In a sunny Australian city known as one of the largest coal export ports in the world, an environmental philosopher made frequent calls to residents.
As they spoke, their distress was felt at the magnitude of the impact of open pit mines and other heavy industry in the area.
The philosopher sat at the dining table with his wife and tried to characterize the peculiarities of their pain – a pain that "is experienced when it is recognized that the place where you live and love is immediately attacked".
Glenn Albrecht, the philosopher in question, and his wife Jill first thought of the concept of nostalgia – for, as Albrecht writes, the term was once associated with “a diagnosable disease associated with the melancholy of homesickness for people far away your home."
But the desperate residents of Australia's Hunter Valley were not exiled emigrants longing for a home. On the contrary, they had stayed where they were, even when the landscape that had once brought them consolation was no longer recognizable.
Finally, Albrecht coined the term "Solastalgie" – a neologism that combines the words nostalgia, comfort and desolation – to describe her deep feeling of loss and isolation and the overwhelming feelings of powerlessness that went with it.
Solastalgia, as Albrecht defined it in an essay from 2004, manifests itself “in an attack on the sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a certain place and in a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation. "In short, it's" a form of homesickness that makes you feel at home when you are home. "
This word has been used more and more in recent years, especially in the context of climate change.
Perhaps it describes some of the destabilizing worries you experienced as the ashes rained and fires burned in all directions. We Californians have long defined ourselves against an unforgiving landscape of great beauty and destruction. But it's never been like this.
On Thursday, the massive fire of the August Complex in and around Tehama County officially became the largest fire in California history – meaning the first, third, and fourth largest fires in California history are all currently burning. It's hard not to wonder what our state will be like when and when the flames subside. Or whether we will ever feel completely safe here again.
"We have relationships with places," explains Dr. Susan Clayton, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio. "They are very important to our history and our sense of who we are."
Clayton studies the psychological effects of climate change. It's a relatively new focus in the field of psychology that makes it difficult to definitively talk about the longer-term effects. However, researchers believe that climate change will have both chronic and acute effects on mental health.
According to a 2017 American Psychological Assn. Clayton's report is co-author, the acute effects are likely to include more trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder from extreme weather caused by climate change and other major destabilizing events. Chronic effects can manifest as an increased feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism when people anticipate profound changes in their surroundings or what they see as a lack of control over what is happening.
Clayton said some of the more incremental effects of climate change could affect our mental wellbeing.
"There is very good evidence that, for example, hot weather is actually bad for our mental health," she said. "You're seeing an increase in suicide rates, an increase in aggression and an increase in psychiatric hospital admissions."
The lingering existential threat posed by climate change can also lead to a background of worry that is often referred to as "eco-fear" or "climate fear". As Clayton explains, having a level of fear can be a motivating force in stimulating action and change – but too much can be debilitating and crippling.
Humans are beings that are capable of incredible cognitive dissonances. We light cigarettes, know that smoking kills, rebuild houses in fire zones and wake up every morning knowing that one day – billions of years from now – the sun is likely to devour the earth. The question has always been, what can we bear to ignore and what kind of dissonance actually preoccupies us? The inevitable fate of our solar system certainly falls into this latter category. But the ravages of climate change are here now.
So what's the middle ground between sticking our heads in the sand and being psychologically overwhelmed by what we know? Suppose you are fortunate enough to be out of the path of acute danger, at least for today. How can we live meaningfully with these threats when we know that so much is out of our control?
"For all of us, we have to find this way of thinking – I can do something," said Clayton. You may not be able to save the world, but you can have a little sense of control over your corner even if you just prepare your own evacuation plans. She also mentioned that she was pushing or voting on certain topics local officials to bring up the matter.
I worry that invoking those little steps might sound glib or pollyanna-esque, especially in the face of such blatant destruction made possible by so many years of greed and ineptitude. We obviously need large-scale, sustainable measures at all management levels. But when you are feeling deeply sorry and desperate, personal action can at least help repair your own sense of powerlessness.
My colleague Sammy Roth, an energy reporter at The Times, recently wrote about his own reckoning with climate desperation, quoting a line from the rabbinical teachings of Pirkei Avot that I have pondered many times in the weeks since: “It's not your responsibility to quit the work of perfecting the world, but you cannot refrain from it either. "