Friday, January 29, 2010

Musings: On Solastalgia and Its Cure

What a delight to wake in the night to the sound of rain drumming on the roof, dripping from the eaves, plopping on the leaves. During a break, Koko and I went out to take a look at the waxing moon, which tonight will be at its biggest and brightest all year, and saw thick patches of mist crawling up the gullies, swirling about the hooves of the cattle that stood, placid and dripping, in the silvery light.

When morning came, we set out walking in a landscape where raindrops clung like tiny bubbles to the ironwoods and low clouds crept along the emerald slopes of Makaleha and sheets of mist blew lazily through the valleys. I felt restored, at ease, as I generally do after an immersion in nature, unless it's been trashed, and then I feel pain.

And it seems I'm not alone with such feelings. Returning home, I found an email from a friend, commenting on yesterday’s radio show and providing a link to an article in the New York Times Magazine, with the comment:

Think you will like this. Read the whole thing (it is long) and you will see what we on Kauai are expressing, through your talk show for example, the interconectedness of us all and the aina.

He was right. I did like the article, which delved into something I feel, but never never knew had a name, which was coined by Glenn Albrecht, philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth:

“[S]olastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”

The concept is part of an emerging field known as ecopsychology. As the article reports:

Solastalgia, in Albrecht’s estimation, is a global condition, felt to a greater or lesser degree by different people in different locations but felt increasingly, given the ongoing degradation of the environment. As our environment continues to change around us, the question Albrecht would like answered is, how deeply are our minds suffering in return?

As I read it, I thought of a comment Jeff Chandler made on the radio show, about how he, as a cultural practitioner, could relate to the plight of the Newell’s shearwaters, which are being killed by the electrical wires they encounter on their flight to the sea, because Hawaiians had seen their once unfettered mauka-makai movement similarly blocked by fences, gates, private property. And it caused them to feel sadness, anger and despair.

Such responses are not unusual for those attuned to the ongoing loss of interconnectedness. The American Psychological Association released a 230-page report titled “Interface Between Psychology and Global Climate Change” that noted fear, anxiety, numbness, powerlessness and grief are some of the more common emotional reactions to environmental decline.

The article went on to report:

But ecopsychology embraces a more revolutionary paradigm: just as Freud believed that neuroses were the consequences of dismissing our deep-rooted sexual and aggressive instincts, ecopsychologists believe that grief, despair and anxiety are the consequences of dismissing equally deep-rooted ecological instincts.

An “imperiled environment,” it seems, “creates an imperiled mind.”

And watching the Nature channel doesn’t fix it. In light of the trend toward substituting virtual experience with the real thing, I was very interested in the article’s account of a study done by developmental psychologist Peter Kahn, in which 90 adults were subjected to mild stress “while exposed to one of three views: a glass window overlooking an expanse of grass and a stand of trees; a 50-inch plasma television screen showing the same scene in real time; and a blank wall. Kahn found that the heart rates of those exposed to the sight of real nature decreased more quickly than those of subjects looking at the TV image. The subjects exposed to a TV screen fared just the same as those facing drywall."

“More and more,” Kahn writes, “the human experience of nature will be mediated by technological systems.” We will, as a matter of mere survival, adapt to these changes. The question is whether our new, nature-reduced lives will be “impoverished from the standpoint of human functioning and flourishing.”

Albrecht, the article reports, went on to look as well at environmental success by studying a region known as Cape to Cape, which is described as “a wine-country Eden, lush and bucolic and rife with sustainable industries, from organic agriculture to ecotourism.”

Numerous factors — geographic, political, historical, economic — most likely allowed the Cape to Cape region to remain relatively unsullied. But Albrecht proposes that the main factor is psychological. The people of the region, he told me, display an unusually strong “sense of interconnectedness” — an awareness of the myriad interacting components that make up a healthy environment. True to form, Albrecht has come up with a concept to encapsulate this idea. He has begun describing the Cape to Cape region as a study in “soliphilia”: “the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet and the unity of interrelated interests within it.”

Sounds an awful lot like the concepts that, as Ramsay Taum explained in a Honolulu Weekly article I wrote a while back, are fundamental to Hawaiian culture: aloha, aloha aina, malama aina, kuleana, pono.

Albrecht has dubbed it “soliphilia,” and according to the NYT Magazine article, he hopes “his neologism will spread and that it will change how people think about their relationship to the environment.”

The article concludes by asking how people can gain, or regain, that “sense of interconnectedness” that some folks already have.

Those of us living in Hawaii already have a leg up on that process, thanks to the enduring, but beleagured, values of the indigenous culture. As I reported in the Weekly article:

One common misconception, however, is that adopting culturally-based, traditional systems entails the need to ‘go back someplace,’ says Taum, who is also director of external relations and community partnerships for the University of Hawai’i-Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management and operations director for Hawai’i Nature Center.

Instead, he sees it as "bringing forward those principles and practices our ancestors utilized and employed. It may mean a hybrid of low-tech and high-tech opportunities."

I think it also means being outspoken advocates for respecting and protecting the cultural values and ecosystems that comprise the backbone of this place. It means feeling no shame or silliness in talking openly about feeling the land, caring for other species, recognizing that we are just one thread in the web of life that encompasses all of us. And it also means pointing out what’s wrong with our present course of action.

As the NYT Magazine article concluded:

[T]o understand what it is to be whole, we must first explain what is broken.

Taum recognizes that we have a long ways to go to fix what’s broken. Still, he said:

“[W]e have to believe we have the ability to make that happen, and that we do have a choice. If we can’t do this in Hawaii, where can we do it? We might go so far as to suggest Hawaii is the canary in the cavern. As Hawaii goes, the world goes, too.”


Anonymous said...

“[W]e have to believe we have the ability to make that happen, and that we do have a choice. If we can’t do this in Hawaii, where can we do it? "

the audacity of hope :)

Anonymous said...

" because Hawaiians had seen their once unfettered mauka-makai movement..."

That freedom is probably a historic concept achieved after the kapus had been abolished. It seems that the Hawaiians of old would have been stuck in a locale unable to move beyond fixed and implied boundaries.
With their highly specialized society I doubt the fishermen ventured much past the shoreline areas and the farmers probably did not go to sea. They were slotted into specialized occupations that served the survival of the society. Some harvested the forest, some produced the stone for tools and so on.

Moving beyond your station in life much less your general area freely would have been difficult at best.
Perhaps it is no wonder the Hawaiians sized the oppoptunity and took advantage of the freedom of movement enjoyed by the westerners when the kapus were lifted.

Anonymous said... I dont think this comment will make the list, fine. Take a look Joan, it delves into the "science" that many eschew. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"That freedom is probably a historic concept achieved after the kapus had been abolished. It seems that the Hawaiians of old would have been stuck in a locale unable to move beyond fixed and implied boundaries."

Try educate yourself before making comments. Go look up ahupuaa. Hawaiians could move freely between mountains and sea and if they didn't like the chiefs in one ahupuaa they could move to another.

Anonymous said...

Hawaiians had much more freedom before the kapu system was reintroduced by Kam 1. Especially on Kauai, which operated on clan hierarchies, and limited na kapu. Families, na ahupuaa, and larger land divisions and loyalties were evident in tattoos, petroglyphs, kapa prints, and the color, design and make of kapa, and all implements and furnishings needed for sustainable life. Everyone could be identified clearly. Certain restrictions were in place to protect and preserve the taking of resources by persons other than those than resided in a different area in order to prevent food depletion. Interestingly, even on Kauai famine did often occur, with women and children taking the brunt of the lack of food. Good family heirarchial heads were very careful to make sure that resources stayed abundant for family members. This was the unfettered system on Kaua'i for almost 500 years after the last large Tahitian invasion mostly stayed to the two larger islands of Big Island and Oahu. But with Kam 1 and Kaumuali'i 1, with the deaths of Kam 1 ruling Ali'i, and Kaumuali'is father and his mother things rapidly changed, and strict kapu system was reinforced. This gives the mistaken impression that people did not have freedom of movement. They did, however, the system was slightly more "militarized", and confrontational at ahupuaa borders do to influx of "off island" people who were not of Kauais hereditary lines, but of the new oligarchy of Kam 1's rule. There was more public marshal law imposed, and more public punishments and executions under kam 1's reign, and Kauai's people became more suspicious of "outsiders", and there was more "crossing ahupuaa borders", because resources were far more scarce in certain areas during this time. It was more difficult to impose gathering and hunting na kapu as some people suffered deprivation during this time. Thus the mistaken impression that the people could not move freely. Not only could they move freely, change na ahupua'a, although not hereditary lines, they could also depose a chief or chiefess, or change allegience easily.