastalgia’
A New Concept in Health and Identity
Glenn Albrecht
1
Solastalgia: the Origins
As environmental philosopher at The University of Newcastle I had a
reputation within my region as an activist and advocate for environmental
conservation and I had published a number of academic and media articles on
the environmental history and sustainability of the Hunter Region.
2
Residents
within the region would often ring me at work and talk to me about their
concerns about particular environmental issues and I would advise and help
as best I could. However, I began to notice the increasing number of people
who were concerned about the sheer scale of the environmental impacts in the
Upper Hunter Region of NSW. In their attempts to halt the expansion of open
cut coal mining and to control the impact of power station pollution,
individuals would ring me at work pleading for help with their cause. Their
distress about the threats to their identity and well-being, even over the
phone, was palpable.
I had been thinking about the relationship between ecosystem distress
and human distress for some time. Under the influence of David Rapport and
his concept of ‘ecosystem distress syndrome’
3
I had been working through
some of the influences on my own thinking about this relationship. The two
major influences at this time were Aldo Leopold and his own concept of ‘land
health’ and the Australia’s own pioneer environmental thinker, Elyne
Mitchell
4
. In the USA, Aldo Leopold with his ecologically inspired concept of
1
Glenn Albrecht is an environmental philosopher who works in the School of Environmental and
Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle. He has a long-term interest in the environment and
the relationships between humans and the rest of nature. He has been actively involved in
conservation projects in the Hunter Region (where he resides) and was a founding secretary and
director of the Wetlands Centre at Shortland. In recent years he has been engaged in
transdisciplinary research on the impact of open cut mining and other heavy industry on the
well-being of people in the Upper Hunter region of NSW. The sight of hundreds of square
kilometres of open cuts in his own backyard and the direct contact with distressed people
affected by such enormous environmental change caused distress in the mind and heart of
Albrecht the researcher. Thus, the concept of solastalgia had its genesis in his own lived
experience of distress in land and people. He now seeks to find solastalgia in others and to help
defeat it in the creation of an endemic sense of place.
2
See G. Albrecht and J. Gutberlet (2000), “ Sustainability and the Hunter Region”, in P. McManus
et al
(eds,
Journeys that Shape a Region
, Allen and Unwin, Sydney. pp. 246-267, and G. Albrecht
(2000), “Rediscovering the Coquun: An Environmental History of the Hunter River”,
Proceedings
of the Water Forum 2000
, Hunter Catchment Management Trust, NSW.
(www.hcmt.org.au/ep_publications.php3)
3
D. Rapport and W.G. Whitford (1999), “How Ecosystems Respond to Stress”,
Bioscience
49,
pp.193-203.
4
Elyne Mitchell should properly be seen as Australia’s Aldo Leopold. Her book,
Soil and
Civilisation
, published in 1946, is a systematic exploration and analysis of environmental
problems in the Australian context. Her prescient work has not been adequately appreciated in
the history of environmental thinking within Australia.
42 / PAN No 3 2005
the Land Ethic in
A Sand County Almanac
(1949) broke new ground in the
emergent domain of environmental ethics. Leopold also created a concept of
‘land health’ that he defined as “the capacity of the land for self renewal”
5
.
However, he did not see in his contemporaries any connection made between
“sick landscapes” and pathological psychological states. He noted that in the
West of the USA there is “as yet, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a
sick landscape”
6
.
In Australia, even before many of Leopold’s ideas were published
posthumously, Elyne Mitchell, in her book
Soil and Civilization
(1946) was
attempting to explain to Australians the importance of the connection
between human and ecosystem health. In the context of the impoverishment
of the Australian environment by agricultural activity she writes:
But no time or nation will produce genius if there is a steady
decline away from the integral unity of man and the earth. The
break in this unity is swiftly apparent in the lack of “wholeness” in
the individual person. Divorced from his roots, man loses his
psychic stability.
7
It was this concept of loss of “psychic stability that further stimulated
my interest in land health – human health issues. I was confronted by a classic
case of the breakdown of this relationship and it was being clearly manifested
in the lives of those people I came into contact with in the Hunter Valley.
At this time I sought a suitable concept to describe the distress these
people were suffering. With my wife Jill, I sat at the dining table at home and
explored numerous possibilities. One word, ‘nostalgia’, came to our attention
as it was once a concept linked to a diagnosable illness associated with the
melancholia of homesickness for people who were distant from their home. It
seemed very close to the condition that Upper Hunter people were
manifesting yet had an obvious limitation in that I was dealing with people
who were not distant from their home.
Nostalgia (
nostos
= return to home or native land,
algia
= pain or
sickness) or literally, the sickness caused by the inability to return home was
considered to be a medically diagnosable psycho - physiological disease right
up to the middle of the C20. In 1905 nostalgia was defined as:
... a feeling of melancholy caused by grief on account of absence
from one’s home country, of which the English equivalent is
homesickness. Nostalgia represents a combination of psychic
disturbances and must be regarded as a disease. It can lead to
5
A. Leopold (1949)[1989],
A Sand County Almanac
, Oxford University Press, New York, p.221.
6
Ibid.
p.158.
7
E. Mitchell (1946),
Soil and Civilization
, Halstead Press, Sydney, p.4.
43 / PAN No
3 2005
melancholia and even death. It is more apt to affect persons whose
absence from home is forced rather than voluntary.
8
Nostalgia was particularly evident in soldiers fighting in foreign
countries who experienced homesickness to the point where they became ill
and unable to perform their duties. The cure
9
for nostalgia was a prescription
for afflicted soldiers to return home to recuperate and restore their well-being
and health. According to Feinnes, nostalgia was still being discussed in
journals such as War Medicine in the 1940s
10
and “as late as 1946 was termed
a possibly fatal ‘psycho-physiological’ complaint by an eminent social
scientist”.
11
However, in general, reference to ‘nostalgia’ as a sickness resulting from
a longing or desire to return home while one is away from ‘home’ is no longer
in common use. The more frequent modern use of the term loses its
connection to the geographical ‘home’ and suggests a ‘looking back’, a desire
to be connected with a positively perceived period in the past. Typically, there
is a longing for a cultural setting in the past in which a person felt more ‘at
home’ than the present. For individuals who see the past as better than the
present there is the possibility that nostalgia remains a very real experience
that can lead to deep distress. For example, for Indigenous people who have
been dispossessed of their lands and culture, the nostalgia for a past where
former geographical and cultural integration was both highly valued and
sustainable is an ongoing painful experience. As explained by Casey,
“[n]ostalgia, contrary to what we usually imagine, is not merely a matter of
regret for lost times; it is also a pining for
lost places
, for places we have once
been in yet can no longer reenter.”
12
Casey systematically explores the
contexts where symptoms of “place pathology”
13
are presenting problems for
indigenous and present Western culture. He asserts:
It is a disconcerting fact that, besides nostalgia, still other symptoms of
place pathology in present Western culture are strikingly similar to those of
the Navajo: disorientation, memory loss, homelessness, depression, and
various modes of estrangement from self and others. In particular, the
sufferings of many contemporary Americans that follow from the lack of
satisfactory implacement uncannily resemble (albeit in lesser degree) those of
displaced native Americans, whom European Americans displaced in the first
8
The New International Encyclopaedia of 1905 as quoted by R. Fiennes (2002),
The Snow Geese
,
Picador, London, p.122.
9
One particularly notable ‘cure’ was the use of terror to counter the influence of the nostalgia.
Soldiers in the Russian army in 1733 were buried alive (up to three times) to test the genuineness
of their sickness and commitment to home, see D. Lowenthal (1985),
The Past is a Foreign
Country
, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p.11.
10
R. Fiennes,
Op Cit
, p.122.
11
D. Lowenthal,
Op Cit
, p.11.
12
E. Casey
Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World,
Indiana
University Press, Bloomington, p. 37.
13
E. Casey,
Ibid
, p.38.
44 / PAN No 3 2005
place. These natives have lost their land; those of us who are non-natives have
lost our place.
14
Peter Read in his book,
Returning to Nothing
(1996), explores the
experiences of people in the Australian context who were displaced or forced
to migrate away from places that have been, or were about to be, obliterated.
Read documents the emotion and distress of people in circumstances where
their homes are lost by natural disasters, such as the destruction of the city of
Darwin by cyclone Tracy in 1974 or social development with the drowning of
the town of Adaminaby by Lake Eucumbene in 1957 as part of the Snowy
River Hydro Electric Scheme. In his chapter on the (former) town of Yallourn
in the brown coal region of the La Trobe Valley of Victoria, he graphically
captures the distress caused by open cut mining dispossession. Read
concludes that in addition to the cultural significance of the diversity of
unique places “… loved sites are worth preserving because of the intense pain
which their destruction may cause to the inhabitants of those places”.
15
However, in their analysis of “place pathologies both Casey and Read
focus on ‘lost places’ and displaced people. In the Hunter Valley it was the
distress of those that remain in the wake of zones of high impact that was the
focus of my concern. The places that I was interested in were not being
completely ‘lost’, they were places being transformed. The people I was
concerned about were not being forcibly removed
16
from their homes/places,
however, their place-based distress was also connected to powerlessness and
a sense that environmental injustice was being perpetrated on them. In the
Upper Hunter, people were suffering from both imposed place transition
(place pathology) and powerlessness (environmental injustice). In overview,
there seemed to be some justification for the creation of a new concept that
captured the conceptual space or territory connected to this particular
constellation of the factors that define place and identity. The people I was
concerned about were still ‘at home’, but felt a similar melancholia as that
caused by nostalgia connected to the breakdown of the normal relationship
between their psychic identity and their home. What these people lacked was
solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to ‘home’. In
addition, they felt a profound sense of isolation about their inability to have a
meaningful say and impact on the state of affairs that caused their distress.
‘Solastalgia’ was created to describe the specific form of melancholia
connected to lack of solace and intense desolation.
14
E. Casey,
Ibid,
p.38.
15
Peter Read (1996),
Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places
, Cambridge University
Press, Melbourne, p.197.
16
Some properties were being compulsorily acquired and their previous owners were relocating
themselves, however, it was not these people who contacted me and discussed their plight. The
Hunter Valley does have many lost places and lost people due to open cut mining, but they are
the subjects of another study.
45 / PAN No
3 2005
Solastalgia Defined
Solastalgia has its origins in the concepts of ‘solace’ and ‘desolation’. Solace is
derived from
solari and solacium
, with meanings connected to the alleviation
of distress or to the provision of comfort or consolation in the face of
distressing events. Desolation has its origins in
solus
and
desolare
with
meanings connected to abandonment and loneliness. As indicated above,
algia
means pain, suffering or sickness. In addition, the concept has been
constructed such that it has a ghost reference or structural similarity to
nostalgia
so that a place reference is imbedded. Hence, literally, solastalgia is
the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of
isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.
Solastalgia, in contrast to the dislocated spatial and temporal dimensions
of nostalgia, relates to a different set of circumstances. It is the pain
experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and
that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest
in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging
(identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological
desolation) about its transformation. It is an intense desire for the place where
one is a resident to be maintained in a state that continues to give comfort or
solace. Solastalgia is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it
about seeking another place as ‘home’. It is the ‘lived experience’ of the loss of
the present as manifest in a feeling of dislocation; of being undermined by
forces that destroy the potential for solace to be derived from the present. In
short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at
‘home’.
Any context where place identity is challenged by pervasive change to
the existing order has potential to deliver solastalgia. New and powerful
technologies have enabled transitions to occur to social and natural
environments at a speed that makes adaptation difficult if not impossible
17
.
While some might respond to such stress with nostalgia and want to return to
a past state/place where they felt more comfortable, others will experience
solastalgia and express a strong desire to sustain those things that provide
solace. Solastalgia, as opposed to atavistic nostalgia, can also be future
orientated, as those who suffer from it might actively seek to create new
things or engage in collective action that provides solace and communion in
any given environment. Solastalgia has no necessary connection to the past, it
may seek its alleviation in a future that has to be designed and created.
The factors that cause solastalgia can be both natural and artificial.
Drought, fire and flood can cause solastalgia, as can war, terrorism, land
17
Alvin Toffler in
Future Shock
promoted the idea that “[f]uture Shock is a time phenomenon, a
product of greatly accelerated rate of change in society”. Toffler also predicted epidemics of
psychiatric disease connected to such shock. See A. Toffler (1970)
Future Shock
, The Bodley
Head, London, p. 13.
46 / PAN No 3 2005
clearing, mining, rapid institutional change and the gentrification of older
parts of cities. I claim that the concept has universal relevance in any context
where there is the direct experience of transformation or destruction of the
physical environment (home) by forces that undermine a personal and
community sense of identity and control. Loss of place leads to loss of sense of
place experienced as the condition of solastalgia. The most poignant moments
of solastalgia occur when individuals directly experience the transformation
of a loved environment. Watching land clearing (tree removal) or building
demolition, for example, can be the cause of a profound distress that can be
manifest as intense visceral pain and mental anguish. However, with media
and IT globalisation bringing contemporary events such as land clearing in
the Amazon basin into the lounge room, the meanings of ‘direct experience’
and ‘home’ become blurred. I contend that the experience of solastalgia is
now possible for people who strongly empathise with the idea that the earth
is their home and that witnessing events destroying endemic place identity
(cultural and biological diversity) at any place on earth are personally
distressing to them.
The ‘diagnosis’ of solastalgia is based on the recognition of that type of
distress within an individual or a community connected to the loss of an
endemic sense of place. All people who experience solastalgia are negatively
affected by their desolation and likely responses can include the generalised
distress outlined above but can escalate into more serious health and medical
problems such as drug abuse, physical illness and mental illness (depression,
suicide). It is possible to view solastalgia as either a philosophical or a
psychosomatic illness (or both) with conceptual and empirical dimensions.
Solastalgia Applied
The dynamic of the breakdown in the relationship between individual
humans and their communities has long been an object of psychological and
sociological investigation.
Social instability as manifest in either too much or too little solidarity
with others can be a root cause of psychic instability and be manifested in
drug abuse, mental illness and suicide. There is a social correlate of Mitchell’s
identification of the loss of the unity of humans and the earth with psychic
instability in Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie, where the loss or lack of
social norms can lead to intense personal distress resulting in psychiatric
problems and (anomic) suicide
18
.
Historically, Indigenous people are likely to experience both nostalgia
and solastalgia as they live through the destruction of their cultural traditions
and their lands. Where a collective memory of an ancient culture such as that
of Indigenous Australians still exists, there is no idealisation of a golden past,
18
See E. Durkheim, in J. Douglas (1967),
The Social Meanings of Suicide
, Princeton University
Press, Princeton.
47 / PAN No
3 2005
but a genuine grieving for the ongoing loss of ‘country’ and all that entails.
The strength of attachment to country is difficult for people in European
cultures to fathom. A translation of a song from the Oenpelli region captures
some of this power:
Come with me to the point and we’ll look at the country,
We’ll look across at the rocks,
Look, rain is coming!
It falls on my sweetheart.
19
Many authors have identified the social problems experienced by
traditional indigenous cultures worldwide and their connection to loss of
culture and support environment
20
. In the Australian context, Indigenous
people experience physical and mental illness at rates far beyond those of
other Australians. Their social problems; unemployment, alcoholism,
substance abuse (particularly glue and petrol sniffing in youth), violence
against women and disproportionately high rates of crime and custody and
an epidemic of deaths in custody, lead to community dysfunction and crisis.
Indigenous leaders are attempting to deal with the sheer scale and scope of
these problems and they and non-indigenous academics have presented
accounts of them.
Tatz (2001), for example, has highlighted the relevance of what is called
‘existential suicide’ for the explanation of the tragically high and increasing
rates of Indigenous suicide within custody in Australia. Based in part on the
work of Albert Camus, existential suicide is connected to issues such as
ending the meaninglessness and purposelessness that afflicts Aboriginal life
21
.
Camus saw the “undermining”
22
of the goals and purpose of life as being at
the core of recognising ‘absurdity’ and the anguish that can follow such an
existential state. While Tatz concentrates on the social dimensions of the
tragedy of Indigenous suicide, it must be recognised that an element of the
situation is tied to the imposed break between humans, ecosystems and the
land. Deborah Bird Rose captures the essence of this situation when she
provides an account of what “country” means to Indigenous people in
Australia:
Country is not a generalised or undifferentiated type of place, such as
one might indicate with terms like ‘spending a day in the country’ or ‘going
up the country’. Rather, country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and
tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this
19
in R. Broome (1982),
Aboriginal Australians: Black Response
to White Dominance 1788-1980,
George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.14.
20
see, for example, P. Knudsen and D. Suzuki (1992),
Wisdom of the Elders
, Allen & Unwin,
Sydney.
21
C.Tatz (2001),
Aboriginal Suicide is Different: A Portrait of Life and self-Destruction
, Aboriginal
Studies Press, Canberra, pp. 97-98.
22
A. Camus (1955),
The Myth of Sisyphus
, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, p. 12.
48 / PAN No 3 2005
richness, country is home, and peace; nourishment for body, mind and spirit;
heart’s ease.”
23
Both the loss of country and the disintegration of cultural ties between
humans and the land (their roots) are implicated in all aspects of the ‘crisis’
within many Indigenous communities in contemporary Australia. The
difficulty or inability to find “heart’s ease” is a root cause of the identity
problems faced by Indigenous Australians. As explained by one Indigenous
elder, suicide occurs “because life at home is too awful”
24
. This insight,
combined with the knowledge that premature death rates for Indigenous
people are highest where people remain in their traditional lands, suggests
that solastalgia, rather than nostalgia is a powerful factor.
With an understanding of the psycho-dynamics of solastalgia, the
problems of a pathological or toxic home and a lack of “heart’s ease” can be
explained with greater cross-cultural sensitivity and relevance. The ‘dis-ease’
of Indigenous people can, in part, be explained as a response to solastalgia.
Both social and medical epidemics that afflict some Indigenous people can be
partly understood as their attempt to relieve themselves of the distress,
desolation and pain of solastalgia. Perhaps solutions to such problems can
come from the diagnosis of solastalgia and its negation by self-empowered
Indigenous people being directly involved in the repair and restoration of
their ‘home’. In areas where people still have strong, direct connections to
country, the defeat of solastalgia can come from actions that strengthen the
endemic and weaken the alien. Such actions could, for example, range from
Indigenous responsibility for the removal and management of exotic species
25
(flora and fauna) to the active promotion of Indigenous culture. In urban
areas where links to land are more tenuous, reinforcing old and building new
cultural sources of solace and power will assist in the creation of heart’s ease.
23
D. Bird Rose (1996),
Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and
Wilderness
, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra, p. 7.
24
in C. Tatz, Op Cit p. 115.
25
This is an enormous problem that requires intense environmental education and management
and would generate meaningful employment for many Indigenous people into the indefinite
future. An example of such an idea in practice is the Northern Land Council’s Caring for Country
program. The
Daluk
(women rangers) are carrying out environmental (and psycho-cultural)
restoration. One woman, Cherry Wulumirr Daniels a Senior Ranger with the
Ugul Mangi
women
rangers from
Ngukurr
in S.E. Arnhem Land explained: “What the weeds have been doing in our
country, in Australia, damaging, a lot of things, especially in our waterways, taking up much of
the soil, taking up much of the water, so we have been looking at a lot of trees that are not ours,
so we told our people to get rid of those trees, trees and weeds, and even feral animals … and I’m
very glad, it makes me feel happy inside when I see them do those things. Without me they
identify an ant from our natural ant to the other ant that comes from out of Australia, like the
Singaporean ant, the big-headed ones, they can identify which”. Earthbeat ABC
http://www.abc.net.au/cgi-
bin/common/printfriendly.pl?http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/earth/stories/s1139266.htm
49 / PAN No
3 2005
Non-Indigenous Solastalgia
There is an epidemic of psychiatric illness in the western world, connected in
some respects to the crisis in Indigenous people, while in others quite separate
from it. Global suicide rates have increased 50% in the last 50 years
26
and rates
of mental illness or psychological and psychiatric disorders have also
increased. The connections between psychiatric illness and a significant
proportion of suicide cases are well documented and psychiatric illness
(particularly depression) creates major burdens on society.
27
In Australia as a whole and in rural and regional Australia in particular,
there are reports of increasing rates of depression and suicide. The number of
deaths in Australia attributed to suicide rose from 2,197 in 1988 to 2,723 in
1997, an increase of 24% over the 10 year period
28
and deaths through suicide
of male farmers and farm workers is now around double the rate of that of the
Australian male population.
The standard explanations for increasing rates of suicide and depression
in the rural context include rural economic reconstruction in the face of
globalisation, high indebtedness and financial problems, unemployment,
distress over loss of family owned property and heritage and easy access to
chemicals and firearms. However, as argued by Horwitz et al:
Rarely is environmental change regarded as a possible contributing
factor, yet landscape degradation, manifesting as soil erosion, river
or wetland degradation, or increasing salinity on previously
productive land, may underlie or exacerbate any of these other
contributing factors.
29
In Australia in general, the psychological health of farmers is very much
related to the health of the environment. In the grip of drought, when stock
die of malnutrition and thirst, the dams are empty, the pasture is barren and
even the wildlife begins to die, severe depression about such a state of affairs
is not uncommon. During ‘natural’ events like drought, the morale of farmers,
their families and communities decline and with drought breaking rains, joy
and confidence in the future returns. Solastalgia is negated by the natural
restoration of the present to something that is full of creative and productive
potential.
30
26
J.M. Bertolote and A. Fleischmann (2002), “A global perspective in the epidemiology of suicide”
Suicidologi
7 (2) http://www.med.uio.no/iasp/bertolote.pdf
27
C. Hamilton (2003),
Growth Fetish,
Allen and Unwin, Sydney, p.41.
28
Year Book Australia (2002), Health, Special Article - Suicide
http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/be00331a0c3875
33ca2569de0024ed5b!OpenDocument
29
P. Horwitz
et al
(2001), “Biodiversity, Endemism, Sense of Place, and Public Health: Inter-
relationships for Australian Inland Aquatic Systems”,
Ecosystem Health
, 7, (4) p. 255.
30
see, G. Albrecht (2001), “Applied Ethics in Human and Ecosystem Health: The Potential of Ethics
and an Ethic of Potentiality”, in
Ecosystem Health
7, (4) pp. 243-252
50 / PAN No 3 2005
In the sheep/wheat belt of Western Australia severe environmental
change is currently manifest in ten percent of formerly productive land being
affected by dry land salinity. It is estimated that up to 40% of the SW region of
WA will be affected by salinisation by 2050 with attendant loss of agricultural
productivity, biodiversity, water quality, river and stream health and fresh
water wetlands. The cause of this situation is primarily the historical clearing
of native vegetation for agriculture which has allowed the water table to rise
bringing with it ancient layers of salt. Reports of high levels of suicide and
mental illness in farming communities within the wheat belt of WA are
therefore one type of expression of psychic instability in this region and are a
classic illustration of the relationship between ecosystem distress syndrome
and human distress expressed as solastalgia. Indeed, since the problem of
land degradation in this part of the world has been caused largely by the
property owners themselves, the type of solastalgia-related distress at the loss
of productive farms is likely to be more intense than that which is ‘natural’ in
origin
31
.
Solastalgia in the Upper Hunter Region of NSW
In the light of contact with distressed people in the Upper Hunter, I consulted
with my friends and colleagues, Linda Connor and Nick Higginbotham at the
University of Newcastle about the idea of conducting research focussed on
the relationship between ecosystem health and human health (physical and
mental) in the Upper Hunter Region. We had previously collaborated on a
number of transdisciplinary
32
(TD) projects and the rough idea was worked
into a detailed research plan based on both qualitative and quantitative
methods. We would attempt to explore and describe the ecosystem-human
health relationship and, in addition, see if the concept of solastalgia had any
philosophical and empirical currency within the affected population. With
funding secured and ethics clearance from the University of Newcastle,
qualitative research in the form of in-depth semi-structured interviews began
in April 2003.
The TD team conducted the semi-structured interviews with over 50 key
informants and community residents within the region from April until
December 2003. The community interviewees included rural and urban
residents, in farming and non-farm related occupations. Both long-term
residents and more recent arrivals were identified for interview through a
process of self-selection via media releases and information from community
groups and social networks.
31
I thank Pierre Horwitz for this observation.
32
See G. Albrecht, N. Higginbotham and S. Freeman (1998) “Complexity and Human
Health: The Case for a Transdisciplinary Paradigm”,
Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry
,
Vol. 22, pp. 55-92, and, N. Higginbotham, G. Albrecht and L. Connor, (authors/eds) (2001)
Health Social Science: A Transdisciplinary and Complexity Perspective,
Oxford University
Press, South Melbourne.
51 / PAN No
3 2005
Preliminary
33
analysis of transcribed community interviews suggested
that, for a substantial number of residents, development and environmental
change in the region is associated with considerable personal distress about
personal health, damage to homes and farming properties, the Hunter River,
the landscape and community heritage. Deeply emotional responses were
especially evident in relation to pollution impacts on individuals, family
homes and properties. An additional source of distress was the social
pressure caused by the two coal-based industries. Higher costs of living, rapid
turnover of neighbours, the escalating power of multinational companies and
mistrust between supporters and opponents of development added to the
cumulative psychological and community distress.
While appreciating that the responses received were not from a
representative sample of the Upper Hunter population, the research team
came away from the interviews with the recognition that the people we
interviewed were losing the very things that once made life in this part of
rural so valuable to them. Loss of ecosystem health and loss of community
were negatively transforming the foundations of their existence. Those
interviewed were also unimpressed by the quality of remediation undertaken
by mining companies and saw the environmental legacy of mining as a
complete disaster.
Despite the current high level of cumulative impacts, the scope and scale
of both the power generation and mining industries look likely to be even
more intense and widespread with greater power generation capacity and
even more open cut mining to be developed in the area in the near future.
Solastalgia and the Transcripts
Distress within the community has been expressed in a multitude of ways but
constant themes have been disgust at the assault on the quality of life, fear of
ill health (risk imposition) and frustration caused by the inability to stop the
pollution and have any real say in the way the region is being developed. The
transcripts have revealed a perception within the population that adults and
children within the region experience unusually high rates of respiratory
33
The research team is undertaking further analysis of transcripts and future publications will
detail the qualitative dimensions of the distress described in this essay as solastalgia. At present,
two papers have been published specifically on this research. See L. Connor
et al.
Environmental
Change and Human Health: A Pilot Study in Upper Hunter Communities, in G. Albrecht (ed.)
(2003)
Proceedings of the Airs Waters Places Transdisciplinary Conference on Ecosystem Health
in Australia
, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, The University of Newcastle, and; L.
Connor, G. Albrecht, N. Higginbotham, W. Smith & S. Freeman, (2004) Open Cuts to Land and
Culture, Strip Mining and its Impact on the Sense of Well-being of People in Rural Communities:
A Case Study in the Hunter Region of Australia, for
EcoHealth
(accepted April 2004 for
publication in 2004).
52 / PAN No 3 2005
disease (asthma), clusters and high rates of rare cancers, high rates of birth
defects, depression associated with declining quality of life and other
problems connected with shift work patterns and wealth being generated by
the mining and power industries. As an additional first step to establish the
case for the existence of solastalgia, material contained in the transcripts is
selected to highlight the elements of respondents’ distress related to place
pathology, powerlessness, isolation and psychosomatic illness.
The emotional impact of the extent of physical change to the
environment and the associated sense of place pathology are evident in the
following comments by interviewees:
One of the reasons they
(my ancestors)
left the North of England was on the
physician’s recommendation because they were suffering from respiratory problems
and consumption … the child mortality rate was pretty high … they had steam
engines roaring past the house and black smoke and soot. Yes it’s gone round in a
big circle. It took a hundred and fifty years, they came here to get away from it and
they did. They said what a wonderful country it is and it’s caught up, the industrial
revolution’s caught us again, we’ve got the same trouble. Where do we go?
Patagonia or somewhere?
(Howard)
Originally they
(the miners)
said they were going to go underground but the DA
(development application) …
is for open cut … Now that is in danger. Species there,
there is a very rare woodland banksia in all of that. And
It’s distressing. It almost
reduces me to tears to think about it [mining].
(Eve)
The fact that you can see those huge mine heaps etc. makes you think that some time
in the future there maybe dreadful consequences for the water table movement in the
valley etc
.(Leo)
When the coal is gone, the people of Singleton will be left with nothing but “The
Final Void”.
(Eve)
The lack of support and the alienation caused by political powerlessness
contributes to solastalgia about the negative transformation of the physical
environment:
…I think one of the problems of the mining and the industry is, they play on the
basic everyday person’s lack of resources. There’s no social support for displacement,
none whatsoever.
(Lea)
And it’s a big thing when your family has owned the place for generations. You love
that land, even though I married into it. I came to love it because I knew the history
of it … And I thought,
the
love of that place, it doesn’t mean anything now that
we’ve got all those wretched international companies. They don’t care.
(Dora)
Certainly I believe that there are a greater number of impacts on Singleton than any
other communities, especially the Hunter. But certainly … other communities are
also being impacted on and people are feeling the same way as we are. That sense of
no power to do anything, that there’s no way of stopping what’s happening around
you without a fight. And people are tired you know, we just get rid of this issue and
53 / PAN No
3 2005
the next issue’s waiting and so on, it’s like a conveyer belt of issues. And there could
be two or three issues sitting on the table at the same time.
(Brenda)
The impact of pollution on physical and psychological health is a
constant theme and is deeply implicated in a diagnosis of solastalgia:
The other concerns that I have are that we seem to have a high incidence of cancer.
Even younger people are getting cancer. It seems to be, from what we have seen,
brain cancers and rare ones.
(Fleur)
The environmental issues have certainly affected my health as in the physical but
emotionally, again it’s hard to quantify how much stress and emotion plays in
somebody’s health, but I certainly know that when things are running on an even
keel, if that’s the right word, if you don’t have those issues that you feel like you’ve
got to really stand up and fight and are you the only one that’s doing anything? You
always find out that you’re not the only one that’s doing something but at times you
feel … is anybody out there listening? I know how much worse my asthma is.
(Brenda)
Well I noticed when this business with –
(mine name)
when I was really fighting
here. And my manager would come to me and say he didn’t sleep last night. The
noise, because they’re loading right near the road, he’s just across the creek from the
road. And you hear a drag line swinging around and dumping rocks into a truck.
And then the truck would back away ... beep, beep, beep, beep, beep. And then the
next one would roar in. He used to say to me “we just can’t cope any longer”. They
wouldn’t listen. I then had to go to the mining company. I went to my solicitor...But I
lost a lot of weight. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach like that
(note: clenched fist),
and think, what am I going to do? We’re losing money, they
won’t listen to me, what do I do? Do I go broke? I can’t sell to anybody, nobody
wants to buy it because it’s right next to the mine. What do I do? And I was a real
mess.
(Dora)
34
What comes across clearly in the majority of interviews is distress caused
by the assault on the interviewees’ senses of identity, place, belonging, control
and good health. Their frustration at not being able to stop or reverse the
development that was causing the desolation of the environment and the loss
of their sense of well-being added to the cumulative distress. These people
were suffering both mentally and physically, but mainly articulated their
distress through very generalised descriptions of their suffering or through
body language such as the ‘clenched fist’ to show how they were feeling
inside. The clenched fist is more than symbolically important; it shows that
solastalgic distress, like the older connotations of nostalgia, is capable of
causing a real and diagnosable illness.
34
Material taken from L. Connor, N. Higginbotham, W. Smith and G. Albrecht, (2003)
Relating
Ecological and Human Distress Syndromes: A Pilot Investigation in Upper Hunter Communities
Exposed to Large Scale Industrial and Mining Activity
. Funded Research Project 2003-4, Research
Grant Committee of The University of Newcastle.
54 / PAN No 3 2005
In some respects, the people in this region are experiencing a wave of
aggressive colonisation by large scale, extractive and power-generating
industries owned by State, national and multinational corporations. The first
wave of colonisation dispossessed the Indigenous people of the Valley and for
them post-colonial shockwaves continue to the present day expressed, in part,
as both nostalgia and solastalgia. The second wave of colonisation, ironically
impacting on the descendents of the original colonists, is leading to complete
dispossession for some and solastalgia for those left behind.
Farming families whose occupation of the valley goes back to the first
half of the nineteenth century are being evicted from their properties while
others who are not in the direct line of fire are being literally undermined by
extractive industries. They are having their lives made intolerable by the
wholesale assault on the ecosystem health of the bioregion manifest as toxic
air pollution, constant noise, excessive dust and increasing salinisation of the
Hunter River. The net result is a community in a stressed landscape where
stressed people experience the deep distress of solastalgia while others (the
region and the State) profit at their expense. While still ‘work in progress’, the
research is showing a clear conceptual link between the well being of people
and the well being of the land
35
. Mitchell’s identification of “psychic stability”
and “heart’s ease” by Rose find relevance in the lived experiences of people in
the Hunter Valley.
The attempt to relieve solastalgia by those affected by it can be manifest
in negative or positive ways. The sublimating or diluting of solastalgic
distress can occur in the form of a range of social, physical and mental health
problems ranging from substance abuse to serious psychiatric disorders and
suicide. However, an alternative positive response is personal and community
involvement in the protection, restoration and rehabilitation of their
home/place/bioregion/country and the nurturing of an endemic sense of
place in both individuals and communities. In Australia, the attraction of
movements like Land Care is in part related to the desire of people to confront
solastalgia in the repair and restoration of land that has been degraded by
human mismanagement. Direct action by environmental activists to save
endangered environments can also be seen as an urgent response to
solastalgic distress. Further, a counter to solastalgia in the political context is
resistance to the power and arrogance of both government and corporate
bodies to silence and isolate public participation in the development approval
and environmental monitoring processes. The refusal to be the sacrificial
lambs of the Hunter Valley marks some of our research respondents as public
dissidents in the face of multi-billion dollar multi-national industries.
It seems that many people in a variety of contexts sense that something is
wrong with our relationship with the planet and their unease just might be an
35
The TD research team has created an instrument to measure the degree of solastalgia as
expressed by the level of distress connected to the breakdown of an endemic sense of place.
Funding has been sought to conduct such research.
55 / PAN No
3 2005
expression of deep-seated solastalgia about non-sustainability. The innate
desire to be connected to life and living things, what E. O. Wilson calls
“biophilia”
36
or what could be called ‘ecophilia’ is, in part, an innate desire to
overcome solastalgia by finding an earthly ‘home’ in the connection with
living things and life processes on this planet. The defeat of solastalgia and
non-sustainability will require that all of our emotional, intellectual and
practical efforts be redirected towards healing the rift that has occurred
between ecosystem and human health, both broadly defined. In science, such
a commitment might be manifest in the full redirection of scientific
investment and effort to an ethically inspired and urgent practical response to
the forces that are destroying ecosystem integrity and biodiversity. The need
for an “ecological psychology” that re-establishes full human health (spiritual
and physical) within total ecosystem health has been articulated by many
leading thinkers worldwide.
37
The full transdisciplinary idea of health
involves the healing of solastalgia via cultural responses to degradation of the
environment in the form of drama, art, dance and song at all scales of living
from the bioregional to the global. The potential to restore unity in life and
achieve genuine sustainability is a scientific, ethical, cultural and practical
response to this ancient, ubiquitous but newly defined human illness.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank Nick Higginbotham, Linda Connor, Pierre
Horwitz, Mick Hillman, David O’Brien, Jill Albrecht and Simon Albrecht for
helping with the development of this idea. In addition, I thank the referees of
PAN for their assistance in taking what was initially a short essay designed to
stimulate discussion into a more thoughtful and considered article. One
referee in particular is thanked for directing me into the ‘place pathology’
locations of place literature and providing supportive feedback on the early
draft. In addition, I thank the people of the Upper Hunter for allowing me to
listen to their own accounts of solastalgia.
36
E.O. Wilson (1984),
Biophilia
, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.
37
See, for example, J. Hillman, on Justice and Beauty: Foundations of an Ecological Psychology,
http://www.online.pacifica.edu/alumni/facultyynews/medalhillman
(accessed April 2004).
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Social Impacts of Drought: A Report to NSW Agriculture
  • Alston M Kent
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