Climate sadness: Solastalgia on college campuses

By Auguste Voss

As reports on the rapid acceleration of climate change continue to dominate the headlines, young people are grappling with the realization that they’ve inherited a broken planet – and they aren’t happy about it.

Reactions to rising temperatures vary, along with approaches to dealing with the problem. But some young people increasingly feel what philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls “solastalgia” – the mental toll from knowing that the world as we know it is in grave danger due to our environmental impacts.

“Sometimes I wish I had that blissful ignorance,” says Claire Contreras, a student and activist at Middlebury College in Vermont. Contreras finds that eco-grief is an ever-present sentiment on campus and beyond – and different people have different ways of navigating it.

“Fear and knowledge of climate change can be paralyzing,” she said. “It’s such a large issue. It seems so insurmountable. And it can only be solved by huge structural changes.” 

Others share her perspective, and Contreras said a student brought up the importance of discussing and acknowledging this “climate sadness” at a recent environmental club meeting on campus.

Despite her all-too-common struggle with solastalgia, Contreras doesn’t let it stop her from taking action. An active member of Extinction Rebellion, an international movement to combat climate change, Contreras does what she can to challenge larger corporations to change their practices through peaceful protest. 

At the same time, she doesn’t take for granted the impact that individuals can make on the environment. “Many decisions on a daily basis are informed by climate change,” including what she eats, what she purchases, and what she spends her time studying at school, she said

Others are using art to help us tackle the implications of climate change. Brazilian graffiti artist Eder Muniz recently visited Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, where he led a workshop on the power of street art to spark conversation and dialogue around social issues. 

Muniz uses graffiti to alter space, intending to provoke critical thinking in passersby. Much of his work visually blurs the line between human and animal, providing social commentary on humanity’s trend away from connection with the natural world. While on campus, Muniz created an expansive mural portraying two women and several animals entangled in a lush, jungle-like setting, which he hopes will lead students and faculty alike to question the role that the natural world plays in their lives.

Contreras and Muniz provide two examples of this struggle to navigate humanity’s trend toward rising temperatures. Their stories show some of the ways that climate change is causing eco-grief and sadness, but also its ability to spur action – whether it be direct protest or more resistance through art.

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