03 January 2008

Wired brings us a new word: Solastalgia.

In interviews Albrecht conducted over the past few years, scores of Australians described their deep, wrenching sense of loss as they watch the landscape around them change. Familiar plants don’t grow any more. Gardens won’t take. Birds are gone. “They no longer feel like they know the place they’ve lived for decades,” he says.

Albrecht believes that this is a new type of sadness. People are feeling displaced. They’re suffering symptoms eerily similar to those of indigenous populations that are forcibly removed from their traditional homelands. But nobody is being relocated; they haven’t moved anywhere. It’s just that the familiar markers of their area, the physical and sensory signals that define home, are vanishing. Their environment is moving away from them, and they miss it terribly.

Albrecht has given this syndrome an evocative name: solastalgia. It’s a mashup of the roots solacium (comfort) and algia (pain), which together aptly conjure the word nostalgia. In essence, it’s pining for a lost environment. “Solastalgia,” as he wrote in a scientific paper describing his theory, “is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.’”

Solastalgia is brand new idea, and Albrecht seems to be the only pioneer at the moment. He’s applying it to climate change (he seems a bit of a crusader on his blog), but it makes alot of sense for China. After all, cities have been transformed “overnight”, as we so often hear. Gone are the one story homes and courtyards, replaced by skyscrapers. The skies have darkened with pollution. And a couple of decades before that started, all the birds and insects disappeared.

It would certainly explain this study finding one in five adults in Shenzhen have, albeit vaguely, “mental problems”. Shenzhen was a fishing village twenty years ago - now its nearly a megacity. This is often explained as being a result of Chinese culture, such as face saving, suppressing or not communicating emotions, the pressures of collective obligations, etc. But isn’t Beijing psychologist Tian Guoyan describing something like solastalgia when he says “The old meets the new, the East meets the West, and that leaves a lot of people totally confused”?

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