The Dictionary Hasn’t Caught Up With the Climate Crisis

The Dictionary Hasn’t Caught Up With the Climate Crisis

The Dictionary Hasn’t Caught Up With the Climate Crisis

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht is creating a whole new lexicon to match our mutating relationship with nature.


On a December day in 2019, fire finally came for Glenn and Jillian Albrecht. The blaze, started accidentally by a neighboring beekeeper, roared through dense forest toward Wallaby Farm, the Albrechts’ five-acre spread in the Australian bush. Jillian fled with overnight bags and a few keepsakes. Glenn stayed to fight, armed only with a pump, a few hoses, and a 3,400-gallon water tank he’d trucked in for just such an emergency.

Australians have become tragically accustomed to confronting infernos. Since July 2019, bushfires have burned 46 million acres, killed at least 36 people, and incinerated or evicted more than a billion wild animals. Wallaby Farm, fortunately, was spared from combustion: Water-bombing helicopters repelled the fire a mile from the Albrechts’ land. Yet the years-long drought that has fueled Australia’s fire season—a drought almost certainly exacerbated by climate change—has disfigured the place nonetheless. Half of the farm’s trees have died, its crops have withered, and its creek has shriveled into a scar. Animals have mostly abandoned the area, save for desperate wallabies that hop the fence to scrounge chicken feed. I recently asked Glenn Albrecht what emotions the crisis provoked in him. “Solastalgia, obviously,” he said. “It is a lived experience of negative change.”

Albrecht, a philosopher, coined the word solastalgia in 2003 to describe the chronic distress produced by environmental degradation—or, more simply, homesickness suffered without leaving home. Solastalgia has since become a durable motif of modernity, invoked to explain the despondency that attends climate change, extinction, and industrial fossil fuel extraction. Researchers and activists have applied it to the plight of Ghanaians whose pastures have been desiccated, Inuit hunters thwarted by thinning sea ice, and Louisianans whose coastlines were befouled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It is common in Appalachia, where mountaintop removal—a hideous coal-mining technique whereby companies strip mountain peaks of their soil and dump the rubble into valleys—has the locals’ depression and substance abuse. Solastalgia has furnished the titles of Australian pop albums and Estonian piccolo concertos. The writer Stephen Marche declared it the “definitive disease of the 21st century.”

Calling solastalgia a “disease,” though, isn’t entirely accurate. “Solastalgia can be a precursor to more serious psychiatric issues,” Albrecht told me. “But it’s an existential problem rather a diagnosable medical one.” It resembles clinical depression less than it does bone-deep dread—a condition of the soul more than the mind.

Solastalgia, Albrecht posits in his recent book Earth Emotions, is one prominent star in a constellation of emergent psychoterratic conditions—novel emotional states tied to the state of the earth. Many of Albrecht’s coinages have become all too relevant in his home country. There’s mermerosity, the preemptive grief one might feel for the species that Australia’s fires are likely to render extinct. There’s tierratrauma, acute existential horror at witnessing, say, a third of Kangaroo Island—a refuge for koalas and other rare wildlife—go up in flames. And there’s terrafurie, the righteous anger produced, perhaps, by the reluctance of coal-obsessed Prime Minister Scott Morrison to connect the fires with climate change.

The premise of Earth Emotions is that our mutating relationship with nature—we distort it more radically each day, even as we withdraw from it further—requires a new lexicon to match. That’s hardly a novel idea: We are, after all, living in the shadow of a single, epic neologism, the Anthropocene, coined by geologists to characterize our human-dominated epoch. Yet while the Anthropocene is descriptive, Albrecht’s most powerful words are also prescriptive, explicitly intended to shape our interactions with the world. Just as learning the names of birds makes us more likely to notice a passing yellow-rumped warbler, defining a new set of relationships, Albrecht believes, can with time make them part of lived experience. Yes, we endure tierratrauma and terrafurie, but we’re also capable of experiencing soliphilia, the joy of protecting a beloved environment—an elation shared by anyone who has planted a tree.

“We have nothing in our culture that enables us to come to grips with the changes that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution,” Albrecht said. The core of his work, he added, “is to get us out of these negative experiences and into positive ones.”

I first spoke with Albrecht last June—early summer for me, winter in the Australian state of New South Wales. Albrecht has lived on Wallaby Farm since 2014, when he retired from a professorship at Murdoch University in Perth. He describes himself as a farmosopher, dividing his days, in the tradition of Wendell Berry, between physical and intellectual labor. Over Skype, he skewed toward philosopher in thick-framed glasses and a silver Van Dyke beard. He’d been chopping wood that morning to keep warm.

Albrecht’s retreat into nature was, to hear him tell it, actually an advance to the front lines of a changing planet. “You could just about live your whole life in an air-conditioned bubble,” he told me, “and pretend that everything is still okay.” The farm, by contrast, brought Albrecht closer to his muses: climate change and its attendant terrors. His land sits miles down a one-way-out road in the Hunter Valley that, during a wildfire, could become a death trap. When summer arrived, he said, he was plagued by meteoranxiety, a word he’d created for fear in the face of extreme weather.

“I wake up every morning worrying about fire,” Albrecht said, prophetically, six months before it nearly engulfed his home. “Some days it felt like if I farted, the whole place would blow up—it’s that kind of edginess.”

As his farm dried out, Albrecht also felt solastalgia’s pangs. Albrecht had invented the word after residents of the Hunter Valley began lamenting the incursion of coal mining—the black pits, the infernal din, the attrition of family farms. “I lost a lot of weight,” one rancher told Albrecht, a conversation related in Earth Emotions. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach like [a clenched fist] and think, what am I going to do?” One Aboriginal man said he’d begun driving hundreds of miles out of the way to avoid “all the holes, all the dirt.”

Albrecht cast about for an extant word that would capture this metastasizing distress. It recalled a condition described by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, the sickness caused by the intense desire to return home: an emotion we know today as nostalgia. The Hunter Valley’s residents, however, didn’t yearn to return home; they were already home, albeit one distorted beyond recognition. Other languages possessed appropriate words, among them the Hopi’s koyaanisqqatsi, which conveyed a disintegrating life; but Albrecht found English lacking. He grafted the prefix sol-, with its echoes of solace and desolation, onto algos—Greek for pain. “Solastalgia rolled out of my mind and off my tongue,” Albrecht writes in Earth Emotions, “as if it had always been there.”

Solastalgia has come to occupy a niche in popular culture and politics few realized had stood vacant. Naomi Klein has deployed it to typify the “new abnormal” of climate change, while video game writers have used it to describe the landscape of Red Dead Redemption 2. The word evokes a specific emotion that is nonetheless widespread, a dualism it shares with all of Albrecht’s most successful coinages. Meteoranxiety is as innate to Australians during fire season as it is to Floridians tracking hurricane radar. “Everyone has experienced these emotions, but no one has named them,” Albrecht said. “There are spaces, gaps in our language, that I have tried to fill.”

Neologisms “focus the mind,” Ginny Battson, a Welsh philosopher told me recently. “New words make you sit down and think—are we really in such a changing environment that we need to shift our language?” Battson’s own neologisms tend to be more naturalistic than Albrecht’s. In 2017, when wildfire ash spread itself over her home in Cardiff, she dubbed the sepia-colored light esranebulous—the ghost light of the Anthropocene. In 2018, my home in eastern Washington was engulfed by the same uncanny dusk, a bronze twilight produced by fires in neighboring British Columbia. There is something at once comforting and troubling about the knowledge that I share this sensory experience with people around the planet.

To Albrecht’s mind, that’s precisely the value of neologisms: They unite communities of awareness and resistance. In Earth Emotions, he details the saga of Bulga and Milbrodale, Australian villages that appealed to the courts to prevent expanded coal mining. Albrecht surveyed the views of the locals—mines were sources of “severe anxiety and stress,” one told him—and submitted the replies in his capacity as expert witness, a case he describes in Earth Emotions as “solastalgia goes to court.” Remarkably, a judge sided with the villages, ruling that the mine “would exacerbate the loss of sense of place.”

Solastalgia’s triumph, alas, was short-lived: The state government, with nudges from industry, subsequently tweaked the law to permit the mine. Even so, the case taught Albrecht a profound lesson—that words could empower as well as instruct. Solastalgia, he told me, “enables people to share what would otherwise be an isolated, atomistic, individualistic feeling and work together to defeat the cause. Solastalgia is a recognition that something tangible is causing your distress. The moment you do that, you’re engaged in an act of opposition.”

We are awash in Anthropocenic neologisms, words and phrases that have floated onto the shores of our language on the tide of eco-anxiety. There is shifting baselines syndrome, our penchant for blithely acclimating to environmental disaster; eco-social anomie, our tendency to neglect nature more egregiously the further it dwindles; and endling, the last individual of a vanishing species, like Martha the passenger pigeon. The legendary biologist E.O. Wilson is an inexhaustible geyser of language: see, for example, biophilia, a word—originally coined by Erich Fromm, and later expanded by Wilson—for the innate pleasure we take in the presence of other organisms. Wilson is also responsible for its unhappy antithesis, the Eremocene—the age of loneliness, a near future in which humans will occupy a world empty of all other species. Danielle Celermajer, a sociologist at the University of Sydney, recently characterized Australia’s fires as a case of omnicide: the killing of everything, “the gravest of all crimes.”

Running both countercurrent and parallel to this flood is a separate, related trend: the preservation of old words. Home Ground, a 2006 book edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney, compiled more than 800 waning terms for American landscape features. See kiss tank, a pool of rainwater in a rock basin to which all the desert’s creatures press their lips. If attention is a form of love, then to notice such natural wonders is to love them: biophilia born of lexicography.

That alchemy is evident in the work of Robert Macfarlane, the British writer whose recent books, Landmarks and The Lost Words, serve as reservoirs—linguistic kiss tanks, you might call them—of terminology to oppose the desertification of our nature vocabulary. There’s brim’skud, a Shetland word for the “smoke-like haze which rises from the breaking waves,” and blinter, the frigid dazzle of winter starlight. Macfarlane’s word caches depict natural spectacles rather than emotional states; still, like Albrecht’s neologisms, his compendia have the power to conjure the phenomena themselves: once you’ve heard tufted mats of grass described as foggagey, you can’t help but see them everywhere.

Macfarlane’s largest audience is on Twitter, where his “word of the day” tweets often go viral. One typical post defining bergdenken as “the intense longing to be among mountains,” accompanied by a photo of hazy peaks, garnered more than 4,000 likes. The alluring image, the blurt of text, the deliberate shareability: Macfarlane’s genius is his ability to revive archaic nature words by turning them into memes, co-opting and bending the shallow immediacy of social media to serve a more powerful purpose.

Albrecht, like Macfarlane, strives to generate concepts with global cultural reach. Earth Emotions’s most ambitious idea is the Symbiocene, Albrecht’s word for a near-miraculous future in which, rather than dominating nature, we live in such harmony that “almost every element of human culture, economy, habitat, and technology will be seamlessly reintegrated back into life cycles and processes.” The Symbiocene is a gauzy place, one where pantheistic values are actualized via techno-utopianism. “We will be eating our cellulose-based food packaging and loving it,” Albrecht enthuses in Earth Emotions. “We shall enjoy living in houses made of bricks produced and constantly repaired by domestic fungi.”

If that strikes you as starry-eyed, you’re surely not alone. But the quixotry is part of the point. If neologisms have the power to create new emotional states, why not make them optimistic? Naming solastalgia summoned a previously undefined emotion in human hearts; likewise, Albrecht hopes that anointing the Symbiocene will manifest a new kind of relationship.

Australia’s cataclysmic fires, Albrecht told me when we spoke again in January 2020, had awoken his countrymen to the Anthropocene’s dystopic qualities. The notion of transcending our present age, of moving on to whatever the Symbiocene might entail, had begun to seem less like a pipe dream than like a survival strategy. “The search for meaning, for a good life, for joy and beauty and wonder, are what the book was attempting to get us to,” he said. And existing in symbiosis with nature, of course, is not a novel concept; indeed, ours is one of the few cultures in human history to fall so woefully out of balance. We need new words not only to characterize the Anthropocene, but to hasten a better world.

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