As climate change alters beloved landscapes, we feel the loss

The environment’s chaotic transformation is damaging many of our favorite places—and causing a shared ‘homesickness’.

By Pete Muller
photographs by Pete Muller
Published 31 Mar 2020, 16:57 BST
Eight-year-old Bayah Bergeron picks berries by an abandoned house across the street from her home. Bayah’s ...
Eight-year-old Bayah Bergeron picks berries by an abandoned house across the street from her home. Bayah’s family is one of many considering leaving the island for a fresh start inland. But Bayah worries about her friend Avery, whose family is thinking about staying. “She might not move, and the rest of the people probably will, and that’ll make me very sad for leaving my friend.”
This story is part of the pessimistic argument for the future of the planet in our special issue on Earth Day. 

As coal mines spread like cracks across Australia’s Hunter Valley, the phone in Glenn Albrecht’s office began to ring. It was the early 2000s, and Albrecht, an environmental studies professor, was interested in the emotional impacts of mining on local communities. For generations, the region had been known for its bucolic alfalfa fields, horse farms, and vineyards. Coal mining had long been a part of the economy, but it had suddenly grown as increasing global demand and new extraction technologies prompted a wave of new mining operations across the valley.

Word of Albrecht’s interest spread, and distressed residents were eager to share their stories. They described earth-shaking explosions, the constant rumble of machinery, the eerie glow of industrial work lights that illuminated the night, and invasive black dust that coated their houses inside and out. They worried about the air they breathed and the water they drank. Their homes were slipping away, and they felt powerless to stop the destruction.

The Mount Thorley Warkworth coal mine is one of several “super pit clusters” in Australia’s Hunter Valley. It operates 365 days a year and provides jobs for some 1,300 people. The owner is currently considering plans to expand. But many residents say the massive mine has created a sense of sorrow among them. “It’s not just grieving for what has been,” says one resident. “It’s also grieving for what could be and will now not be.”
Photograph by NGM Maps

Some in the valley mounted a legal battle to try to keep the mines at bay, but many needed the jobs the mines provided. Ultimately, the deep-pocketed mining interests prevailed. The landscape, and much of the social fabric built upon it, became collateral damage.

As the mines spread, Albrecht began to notice a common theme in the emotional responses of some valley inhabitants. They knew the mines were the source of their distress, but they had a difficult time finding the precise words to express their feelings. “It was as though they were experiencing something akin to homesickness,” he says, “but none of them had left home.”

Glenn Albrecht and his wife, Jill, sit for a photo in their Hunter Valley home. Glenn coined the term “solastalgia” in the early 2000s to describe residents’ emotional turmoil as coal mining exploded in the region. The word spread via the internet as a way to describe losing something beloved because of environmental change.

What was happening, he reasoned, was that the physical degradation of the valley was undermining the solace that people had felt there. And so, as the mines churned more green fields to gray, Albrecht named the feeling the residents were describing “solastalgia,” which he defined as the pain of losing the solace of home.

More than a decade later, I heard this unusual word while watching a film about drought. I made a note, unsure of how to spell it. Thanks to Google’s did-you-mean feature, I discovered tens of thousands of related hits. There were academic articles, conferences, and news stories. The concept also had seeped into the art world. I found a sculpture exhibition in New Jersey, a pop album in Australia, a classical concerto in Estonia, all inspired by Albrecht’s word.

In “The Oxbow,” 19th-century painter Thomas Cole depicted a Massachusetts river valley stripped of trees. In New York he would lament the loss of forests in the Hudson River Valley as farming spread there.

While I was scanning the pages of Google hits, it occurred to me that the concept of solastalgia seemed to mark a new frontier in our relationship with the environment, an acknowledgment of a strange brew of emotions that more people were feeling as familiar landscapes became unrecognisable. We all know that humans are changing the planet, but here, in this new word, was a trace of how those changes are changing us.

“If the language is not rich enough to enable us to describe and understand these things properly, well, we bloody well have to create it,” Albrecht told me when I visited his home in the Hunter Valley. “Why don’t we have a single word,” he asked, “that corresponds to a human feeling?” Especially a feeling “that is profound, obvious, felt worldwide in various contexts, and has likely been felt for thousands of years in similar circumstances.”

It seemed like a valid question. Throughout history, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, and volcanoes—as well as expanding civilisations and conquering armies—have permanently altered treasured landscapes and disrupted societies. Native Americans experienced this as Europeans transformed North America. “This land belonged to our fathers,” Satanta, the 19th-century Kiowa leader, said. “But when I go up to the [Arkansas] river, I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber, they kill my buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting.”

The industrial revolution brought more sweeping changes to landscapes with the spread of burgeoning metropolises, railroads, and factories. As New York’s Hudson Valley was cleared to make way for agriculture and feed a thriving tannery industry, the 19th-century painter Thomas Cole lamented the destruction of his beloved forests. “I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes is quickly passing away,” he wrote. “The ravages of the axe are daily increasing—the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation.”

Lorino, Russia

‘We can’t grow vegetables. We can only live off what the sea gives us. Our ancestors have observed periods of warming and cooling. It’s hard for us to know what is really happening.’
—Alexey Ottoi, hunter

Chukchi hunters butcher a gray whale on the shore near Lorino, Russia. The meat will be distributed to the community. Hunting has seen the Chukchi through many hard times, including the collapse of the Soviet Union when shops were bare. “Even [ethnic] Russians began to eat marine mammals,” says Eduard Ryphyrgin. But the quarry may soon be gone as the crucial edge of coastal ice that forms in winter diminishes because of climate change. “Animals that we eat need this edge,” Ryphyrgin says. “We need this edge.”

My mother experienced a less severe version of the feeling during the mid-20th century. She grew up on Long Beach Island, a narrow, isolated spit of sand off the coast of southern New Jersey. In its pristine marshes, she discovered her lifelong love of biology and the sea. But in the 1950s, real estate development accelerated as wealthy visitors from the mainland bought land and built vacation homes. “I could sense immediately what was happening,” she says. “I was furious. I would go around pulling up the surveyors’ sticks.”

Her protests were motivated not simply by anger but also by a mixture of fear, powerlessness, anxiety, and sorrow that the defining character of her home was in peril. The construction continued, and within a few decades, the past was visible only in the osprey nests atop electrical poles that provided light in the homes that had replaced the wilderness.

Paradise, California

‘If you go look at a map, you’ll find Paradise, California, but everything about it is different … You feel lost in your own town. And that’s a very difficult thing to process.’
—Kayla Cox, homemaker

Muller made this portrait of Don Criswell playing the piano for his wife, Debbie, in their house, one of the few in Paradise to survive. Before the fire, Don performed up to five nights a week in Paradise. “It went to zero in one moment,” he says. The Criswells are thankful their home didn’t burn, but the Paradise they knew has disappeared. In their house, says Debbie, “we can sort of pretend everything is OK. But then you drive up the road and remember that the place where it was is gone.”
His wife, Denise, agrees. “Everything is covered in this black dust,” she says, wiping a hand on a patio table to show the grime. “No matter how much I try, I’m losing that battle.”
Gwen Nordgren sits for a portrait by the pool next to the charred ruins of her former home in Paradise, California. Two months after the fire, Nordgren allowed Muller to accompany her on her return to say goodbye to the “perfect retirement house,” a place filled with 15 years of memories. The pool holds a special place in her thoughts. “I would go in the pool in the morning by myself,” Nordgren says. “I’d get into my bathing suit and get into this gorgeous pool, and I just felt like a queen. I’d look up at this beautiful California blue sky.”
Photograph by Pete Muller

Changes like these have always occurred. It is the nature of our dynamic species to reshape landscapes to meet our needs and desires, but the scale and pace of transformation in the 21st century are unprecedented. As our population rapidly approaches eight billion, humans are altering the planet more than at any other point in recorded history. We continue to raze forests, emit carbon, and flush chemicals and plastics into the land and water. As a result, we confront ruinous heat waves, wildfires, storm surges, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and other forms of ecological destruction. All of this causes political, logistical, and financial disruption. It also creates often overlooked emotional challenges.

Colque Punku Glacier, Peru

‘It’s a real feeling of concern because we are water, right? Human beings, we are water. They tell us this since school. That the glaciers are finishing is telling us that we will also finish in some way.’
—Clark Asto, Quispicanchi dancer

Huddling around candles before dawn, men from Peru’s Quispicanchi nation celebrate Qoyllur Riti below a glacier. Pilgrims believe the glaciers hold healing properties. But because the ice has receded so dramatically, cutting pieces of it is now banned. “We used the ice as medicine,” says Norberto Vega. “Just by passing the ice over [your body] made you feel better, and that links with faith.”

Only in recent years have scientists begun to devote significant resources to studying how altering the environment affects mental health. In the biggest empirical study to date, a team led by researchers from MIT and Harvard looked at the effects of changes in the climate on the mental health of nearly two million randomly selected U.S. residents from 2002 to 2012. Among other things, they found that exposure to heat and drought magnified the risk of suicide and raised the number of psychiatric hospital visits. In addition, victims of hurricanes and floods were more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

For those who endure the trauma of losing a landscape, the emotions can be wrenching to express. “The pain of losing a land is totally different than any other pain, because it is difficult to share,” Chantel Comardelle tells me when I visit her community on the coast of Louisiana, where the sea is rising at an alarming rate and flooding the land. Comardelle was born on Isle de Jean Charles, a dwindling island that has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955. During her parents’ generation, the island’s mostly Native American inhabitants hunted and farmed. Now many families have left. The community has fractured. “It’s not like losing a loved one or something that other people easily understand,” she says.

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana

‘It’s like all the trees are dead now. I wanted to live down here, but as I grow older, I realise it’s not possible. Mother Nature is taking it at this point. It’s a hurt to your soul. It’s feeling like I lost a loved one.’
—Voshon Dardar, fisherman

Chantel Comardelle and her family sit for a portrait in her grandparents’ home on Isle de Jean Charles. Their ancestors arrived here in the 1820s, but now the rising Gulf of Mexico is swallowing the island. Chantel (seated at table) helps residents resettle on the mainland. Their feelings are difficult to explain, she says. “I can’t just say, you know, ‘the pain of losing a loved one.’ This sort of losing a land and the things that are surrounded by the land is so different than that.”
Tides and storms often flood the only road that connects Isle de Jean Charles to the U.S. mainland, cutting off the 60 or so remaining inhabitants, most of whom are of Native American heritage. The island once covered 22,000 acres. Now it’s 320. “You don’t really know the land around you is disappearing ... It was disappearing little bit by little bit, and now it’s gone,” says Albert Naquin, chief of the island’s band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe.

But in the era of global climate change, more people do understand. As Isle de Jean Charles disintegrated, Comardelle and other local leaders decided to reach out to those facing similar challenges. “There’s a community in Alaska that’s going through the same thing,” she says, referring to the Yupik village of Newtok, also confronting acute subsidence and land loss. “We were able to sit down and talk … and it was almost exactly the same feelings, the same emotions,” she says. “It was like, OK, so I’m not alone. This isn’t just something that I’m making up in my mind. It was real.”

During the past few years I’ve travelled to several places—from the Arctic to the Andes—where the landscape has undergone a dramatic transformation. I wanted to better understand not only the physical changes to the land but also how those changes reverberate within the lives of their inhabitants. Only a handful of people I met had heard the word solastalgia, but a great many shared haunting descriptions of the experience the word aims to define. They grapple with both the daunting practical challenges of losing a landscape and the complex emotional strain of losing their sense of place in the world.

For now, solastalgia is buzzing at the edges of language—almost exclusively English—and Albrecht hopes it stays there. “It’s a word that shouldn’t exist but had to be created out of difficult circumstances,” he says. “It’s now become global. That’s terrible … Let’s get rid of it. Let’s get rid of the circumstances, the forces, that create solastalgia.”

Photographer Pete Muller’s images of how boys become men around the world appeared in the January 2017 issue. This project was supported by a National Geographic Society Fellowship.
This story appears in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
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