An Ecological Unconscious

On January 31 New York Times had a fascinating article Is there an ecological unconscious? Briefly, it discussed the concept of 'solastalgia' (not a word I had heard before) which is "a pain or discomfort caused by the present state of one's home environment" and includes "the inability to derive comfort from one's home environment due to negative environmental change". The NY Time article then outlined the work of Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher who became interested and concerned about the growing body of evidence suggesting that "how people think and feel is being influenced strongly by ecosystem transformation related to climate change and industry-related displacement from the land. These powerful stressors are occurring more frequently around the world".

His view is that this has a clear and detrimental affect on our mental health. A Wired article on the subject reports that In the modern, industrialized West, many of us have forgotten how deeply we rely on the stability of nature for our psychic well-being. In a world of cheap airfares, laptops, and the Internet, we proudly regard mobility as a sign of how advanced we are.

There's some interesting research going on related to this reported in an article Solastalgia and the Mental Affects of Climate Change on the World Changing website:

Nick Higginbotham, a social psychologist colleague who specializes in epidemiology and health matters, is working to gather empirical data for our solastalgia research. He has developed a much-needed environmental distress scale (EDS) that teases out the specific environmental components of distress from all the other things that go on in a person's life. We will be using this scale in the new AUS$430K grant the team has received from the Australian Research Council to extend our earlier work by addressing "the lived experience (ethnography) of climate change" among people in the Hunter Valley.

By further digging around I discovered an article describing the validation of the EDS, the abstract stating that: The EDS successfully measured and validated Albrecht's innovative concept of "solastalgia"-the sense of distress people experience when valued environments are negatively transformed. While the EDS addresses the power and mining industries, it can be adapted as a general tool to appraise the distress arising from people's lived experience of the desolation of their home and environment. Ideally, it can be used as an aid for those working to ameliorate that distress and restore ecosystem health. (Forget for a moment that the validation exercise was conducted by the people who developed the scale in the first place)

Although the solastalgia theory sounds, at first read, a little wacky I think there's a lot to it. On a sample of one (me) I know how distressed I felt when I saw a wonderful wooded area close to where I live being savagely clear cut – to the extent that I changed my route to avoid the repeated feelings). I admire the bravery of the tree-sitters who take a stand against tree-felling. And I remember, years ago reading a short story by Roald Dahl – The Sound Machine which records the screams of anguish from flowers that are being cut. It haunted me for a good while.

What could the solastalgia concept mean for organizations? Well, it could help in understanding why people are opposed to organizations strip mining, or constructing shopping mall construction, or building roads on 'their' land. It might lead to organizations intent on environmental degradation (though they may not see it that way) at a minimum listening to the concerns of the local population and providing some kind of environmental redress. It could inform the way buildings that people live and work in are designed – and some are now being designed to recognize the relationship between people and environment – the Solar Decathalon Competition is a good example of fostering this line of thinking. Simply raising awareness of the mental toll on people of environmental degradation would make a worthy contribution to the debate on the part organizations play in the well being of their people and the planet.