Discovering Solastalgia

I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know that climate change existed.

From the ages of four to 12, I went to a school that was in the middle of the woods in the Northeast of the US and throughout my childhood I traveled between my two countries of citizenship, the US and Scotland. My parents’ connection to the wild nature of Scotland likely contributed to their decision to send me to a woodland elementary school outside of Philadelphia.

Hiking

Seaside

Kayaking

My peers and I were taught about environmental stewardship as we grew, and ever since it has been a worldview that I have embraced. We had responsibilities to nature, from planting vegetables as kindergarteners to taking care of the bee hives and chicken coops in 5th grade. I remember wanting to be Jane Goodall. I never wanted to leave the forest. I thought I was the best person to protect my little part of the world.

I suppose I didn’t understand the magnitude of the climate crisis back then. I don’t remember the moment or the year that I learned about climate change, but once I knew, I was fixated on how terrifying it was. I was told from media, like An Inconvenient Truth, that this was how I was supposed to react. To a kid, the mental stress of a global catastrophe was too much to handle.

About two years ago, I discovered one of my favorite words: solastalgia. I wish I had known it back then to describe how I felt.

Solastalgia is a concept, coined in 2003 by philosopher Glenn Albrecht, that describes the emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change. Often people use this word to describe how they feel, seeing natural locations they love being impacted by climate change. My favorite places; the creek at school, the beaches of Scotland, and the forest, were all going to disappear. Fear drove my investment into climate change for years.

Eventually, fear turned into anger. In high school, I learned more about the science and politics behind climate change, and it infuriated me because it seemed like no one cared, even though I had spent years already thinking about it. Moving between Scotland and the US as a teenager, I noticed so many things that were different about the two countries. However, one similarity that I saw was a blatant disregard for the environment on a national level.

At the elementary school I came from, everyone held the burden of environmental stewardship together, but the bigger world was different. Being a glass half-full person was not a natural state for me during this time, but this was also when I started taking classes and talking to people in the field of climate science and policy about the best ways to make change.

The survivalist approach, of scaring people into caring, with the doom and gloom, was not going to work anymore. I just happened to be growing up in a world where everyone thought it would.

When I was 15, I got to listen to Jane Goodall speak in person. She came to give a lecture at a local university and I begged my mom, a professor there, to get me tickets even though I wasn’t a student. I hung onto every word Dr. Goodall said. Somehow, she managed to convey urgency but not hopelessness. I knew more than ever that she was someone who was doing the important work.

I walked outside with my father afterwards and he asked me how it was. I immediately burst into tears. He asked if I thought the lecture was disappointing, but all I could think to say was, “That was amazing.” I suddenly felt like there were powerful people who wanted to make the world a more sustainable place—and that I wasn’t alone.

I don’t have one moment that made me care about the environment. However, I know this lecture, my time spent in nature, both in the US and Scotland, and my childhood years spent in the woods gave me the stamina I need to keep going, even when things seem hopeless. To me, the preservation of forests to seas and everything in between is the most important thing I can fight for.

Now, I’m in college getting a degree in environmental studies with a focus on climate science and policy. This year, the UN Climate Negotiations, COP26, will be held in Scotland. As part of Climate Generation’s delegation I am taking time to reflect on what this experience will mean for me. Traveling back to my other country of citizenship, because of climate change, is bringing solastalgia home for me.

On the days when they feel hopeless, I now lean on my professors and fellow students for support and I remember that there are others who are with me, who are ready to see the possibilities and not give up.

Bella Garrioch

Bella Garrioch is an undergraduate at Macalester College. She is a member of Climate Generation’s Window into COP26 Delegation this November. Within her major she emphasizes climate science and policy and is interested in the crossover between climate change research and political solutions to the climate crisis. Learn more about Bella and subscribe to follow her experience at COP26.

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