In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”. Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales, when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness.
Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the present but it has flourished recently.
“A worldwide increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,” wrote Albrecht, is “matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes”. Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.
Albrecht’s coinage is part of an emerging language-set for what we are increasingly calling the Anthropocene ~ the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. And what a signature it will be.
A total of 50m kilometres of holes have been bored in the search for oil. Mountain tops have been removed to get at the coal they contain. The oceans dance with billions of tiny plastic beads. Weaponry tests have dispersed artificial radionuclides globally. The burning of rainforests for monoculture production sends out killing smog-palls that settle into the sediment across entire countries. Humanity has become a titanic geological agent with a legacy which will be legible for millennia to come.
The idea of the Anthropocene asks hard questions of us. Temporally, it requires that we imagine ourselves inhabitants not just of a human lifetime or generation, but also of “deep time” ~ the dizzyingly profound eras of Earth history that extend both behind and ahead of the present. Politically, it lays bare some of the complex cross-weaves of vulnerability and culpability that exist between us and other species, as well as between humans now and humans to come. Conceptually, it warrants us to consider once again whether – in Fredric Jameson’s phrase – “the modernisation process is complete, and nature is gone for good”, leaving nothing but us.
There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism, the political presumptions it encodes, and the specific histories of power and violence that it masks. But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through.
Though it has its origin in the Earth sciences and advanced computational technologies, its consequences have rippled across global culture during the last 15 years. Conservationists, environmentalists, policymakers, artists, activists, writers, historians, political and cultural theorists, as well as scientists and social scientists in many specialisms, are all responding to its implications. A Stanford University team has boldly proposed that ~ living as we are through the last years of one Earth epoch, and the birth of another ~ we belong to “Generation Anthropocene”.
The word “Anthropocene” itself entered the Oxford English Dictionary surprisingly late, along with “selfie” and “upcycle”, in June 2014, some 15 years after it is generally agreed to have first been used in its popular sense.
‘What will survive of us is love’, wrote Philip Larkin. Wrong! What will survive of us is plastic!!
The Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy was created in 2009. It was charged with answering two questions: whether the Anthropocene should be formalised as an epoch and, if so, when it began?
The group’s report is due within months. Recent publications indicate that they will recommend the designation of the Anthropocene, and that the “stratigraphically optimal” temporal limit will be located somewhere in the mid-20th century. This places the start of the Anthropocene simultaneous with the start of the nuclear age.
Plastics in particular are being taken as a key marker for the Anthropocene, giving rise to the inevitable nickname of the “Plasticene”. We currently produce around 100m tonnes of plastic globally each year. Because plastics are inert and difficult to degrade, some of this plastic material will find its way into the strata record. Among the future fossils of the Anthropocene, therefore, might be the trace forms not only of megafauna and nano-planktons, but also shampoo bottles and deodorant caps ~ the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals.