Two years ago, as the wildfires tore through the Australian bush, killing billions of animals and birds, I added a new word to my lexicon in order to understand this level of devastation: “omnicide.”
Omnicide, the killing of everything, evokes the vastness of the destruction we are inflicting on the Earth. The professor of sociology Danielle Celermajer writes on how this word imagines a crime “we have previously been unable to witness because we have never imagined it.” In the two years since then, the word has only become a more apt description of the reality we face, as we have witnessed increasing storms, floods and fires. Just to the north of where I live in California, vast areas have burned, whole neighborhoods lost. We need new words to describe this landscape we are entering, when the climate crisis becomes not a statistic, but a fully felt experience, a living trauma.
Now, not only is our world burning, but our society has become increasingly fractured. Social media that promised to bring us together in new ways has instead created a more divisive environment, fueling loud voices of anger and conspiracy theories, even as technology makes us more isolated. Pixels pretending to be people are no substitute for real human interaction, like the silent reassurance of a touch. We have become more and more alienated from our natural selves. Recently I learned another new word, this one describing the emotional effect of this brave new world: "solastalgia.”
The philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word solastalgia to describe:
The pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault (physical desolation). It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.
Solastalgia is not about looking back to some golden past, nor is it about seeking another place as “home” … In short, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at “home.”
Solastalgia evokes the grief and primal anxiety of young people crying out for a future that is being stolen from them—not just the wildflower meadows they will never see; this is the real sense of entering a landscape where one’s home is under continual threat from an accelerating crisis. It is not nostalgia for a distant past, but as Albrecht describes, it is “the pain or sickness caused by the loss or lack of solace and the sense of isolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory.”
In recent years, watching our world be transformed by technology, I thought I was feeling just nostalgia for a simpler, pre-technological time. Television was not present in my childhood, and the phone was rarely used—it was a “party line,” which meant that any conversation could be heard by the neighbors if they picked up their phone. But recently I have come to understand the deeper roots of this grief and anxiety, as I sense how our present culture is tearing not just at the web of life in an ongoing act of ecocide, but also at the patterns of connection that bind us together as a living community. In response I feel a deep longing to return to the roots that support us, embedding deeper within the fabric to which we all belong.
I am fortunate to live near the ocean, and while the pandemic pushed many into increasing hours of screen time, I was drawn to walk farther in the wetlands and beaches nearby, in order to find solace from this collective trauma. During the summer I found a family of river otters living in the lagoon, and over the following months I would often walk early to try to see them, watch their sleek bodies nose through the water, or tumble over each other in sand. I found their presence deeply reassuring. In their elemental world there is neither truth nor falsehood, just life present, unfractured. They reminded me of a deeper connection to life than is often visible in our human landscape, a sense of wholeness rooted in a sense of place. Is it this that we are missing, this place-rooted wholeness that touches deep ancestral memories of when we walked in this relationship to the living land, and for which we are now homesick?
Solastalgia speaks to a deep need to reconnect, to feel an essential belonging, whether to a community or a place. We are all a part of the living earth, even if technology is trying to transplant us into some virtual metaverse. And we need to acknowledge our grief at being so alienated from this belonging. Despite all its false promises, technology cannot repair the tear in our present world. Watching the river otters I sense how there is a simpler way to be, more in harmony with our essential nature. A way that provides the solace we so vitally crave.
With so many different voices bombarding us, so much anger and divisiveness, can we feel the deeper grief for what we are losing or have already lost? Can we discern the roots of our anxiety in this disconnection? Young people seem more attuned to the reality of the moment, both in their “eco-anxiety” and their desire for change. They can recognize how governments and big corporations are too addicted to the present ideology of progress and profit to effect real change. And they are “the ones who will have to clean up the mess you adults have made, and ... the ones who are more likely to suffer now.” But will they be able to enact the transformation that can return us to a world that is no longer toxic? Or have we divorced ourselves to such a degree from our self-sustaining nature that it will be many generations before we are back where we belong?
The climate crisis presents us with many immediate challenges: to reduce carbon emissions, restore biodiversity—to rebalance all the many natural systems we have disrupted—as well as the challenge of accepting that our present central myth of constant economic growth is unsustainable, that “green growth” is just magical thinking. But the feeling of grief also calls to us to look deeper, to recognize and respond to our sense of alienation and loss of belonging, and to understand how this sense of home is essential to our well-being as well as that of the planet. When I watch the river otters I am present in a simple, interconnected world that speaks to my soul as well as my senses. Is this world too far away for us to find our way back to it, our consciousness today too distorted by clicks and memes for us to see clearly?
Language has been central to most of our human journey. The very fact that we begin to articulate our feelings, find words for what we have lost, can help us find a pathway back to what is most essential, to the living threads that connect us. Without these words, we might just remain stranded in this wasteland we have created, without knowing we are stranded. I have come to understand that what I feel is not nostalgia for an imagined childhood, but a sense of foreboding for a luminous land I fear we are losing. Just as we continue clear-cutting ancient forests for palm oil plantations, so are we slowly destroying this primal bond.
The climate crisis will take us into an unfamiliar world. After a brief pause at the beginning of the pandemic, last year carbon emissions again increased. The last time the planet was as warm as today was 125,000 years ago, while the last time the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 400 parts per million was 3 million years ago, a world 3 to 4 degrees Celsius warmer with the sea level up to 80 feet higher. Smartphones will not help us to navigate our future landscape. But if we put our feet on the ground, once again learn to listen to the wind and the rain, we may reconnect with the knowing stored in our DNA. Maybe the earth will speak to us as it spoke to our ancestors, showing us how to live together without grief or trauma. Then our journey with the earth can continue, without pushing us to the edge of extinction.
Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., is a Sufi teacher and author. He has recently released a podcast, Stories for a Living Future. You can listen to it here and wherever podcasts are found.