What is solastalgia?

We’re all familiar with nostalgia: the sadness we feel when thinking about places we love but don’t visit anymore. Solastalgia is nostalgia’s dark cousin: the sadness we feel when looking at places we once loved, but which have been irreparably transformed from how they used to be.

Maybe you can think of a specific moment in your life when solastalgia suddenly set in. Maybe when you were a child, the forest or field you played in was bulldozed to make room for more houses. Maybe you went to a favorite creek one day, only to find it had just been paved over. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists describe just such an experience as a defining moment in their lives, the time when they first understood that natural places matter and must be actively preserved.

Maybe solastalgia has set in for you more slowly. Maybe as you drive around your town, you say “That used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland, and that used to be farmland.” But the housing developments and strip malls sprung up one at a time over decades, and there was no specific day when you realized that the character of your community had changed.

Or maybe your family has lived in the same home for generations, and by talking to your parents and grandparents, you can trace a slow history of the surrounding hills being gradually deforested and then blasted apart for mining operations. The view from your house is no longer what it was when your ancestors settled in this spot, and you’ve lost something that you valued about your corner of the world.

Nostalgia makes us sad because there is no going back, even if we can physically return to the place we love. The creek where we played as children may still be there, but we just can’t experience it the same way as adults. We can walk the halls of our old high school, but we can’t recreate the good times we had with our friends.

Solastalgia makes us sad because what we loved is gone, irretrievably. We can’t go back to the neighborhood woodlot to stand in the cool shade and remember the adventures we had there when we were young, because the woodlot is now a treeless private yard. We can’t take our children cycling on country roads and show them our favorite vistas from when we were their age, because those roads are now busy city streets, unwelcoming to cyclists, and the views of farm fields have been replaced by gas stations and convenience stores.

The world, including natural environments, is always changing. But in recent times, change is occurring fast enough that we can see it happening over a single lifespan. We feel sad about how things are because we personally remember how they used to be.

When change is positive, we may reminisce about what things were like before, while also appreciating how they are now. But when change is overwhelmingly negative – when cookiecutter suburbs march across endless acres of what used to be healthy nature – we’re left with a deep sadness about what we’ve lost, while having little offsetting happiness about what we’ve gained.

Like biophilia, solastalgia often gets brushed off as a kind of illness, even though it’s perfectly normal. Nowadays, solastalgia is increasingly recognized as a real and legitimate form of grief. While biophilia is characteristically accompanied by action to repair the distressing circumstance, the defining feature of solastalgia is that the damage cannot be undone on any timescale short enough to help the sufferer feel better. If you are experiencing severe solastalgia, a counselor may be able to help.

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What is solastalgia?

What is biophilia?

Very early on, That Blog wrote about how people are inherently drawn towards other living things, including plants and animals. The English language (via Greek) has helpfully provided us with a word for this: the term biophilia, which literally means love of life.

Not to be confused with joie de vivre – happiness about everything that’s good in our own lives – biophilia describes the care we feel towards all the other living beings we share our planet with. In particular, it refers to a kind of empathy for the non-human.

Biophilia is why we enjoy watching animals. It’s why we like walking among plants. Biophilia makes us wants to nurture flowers in our yards, adopt a cat, and pass laws to protect endangered species.

Importantly, biophilia is a normal part of the human condition. Most people experience it. Though some people try to cast wildlife lovers and treehuggers as strange, or even as unhealthily concerned about “useless” plants and animals, we should not be intimidated by this. Instead, we should ask those people why they don’t have normal feelings of respect and care towards other inhabitants of our world.

Normal, healthy people also experience feelings of intense distress, even grief, when we witness other life being harmed or destroyed – when we hear about how animals on factory farms are treated, when we see pictures of trophy hunters showing off their kills, when forests are destroyed by wildfires, and when healthy urban trees are “removed” – a frighteningly euphemistic term – to make more space for buildings and cars. Then, normal, healthy people experience a strong urge to do something to help offset this destruction of life. They may feel a desire to donate to a wildlife charity, or to sign a petition telling major restaurants to get animal abuse out of their supply chains. But most particularly, people feel compelled to do something hands-on: to plant trees in local parks, to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center, or to tear out their barren lawns and fill the space with a thriving plant community. All of these feelings and actions are collectively known as urgent biophilia.

If you or someone you know is suffering from urgent biophilia, don’t dismiss it as being odd, or as being overly sentimental. Act on it. As our world moves deeper into a crisis of diminishing wildlife populations, disappearing forests, polluted oceans, and a dangerously unstable climate, people acting on their natural instinct to repair our only home may be our best hope of minimizing the damage.

What is biophilia?

Where is deforestation happening?

When we think about deforestation, we think about the Amazon rainforest: iconic images of towering jungle trees being cleared to make room for ranching operations, and statistics about how many football fields per minute are being lost.

We may also think about the Canadian boreal forests, huge swathes of which are being leveled so that fossil fuel companies can extract the tar sands oil that lies buried beneath them.

And we may think of America’s Pacific Northwest, where it seems that environmentalists and loggers are constantly at odds over whether old-growth trees should be harvested for commercial use or preserved to provide wildlife habitat and inspire awe in each new generation of humans.

What most of us don’t think about is urban areas. But American cities are losing trees at an alarming rate. One study found that between 1975 and 2006, Minnesota’s Twin Cities region lost 14% of its forest cover. Percentage-wise, that’s actually more tree loss than the Amazon rainforest experienced over an equivalent period.

And a study published this past spring estimated that urban areas of the United States, taken as a whole, are losing 36 million trees a year. That’s net loss – the total decrease in the number of trees after adding back newly-planted trees. Dividing up the data by state, the researchers found that in recent years, only three states have seen a net increase of urban trees, and then only by tiny increments.

As explained in an earlier post, that’s a problem because trees in cities aren’t optional. When there aren’t enough trees around to absorb stormwater, clean air, moderate extreme temperatures, and give people a little relief from the stresses of modern life, providing all of those services through other methods ranges from expensive to impossible. The end result is that we pay more in taxes and get back a lower quality of life.

We can reverse this trend. First, we can demand that our local officials respect and protect our urban trees, instead of damaging or destroying trees that pose minor inconveniences. Second, we can actively work to plant a healthy next generation of trees. No matter how well we care for mature trees, they will eventually die. When that happens, it is too late to plant a replacement tree – it could be decades before the new, young tree is able to provide benefits equivalent to what its adult predecessor was doing. Instead, we need to nurture an urban forest in which every canopy tree has a younger companion nearby, ready to quickly take over the older tree’s duties when its life inevitably comes to an end.

Where is deforestation happening?

Is global warming good for plants?

Some people deny that global warming is happening. Others agree that it is happening, but claim it isn’t a bad thing. People in this second group often say that global warming isn’t bad because all that extra carbon in the air will promote plant growth, which will benefit agriculture and the environment. Is this true?

Not really.

As described in the last post, plants do need carbon to grow, and they like having more of it around. But, they like extra carbon a little too much.

Let’s explore why by looking at humans and sugar.

Humans like sugar. We generally think of sugar as a bad and unnecessary thing that makes us fat. But, in fact, humans need sugar. In the past, sugar was rare and hard to find. Because sugar was important for human nutrition but difficult to get, evolution fitted us with a sugar craving that drives us to search energetically for this nutrient, and consume it whenever possible. This worked great until the modern age, when sugar became abundant and readily available in our dietary environment. Our biology hasn’t yet learned that it should tell us to eat a certain amount of sugar and then stop. And so, unless we manage to exert a lot of willpower, we end up eating too much sugar, and we get sick from it.

A similar mechanism is at work in plants. A plant’s biology tells the plant to absorb as much carbon as possible. This is very good for the plant as long as the amount of carbon the plant can realistically absorb is not greater than the amount of carbon the plant really needs. However, if a plant was able to absorb more carbon than it needed – for example, due to rising carbon levels in the atmosphere related to global warming – then the plant would happily gorge itself on the extra carbon. In a classic case of too much of a good thing, the plant would then become sick.

This is not just theoretical. Studies have found that plants that binge on carbon really do become unhealthy. Just like humans who eat too much sugar produce body fat that isn’t good for them, plants that absorb too much carbon produce abnormally high levels of starch. And while these plants are getting vegetatively flabby, they store less protein in their pollen.

This means that the plants are not healthy, their pollen does not contain the nutrients that pollen-eating animals need to be healthy, and the parts of the plants that humans eat are similarly lacking in nutrients that humans need to be healthy. Far from being a boon to agriculture, global warming puts plants on a junk food diet that is bad for everyone.

And that part isn’t theoretical either. Studies on how plants react to excess carbon haven’t just been done in the lab. In the US, plants living in the wild have shown a marked decrease in the protein content of their pollen since America began industrializing in the 1840s. That decline has been most severe over the past six decades, when America’s carbon emissions were increasing dramatically.

Global warming is a serious problem that we are running out of time to solve. At this point, we cannot decrease our emissions steeply enough to avoid disastrous warming on our planet. To prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we need to not only reduce our emissions, but also actively work to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

Humans have not yet invented technology that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. Fortunately, nature has. We call that technology plants.

Global warming will not benefit either humans or plants. But if humans and plants work together, we still may be able to solve this urgent problem.

Is global warming good for plants?

How can we help plants?

In conventional gardening, plants are treated like yard furniture: inanimate objects that we can arrange and modify to suit our own preferences, and which will quickly fall into a degenerate state if we don’t constantly maintain them. This is, of course, biologically inaccurate. With a few exceptions, even highly cultivated plants are essentially wild creatures that, given appropriate growing conditions, can take care of all their own needs. Plants don’t require our help.

How do we know that this is so? Quite simply, because plants thrived on Earth for million of years before humans appeared on the scene. In contrast, humans literally would not survive for one day without plants.

Some people, in recognition of this fact, truly want to repay plants by helping them out. This is wonderful. However, many of the things that people do – with the best of intentions – to help plants are in fact harmful to plants. Pruning plants robs them of their food-producing ability and leaves them vulnerable to disease. Situating plants in a sea of mulch deprives them of the companions they need to be healthy. And spraying them with pesticides kills the insects the plants rely on for their reproductive processes.

There are some things we can do to help plants, though. Here are three simple actions with real benefits for plants.

Breathe on them. We know that animals take in oxygen and breathe out carbon, while plants absorb carbon and give off oxygen. We usually describe this harmonious dynamic by saying that plants clean the air for us. It is fascinating to realize that from a plant’s perspective, we clean the air for them! By breathing on plants, we can provide them with a little boost of the carbon they need to build their bodies. (It is thought that this is why some people swear plants grow better if you talk to them. It’s not the words we’re saying that benefit the plants; it’s the air we’re blowing on them.)

Relieve yourself on them. As described in a recent post, human bodily waste is full of nitrogen, a nutrient plants need. When we excrete on plants, we deposit nitrogen in a form plants can use. In contrast, when we excrete in modern toilets, we deposit nitrogen into the water supply, where it contributes to harmful effects. (Unless you are way out in the woods, though, don’t literally excrete on plants. Find a happy medium in the humanure process.)

Don’t walk near them. Some plants like to be walked near: for example, those that stick their seeds to our pants and let us disperse their offspring. For the most part, though, walking near plants only contributes to soil compaction and damages the plants’ roots. Resist the urge to hug trees. Instead, tell them loudly, from a respectful distance, how much you appreciate their service. They’ll enjoy the extra carbon more than they would the warm embrace.

How can we help plants?