When Words Fail: Does a Warming World Need a New Vocabulary?

We often don’t have the words to express our strong emotions about environmental destruction or a changing climate. Meet the man who’s trying to fix that.

Photo by Everste / iStock.

We are at a loss for words, says Glenn Albrecht. There is nothing in English adequate to describe how overpowering it is to face climate change, or how we might feel about drought across Somalia or Texas, the leveling of mountains for coal mining, or our uncertainty about how flooded or stormy the future may be.

So Albrecht is inventing new words. 

Albrecht is an Australian philosopher who has gained some fame for coining the word solastalgia, a term that describes the angst you might feel when the environment around you starts to change, whether because of coal-mining or drought or flooding. It’s an evocative word that has brought Albrecht renown, made the New York Times Magazine, and become the subject of art, music, and street theater in places as far-flung as Slovenia, New Jersey, and Portland, Ore. 

Naming is powerful. It gives shape, substance, and legitimacy to the things we experience.

Albrecht says our inability to name our emotions helps feed our political inertia on climate change. He is now compiling an entire lexicon to describe our grief, hope, joy, and anxiety about the way the environment is changing around us. The words he creates are based on his research on how we feel about the places we live. His work maps out the rocky emotional landscape we will have to navigate as the planet heats up, suggesting ways we can overcome paralytic fear about climate change and find sources of joy and hope. 

Naming the Problem

Glenn Albrecht’s search for words began about 10 years ago. His research had brought him to the Hunter Valley, a lush, hilly region of Australia full of wineries and horse pastures—and home to one of the world’s largest coal exporting operations. 

Albrecht discovered that Hunter residents were overwhelmed by the impacts of the coal industry: Open-pit mining was desolating the landscape, and there were ominous signs that dust and polluted air were making people sick. “Individuals would ring me at work pleading for help with their cause. Their distress about the threats to their identity and well-being, even over the phone, was palpable,” Albrecht writes in the journal Philosophy, Activism, Nature. 

When you name a shared feeling, it lets people know that they’re not alone.

You could call it anxiety, but Albrecht felt the problems of Hunter Valley locals were more than medical. He believed their distress was part of a widespread human experience that many more people would have as the places we live increasingly suffer from pollution and more extreme weather. He searched the writings of well-known eco-philosophers, such as Aldo Leopold, but felt there was no adequate term in English for the feelings of isolation and powerlessness that Hunter Valley residents described. He needed a new word. “With my wife, Jill, I sat at the dining table at home and explored numerous possibilities,” writes Albrecht. “One word, ‘nostalgia,’ came to our attention as it was once a concept linked ... to homesickness.” Hunter Valley residents were homesick, but they hadn’t gone anywhere—the place they lived in just didn’t feel like home anymore. Albrecht crafted the word solastalgia using the suffix -algia, meaning “pain,” and the same Latin roots as the words “solace,” “console,” and “desolation.”

Albrecht and a team of researchers gathered interviews with Hunter Valley residents and with Australians in a region suffering from drought. The interviewees described similar feelings: isolation, powerlessness, emotional shutdown, and avoidance. “I interviewed an indigenous person whose response was to drive hundreds of unnecessary kilometers in order to avoid looking at the desolated landscape,” Albrecht says. Other people Albrecht interviewed stopped venturing outside: “Their immediate house and garden would be the last oasis in a sea of drought.” 

Naming is powerful. It gives shape, substance, and legitimacy to the things we experience. Albrecht tried out the word solastalgia on his interview subjects. “They expressed relief that I’d finally given expression ... to a feeling they had but couldn’t articulate,” Albrecht says. “The diagnosis is sometimes really important for people if they can see that their experiences of distress and despair are actually part of a wider, perfectly understandable response that people have to environmental degradation. Then they no longer see their plight as just simply being their own personal private problem, their own personal private anguish.”

When you name a shared feeling, it lets people know that they’re not alone. And in a place like the Hunter Valley, a simple word can help people overcome the powerlessness they feel about the vast problem in front of them.

What’s in a Word

Finding strength will be important as climate change worsens and more people begin to experience extreme changes in their environments. Environmental devastation is hard on our emotions: An Australian study shows that people living in drought-stricken areas are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. Pediatrician Jennifer Watts, from Joplin, Mo., writes powerfully about how long distress lingered after this summer’s mega-tornado: “It is not all the wounds from flying debris that I will remember. The emotional toll is what wears you down, seeps into your heart, and sticks with you.” 

The experience of solastalgia is separate from beliefs about climate change. People can suffer from the emotional effects of climate extremes, whether or not they recognize climate change as a root cause. And Americans are already noticing weird weather: A recent Harris poll says fewer than half of Americans think global warming is happening, but three-quarters believe there have been more devastating natural disasters recently than in the past.

As more of us feel the direct effects of climate change, Albrecht believes people may ultimately experience “emotional tipping points.” “People will persevere,” he says “They'll be resilient up to a point, and then something happens that just pushes them over the edge where they are no longer able to cope with the extent of change that's going on around them.”

But Albrecht has also named a coping mechanism: soliphilia, pronounced sol-ee-fee-lee-a. Of course, philia means love, and this is Albrecht’s name for “the solidarity needed between people to actually restore and repair damaged environments.” 

It seems that taking responsibility for environmental problems might actually make people more able to cope with them.

In Albrecht’s studies, solastalgia is partly the result of feeling powerless to stop environmental damage. “So when people respond with a form of activism,” he says, “whether it's joining a social protest movement or planting trees, that negates the solastalgia.” This idea lines up with research by psychologists such as Stephen Post, who have found that volunteering, giving, and getting involved in community lowers stress levels. It seems that taking responsibility for environmental problems might actually make people more able to cope with them.

Curing Climate Anxiety?

Then there are the 39 percent of Americans who say they are either alarmed or concerned about climate change, according to studies by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. I ask Albrecht if the fears of the climate-anxious could also be called solastalgia. 

No, Albrecht offers another word for this—eco-anxiety. But it’s not medical anxiety, he insists. Albrecht’s diagnoses are, he says, existential. 

“Is that because these conditions are not something that can be cured?” I ask, thinking maybe we’re not supposed to be comfortable with the unraveling of the planet’s life-support systems. 

“Well, it can be cured,” he reassures me, “but not in a biomedical sense.” He tells me the cure is the same as for solastalgia, “working with other people to stop further degradation of the environment through whatever the cause is.”

Two years ago, Albrecht returned to Western Australia after 27 years of living in New South Wales and was shocked to see how deeply drought had damaged local forests. “We've had a period of reduced rainfall now ... I'm talking about thousands of trees just dying through lack of water; whole sections of forests are beginning to just turn brown.” Western Australia is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions—now it’s being hit hard by climate extremes. 

He says activist movements give him hope. “There are people busily building transition town movements, self-sufficiency, generating their own power, capturing their own water, growing their own food, doing a whole lot of things to reduce their ecological footprint, engaging in self-organized repair of their own local environments.” 

A Whole New Vocabulary

Meanwhile, Albrecht has been crafting an entire vocabulary to describe our psychological relationship with the planet—a psychoterratic typology, he calls it. Eutierria, for instance, is a feeling of elation or oneness with the Earth, something you might experience on a hike or in the garden or when dipping into an ocean breaker. Ecoparalysis is the inability, due to fear or hopelessness, to respond to environmental problems.

I can’t say whether such words will gain household familiarity (although equally complex words, like schadenfreude or weltschmerz, sometimes make it into common parlance). But Albrecht’s work opens a dialogue, especially within the arts and mental health communities, about how emotions and the subconscious are related to experiences of climate change and environmental degradation.

And talking openly about emotions may make it possible for more people to take steps to address climate change. Albrecht notes that the word “emotion” stems from the Latin movere, to move.

He also offers me a Hopi word—Koyaanisqatsi. It means “crazy life,” “life disintegrating,” and “ a state of life that calls for another way of living.” 

“We have to change the conditions of life,” he says, “create another way of living—one that is sustainable.”