Thursday, December 13, 2018


Depending on who is defining it, nostalgia can get a bad rap.  The word first appears in English toward the end of the eighteenth century, where it means "a sentimental longing or affection for a period in the past."  New words come out of their historical contexts:  eighteenth-century England would certainly have aroused such longing, characterized as the time was by the beginning both of the middle class and industrialization.  Industrialization was not the clean panacea for physical labour it was supposed to be, but rather the oppression of workers in terrible conditions for long periods of time.  And of course, the rise of the middle class threatened the aristocracy, who presumably had much to look back to in its past--a golden age that perhaps, like most golden ages, never quite was.  It's the word "sentimental" that accounts for the negative connotations of "nostalgia," "sentimental" sometimes describing (and here I quote the OED again) ""feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia" that are typically expressed and experienced in an "exaggerated and self-indulgent way."  Some writers have even characterized nostalgia as a kind of sickness. 

As a neoligism, "solastalgia" hasn't yet found its way into the OED, though it was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003.  It shares with "nostalgia" the "algia" root, which is Greek for "pain," but word "solacium' meaning comfort or solace.  Albrecht meant his newly-coined word to refer to "a form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change."  In other words, he meant it to reference the effects climate change is having on humans.  While the Oxford English Dictionary does not deign to include it, The Lancet has no difficulty publishing work that illustrates the damage climate change does to human health, or to see it in a significant new set of anxiety disorders.  Most recently, consider the fires in California which have displaced thousands of people and destroyed their homes and probably the places where they grew up, kissed their first lover, started their first job, and earned their livelihood. Or think of the Puerto Ricans who still have not been able to put their lives back together.  The BBC website says that "Justin Lawson from Melbourne’s Deakin University explains solastalgia with The Eagles’ song No More Walks in the Wood to help people understand solastalgia because it laments the disappearance of a forest associated with powerful memories. 'It really is about redefining our emotional responses to a landscape that has changed within a lifetime.'

I bring up these examples as a reality check.  For about 2 1/2 weeks at the end of November and beginning of December, Regina had half a day of sunlight.  For the most part, the world was white:  the sky wasn't covered with clouds; it was cloud.  Both body and soul were running on batteries that were recharged a little less every day.  We're spoiled here:  our falls and winters may be cold, but they are usually sunny.  It's only in the last 8 years or so that I can recall periods when cloud settled in and refused to move off.  This year, even people who are normally sanguine and think that weather is just weather, called that period of time "brutal." I struggled to be productive, and finally hunkered down, re-reading C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and working on a brightly-coloured Tula Pink quilt for Bill's office that I will set with a lattice to make an indoor garden for him.

Solastalgia, our experience of loss when a bird becomes endangered or extinct, when the weather brings drought or floods or fires, when it leaves us with that uneasy feeling that all is not as it should be, only emphasizes the fact that we depend on our earth and its climates for everything: our economies, the safety of our cities that create our working and cultural lives, as well as our mental well-being.  Air conditioning can help us cope with the heat--while creating even more carbon dioxide--but nothing replaces a sunny day and the lift it gives to our moods, helping us feel bouyant and hopeful.

Consult your own solastalgia meter.  Is a lake suddenly unswimmable?  Or has a tree you once climbed been cut down, leaving only the map of its trunk behind?  Do you miss the brief time when the bluebirds fly through the Qu'Appelle Valley? Your own solastalgia meter may tell  you that it's time for us to work together to lower our carbon footprint.  It may admit that there are limits to our luxuries and our freedoms:  that, despite what the American oil industry has been arguing with its CAR FREEDOM AGENDA (caps not mine)--that we should all be able to choose which vehicles best suit our needs, we don't have a right to drive gas-guzzling vehicles or the freedom to do our errands helter-skelter rather than planning a single efficient trip. 

The people of Paradise--what an ironic and apt name, given that we are all living after the fall from limitless energy--aren't feeling the self-indulgence of nostalgia, but the wordlessness of solastalgia, which can't quite express what it is like to have their homes destroyed so quickly and brutally that anything prompting memories has evaporated.  Their relationship to the landscape of their daily lives has been radically changed and will never change back.  The trees will not grow back in their lifetimes.  Recently conservative Canadian premiers and citizens in France have objected to a federal carbon tax because of its effect on economies both personal and national.  Yet Nobel-prize-winning Bill Nordhaus tells us that a carbon tax is the simplest, most effective way of nudging us toward reducing our carbon footprints.  We need to realize that it isn't taxes that threaten economies:  Economies are already being threatened by heat, drought, floods, fires, hurricanes, the rise of oceans, and we need to ask our leaders to lead, not to be bought off or to assume that old paradigms like "the market" will fix everything.  We also need to recognize that we all made this circumstance together; we all need to contribute our fair share to sorting it out.


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