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A New Language for Grappling With Climate Change

By Phil Newell

This month, a major UN report on climate change declared that humanity has just a few short years to make the drastic changes needed to stave off an environmental catastrophe. While news outlets reacted with shock and alarm, those who regularly write, research or advocate on climate change were more resigned. For them, the report—which synthesized existing research—merely aggravated the psychic wound formed by continually reckoning with the end of the world.


Responding to the report, climate writer Eric Holthaus encouraged readers to talk about their feelings with friends, though he said that he has "no idea whether or not this is the right advice for everyone." Environmental reporter Zoë Schlanger expressed similar ambivalence, writing that "in 2018, life can feel in need of a dirge for the whole world, with scarcely the language to write it."

Perhaps as the the climate changes, so must our vocabulary. We need new words to grapple with these new challenges. What does it feel like when your home leaves you? When the seasons shift and rains dry up or turn to deluge? How do you capture the sense of this new abnormal? And how do you cope?

In 2005, Philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term "solastalgia" to describe the feeling of losing one's home. The term combines "solace" (comfort in the face of stress), "desolation," and the Greek root of "algia," which indicates illness. Solastalgia is, in Albrecht's words, "the pain experienced when… the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation)…the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation."

Albrecht summed it up by writing, "In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at 'home.'" He went on to explain that the term is applicable to people who have lost their ancestral homes. From them, we may find some guidance for coping.

In a recent essay for The New York Review of Books, Molly Crabapple wrote about the Bund, a "humane, socialist, secular and defiantly Jewish" political party that "celebrated Jews as a nation" but was "irreconcilably opposed to the establishment of Israel as a separate Jewish homeland in Palestine." Instead, they believed that "the diaspora was home," and embraced a concept known as do'ikayt or "hereness."

Crabapple asked what do'ikayt means "in our age of mass migration" and answered that it is a way "to find the self in exile." This idea can perhaps provide a sense of solidarity to those suffering from solastalgia—they are all exiles together. For people who work on climate change, hereness may offer a sense that they fight not only to preserve a vanishing past, but to protect an emerging future, that despite national boundaries or political disagreements, a larger purpose sustains them.

The fight to protect our collective homeland will be hard, with our wins and losses echoing for thousands of years. There will be changes, and we'll need to adapt, but our home on Earth will always be worth the effort. This struggle will be etched into the geologic record, but there is hope still, for the final score is not yet written in stone.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.

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