a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Borg R Us
On a solo backpacking trip in the Rocky Mountains years ago, I camped in the ecotone at 10,000 feet, where timberline borders the naked scree of rock and glaciers above. The darkness on that moonless night was profoundly dark. Stars so thick they seemed to form clouds. Yet there, crossing the constellations like fireflies, were satellites in orbit. And then a passenger jet roaring through the heavens, maybe with someone on board glumly looking down at the near ubiquitous light cast upwards from Earth and wondering, like me at that moment, if there’s anywhere humanity hasn’t touched. Every square foot of planet Earth occupied, claimed, accounted for, in some way taken up and its fate decided. As the late Greg Brown wrote in his sprightly folk classic, “Rooty Toot-Toot for the Moon,” “There ain’t nowhere to go that ain’t here.” As a species, we have reached everywhere, named everything, and laid our claims atop one another’s for all of it. It’s safe to say we’ve overrun the planet. Plastic trash has been found in the deepest trenches of the oceans, while NASA is tracking more than a half million pieces of space junk orbiting the planet. This is the environment. Not somewhere else, not someplace that’s not here. The remoteness of my forest campsite suddenly felt like an illusion. Indeed, the fact of my presence made it so, for there I was, having trekked an established path and pitched tent on a groomed campsite on public land; that is, on land declared the property of the American public.
Australian social scientist Glenn Albrecht has coined a term for the psychic miasma of such moments, the feelings of dislocation, gloom, exhaustion, depression, even panic that have become increasingly widespread in the age of the anthropocene: solastalgia, he calls it, “the distress caused by environmental change.” He developed this concept in the course of researching the social and psychological effects on rural communities invaded and colonized by corporate mining, fracking, drilling, and the like. “Solastalgia,” Albrecht writes, “exists when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under assault (physical desolation).” Unlike nostalgia, which refers to a longing for a past life and perhaps distant place, solastalgia is homesickness for the place one still calls home. Its victims have not been displaced. Rather, paradoxically, they still live at home.
That moment in the backcountry, as the wind off the mountains threw its breath into a sweet choral psithurism in the subalpine firs and Englemann spruces that surrounded me and a creek ran softly near my campsite, is hardly comparable to the invasion of heavy industry in a peaceful rural community. Yet this sense of melancholy has the same roots and extends through time, into both past and future, and across distances, and springs from a feeling of loss for places as they existed before they were rendered into cityscapes and industrial farmland and a painted paradise. As Albrecht also notes, such grief does not require direct experience. Recent video footage of the catastrophic Amazon fires or news reports of Alaskan wilderness reserves opening to logging, mining, and drilling may also trigger such feelings – or contribute to the exhaustion and frustration and anger many of us feel as we watch the destruction of the natural world outpace our ability to forestall it. The sheer volume of such news, week after week, can be so oppressive as to leave us immobilized. Even in that quiet moment in the Rockies, I was conscious of imminent threats to the very place I’d camped, as oil and gas and mining interests lobby to drill and frack on public lands they haven’t penetrated yet.
The rate of change in our global biosphere in recent decades is itself dislocating, from new extremes in weather events to deforestation, vanishing species, and massive ice sheets slipping into the ocean in volumes that were unimaginable even just a few presidents ago. So rapidly is the atmosphere morphing that science has given us a looming deadline: take radical action in the next dozen years or witness the end of any hope for redeeming the bio-rich planet on which mankind was fortunate enough to evolve. To someone in his sixties, like me, a time span that brief feels like knowing your term paper is due tomorrow and you still haven’t even gone to the library, or as my students today would do, googled your topic on your smart phone. Whether we call the cloud of melancholy that hangs over so many of us in the current era solastalgia or anything else, it is a consequence of the daily assault of evidence that this is the historical moment in which planetary dues have come due for overpopulation, over consumption, environmental degradation, and now also – and not coincidentally – the global ascendancy of radical right-wing groups, which have aggressively rejected environmental morality and here in the US now pose an existential threat to democracy itself. As Sinclair Lewis foretold some eighty years ago, it can happen here. This widespread condition is more than a cultural drift or social mood. Scientists engaged in a spectrum of climate-related disciplines are finding themselves emotionally exhausted; some have even sought professional therapy to navigate the oppressive terrain in which their work is systematically ignored or rejected or undermined or outright attacked by special interest groups and conservative media and leadership. “[C]limate scientists,” journalist David Corn finds, “often resemble Sarah Connor of the Terminator franchise, who knows of a looming catastrophe but must struggle to function in a world that does not comprehend what is coming and, worse, largely ignores the warnings of those who do.”
The national park in which I camped is an avatar for wilderness, a sampling, a postage stamp in terrains that once hosted migrations and life cycles as they unfolded on vast scales. In the absence of human presence, wilderness had no name for itself. Designating a place as wilderness is itself a kind of claim – an Adamic moment of possession – because by its nature wilderness exists in the absence of humans to name or contemplate or occupy it. The word serves to position it relative to ourselves, and mankind’s relationship to the thing we call wilderness is decidedly one-way. Wilderness has no regard for man, is incapable even of indifference. The word and idea of wilderness create a relationship by defining the firewall between the spaces humans inhabit and the “out there-ness,” the wildness, of a place untouched and unrefined by humans. It is not here, but there – beyond the flickering campfire or glow of sodium lights. Wilderness does not know itself. It simply exists.
“Wild land,” writes Barry Lopez, “exists without regret, has no plan for improvement, no goal outside its own integrity. It is attractive to us partly because it has no defense against the laceration of road building, the penetration of mines, the scarifying of machinery.” Words like defense, laceration, penetration, and scarifying render an image of mankind’s historical relationship to wilderness: as aggressor. Mankind, in the Hobbesian sense, as a warring species whose original and continuing enemy is nature. Every college freshman in a comp-lit class learns that the first of three universal conflicts in literature is man against nature. Since ancient times, our stories, as ecocritic William Cronon notes, have depicted wilderness as a fearful place beyond the sphere of human habitation, unconquered, untamed, though its conquest is arrogantly considered inevitable. We have only to think of emblematic stories like “Young Goodman Brown,” The Hobbit, or even “Little Red Riding Hood” to recognize the familiar tropes of darkness and death associated with wilderness, though in all of these instances, notably, the source of terror is anthropomorphic. In Tolkien’s world, the wolf-like wargs and other abominations of nature, like the orcs, are Sauron’s creations. In Hawthorne’s story, the townspeople are the source of evil, while the menacing forest, which provides cover for their evil-doing, is a literary convention rather than a portrait of forestland itself.
For Lopez, the divide “between nature and cultural man” has resulted in a sinister change not only in how mankind regards nature, but what he has become as a result. With the exploitation of the natural world, humanity assumes the role of colonizer and even slaveholder. And just as the enslavement of men and women and children came with a high psychic and moral price for slaveholders – and as the history of American slavery continues to reverberate with social, cultural, and economic consequences – so environmental destruction extracts a moral and ethical cost in human dignity. But expiation, Lopez suggests, is possible: “In defending wild lands, we reclaim our dignity. The real work of preservation, then, is our own salvation. It is not to save nature. Nature will save itself, no matter what climatic or nuclear hell we plunge ourselves into.”
And hell may be already upon us, as the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the US government’s National Climate Assessment unequivocally warn. In short, we are out of time to forestall mitigating against systemic environmental collapse resulting from more than a century of warming the planet through greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the indiscriminate destruction of rain forests, boreal forests, oceans, fresh waterways, and more. Climate change has rapidly altered life on planet Earth over the past decade. Natural disasters, changing seasonal and weather patterns, and the consequent results of drought, crop failures, wildfires, flooding, disease, refugee crises, and war are the new normal, or more accurately, evidence that there is no more normal. Yet even now, in the face of an existential threat to the human species, with maybe a decade left to take action on a scale unprecedented in history, world leaders have failed to act – and worse. The White House dismissed the IPCC report, and even the findings of the US government, with a back-of-the-hand swipe: “I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that aren’t so good,” the president declared. (No doubt, he’s read lots of reports.) He also turned responsibility for the EPA, the departments of agriculture and interior, and other agencies over to former lobbyists and executives from the very industries they are supposed to monitor. The foxes have effectively incorporated and now run a chicken coop franchise to keep foxes everywhere well fed – or at least, the wealthiest foxes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Australia’s deputy prime minster described the IPCC report, authored by over 90 international scientists, who in turn reviewed more than 6,000 scientific papers, as “some sort of report,” as he reaffirmed his government’s commitment to mining, selling, and burning coal.
As malignant, and transparent, as this plunder by special interests may be, it is not an outlier. Humanity seems disinclined – or simply by virtue of mass and volume unable – to change course, though we cannot legitimately claim ignorance from either scientific or cultural sources. While scientists have been warning for decades about the threat of climate change, literature and movie-making have long been portraying the dystopian consequences of our collective apathy. From the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin and Nevil Shute, whose On the Beach (1957) was the first novel to dramatize the grim aftermath of global nuclear war, to Kim Stanley Robinson’s corpus of writings, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Seeds, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (the most soul-crushing book I’ve ever read), and recently Richard Powers’ brilliant work, The Overstory, cautionary tales about how we treat planet Earth have been a mainstay of literature for generations. Dystopian and “cli-fi” (climate change) fiction are sui generis major literary genres, while Hollywood has pulled in millions of viewers and gazillions of dollars with its visions of a dismal post-apocalypse Earth, as well as the despoliation of interplanetary wildernesses by human invasion. But even the best of these morality plays have seemingly had little social and political impact beyond their entertainment value. In films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 original, though Keanu Reeves does deliver one great line in the otherwise mediocre 2008 remake: “Your planet?” he responds to Kathy Bates’s question about the alien’s intentions toward “our planet”), Soylent Green (1977), Mad Max (1979), Waterworld (1995), Avatar (2009), and many others, we have, as entertainment consumers, embraced the theme of our imminent suicide by stupidity.
The conventions are familiar. Avatar, for example, offers a heavy-handed message about the immorality of exploiting a planet occupied by peaceful natives living in concert with the natural world, while still resorting to war-machine porn and a predictably climactic face-off between hero-savior “gone native” (think Dancing with Wolves) and antagonist-aggressor, represented as a raving military commander wearing a skin-tight t-shirt swollen with biceps and deltoids – and who, of course (spoiler alert – really?), loses to the hero-savior in a climactic mano-e-mano face-off. Hype for this film centered not on its thin, if wholly legitimate, allegory, but rather on its innovations in movie animation. One curious variation on dystopian themes is the film Independence Day (1996), which depicts the invasion of planet Earth by a scavenging species of aliens who hollow out the planets they invade and then move on to the next. “They’re like locusts,” says President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman). “They’re moving from planet to planet … their whole civilization. After they’ve consumed every natural resource they move on … and we’re next.” While the film has been criticized for its jingoism and nationalism, often overlooked is the ironic allegory of these locust-like invaders behaving exactly as “civilized” mankind has in the colonization and exploitation of vulnerable countries and wilderness regions.
Unlike other species, humanity returns nothing to the ecological system. Human waste has no benefit. Just the opposite. It is toxic. It degrades those systems. Yet our survival depends on consumption of natural resources – consider our glib use of that phrase to describe wood, fish, minerals, water, and other elements of nature – while the economic and political model we have embraced – predominantly capitalism in its variant forms around the globe – reinforces that consumption for its own perpetuation. A whale carcass on the ocean floor or a fallen tree in the forest becomes a source of life to other species, from microbes to large animals, providing nutrients and shelter, recycling carbon and oxygen, replenishing the atmospheres that surround them. Yet the sights and smells and even existence of such marvels are so much detritus to be removed to make way for shopping plazas and oil rigs and subdivisions.
Some self-identifying Christians, like lately-canned EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, predictably, tiresomely, call on Genesis to justify such destructive indifference: “Let us make mankind in our image,” God declares, “in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 1-26, NIV). But “rule,” or “dominion” in the King James version, does not mean destroy. In either translation, this passage is better understood as a literary trace, an inscription by an author (for generations thought to be Moses), or multiple authors, reflecting, and now justifying, man’s ways to himself, reifying and codifying what the authors already understood to be man’s role, and his power. But the Genesis authors understood, too, that the garden also needed protection from man. And so they evicted their fictional progenitors. In the story, God asks Adam, “Who told you you were naked?” To know such a thing would reveal self-awareness, self-knowledge, which neither pre-lapsarian man nor the garden had (as wilderness also does not), but which in turn sparks the fire of hubris, threatening the balance of the garden and setting in motion the destruction of the planet through war and exploitation and consumption. (The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts a similar morality tale of wanton destruction of the creation.) Adam slipped the dictum to rule, to have dominion, issued while he was still in good standing at the garden party, and, notably, not after he was caught realizing he was naked, into his fig leaf and smuggled it out, thus kicking off the Age of the Anthropocene, at least fictionally, the moment he crossed the border: mankind’s direct interference with the planet’s rhythms and complex workings, and the wholesale slaughter of many of its species. Errant man loose in the world with a phony passport and visa. The biblical fiction – and importantly, the act of writing it – dramatizes both man’s destructive power and his awareness of his own capacity for global vandalism. Man against nature. The Genesis authors reflected and predicted mankind’s fate: to be at war with nature, and coincidently himself, and to live in such a state of hubris that he would ultimately bring himself to the brink of extinction and much of the garden with him. Even if the first clear signs of that reality wouldn’t become fully apparent for another thirty-five hundred years, there was already plenty of evidence from which to extrapolate.
Four billion years … that’s all we’ve got?
Each year, when I teach a research unit on the climate crisis in my courses, I begin by hand drawing this chart on the whiteboard, which students are invited to interpret. All numbers – so especially confusing to students in an English course:
Most try to find some mathematical pattern, but none has ever guessed. So then I begin filling in the blank spaces:
The chart projects the years these mostly 18- to 20-year-olds will reach progressive ages in their lives, if they live, as the century progresses, and how old their first child will be, assuming she’s born when the student is twenty-five, and then the year her first child is born. The point is not only to suggest the obvious – that they and their descendants will be in the prime of their lives as various climate scenarios, like rising temperatures, declining air quality, and disappearing species unfold – but to make it visceral. Students are asked to think about their own living parents and grandparents who have already reached the ages projected on the chart. And to think, too, about the changes they have seen in their lifetimes, and how through them each student has a direct connection to the past, and now to the future through their children and grandchildren. I have lately included, also, a column for my first grandchild, now two years old, who will reach my age in 2082, and then my 88-year-old mother’s age in the year 2104.
Solastalgia, then, may also carry this future context: homesickness for what might have been if we had changed course, become collectively sane, agreed that science is science and truth is truth, that some things can be tested and verified and understood; that there are limits to how much the Earth can provide, which we have vastly exceeded; and that we don’t have to be scientists (as I am not) to understand this. We cannot know that such is the future, but the momentum of history and culture is powerful and seems to have only one direction. Historian J.R. McNeill noted in a pioneering study almost two decades ago that “human history since the dawn of agriculture is replete with unsustainable societies, some of which vanished but many of which changed their ways and survived. They changed not to sustainability but to some new and different kind of unsustainability” (my italics). As Roy Scranton writes in his new essay collection, “[E]verywhere we look today, from Twitter to the White House to Raqqa to the melting Arctic, human reason stands defeated.” There is little to suggest on a domestic or global level that the trajectory of history will change radically enough to avert the collapse of ecological systems. Mankind has left almost nothing untouched. Black Friday and the newest smart phone apps matter more than the release of deadly methane gases in the Arctic as permafrost thaws or the survival of a few Panamanian golden frogs, whose species has been nearly wiped out, still kept alive in a remote jungle warehouse.
As a freshman in college, I shuddered when a history professor pointed out that the Earth had about 4 billion years before it collapsed into the sun, give or take a hundred million or three. My 18-year-old sense of immortality had been fractured. But until that happens, and discounting the possibility of a giant meteor smashing into Earth, the planet’s survival is not at stake, while the survival of the many extant life forms that inhabit it is. The human species, with its great resourcefulness for self-preservation, is likely to survive for many generations to come, though the conditions for life, if our present course doesn’t change, will be grim for successive generations, including even those who believe their wealth will shelter them. Earth may still have billions of years before its expiration date, but as astrophysics professor Adam Frank notes, “This recognition – that in the long term the Earth will abide without us – does not absolve us from the need for urgent action. It is not an excuse for climate denial or ecological hooliganism. It also does not mean we are free to just impose suffering on Earth’s other creatures. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of the true scale of our planetary responsibilities.”
Regarding nature as separate, as out there, as only encompassing, often selectively, plants and animals, mountains and shorelines and beautiful landscapes, as we see them in national forests and wildlife refuges (a suggestive term itself), which are human constructs, is at best to fail to recognize and at worst to deny the existence of nature. In other words, it is to deny the immanence of nature in mankind. It is ultimately a form of self-denial. Ecocritic Paul Shephard suggests further that “[a] kind of madness arises from the prevailing nature-conquering, nature-hating and self- and world-denial.” For all the efforts we make to determine our own individual identities, the only one that truly reflects who we are is one that asks how we participate in and contribute to the cycles and rhythms of nature. We are the only species that adds nothing to ecological systems, or for sure, nothing that serves the life needs of any other species. For whatever kind of life the future may hold for my own children and grandchildren, and theirs, as the centuries unfold and the boxes on the chart above are ticked off, I’ve decided that what matters most is that they inherit a sense of what Frank calls “our planetary responsibility.” Solastalgia may also trigger the impulse not to accept the fate of our current path, but rather to fight to protect and preserve planet Earth, not because we’re likely to win, but for the sake of our own integrity. We gain from what we give. Ultimately, we have what we put back.
 Glenn Albrecht et al, “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change,” Australasian Psychiatry: Bulletin of Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (15 Suppl 1 ): S95-8, February 2007. Web: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5820433_Solastalgia_The_Distress_Caused_by_Environmental_Change
 Christopher Ketcham, “This Land Was Your Land,” New York Times, July 13, 2019. Web: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/13/opinion/sunday/conservation-mining-west.html
 See especially David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
 David Corn, “It’s the End of the World as They Know It,” Mother Jones, July 8 2019. Web: https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2019/07/weight-of-the-world-climate-change-scientist-grief/
 Barry Lopez, “Emancipation,”2009 Wildlife Australia (Hobart, Tasmania: The Wilderness Society, 2008): calendar essay.
 William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in Ecocritism: The Essential Reader, ed., Ken Hiltner (London & New York: Routledge, 2015), 102ff.
 J.R. McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York, Norton, 2000), 358.
 Roy Scranton, We’re Doomed. Now What? (New York: Soho, 2018), 312.
 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014), 4-22.
 Paul Shepard, “Ecology and Man: A Viewpoint,” in Ecocriticism, 68.
Robert F. Sommer is the author of Losing Francis: Essays on the Wars at Home (Fomite 2018), as well as two novels, A Great Fullness (Fomite 2016) and Where the Wind Blew (Wessex 2008). His essays and stories have appeared in many literary and scholarly journals. Sommer teaches part-time at a local university and works for the Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter in support of its mission to explore, enjoy, and protect the planet. He holds a doctorate in American Literature from Duke University and has also authored Teaching Writing to Adults and co-authored The Heath Literature for Composition. His blog is Uncommon Hours. He and his wife Heather make their home in Olathe, Kansas.