“I feel homeless,” said Susan.
“Why?” queried Andrew.
“I mean, look around,” Susan continued. “This summer blistering heatwaves have killed hundreds of people here in the US and Canada, with record-breaking triple digit temperatures in Seattle and Vancouver. And locally the weather is weird, with violent storms and stronger winds. While drought seems as widespread as the pandemic, there are devastating floods in England and Germany and China. Wildfires are out of control in California and Oregon as well as in Siberia, Turkey, and Greece, to name only a few of the places literally burning like hell. And the smoke from the American west coast fires has spread all across the country, with air pollution alerts here in Michigan. My home place just doesn’t look or smell or feel like home anymore.”
I can relate,” said Jacob. “My sense of homelessness comes from the mess we are in. The natural world seems so big and sturdy, but really it is made up of these incredibly intricate parts that are fragile and susceptible to harm. And my home place — with its trees and streams and forests — is changing so much it no longer feels like home. Let’s face it: we are living in a broken world, and this brokenness is undeniable even though we oftentimes fail to recognize it until we are nearly buried by it.”
“We have forgotten how to be gentle,” Jane chimed in. “Our sense of awe and respect has been lost, and we have neglected to consider the future we are in the midst of creating. We are plundering Mother Earth, expecting her to forgive and forget. That, however, is impossible. She is not immune to the wounds we cause. Nor is she easily cured by the remedies we concoct when those wounds become too large to ignore.”
The discussion was animated. (The names in this conversation have been changed.) These college students were both hopeful and despairing in their discussion of the world in which we live — the world they are inheriting from their parents and grandparents.
“But most environmental problems don’t really affect us,” averred Kevin. “Sure the earth is wounded some, as you put it, but the earth is resilient and, besides, we have better technologies each day that will fix most of our problems.”
“But you fail to realize,” continued Susan, “that our well-being is inextricably linked to the health of our planet. We degrade the earth and simultaneously harm ourselves. We all sink or swim together. If we don’t begin to make some changes in the way we live, we humans will surely perish.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” interjected Jon. “We won’t perish. Sure, we have some problems, but they’re not that bad. People have made such half-baked claims before about the end of the world, and look where we are now. Lots of advances in medicine, faster computers, smarter cell phones. I call it progress.”
“I have to disagree, Jon,” responded Samantha. “Evidence of our brokenness surrounds us. Watch the news. Talk with others. Or just pay attention to what you see around you. Land disputes, civil wars, species extinction, water scarcity, snowballing famine, havoc-wreaking violence, ingrained racial injustice. The list goes on. Do you feel the heartache?” Silence. Many minds thinking, no lips moving.
“Yes, I do. I get it,” Andrew added after a pregnant pause. “I, too, feel homeless on this our home planet.” The silence was palpable. Many nodding heads seemed to indicate significant agreement with this claim.
Clearly for these young people there is a feeling that the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Many people today, not just the twenty-somethings, feel in their bones that something is wrong. We are feeling homeless on our home planet. We feel like our home is no longer fit for human habitation.
Indeed, one philosopher has coined a term to describe this feeling of homelessness: solastalgia. The fancy definition is “the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home.” (For an introduction, see Clive Thompson, “Global Mourning,” in the January 2008 edition of Wired; for a more in-depth dive, see Glenn Albrecht’s 2019 book, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.)
In short, solastalgia is homesickness you have at home. This is not to be confused with nostalgia — that feeling of homesickness you have when away from home. In the case of solastalgia, you feel homesick at home because your home has changed so much that it no longer feels or smells or looks or tastes or sounds like home.
What Albrecht labels solastalgia, Brian Walsh and I (in our book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement) call ecological homelessness. Not feeling at home in our oikos — the Greek word that means home and from which we derive the prefix “eco” that is found in the words ecology (the study of the home) and economics (the law of the home).
Homelessness, unfortunately, has many dimensions. There is more than one kind. And while “street-people homelessness” is, perhaps, the most obvious and well-studied kind of homelessness, ecological homelessness is also widespread, even if less well-known. Henry David Thoreau put it well: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
Addressing the pressing issue of socio-economic homelessness, important as it is, makes little sense if the equally pervasive and pressing issue of ecological homelessness is not also addressed. Providing homes for the homeless has little point if our home planet is in peril.