How solastalgia and environmental loss affect mental health – Mint Lounge

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By Jahnabee Borah
What do you think of this?” asked my friend. We were on Marine Drive, passing a barricaded segment where work on the eight-lane Mumbai Coastal Road Project to connect the northern and southern ends of this ever-changing city is underway. The view of the sea is blocked by heavy boring machinery that rotates in slow motion, plunging deep into the earth. It’s in stark contrast to what it was before the pandemic, a bustling promenade where families lounged, artists sketched and lovers kissed.
The physical shock of seeing the destruction on the century-old Marine Drive left me numb. I felt my chest constrict. I couldn’t pinpoint the feeling until I came across the word for it a few days later—solastalgia.
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“I define solastalgia as the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory. It is the existential and lived experience of negative environmental change, manifest as an attack on one’s sense of place,” writes Australian environmental philosopher and trans-disciplinary professor Glenn Albrecht in his book Earth Emotions: New Words For A New World (2019). Albrecht combines his love for nature with philosophy and etymology—a skill he picked up while playing Scrabble with his mother—to name and define human emotions induced by changes to the environment.
Solastalgia is a portmanteau of the Latin word solacium (comfort), Greek nostos (homecoming) and the Greek root algia (pain), a neologism he coined in 2003. It is a feeling of displacement, or as Albrecht explains it, “The homesickness you have when you are still at home.”
In a Zoom call with Lounge from his home in Australia, the retired professor observes: “I guess it’s not good that you are experiencing solastalgia. But I would say across the world there is a pandemic of solastalgia.” This sense of distress can be evoked by changes as wide-ranging as development projects like the Mumbai Coastal Road Project, the cutting of trees to make way for a flyover, climate-change related events like devastating wildfires in Greece, Turkey and California, and pandemics.
Albrecht wrote about pandemics and solastalgia in 2006. “In the early aughts, parts of the UK were gripped by foot-and-mouth disease, which infected livestock, then humans. People had to change their lifestyles—whole rural areas were locked down to stop the disease and animals were slaughtered en masse in the countryside of England. It was a massive change in the biophysical environment, which I thought would be something like the factors that cause solastalgia—the lived experience of negatively perceived change in your home environment,” he explains.
Solastalgia, as he clarifies in the book and during the interview, is not a medical condition. In fact, distress or illness caused by changes to the environment has not really entered medical textbooks yet, though the cause of certain diseases has been traced to pollution and environmental degradation. Psychologists, however, have encountered people grieving for the environment. Mumbai-based psychologist and Lounge columnist Sonali Gupta says that over the last five years, there have been clients who have complained of anxiety and grief that they linked to environmental changes. “First, nobody seems to understand this feeling; second, they don’t have the language for it,” she says.
Language helps identify emotions, and words are tools for comprehension. This was what motivated Albrecht to examine earth-related emotions—positive and negative—and write a book explaining how he named them. In the introduction, he writes, “Earth emotions are what make us human-in-nature.” It cultivates empathy for all creatures great and small.
Connecting with nature
Environmental activist, urban ecologist and musician Aditi Veena, who goes by the name Ditty, has captured the essence of solastalgia in her song Eulogy For The Sparrow. The first two stanzas go:
What was the name/ Of that little birdie
Singing songs to me/ What was the fate
Surrounding her end/ Has she gone to sleep?
On 5 June, World Environment Day, this year, she began interactive live sessions on Instagram, “Love Letters to the Earth”, spread over 10 weekends. Nature lovers and environmentalists would get together to read love letters to the earth written by Buddhist monk and poet Thich Nhat Hanh. Around 300 people would tune in to these sessions, which evolved into conversations about climate change and human relationships with nature. Sometimes, Ditty would sing. It was a virtual experience that provided a space to grieve, talk about nature, and discuss memories.
At one session, Ditty invited writer Janice Pariat, who pondered how humans are not separate from nature. “We talked about acknowledging that humans are part of the same earth body, that we are part of the bio-sphere. The emotions we feel, and the experiences that we go through, are a collective experience with the earth,” says Ditty.
Delhi-based Pariat says over the phone that she is intrigued by the word solastalgia and is certain some people in the Capital have experienced it in some form due to the Central Vista Redevelopment Project to revamp the 3km corridor between Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate. Landmark buildings, such as those housing government offices and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), will be pulled down. Familiar old trees are set to be felled or transplanted.
This is one project that is moving at speed, driven by a strict timeline and dismissive of concerns. “We feel it (solastalgia) so viscerally. The beautiful vast lawns and old trees will go. We are in a strange position of not being able to do anything,” says Pariat. The urge to protest and do something, she says, is driven by nostalgia and a fear of loss, and “change that is not for the better”.
For Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author of the book Wild And Wilful, the degradation of Delhi’s Ridge, which is part of the Aravallis, signifies a greater ecological loss. The green lungs of the Capital have been cut away for real estate projects, with malls, for instance, replacing swathes of ancient trees across the city. “People often associate loss of natural landscapes with rural areas but the same is absolutely true for urban areas. Any city-dweller who has noticed their surroundings will see this…they are looking at a cumulative loss of not just habitats but also urban wildlife,” she observes.
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Sinha grew up in Delhi and witnessed a stark decline in vulture population and insect diversity over the years: “I became a conservationist because of this—the feeling of loss of a place, which you cannot get back.”
On 16 August, Delhiites woke up to more distressing news. The Delhi Development Authority is finding it challenging to provide land for compensatory afforestation as the city develops. Now it’s hoping to get permission to take up the compensatory afforestation mandated for Central projects in neighbouring states. “But what is the use if you cut a tree near me and you plant a tree somewhere far away? And who is going to go and check if those trees are living?” rues Sinha, pointing to the audits that have shown a dismal survival rate for such trees.
Governments and their planners and regulators are yet to even begin considering the mental health cost of environmental loss.
A SENSE OF LOSS
Sometimes, the loss is tangible. For instance, when real estate projects threaten to swallow ecologically sensitive areas which double as a source of livelihood for smaller communities, leaving them feeling cheated.
“Nobody told us anything,” says Sanjay Vishwanath Baikar, a member of the Koli fishing community that lives in Mumbai’s Haji Ali area. He is the secretary of the Vanchit Macchi Maar Haji Ali Sahakari Sanghatan Maryadit, an organisation started by the community in 2019, the year work on the Mumbai Coastal Road Project was supposed to begin. The community started the Sanghatan to be “heard” by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the civic body building the contentious coastal road.
The project has pushed back the sea, reclaimed land and filled intertidal zones with concrete. “We used to earn between 1,200-3,000 a day before the construction began. Now it’s down to 300-400. Because land was reclaimed for the road, we have lost the space where we moored our boats and the fishing area has been reduced. We jostle for space to lay our nets,” Baikar says.
For close to 50 years, Nina Sawhney has lived in an apartment complex with boundary walls that met the sea at Haji Ali. “It was a beautiful coastline. There were migratory birds in the winter, the sea water would sprinkle into our garden during high tide and fishermen would lay their nets for shallow fishing,” she says. Her view of the sea is now interrupted by concrete, cranes and makeshift sheds. There is a dull grating sound throughout our video interview. “You hear that noise,” she asks. “It goes on all day and nobody listens if we complain. I am 75 years old and I can’t sleep because of the construction noise. We are so fed up of calling the police and complaining. Every time they say the same thing—unko permission hai (they have the permission).”
Sawhney is a member of the citizen-driven initiative Save Our Coast. Other members of the group complain of flooding in their basement parking area since 2019, when the reclamation work began.
“You ask me how I feel about these changes in my home city?” Sawhney says, “It doesn’t feel like home any more. I feel helpless.”
It’s this sense of estrangement from a loved place that elicits solastalgia, or the homesickness you have when you are still at home, says Albrecht, who experienced it himself when Hunter Valley in Australia’s New South Wales was dug up for coal and open mines, completely altering the bushland. It’s what led him to explore the idea of personal loss evoked by environmental damage and coin the word solastalgia.
One of the coal mines in Australia’s Upper Hunter region was owned by the mining multinational Rio Tinto, which has a link to India’s Buxwaha diamond mines in Madhya Pradesh. In the mid-aughts, Rio Tinto began surveillance work for diamonds in Buxwaha, estimating that about 34 million carats of diamonds lay beneath the pristine forest. Protests and court pleas questioned the impact mining would have on the forest, the Ken river and tiger and gharial conservation projects in the region, but the exploratory work continued.
In 2016, the government rejected permission for mining as the National Tiger Conservation Authority and state forest department said the proposed mine, spread over 971 hectares, would threaten the tiger corridor between the Nauradehi Wildlife Sanctuary and Panna Tiger Reserve. Rio Tinto exited in 2017.
In 2019, however, the state government auctioned a lease for 374 hectares of forest land for mining operations; Aditya Birla Group won the bid. By June this year, #SaveBuxwaha had started trending on Twitter—a social media protest to stop the felling of more than 200,000 trees for the diamond mine.
Buxwaha has been struggling with water shortage issues for 13-14 years. During summer, temperatures soar to 49 degrees Celsius. “If 200,000 trees are cut from such an arid region, imagine what will happen to us,” says Bhopal-based Sachin Choudhary. He is the founder of the content platform Bundeli Bauchhar, which functions like a regional news channel, with videos in Bundeli on Facebook and YouTube.
He’s also worried about the felling of over two million trees in the Ken-Betwa forest for the interlinking of the two rivers. The Union Jal Shakti ministry says this will help provide water to the drought-prone districts of Panna, Chhatarpur and Raisen, among others. But it will also submerge vast areas of forest and displace communities that depend on it for their livelihood. “People aren’t consulted before their lives are disrupted,” Choudhary says.
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In Goa, too, citizens—moved by a similar transformation of their lived environment— have been trying to protect their land and environment, protesting against coal handling at the port, the destruction of forest land for roads and rail lines, and more. A few months ago, a movement to protect the Mollem National Park and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary gained ground on social media as three infrastructure projects planned to support coal handling and transport—a power transmission line, a railway line and widening of the highway—cut through the ecologically sensitive zones.
#SaveMollem may have trended early this year but citizens have been banding together for the last few years. Lawyer Savio Correia, 53, and a group of citizens started Goa Against Coal in 2017 to protest coal handling at the port in his home city of Vasco da Gama, his solastalgia driven by the loss of health—both his sons have breathing issues due to coal dust pollution. “Once a clean and green town, Vasco is now enveloped in layers of coal dust emanating from Mormugao Port. It is a place where someone like me—who has lived here all his life—looks forward to the next prospect of leaving town, maybe for a short vacation, or even for a few hours, just to breathe some clean air.” He says several families have left Vasco because of the pollution. “You know, it’s a different kind of an experience because I am speaking not only for myself, there are so many others who are less privileged than me, who are living in Vasco and have nowhere to go. There are people who work at the port and they are not earning much to move to the suburbs. They can’t even raise their voices. They are suffering in silence.”
For Goans, the port is just the starting point of a larger concern—they sense their state is changing faster than they want it to, in ways that may not improve their quality of life. Correia uses the word “helpless” to describe how they feel: “Cynicism and despondency have enveloped Vasco.”
STARTING SMALL
Sparrows are Bengaluru-based activist Disha Ravi’s favourite birds. As a child, one of the first protests she joined was to save a big banyan tree. Her bus stop was under the banyan tree, which was cut to widen the road. “There was a local protest to protect the big banyan. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. The population of birds dwindled. We used to have a lot of sparrows before, they disappeared. We also had fireflies in the fields near my house, we don’t see them any more.”
Last year, she and her mother began raising a garden with flowers to attract bees. “We now have a lot of bees. When I was younger, we planted trees and they have grown to provide homes for many birds. This morning, we had a bird fly into the living room and out. It was a wild sight.”
Ravi, who is part of the global Fridays for Future movement for climate justice, hopes to see her activism evolve into policies that put people, animals and the planet first: “We have seen devastating floods impact people across the world…. We desperately need leaders who will leave coal in the ground and rivers unpoisoned; we need leaders who will actively invest in solutions.”
Many of Bengaluru’s residents are similarly passionate about protecting the city’s ecology, and have come out to the streets to protest against flyovers and felling of trees. Naturalist Poornima Kannan is part of the team that has been organising the annual Bengaluru tree festival, Nerulu, since 2014. It involves nature walks, songs and artwork to examine the symbiosis between humans and trees. “We are all part of this biosphere, where a tree is one of us,” she says.
Although Nerulu has been paused due to the pandemic, Kannan’s work of conserving trees, especially indigenous species, continues. She lives in Indiranagar and is an active member of the residents’ welfare association, pushing to save trees in her neighbourhood. Often, flyover and road projects uproot native trees and replace them with manicured ornamental plants, she says. “We lose so much when we do that.”
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A CHANGING NARRATIVE
Part of the solution to solastalgia is more considered urban planning, with an eye on sustainability. In urban areas, the focus of development should be twofold—building infrastructure and ecological restoration, says Shravan Shankar, a Chennai-based sustainable development entrepreneur. “The traditional view of environment conservation does not align to how people live in cities,” he says, adding that flexible and inclusive ideas of conservation are needed for urban areas.
For instance, it is important to manage drainage systems in an environmentally efficient manner to reduce pollution as well as keep a city safe from flooding. “You replace coal with renewables in the grid. You create sewage recycling for potable water to be channelled, like NEWater in Singapore. You create water recharge and aquifer systems. The potential is huge, but you need planning and cohesive development. In Indian cities, where a road can be dug up three times in a week, we have a long task ahead,” he says.
Goa-based environmental activist and senior architect Dean D’Cruz’s approach to architecture puts symbiosis at the core—he works with locally available material and involves the community. The founder of Mozaic Design was also part of the state-level committee for the Goa Regional Plan 2021, which aimed to create eco-sensitive zones.
The team categorised villages based on green and grey infrastructure—the former refers to nature-based areas with mangroves, fields and forests, while the latter implies settlement hubs with housing, marketplaces, schools, hospitals, roads and power stations. “For example, for one square kilometre of village, you need four square kilometres of green space to get your food and water,” explains D’Cruz. “It’s important that the community also understands the balance of grey and green infrastructure.”
This was a challenge for them too while they were conducting field surveys. The team discovered that some villages were “overprotective” and didn’t want any development at all, while others were “overzealous” and demanded houses, schools and hospitals without considering the green patches of farming and forests. “It’s about getting everyone to understand what development is. We have to create a sort of rural-urban mix.”
Neha Sinha says policy has to show concern for the environment too. As an example, she cites the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2020 which aimed to relax rules for construction or industrial projects. “The draft EIA said the project could go ahead even if the environment impact assessment was not cleared. This is not the right way.”
A TIME TO HEAL
Earlier this month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report saying the planet has heated up rapidly, by about 1.1 degrees Celsius, since the 19th century, entirely due to the burning of coal, oil and gas for energy. Climate change is evident in the severe droughts that have hit Afghanistan, the floods that have devastated Germany, the cyclones that have ravaged India, and the wildfires that have torn through Greece, Portugal and California.
But, perhaps, there is no need to feel utter helplessness in the face of all this bad news.
Psychologist Gupta charts a four-step plan for clients who come to her with this sense of eco-anxiety and eco-grief. “Firstly, it’s important to feel it when one is experiencing it at a visceral level. You feel it in your body and in your bones. Listen to that.” I think back to the way I felt my chest constricting as I watched those monstrous boring machines drilling the sea off Marine Drive.
Secondly, Gupta says, talk about it and don’t consider it something you don’t need to grieve about, even though people will be more familiar with the idea of grieving for a loved one. You may not get support when you grieve for the environment, or find people changing the topic, or say something disapproving like “you are just overthinking it”. Don’t let it deter you.
Thirdly, says Gupta, name the primary and secondary feelings. “So, if you have identified solastalgia as the primary feeling, there could be five other surrounding emotions, such as anxiety and helplessness.” In my own case, sadness too.
Last but not least, find out what can be done. Some of Gupta’s clients joined environment study groups, discussing and working towards change at the micro, and then macro, levels. “For me and for them,” says Gupta, “this is most empowering.”
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