New Maladies of the Soul

Scott McLemee reviews Glenn A. Albrecht's Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.

June 21, 2019

Strong emotion can undo the capacity for speech; subtle emotion finds in the available words little but clumsy approximations and thudding cliché. And when feelings come at you in a cluster, a list never suffices to express how they merge and blend.

For example, I experience a certain mood upon seeing one of those side-by-side photographs of an Arctic landscape taken a decade or two apart, with rocks and pools of water now visible after millennia under tons of ice. It combines astonishment, anger, dread and powerless resignation. There ought to be a word for it. There probably is, somewhere, but not in English -- not yet.

In 2003, the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht coined solastalgia to name “the lived experience of distressing, negative environmental change,” in particular when the environment is one that the sufferer has inhabited. That would be the abbreviated definition. Albrecht, an honorary associate in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney, elaborates on solastalgia further in Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (Cornell University Press) by contrasting his neologism with the word and mood it is obviously modeled on. With nostalgia, we have the Greek nostos, a return home, combined with algia, suffering, which comes from Greek via neo-Latin. By contrast, solastalgia shares a root with the more familiar words “solace” and “disconsolate”: the Latin solari, to console. Nostalgia can be acute, but it is known to come and go. The pain of solastalgia goes deeper.

“It is characteristically a chronic condition,” Albrecht writes, “tied to the gradual erosion of identity created by the sense of belonging to a particular loved place and a feeling of distress, or psychological desolation, about its unwanted transformation. In direct contrast to the dislocated spatial dimensions of traditionally defined nostalgia, solastalgia is the homesickness you have when you are still located within your home environment.”

Albrecht’s concept has been exceptionally well received in academic and bureaucratic circles; he points to “many new competitively funded and peer-reviewed research programs” deploying it. There are “dozens of honors, master’s and doctoral theses written with solastalgia as a major research theme,” and “some governments, international bodies … and medical journals with global reach such as The Lancet have incorporated it into their discourse on the ‘many potential and actual mental health impacts’” of climate change. All of which is still a long way from entering demotic usage. Then again, the word “solastalgia” appeared in an article in Gizmodo earlier this month. Maybe that's how it starts.

Having never spent any time on a polar ice cap, my response to photos of their melting cannot be called solastalgia. My mood is, rather, a combination of mermerosity (the “anticipatory state of being worried about the possible passing of the familiar and its replacement by that which does not sit comfortably in one’s sense of place”) and terrafurie (“the extreme anger unleashed within those who can clearly see the self-destructive tendencies in the current forms of industrial-technological society and feel they must protest and act to change its direction”), with a certain amount of meteoranxiety as well. Meteoranxiety is “anxiety that is felt in the face of the threat of the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events” and should not be confused with a phobia regarding meteors -- though I have that, too.

This is but a tiny sampling of Albrecht’s efforts to “expand the psychoterratic typology beyond ecoanxiety,” despite the latter term’s relative familiarity. “The psychoterratic,” of course, “deals with the health relationship between the psyche and the biophysical environment (terra = the Earth), while the somaterratic is focused on the health relationship between the body (soma = the body) and the biophysical environment.” Such an outlook might be called holistic, though Albrecht prefers to think of it in terms of “a new intellectual discipline” involving “the systematic study of humans living together with the totality of life,” as embodied in “life-supporting relationships between people, other biota, ecosystems and biophysical systems in places at all levels, from the local to the global.”

Complex systems of mutual interaction among living beings are usually subsumed by the term “ecology,” which also suffices as a name for their scientific study. Albrecht instead offers us sumbiology, combining two Greek prefixes to mean “living together.” The new term offers little real benefit, as such, apart from near certainty that Donald Trump will never claim to know or care more about sumbiology than everyone else.

Be that as it may, the long-term benefit of sumbiological theory and practice would be the rise of sumbiocracy, “a form of cooperative rule, determined by the type and totality of mutually beneficial or benign relationships, in a given sociobiological system.” Albrecht calls the leaders of this no doubt complex arrangement sumbiocrats. The timing and circumstances of their possible rise to power remain tantalizingly vague. One possibility comes to mind: a victory by the Sumbionese Liberation Army.

Ten years ago the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a long speech discussing -- to put it one way -- how the future would look in the future. He coined the phrase “dark euphoria” to express a certain outlook that now feels ever more pervasive. “Things are just falling apart,” he said, “you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much.”

Albrecht quotes this passage in Earth Emotions, and arguably the book is an effort to provide some kind of alternative to the mood Sterling describes. A new vocabulary for describing and discussing the emotional and behavioral consequences of climate change might help us face reality and work to change it. Whatever the odds of realizing the sumbiocratic commonwealth, at least we can try to head off dark euphoria at the pass.

Unfortunately Sterling’s evocative phrase only brings out the rather clinical and flavorless quality of Albrecht’s new words. No doubt a lot of passion went into the writing of Earth Emotions, but the uneasiness it left me feeling was that of having walked in on The Whole Earth Catalog locked in carnal embrace with an etymological dictionary after a shotgun wedding. Albrecht closes with a glossary of his neologisms; it is sure to be the last time most of them ever appear. His book does identify some new maladies of the soul, but an adequate language to express them will need to be imagined, not just deduced.

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Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee is the Intellectual Affairs columnist for Inside Higher Ed. In 2008, he began a three-year term on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle. From 1995 until 2001, he was contributing editor for Lingua Franca. Between 2001 and 2005, he covered scholarship in the humanities as senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 2005, he helped start the online news journal Inside Higher Ed, where he serves as Essayist at Large, writing a weekly column called Intellectual Affairs. His reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation, Newsday, Bookforum, The Common Review, and numerous other publications. In 2004, he received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He has given papers or been an invited speaker at meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Cultural Studies Association, the Modern Language Association, and the Organization of American Historians.

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