Solastalgia

loraxThey say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!
~ The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

I found some new words recently. Maybe not new to everyone, but certainly new to me. It seems that the times we live in can create the need to invent new words — or find old words that apply.

Over my lifetime, I have been extremely conscious of the changes in our lives and the world. In a family concerned about nature, we were aware of man’s depredations on plants and animals, and concerned about the rapidity of the changes. I was aware that in my grandfather’s day, there were still family farms on the edge of town. My father remembered when the post-war subdivisions bloomed over the farms and open lands near town. My grandfather would say that most change seemed to take several generations to spread. My father could see the changes within a generation, and for me, it seems like change is nearly constant.

That hilly dairy north of town just evaporated away shortly after my son was born, and the pastures and ranchland quickly filled with modern houses and cul-de-sacs. We added on to our house and included a big kitchen with lots of big windows facing the undeveloped hillside and foothills to the north. But before our construction was completed, that hillside was covered in tract housing. A few years later, our neighbors built a two-story carriage house that eliminated the view of those houses. (Pleasantly, we can still see a part of the foothills, though.)

Robert Macfarlane, a British writer best known for his books on landscape, nature, place and language, uses the term “Ecosystem distress syndrome” for the “unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed by forces beyond their control.” Of course, we all experience degrees of unhappiness every day — minor disappointments, frustrations and disbeliefs. However, some are actually disasters. Do you remember the outrage over pesticides sparked by Silent Spring?Were you around the day that the Cuyahoga River caught fire?

Macfarlane identifies “solastalgia” as a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental damage. The above noted events and others caused significant social change, as millions of people across the country turned their distress into action and built pressure on politicians to create laws protecting the environment. We found that not all forces were beyond our control, and we could fight back to create our own changes.

In the intervening years, we’ve enjoyed some gradual progress on the environmental front. That success, however, appears now to be in jeopardy. The specter of global warming has polar bears drifting off on ever-vanishing ice floes. Swarms of butterflies have shrunk and continue to be depleted. Every creature from honey bees to migratory birds, to elephants and sloths is facing severe habitat loss due to human incursion. We’re filling the oceans with plastics — choking turtles and porpoises — and depleting the fisheries. As a culture, we’re experiencing Macfarlane’s “’species loneliness’ for the intense solitude that we are fashioning for ourselves as we strip the earth of the other life with which we share it.”

Solitude, existential distress, unhappiness, lack of control or influence — we all feel some or all of those symptoms and try not to let them get us down. It’s easy to hide under the covers or in our computers and TVs to avoid facing what seems an inevitable ruin of our world.

But Macfarlane sees a more hopeful future with, “the many people I have encountered … who have been committed to shared human work rather than retreat and isolation. Many of them have been mappers, really, of networks of mutual relation, endeavouring to stitch their thinking into unfamiliar scales of time and space, seeking not the scattered jewels of personal epiphany but rather to enlarge the possible means by which people might move and think together across landscapes, in responsible knowledge of deep past, deep future and the inhuman earth.”

I think we’re working on that. We’re not hiding, but stepping up, becoming knowledgeable and working together to make the change we need, not just accepting the change we are subjected to. Not all forces are beyond our control, and we can fight back to create our own changes.

The world is too great a place to be allowed to just fade away.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
~ The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

Additional information:
Robert Macfarlane, Underground, 2019
Dr Seuss, The Lorax, 1971

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