Solastalgia: Homesickness and Climate Change

BC642845-1D42-466F-870C-CC1456A62A08Population health effects from climate change are established scientific facts. Like anti-vaxxers (anti-vaccinators), climate change deniers are not only wrong-headed, they are dangerous to everyone’s health (and to planetary health). Case in point: beware of the pets of anti-vaxxers since many seem to be refusing rabies vaccinations for their cats and dogs/ see “Anti-vaxxers now refuse to vaccinate pets” by Nick Thieme, Slate, August 3, 2017; at the same time, global warming is increasing the spread of rabies among animal hosts such as foxes in Alaska/ see “Ecological niche modeling of rabies in the changing Arctic of Alaska” by Huettman, Magnuson, and Hueffer, Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, March 20, 2017. And as a reminder, rabies in humans is almost 100% fatal (source: CDC).

The Centers for Disease Control has developed an excellent graphic depiction of the impact of climate change on human health, shown here:


Of special note in this graphic is the fact that mental health impacts are shown twice, associated with both severe weather and with environmental degradation.

A recent (November 25, 2017) NYT article illustrates the mental health effects from climate change for people who live in Rigolet, Labrador. As Livia Albeck-Ripka states in the article “Why Lost Ice Means Lost Hope for an Inuit Village” there are increases in depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide related to the disorienting environmental changes and increased isolation for villagers. “An unpredictable environment means disempowerment,” she writes and links this with the stirring up of the intergenerational trauma of colonization for indigenous people. But she also points out that mental health effects from climate change and environmental degradation affect us all. She quotes Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht as stating, “We weren’t around when the asteroid wiped out dinosaurs, but now we have humans in the 21st century who are trying to deal with a change to the world which is unprecedented.” Albrecht coined the term Solastalgia: “a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at home.”

But what can we individually and collectively do about climate change and about the health effects of climate change? Perhaps the most important action is to become better informed and more civically engaged in respect to these topics. The Lancet has a good website: Tracking the Connections Between Public Health and Climate Change which includes a synthesis of scientific evidence in The 2017 Report of The Lancet Countdown. In the US reliable sources of information include the CDC (resources linked above) and the American Public Health Association (APHA). The APHA graphic “How Climate Change Affects Your Health” (included below) is a bit overly-busy and heavy on the gloom and doom (and curiously does not include mental health), yet could spur helpful discussion in certain settings:


Another great resource that is geared towards a young adult audience is the Seattle-based environmental news site Grist, with the vision of working for “a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck.” Their funny and informative (a good combination) “Ask Umbra” eco-advice column is worth following. Take a look at Umbra’s “21-day Apathy Detox” for great ideas on brushing up on civic engagement related to environmental justice and climate change. My two favorites are “Day 5: Read More Than Dead White Men” and Day 20: Art Brings Life to Social Movements.” 

Get involved. Do what you can to beautify and “green” the places where you work, live, and play. Work upstream for social and environmental justice. Bloom where you are planted. Those are some of the thoughts I’ve had this fall as I’ve been involved with this year’s University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book Changing Climate, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It by Paul R. Epstein and Dan Ferber (University of California Press, 2011).

In order to emphasize the what we can do about it, I’ve been part of a team attempting to green the ugly weed-filled concrete planters in the main courtyard at the University of Washington Health Sciences—a courtyard with entrances to the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, the UW Health Sciences Library, as well as the UW Medical Center. The photos at the beginning of this post show the planters in their current (dismal, depressing) state, along with my tiny (art project!) protest sign next to a fake flower “blooming” in a pot. Our team wanted to plant spring bulbs and a healing garden full of water-wise herbs like rosemary and lavender, as well as indigenous healing herbs and native wildflowers. We have had a seemingly endless series of meetings with people from the medical center, the health sciences schools, the building and grounds folks, and the UW Sustainability group. Something that would appear to be easy to do is not. As I understand it, the (ugly concrete/example of Brutalist “raw concrete” architecture) Health Sciences building where this courtyard is located, is crumbling and leaking inside, including in the rare books collection of the library. We have been told that we can’t plant anything until the courtyard infrastructure and water membranes are replaced, which would cost millions of dollars ($7.5 million to quote one reliable estimate).

This is a somewhat trivial problem when compared with other environmental issues affecting our most vulnerable populations, but it is a daily reminder of the negative mental health effects of environmental degradation—including from poor choices for our built environment and health institutions.

New Zealand Postcards/ Go Green: Eat Kangaroo

1248780160462267515Kangaroo_Warning_Sign.svg.medThis week I attended University of Otago’s Public Health Summer School course, “Responding to Climate Change: Sustaining Health and Wellbeing” here in Wellington, New Zealand. It was a bit too much ‘death from PowerPoint’ and backside-numbing sitting, but did have its lighter–and more enlightening moments. Climate change, and environmental degradation in general, are the biggest global public health issues of the 21st Century.

One of the main speakers was Professor Ralph Sims, from the School of Engineering and Technology at Massey University, Wellington. Professor Sims is the lead author of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2011 report “Energy-Smart” Food For People and Climate. He is also an international consultant and contributor for the UN highly influential (and of course, controversial) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) whose Fifth Assessment Report is being made public this year (ironically enough the report is only available in the format of a door-stopping hard copy). When he discovered our group was from Seattle, he provided (well deserved) asides about our considerable (mostly negative) role in climate change.

The IPCC report’s work group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,”  which includes features on the health impacts (both positive and negative–although not surprisingly the negatives outweigh the positives) on population health will be released March 31st. Alistar Woodward, a biostatistician from the University of Auckland, and who is a member of the scientific panel for this work group, also presented at the course/conference. It wasn’t clear from his presentation if this will be in their final report, but he highlighted a statistic that if all of the world’s women who now have restricted access to contraception/family planning services were suddenly provided with that access, it would lower CO2 emissions by 40% by 2100. How about increasing efforts to develop and promote effective male contraceptives?

One of my favorite presenters was (yes, all the scientists/main presenters were men) Dr. Nick Wilson from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago. He specializes in nutrition and he talked about food and agricultural policies in response to the threat of climate change. I really had no idea of the extent of the dependence of the global food sector on fossil fuels. The food sector accounts for 30% of the world’s total energy consumption and produces 20% of greenhouse gases–and 2/3 of that is from primary farms and fisheries. The worst ‘offenders’ in terms of methane production are ruminants: like cattle, sheep, and goats. If you’ve ever driven around New Zealand you will know that there are way more cows and sheep here than there are people. Kangaroos are not ruminants, so Dr. Wilson encouraged people to eat kangaroos instead of cows. (A Kiwi ribbing of Aussies?). Perhaps more feasible as interventions are efforts to promote higher vegetarian-based diets (with well-established health benefits), an emphasis on ‘local and organic’ food, and efforts to decrease food wastage.

New Zealand Postcards: Our Carbon Footprint

eco_green_carbon_print_iconThe irony is not lost on me that I am currently teaching an environmental and community health study abroad program in New Zealand while leaving a large carbon footprint. I am even participating in Doom Tourism by driving the students across the Southern Alps to view the Franz Joseph Glacier before global warming melts it away.

In order to depress (and enlighten) myself further, I calculated our combined carbon footprint for the program using the excellent CarboNZero site’s travel and tourism calculator. There are 18 of us who all had to fly here (and back again) from Seattle. We’ve flown from Auckland to Christchurch, then rented vans to drive all over both islands (crossing on the Cook Straight Ferry). Not surprisingly, transport accounts for the largest share of our carbon footprint. Accommodation comes in second, although by staying in these frugal and Eco-conscious youth hostels, we’ve lessened our impact considerably. Then there’s recreation, what with all the museums and parks we’ve visited–not to mention the random bungy-jumping and extreme sport activities students have done during their ‘off times.’

Using the CarboNZero calculator, our study abroad group is collectively leaving a 90 metric ton ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’ footprint through our trip. This translates into us needing to plant 20 acres of trees to enable us to be carbon neutral on our ‘environmental’ study abroad program.

Yes, I could start planting trees like crazy, but perhaps the better ‘answer’ is to start factoring in the carbon footprint costs in future study abroad programs.

*** Recommended Resources:

  • My Ecological Footprint website has a very detailed and informative personal carbon footprint calculator.
  • For a more simplified (but decidedly British) carbon footprint calculator, check out the WWF site.
  • For travel to New Zealand, Air New Zealand has a nifty Carbon Offset Program.