Joan Sullivan, photographer, Quebec, Canada, morning, mist, lake, birds


Solastalgia is a portmanteau of the words “solace” and “nostalgia” coined by the Australian transdisciplinary environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It describes a form of emotional, psychic, and/or existential distress caused by the lived experience of unwanted transformation or degradation of one’s home environment or territory.

That must be what’s been ailing me. After spending more than a decade focusing my cameras on positive solutions to the climate crisis, I seem to have lost the wind in my sails. I am, as Susan Hoffman Fishman described in her recent post, in mourning.

Yesterday, I broke down in uncontrollable tears when I found three dead barn swallow fledglings – which I had photographed so discretely just one day earlier – on the floor of our barn. Barn swallows have suffered massive (90%) population declines over the last 40 years here in Canada: hundreds of thousands of these amazing acrobatic aerial insectivores disappear each year, due in large part to changes in agricultural practices such as replacing pasture land with intensive mono-culture crops like soy, maize, and canola. These and other mono-culture crops rely heavily on chemical herbicides and pesticides that severely reduce insect habitat and biodiversity in agricultural regions – the main diet of barn swallows.

Oh, how I rejoiced earlier in the summer when two breeding pairs of barn swallows decided to build their mud nests in the hand-hewn rafters of our nearly 100-year-old wooden barn! Such beautiful creatures! I patted myself on the back for having spent the past 10 years creating a pesticide-free oasis to attract a variety of beneficial insects and birds to our small organic farm. But that was not enough to save these fledglings. Our little farm, unfortunately, is surrounded by large industrial dairy farms with hectare upon hectare of impossibly tidy (i.e., weed-free) fields of mono-culture soy, maize, and canola, swimming in Roundup. My heart is broken.

Note to self: another reason to reduce even further my dairy consumption.

From what I understand, people living in agricultural and other rural regions are more likely to experience solastalgia than those living in urban environments. But city dwellers are not immune; solastalgia can be triggered by a variety of unwanted urban stress factors, including the chronic noise and air pollution from nearby highways and airports, or when raging wildfires or floods destroy homes and communities.

For me, living far from any big city, solastalgia is due to several inter-related climate change impacts threatening my rural region: a prolonged multi-year drought, the lack of winter ice on the Saint Lawrence River, and the dramatic decline in native bee populations, all of which have caused me so much angst over the last few years. But this week, the sudden death of three tiny barn swallows threw me off the cliff. It’s hard to explain.

Since the beginning of 2020 – pre-COVID – I have experienced a grief so intense that it has completely changed my photographic practice. Will I ever climb a wind turbine again? Will I ever snap out of this melancholy? I’m overwhelmed by a profound sense of powerlessness despite the numerous climate-friendly changes I have adopted over the past decade. Where did my optimism go? I used to be so sure that we, the collective we, would find a way out of this mess we have created…

Just two years ago, I wrote in the text of my Venice photo exhibit: “I cling to the belief, with all my heart [that sapiens are wise]. Perhaps not as wise as we thought we were, but just wise enough to avoid irreversible climate change for generations, possibly millennia, to come.” Today, I’m no longer sure that I can stand by my own words.

And yet…

Somewhere deep inside, I’m convinced there’s still a tiny ember glowing, stubbornly refusing to be snuffed out. I choose to believe that this ember is vivant, waiting for the right moment to burst again into flames of passion and activism. This mental image reminds me to be gentle with myself, to take one day at a time. It motivates me to commit to small daily positive acts, like tending my wild flower garden for the non-human world.

Next month, I hope to write about something positive, something visionary, with a little more renewable energy thrown in: the Solarpunk movement.

For now, I’ll end here with a lovely and uplifting TED-Ed animated poem written by Tom Rivett-Carnac and narrated by the inimitable Jane Goodall.

Click here to download a free children’s book version of this poem.

(All photos by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a long-term, self-assigned photo project about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

6 thoughts on “Solastalgia

  1. solarpunk is a key orientation for going forward. readers value the encouraging, and challenging notes you’ve shared. thank you for the points of international progress you report on, and for your care for creatures great and small…action can return; wishing the best.

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