Solastalgia Strikes Students

By Rainy Adkins

Sprawled on beds and crammed into tight study cubicles in the Mathias dormitory, Colorado College students who love the outdoors recently untangled the stress and hopelessness they say they feel about climate change. 

“Something much bigger than myself is being lost,” said Adaline Kerr, a first-year student, glancing out the window down at the grassy quad. Kerr and Katie Radcliffe, another first-year student, vocalize feelings of guilt, stress, and hopelessness as they’ve learned about the imminent collapse of Earth’s ecosystems. 

Both Radcliffe and Kerr strive to minimize their carbon footprint. They’ve changed their diets becoming vegetarian or vegan. Kerr only buys clothes second hand and attends climate strikes. 

Yet they still feel guilty about their impacts. Their mental states fit what some professionals are calling solastalgia, or eco-grief, which comes from a deep sense of loss as climate change alters and destroys environments.

Kerr’s eco-despair has largely been shaped by experiences she had in South America. She attended the Island School summer program in Eleuthera, Bahamas where she scuba dived off the coast exploring the coral reefs and learned the science behind coral bleaching. On a trip to the South Eleuthera dump, just one mile from the ocean, Kerr recounted a golf cart graveyard strewn with trash and burned-out cars. She described seeing the waste from her summer program then specifically her own trash–a unique tampon wrapper–that shocked her into silence. “I had sunglasses on, and I was crying behind them,” Kerr said. 

Kerr also rode in a motorized canoe down the Napo River into Yasuni National Park during an excursion in western Ecuador. She witnessed huge flat barges along the river loaded down with oil and gas storage tanks, and petroleum industry trucks being hauled from extraction sites on the banks of the river. Kerr described how this experience proved to her how the oil industry is willing to risk the Amazon forest, the health of rivers, and peoples, to supply oil to consumers. 

“It gets to me a lot,” Kerr said as she swallowed tears welling in her eyes. 

She said she avoids thinking about all the negatives and instead focuses on what she can do to help the climate situation. Kerr divulged her plans to graduate from CC and become an agro-ecologist dedicated to restoring lands wrecked by deforestation or mono-crop agriculture. Currently, she hopes to separate herself from the problem by avoiding consumption. 

Radcliffe, a mountain-biking outdoorswoman, said she feels eco-grief too. Recently when her computer bit the dust, then her phone failed, she saw no other option but replacing them. She knows about metal mining from an environmental science course in high school, and explained the guilt she felt from supporting an industry that tears up the earth. She waved her Hydroflask in the air, a metal insulated water bottle, and instead of pride for reducing plastic waste from water bottles, she expressed a pang of guilt for again, supporting mining. “I think it [eco-grief] comes from education on our environment,” Radcliffe said. 

Radcliffe recognizes and aligns with some aspects of solastalgia, but she voiced concern about eco-grief being a way to compartmentalize climate change and avoid action. “It is an easy way to not take action, by saying the planet is doomed,” Radcliffe said. 

Both CC students acknowledge the emotional impact that climate change has on them. Neither Kerr nor Radcliffe want their eco-grief to paralyze their action or activism. Kerr suggested a way to avoid being paralyzed with hopelessness: She explained how eco-grief, an emotional response, and environmentalism, the logical response, are partners that work in conjunction motivating her to do something positive for the world.

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