Why you should care
Because philosopher Glenn Albrecht is defining mental conditions for the climate change era.
You’re at home with your family on the sofa. Despite being surrounded by loved ones, melancholy is rising within you. Why? Outside the weather is no longer how it used to be. The seasons hardly resemble themselves. You turn on the television and it’s the usual: The Great Barrier Reef is in a state of crisis; polar ice caps are melting. Home in both the immediate sense and the whole planet is changing. How do you feel? Isolated? Depressed? Longing for a different time?
There’s a term for this: You’re feeling solastalgic.
Solastalgia describes the feeling of distress caused by environmental change, and it was coined by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. “It was important to give that feeling a name because it was missing from our language,” Albrecht says from his small farm in Australia’s Hunter Valley region in the eastern state of New South Wales.
Now we cannot get away from our impact even in places like the peak of Mount Everest.
When solastalgia burst onto the international stage it drew some attention from the mental health and environment communities, but not much beyond it. Since the United Nations acknowledged mental health as a key measurement of the impact of climate change in 2017, things have changed considerably. Researchers have now documented solastalgia among communities as far apart as Africa and Appalachia, Canada and China.
As the climate-induced mental health crisis becomes a recognized phenomenon, Albrecht, 66, has been busy creating new words to describe various emotional states. In his new book, Earth Emotions, Albrecht introduces us to a host of these negative disorders, which he dubs “psycho-terratic” diseases (psycho = mental; terratic = Earth).
Alongside solastalgia, there is eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, tierratrauma (acute environmental change leading to acute trauma) and, finally, global dread (the anticipation of a totally bleak future). “We’ve been chasing human dominance over the natural world for 300 years … psychologically we’re at a tipping point,” Albrecht reflects.
He’s not the only one who thinks so. Increasingly, doctors are seeing these previously unnamed conditions in their waiting rooms. George Crisp is a doctor in Western Australia and a member of Doctors for the Environment. He’s taken a particular interest in Albrecht’s work. “What Glenn is describing here isn’t a hippie-dippie notion — my colleagues and I see it regularly in the medical field,” he says. Crisp says he has several patients who constantly exhibit climate change-induced anxiety.
For all his work, Albrecht is still mostly known for solastalgia. The concept was born in the early 2000s when Albrecht was a professor at the University of Newcastle. He had a penchant for getting involved in community environmental matters and was dismayed when people in the Upper Hunter Valley contacted him concerned over rampant open-coal mining in the region. Albrecht, along with two colleagues, Nick Higginbotham (no relation to the author) and Linda Connor, sprang into action and interviewed more than 100 locals. The feelings documented ultimately became known as solastalgia.
“We went into the field with him, and we just had that human response — that need to help these communities,” Higginbotham says. “So it’s because of Glenn that both Linda and I became academic activist types.” Higginbotham is a psychologist and his wife, Linda Connor, an anthropologist. In the intervening years, the three have remained close. “He’s always been the undisputed ideas man,” Connor says.
Born in 1953, Albrecht was raised in Perth, Western Australia. The self-confessed “nature boy” recalls his escapades into bushland outside suburbia. There among the shrubs, he would admire birds, find turtles and lizards along the river and occasionally run into a venomous snake (this is Australia, after all). He laments how easy it once was to be in nature, completely removed from the human world. “Now we cannot get away from our impact even in places like the peak of Mount Everest,” he says, with a trace of solastalgia.
Yet Albrecht is not one to succumb to negative thoughts. In Earth Emotions, he offers the blueprint for how humans can eradicate negative Earth emotions — by creating a society that is in harmony with the natural world. He has a name for this too: the Symbiocene.
Generation Z will spearhead the effort to end human dominance over the natural world, in Albrecht’s mind, starting by vehemently opposing governments and juggernaut corporations that don’t protect nature. It sounds like a futuristic utopia, but Albrecht suggests that a Symbiocene social movement has already begun, and you enter it the moment you are sufficiently “woke.” He points to Greta Thunberg, who started Europe’s student climate strikes at age 15, as an example.
Albrecht was not always going to become an environmental philosopher. He had originally enrolled in ornithology, but his plans to study birds shifted at age 16 when his father committed suicide. Albrecht started writing poetry and looked to sociology and philosophy to make sense of life. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Newcastle studying “organicism in Western philosophy,” which is the idea that the world functions like a natural organism.
He made his mark with solastalgia, but it’s hard to tell if the Symbiocene (Earth’s next chapter after the current Anthropocene) will be embraced as a sunnier counterpoint. “In the face of all the environmental despair in the world, Glenn has created a beacon of optimism — a psychological refuge, if you will, for people who need to imagine a better world,” says Crisp. “Will it happen? I’m sure some people believe it will,” he concludes, not sounding convinced.
At his farm, Albrecht says his retirement from teaching in 2014 has given him plenty of time to ponder, and he admits those thoughts can be dark. “I do sometimes have fears that humans may create the conditions that make it unbearable for life on this Earth,” he says. “I try not to subscribe to that line of thought, though,” he insists.
“That’s why I created the Symbiocene. It’s the counter to that nightmare.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Glenn Albrecht
- What’s the last book you read? Tim Low’s Where Song Began. It’s a book about Australia’s birds.
- What do you worry about? I worry that humans may create an absolutely uninhabitable Earth.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? There are people in my life I couldn’t live without, but also the environment.
- Who’s your hero? Aldo Leopold comes to mind. He was one of the first who made me realize you could philosophize and write about the environment in a way that is inspiring.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I’ve had a bucket list in terms of travel, but I’m solidly committed to not contributing to my carbon footprint anymore. So I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere, ever, until we are in the Symbiocene, much to my friends’ and family’s dismay. They think it’s ridiculous that I propose such a thing. So it’s an issue for me.
Read more: The next way to stop climate change — storing data in space.