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From solastalgia to speciestalgia: Essential Australian eco-terms

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The Tasmanian Devil, one of many near-extinct creatures that may give us speciestalgia (Image via Wikipedia)

As our world continues to change and various species disappear, our vocabulary adapts to these changes, writes Dan Bloom.

In 2004, the acclaimed Australian philosophy professor Glenn Albrecht coined a new word, “solastalgia” — a neologism that describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change. I recently asked him via email how he felt about a new term that some have been talking about that's been dubbed “speciestalgia” to stand for the distress we feel over the world's loss of species at an alarming and increasing rate. 

'I am retired now at Wallaby Farm in New South Wales. I call myself a “farmosopher” now, as I combine gardening with thinking. Marc Bekoff suggested that distress for a loss of species within a home environment is also a form of solastalgia, but I think such a loss deserves its own word. So I will start including speciestalgia in my psychoterratic typology from now on. Unfortunately, like solastalgia, it is a word that is much needed.'

By the way, Albrecht, 65, has a new book of eco-essays coming out in 2019 from Cornell University Press titled Earth Emotions.

A recent news article in the Guardian newspaper in London noted that, while human beings are just 0.01% of all living life on Earth, we have been responsible for the disappearance and extinction of over 80% of all non-human species. This got me to thinking that maybe we do need a new word — a new coinage to represent the distress we feel that has been and will continue to be caused by species loss.

So what is speciestalgia?

It's apparently a portmanteau of species and nostalgia. It describes the feeling of distress associated with the worldwide loss of many different kinds of species – large and small – due to environmental change, global warming, climate change and industrial pollution. In the 21st Century, it might become a key word.

The word flies in the face of the negative attitude of “who the heck cares?” that so many Australians and North Americans have today about the fact that so many species are disappearing and going extinct worldwide.

I can imagine scientists who study endangered species and species loss, not to mention the reporters who cover their work and academic papers, using this new term as a kind of wake up call and a call to action worldwide.

Curious, I asked a few people for their opinion on this new term. Professor Albrecht, of course, as you can see, took an immediate liking to it.

Harry Newman, a radical left-wing poet in New York, told me:

I like the idea of the word. In particular, the definition focusing on “distress” that harks back to the sense of pain in the original word “nostalgia”, which was considered an actual affliction, like melancholy, 300 years ago. I like that about “speciestalgia”. Though it differs from the contemporary sense of nostalgia which stresses “longing” and has a sentimental aspect, which might be confusing to some people. I think it’s definitely right that we have to come up with new words for the state of decimation and decline, the unprecedented (in terms of human experience) destabilising and loss we’re in. The full feeling, all the contours of it and therefore how to express it, has not come yet, as we’re at the beginning of the avalanche, seeing only the first layers of snow slipping down the mountain. The full magnitude has yet to come.

Janet Swim, a professor of psychology at Penn State University in America, told me in an email: 

‘It's a nice, specific concept to consider. I was just talking to a friend who said she started to make a list of trees that we no longer have (at least in North America) and those that are threatened. She was certainly feeling “speciestalgia”.’

British philosopher Tim Morton, the Texas-based professor who coined the popular eco-term “hyperobject” to stand for the vastness of which is global warming, told me he liked “speciestalgia” as a term, but that he really just prefers to call it “grief”.

I get his point. Grief — short and succinct.

T.C. Boyle, the California short story writer and novelist who wrote the eco-book A Friend of the Earth some 18 years ago, tweeted his reaction to the speciestalgia coinage:

‘80% of insect species have gone extinct and, as for the endangered northern white rhino, “goodbye”.’ 

And lepidopterist/poet/author Robert Pyle in Colorado said of speciestalgia on Twitter:

‘It's a good thought for Endangered Species Day — it's not just rhinos and elephants, it's also the essential plants and insects in the web of life.’

So there you have it. From Australia to the world: speciestalgia.

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer who edits the Cli-Fi Report. You can follow Dan Bloom @do_you_cli_fi_.

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