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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, November 21, 2013
Old Brains, New Bottlenecks, and Animals: Solastalgia and Our Relationship with Other Beings by guest blogger Marc Bekoff

A few days ago one of my colleagues, Philip Tedeschi, founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, reminded me of a very interesting and important New York Times essay concerning our relationship with nature in which the concept of “solastalgia” was discussed.

While the concept seems to apply more to our relationship with landscapes, describing the pain we feel when we witness and feel their destruction, I had also written about solastalgia in my book Minding Animals concerning our relationships with nonhuman animals, who surely are an integral part of natural landscapes. People often forget that the integrity of an ecosystem is inextricably woven in with the well-being of the animals who live there, and that when we “redecorate nature,” we can have serious effects on the lives of other animals. When we are removed from the natural world, we often feel alone and alienated because our old brain pulls us back to what is natural and what feels good. This is what E. O. Wilson proposed with his “biophilia hypothesis.”

Basically, our old big brains force us to seek nature’s wisdom even though we are living in — some might say we’re really trapped in — new technological and sociocultural bottlenecks. We become very uncomfortable when we allow ourselves to reflect on how alienated we truly are. It’s important to ask why we feel good when we’re out in nature. Years ago I discovered the following quotation by the renowned author Henry Miller: “If we don’t always start from Nature we certainly come to her in our hour of need.” Perhaps there isn’t only one reason why nature’s wisdom is frequently sought when we feel out of balance, when times are tough. Perhaps we can look to evolution to understand why we do so.

I find I’m never alone and neither do I feel lonely when I’m out in nature. Her wisdom easily captures me, and I feel safe and calm wrapped in her welcoming arms. We converse with one another. Why do we go to nature for guidance? Why do we feel so good, so much at peace, when we see, hear, and smell other animals, when we look at trees and smell the fragrance of flowers, when we watch water in a stream, a lake, or an ocean? We often cannot articulate why, when we are immersed in nature, there are such penetrating calming effects, why we often become breathless, why we sigh, why we place a hand on our heart as we sense and feel nature’s beauty, awe, mystery, and generosity. Perhaps the feelings that are evoked are so very deep and primal that there are no words that are rich enough to convey just what we feel — joy when we know that nature is doing well and deep sorrow and pain when we feel that nature is being destroyed, exploited, and devastated. I ache when I feel nature being wounded. I experience solastalgia, as do so many others.

What about our ancestors? Surely, there must have been more significant consequences for them if they “fooled” with nature. They didn’t have all of the mechanical and intellectual know-how to undo their intrusions into natural processes. And of course, neither do we, because our rampant intrusions are so devastating, and in many cases irreversible. Indeed, early humans were probably so busy just trying to survive that they could not have had the opportunities to wreak the havoc that we have brought to nature. And the price of their injurious intrusions would likely have been much more serious for them than they are for us, because of their intimate interrelations with, and dependency on, nature.

We can easily fool ourselves into thinking things are “all right” when they’re not. Denialism is a great mechanism for allowing us to ignore the effects of what we’ve done and to continue on the heinous path of destruction. Nonetheless, our psyches, like those of our ancestors, suffer when nature is harmed. Human beings worldwide commonly lament how bad they feel when they sense nature and her complex webs being spoiled, and ecopsychologists argue just this point. It would be invaluable if we could tune in to our old big brains and let them guide us, for our brains are very much like those of our ancestors. However, our sociocultural milieus and technology have changed significantly over time, and we face new and challenging bottlenecks. Cycles of nature are still with us and also within us, although we might not be aware of their presence because we can so easily override just about anything “natural.” Much technology and our incessant “busy-ness” cause alienation from nature. This breach in turn leads to our wanton abuse of nature. It’s all too easy to harm environs to which we are not attached or to abuse other beings to whom we are not bonded, to whom we don’t feel close. But of course, if we carefully listen, animals are constantly asking us to treat them better or leave them alone. Our brains can distance us from nature, but they also can lead us back to her before the rubber band snaps. For when it does, we easily continue on the path of destruction that harms ecosystems, their animal residents, and us. There’s an instinctive drive to have close ties with nature, and when these reciprocal interconnections are threatened or ruptured, we seek nature as a remedy. Our old brains still remember the importance of being an integral and cardinal part of innumerable natural processes; they remind us how good these deep interconnections felt.

Perhaps our close ancestral ties with nature offer reasons for hope, reasons for being optimistic about healing a deeply wounded nature. It just does not feel good to cause harm to nature. Perhaps the intense joy we feel when nature is healthy, the joy we feel when we are embedded in nature’s mysterious ways and webs, is but one measure of the deep love we have for her. This love offers us a chance to change our ways, for this love awakens us from a dangerous and pitiful apathy that amounts to the betrayal of our collective responsibility to act proactively and with passion and compassion to save nature for our and future generations. Calling attention to our destructive ways and doing something to right the wrongs can be healing for us and nature. It is but one way for us to return to nature some of the wisdom and solace she provides, to allow her to continue to exist for all to relish.

So let’s all rewild our hearts and build corridors of compassion that connect diverse landscapes and all of the amazing animals who depend on our goodwill. Indifference is deadly and inexcusable. Let’s allow our old brains do their job before it’s too late.

[Originally posted on on May 3, 2010]

Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has worked alongside leading writers and activists including Jane Goodall, Peter Singer, and PETA cofounder Ingrid Newkirk. He is the author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, The Animal Manifesto, and most recently Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.






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