In the so-called developed world, modernity and modernism have always been tough nuts to crack, simultaneously charming and bewildering their hapless participants with a curtain-barrage of accelerating changes in technologies, cultures and sensibilities. The pageants of innovation celebrated in some of the peak exhibits at the watershed 1964 World’s Fair—General Electric’s ‘Progressland’, for example, or General Motors’s ‘Futurama’—constituted key moments of my childhood. The world I had only just begun to inhabit was animatronically parsed, before my eyes, into an indicative today, flanked by a preterite yesterday and a future-perfect tomorrow. The grammar of American exceptionalism writ large, vague and feel-good. Most of the panoramas focused on miraculously upgraded consumer durables: GE rhapsodised about how domestic electrification and industrial know-how had liberated us from tallow candles, bulk ice for refrigeration and laundry mangles. GM spun gleaming vistas of flash Jetsons-styleprivate transport in levitating landaus that threaded a futuristic cityscape whose twinkling lights faded towards a contrived but hopeful horizon.
The forced pace of change, both actual and projected, compressed the historical strata between past and present: fifty years ago was now looking more like five. Paradoxically, it opened wider gaps of experience and expectation between adjacent generations. My seven-year-old self was appalled to learn my parents had grown up without television. My own children marvel at my smart-phone-less youth, and they can get testy should I forget to take my mobile with me when I walk the dog. At my age they’re entitled to worry a little if I don’t answer, but how did we manage before everyone on the tram was hunched over their own personal device? It wasn’t that long ago!
The underlying theme of that1964 World’s Fair was our lottery-win good fortune to have arrived as the party was about to begin, on the brink of further miracles and wonders just around the corner. Of course, all that unrelenting Disneyfied optimism was riding on some historically thin ice. The signs were visible even before the dawn of a blood-soaked twentieth century: the corporate merger of the upstart Industrial Revolution with the venerable old firms of war and death had produced darker forms of progress, whose exhibits spanned two centuries—the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, and so on. That darker aspect of modernity cast little shadow over my childhood, even as my primary school conducted unexplained duck-and-cover exercises (blandly characterised as ‘civil defence’) and the war in Vietnam had just begun to hit the evening news. As well as producing refrigerators, GE was also a prime government contractor in the manufacture of nuclear-missile submarines, and GM’s products entitled us to unprecedented mobility, but at a catastrophic environmental cost we have scarcely begun to register.
Arbeit macht frei. We shrink in justified horror from how the Nazis’ concentration camps manufactured death on an industrial scale, with the ideologically antithetical Soviet Gulag not far behind in comparable pursuits. Zyklon B was invented as a pesticide to help make industrial-scale agriculture more efficient and productive. Was its side hustle at Auschwitz an aberrant detour? From such vantages it’s almost too easy to take a catastrophising view of modernity, a banal litany of mounting horrors. ‘Cause napalm sticks to kids’—even stolid old Wikipedia notes the black irony of a 1972 anti-war song being taken up as a singalong jingle for US boot-camp recruits (‘Napalm Sticks to Kids’ is a rhythmic and rhyming performance that has seen life as both a published song and an informal military cadence with roots in the Vietnam War, during which napalm—an incendiary gel—saw extensive use).
From positions of upholstered and gated privilege, those few who enjoy a relatively secure station above the world’s turmoils live largely ignorant of just how precarious life on earth has proven for nearly all of its inhabitants across its full run of habitation. Such security perches above the abyss that once yawned for the Romanovs, the Bourbons, or the patrician classes of ancient Byzantium or Rome. Not to mention the less prominent victims of uncountable famines, wars and plagues that pit the historical record as far back as we can look.
To call such misfortune ‘catastrophe’ obscures the fact that it’s been much more the norm than the exception. The developed world’s relatively brief high tide of expansive postwar plenty catered to needs we didn’t even know we had, as capital embedded us in restless rounds of get, spend, rinse and repeat. Its ebb across the lifetimes of baby boomers and gen-Xers is, in this sense, just a ‘correction’ (as we might say of a stock-market crash), but it has hit those long accustomed to comfortable times especially hard, as the confusions of recent American electoral politics most vividly attest.
The contrary rising tide of ever harsher climate change fallouts has struck just about anyone who’s looking with grimly portentous spectacles of extreme heat (or cold), drought, fire, flood, and large-scale population displacements whose onset only a handful of years ago had been routinely projected for the end of this century rather than its beginning. But here we are. What now? One response has been to explore the inward mental dimension of the distress felt by those most directly affected. For this purpose, the environmental philosopher Glen Albrecht has coined the term ‘solastalgia’ to name the psychological shock experienced by individuals and communities forced to live with extreme climate disruption brought on by climate change or industrial-scale economic assaults on traditionally valued landscapes—most commonly extractive enterprises such as open-pit coal mining.
In itself, the word ‘solastalgia’ looks at first glance like a failed palindrome, no easier on the eye than on the ear. Albrecht modelled it on the more familiar ‘nostalgia’, a compound of the Greek nostos (‘homecoming’) and algia (‘pain’), which denotes an emotional pang inflicted by the memory of a literally or figuratively lost ‘home’. It names an ache similarly signalled by the German noun Heimweh (‘homesickness’) or the Old English adjective sele-dreorig (literally ‘hall-dreary’, that is, ‘made sad by the loss of one’s mead-hall’). ‘Solastalgia’ extends the semantic range of ‘nostalgia’ to identify a wider distress for which no ‘solace’ can be found.
Albrecht directs it specifically at the combined force of dismay, grief, and anger that besets people overtaken by extreme climate change consequences on their own home ground. Having never left, they find themselves in a suddenly alien landscape, their previously chosen comfort zone rendered strange and hostile. Albrecht calls it ‘feeling homesick while still at home’ and notes the telling irony of contemporary communities traumatised by environmental havoc that deprives them of agency, in the same way that native populations were displaced by colonial settlement, if not on the same scale. Alienation, deprivation, colonisation: a world where you once belonged rendered stochastically inimical and toxic.
We can see a similar phenomenon among survivors of severe earthquakes, who often report a post-traumatic mental disconnect. The experience of solid earth heaving like the deck of a foundering ship leaves behind a lingering dismay: a previously stable and immobile medium, literally the ‘ground’ of earthly existence beneath our feet, has in a flash shown itself subject to unforeseen rages and upheavals. The witness’s whole world-view suffers a shocking leftward wrench, in the wake of which new bearings seem impossible to establish. So might the survivors of the Chicxulub meteorite impact—could we know anything about Cretaceous psychology—have registered the trauma of climate change during their environment’s bolt-from-the-blue devastation.
But despite mounting evidence of how irreversibly far we have already travelled down the road towards extinction-level climate degradation, our own sense of imminent peril remains muted by our Cretaceous assumptions and values. The relatively slow pace of climate change—at least on the time-scales of velociraptor smash-and-grab economics in our post-industrial moment—has yet to blast much shock and awe into the common mind, however vociferously climate activists have protested.
Institutional initiatives such as the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) and COP (Conference of the Parties, soon to convene in Egypt for its twenty-seventh annual session) are routinely taken to task by seriously engaged environmentalists for their talking-shop impotence and bureaucratic compromises that reduce serious emissions-reduction policy to a dishonest shell-game of carbon credits and pipe-dream waffle about carbon capture and storage technologies that have yet to demonstrate the least efficacy. All the while, tidings roll in of the latest floods, wildfires and droughts from around the world. Some of the soundbites border on the surreal: residents of Jackson, Mississippi being warned to shower with their mouths closed because their clean water sources have been exhausted; the remains of Las Vegas mafia whacks being exposed in corroded oil drums—now there’s irony for you!—as Lake Mead retreats behind an increasingly useless Hoover Dam. Our newsfeeds toss up one traumatic scene after another in their 24/7 cycle, unrelenting yet weirdly free-floating. The medium allows us to spectate such mayhem as, maybe, sympathetic onlookers, but with little concrete sense that we might be part of the problem.
At such a juncture you might wonder whether Albrecht’s effort to draw our attention to the inward disarray our various climate culs-de-sac can trigger is somewhat misplaced. Is ‘solastalgia’ really the right term? Its derivation from ‘nostalgia’ suggests a comparable state of regret and mournful remembrance that withdraws from a diminished present. Yet those it presumably afflicts have not ‘withdrawn’ from anything; instead they’re being pummelled in situ. The psychological trauma it seeks to name unquestionably exists, and of course anyone suddenly flooded or burnt out of livelihood or residence will read their vexed present against a more comforting past they no longer possess. In the end, the notion of solastalgia may prove more helpful looking forward, for it charts much of the difficult mental terrain that the world—developed or otherwise—will have to traverse as it gropes towards whatever post-carbon-intensive future it must find across the next few generations. We shall all be learning to forgo any number of modern amenities whose unsustainability we’d never before imagined.
Historically, we have learned to manipulate material reality on ever-larger scales for our ever-greater advantage. In a kind of uncanny Jungian enantiodromia, our enlarged mastery of material circumstance has left us all the more helpless to adapt when the very means of that mastery have proven toxic. Can Albrecht’s identification of ‘solastalgia’ as a psychological phenomenon help us read such disconnects at least a little more alertly? Or anticipate the demands they will make on our psychological balance?
Every challenge posed by climate change possesses an internal as well as an external dimension. Each demands that we learn not only to act differently but to think and imagine differently. The bare and increasingly harsh facts are telling us in the developed world that our ‘developed’ condition conceals costs that continue to mount far beyond our capacity to balance the books. As the consequences accumulate, can we look up from our newsfeeds and social media distractions long enough to realise the disasters we witness on our screens are actually crashing outside our doors?