How butterflies, eels and losses in the natural world affect us

Solastalgia: the pain we feel when our ecosystems are hurt

A seal pup, known locally as "Snowflake" is seen amongst the rocks, in Deer Park, Marloes, Pembrokeshire, Wales, Britain October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Rebecca Naden
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Last week 7,000 dead seals washed up on a beach in Namibia. The reason remains unknown. Ocean Conservation Namibia, an NGO, suggests starvation. Other possible causes such as toxins or disease, however, have yet to be ruled out.

Such news stories evoke sadness, even anger, in many of us. Like when I read that certain species of butterflies, those that were superabundant during my childhood, are now increasingly rare.

Butterfly biodiversity is a useful indicator of the overall ecological health of a nation – beauty is noticeable by its absence. Each year, since 2010, the UK has held the ‘Big Butterfly Count’.

For several weeks during the summer, the public is encouraged to download an app and report the number and type of butterflies they spot.

Despite record numbers of participants – over a hundred thousand this year – the 2020 results are the worst on record, with the lowest average number of butterflies logged since the event began.

The same is true for the lakes and rivers of my childhood. The European eel, Anguilla Anguilla, once plentiful, is now listed as critically endangered on the global red list of threatened species.

Historian Dr John Wyatt Greenlee documents that eels were once so abundant in England that they were used as a form of payment. For example, in 1086 the English paid more than 500,000 eels in taxes to landlords.

Times have changed, and so have our riverscapes, landscapes and oceans.

This sense of dysphoria or unease that we might feel as a result of such environmental changes now has a name.

The environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls it solastalgia. Distinct from nostalgia, which is a longing for times and places past, solastalgia is the pain we feel when we experience our homes, our places of solace are destroyed or degraded.

Our sense of identity and well-being are tightly bound with the health of our ecosystems. The well-being of people is connected to the well-being of the land and the water.

Our sense of identity and well-being are tightly bound with the health of our ecosystems

Beyond a philosophical idea, solastalgia can also be viewed as a psychiatric concept. Distress about the environment can mutate into more severe problems such as depression, anxiety or substance-use disorders.

Sick landscapes, polluted rivers and deforestation do little to promote mental health; they may well do the opposite.

Similarly, our shrinking ecological biodiversity only heightens our sense of species loneliness – feelings of sadness and isolation rooted in our estrangement from and by the disappearance of other species.

When we read or watch news clips about the dead seals washed up on beaches, is that what we feel? When we read about Okjokull, the first Icelandic glacier to be officially declared dead (that is, lose its glacier status), do we start to feel solastalgic?

And when we hear that the recent Australian bush fires killed a third of all the koalas in New South Wales, does a wave of solastalgia wash over us?

If we view the whole of earth as our home, the destruction of cultural and biological diversity can be personally distressing, however geographically distant from us these events take place.

Is it possible that ecocide and the associated loss of species and habitat have at least in part something to do with the global rise in mental health problems? If the birds in our neighbourhoods stopped singing, how long would it take for us to realise birdsong was missing?

Some of us, busy with our own concerns, may not notice for a long time. We might though still experience a negative mood shift without knowing why.

I typically go back to the UK each summer. On recent visits, I have not seen a single butterfly, ladybird or even bumblebee. I grew up among these creatures.

In my old inner city stomping grounds they were once so plentiful as to be annoying. I would even see the occasional owl and fox. Now, however, it is all humans and dogs, seagulls and pigeons.

This past weekend, my social media timeline was filled with pictures of a juvenile whale shark majestically navigating the shallow waters around Abu Dhabi’s Aldar headquarters.

The awe, excitement and joy that many of us feel on witnessing such rare and endangered creatures is a perfect counterpoint to solastalgia.

Reconnection with our natural environment and its inhabitants is fundamental to our well-being. Solastalgia, like all emotions, moves us. And if it can shift us to take restorative action and in the direction of conservation efforts, then it has done its job.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National