In the face of climate catastrophe, seek the welfare of your place. (Listen.)
Ten years ago, the scientist Glenn Albrecht coined a new word. He was studying the impact of open-cut coal mining on the people of the Upper Hunter region of NSW. The mines were creating new and horrific scars in the landscape; the power station was polluting water, air and soil; there was persistent drought. As the earth groaned, Albrecht realised that the people who lived there were experiencing a form of chronic distress for which English has no word; he came up with the term ‘solastalgia.’
Solastalgia. It combines the longing of nostalgia, which is the longing for home, with the need for solace in the face of desolation. It’s a form of homesickness, but it’s experienced by people who have never left home. Instead, they are seeing their home changing for the worse around them.
Solastalgia is a new word, but it’s certainly not a new experience. It’s known by every Aboriginal person on this continent, whose land has been stolen, compacted, cleared, and irrevocably damaged before their eyes; and it’s known by every Torres Strait Islander fighting for the future of their now frequently flooding home.
It’s known by people whose landscape is being destroyed by industry or mining or fracking or leaking oil pipelines; or by endless suburban sprawl. It’s known by those who grieve formerly soft grey eucalyptus hillsides, now scarred by clearcuts or dark green imported pine. Solastalgia is the desolation we feel at the vast monocrops of agribusiness, where trees have been entirely eradicated and once fertile soil is now little more than chemically boosted dust. It’s the sense of loss we feel at the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
Solastalgia. It’s the feeling of desolation when our home deteriorates around us, and it’s only going to become more common. Because, as the climate changes and we experience less stable weather patterns and more extreme weather events, solastalgia will begin to affect everyone. Just ask the people of Mallacoota or Lismore or anywhere else which has experienced climate catastrophe from which there is no return. And ask those who grow things. Seasons are pushing too early, too late, sowing times are shifting and even the crops themselves may need to be changed as the weather warms up and the rains don’t come—or come too hard and too often.
But why am I talking about solastalgia?
First, because I keep having conversations with people who feel it. They are alert to climate change, they can see what’s happening, and they long for global and local healing. Yet they also see new gas fields being approved, unabated mining, and fossil fuels being burned at horrifying rates. As the world changes around them, they are becoming filled with hopelessness and dread.
Second, because it’s linked to tonight’s reading. Jeremiah 29 is a letter addressed to a people living in exile under Babylon: and solastalgia is a form of exile. It’s exile from the land, even if the land is still right there beneath one’s feet; and it’s exile which is caused by industrial activity and climate change. As such, solastalgia is a result of the economics of empire, in which all people and all things have been reduced to productive units.
This is the economy where workers never have a day off and the shops never shut; it’s the economy which never sleeps. It’s the economy of endless extraction and agricultural practices imported from half a world away. It’s the economy of globalisation. This economy fells forests and digs mines and expands animal husbandry way beyond any sustainable limits. It’s the economy of Babylon, which steals people, land and resources and uses them to generate more wealth for a rich elite; and it’s our economy, too. And so, I suggest, the letter in Jeremiah 29 has something to say to us.
The first recipients no doubt felt desolate. They were longing for a home that they would never see again; they had little hope for the future. But in this letter from Jeremiah, God encourages them, and God tells them to do two things.
First, they are to get on with life, and I quote: ‘Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.’ (Jer. 29:5-6) In other words, make a home, create a life, eat from a backyard veggie patch: and don’t be afraid to have kids. However grim things might feel, take delight in homemaking and children: because this is your home now, and you’re going to be here for a long, long time, the rest of your life in fact.
To a people living with solastalgia, that is, living in the exile generated by industrial activity and climate change, this is provocative. I know people who feel so bleak about the future, they have decided not to have children; I know people who are too despondent to recycle or make a little veggie patch or do even the smallest thing towards sustainability because it’s all too little too late and what’s the point, anyway? But this text suggests to me that, whatever happens, we should still engage in the good and simple life of home and garden, family and children, neighbourhood and community.
This brings me to the second task, which is this: ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ (Jer. 29:7).
If we think about the original context, this is a real stomach-turner. God’s people have been invaded, captured, and dragged into exile by those vicious Babylonian dogs. No doubt they have seen their homes and fields destroyed, and people they love assaulted and killed; they themselves may have suffered extreme violence. But the prophet tells them to seek the welfare of the city where they are in exile and to pray on its behalf, because their welfare is bound up in the city’s welfare. Does the prophet, or God, really expect them to seek the benefit of the Babylonians? And if so, what does this mean?
Well, it’s possible to hear this as an instruction to settle down and obey. To make nice and blend in; to assimilate and do all the things the neighbours do. It’s possible to hear this as an order to uncritically participate in the 24/7 economy, building up the city’s wealth and waving the banner of economic growth. If the city gets richer, everyone benefits. At least, that’s the theory: and it’s one way of interpreting this instruction.
But let’s take a step back. The word translated as ‘welfare’ is ‘shalom’; and shalom means seeking right relationship between people, community, land and God. This is where it gets interesting, especially for those of us living with solastalgia.
I suggest that business as usual does not actually lead to right relationship between people, community, land and God. It may generate wealth and welfare for some: but most economic growth flows upwards, even as it costs everyone healthy land and waterways. This was as true for Babylon then as it is for us now; for ancient records show that the economics of empire has always led to the crushing of the poor, and to deforestation, land degradation and species loss.
Business as usual, in fact, might be the teaching of false preachers who equate capitalism with godliness, economic prosperity with blessing, and (at the kookier end) the burning up of the earth with the return of Jesus: but to paraphrase Jeremiah, don’t listen to them, don’t let them deceive you: ‘for it is a lie that they are preaching to you in my name …’ (Jer. 29:8-9).
Indeed, business as usual comes with an enormous price tag: injustice and ecological collapse. In other words, business as usual damages relationship between people and each other, and land, and God; and this damage is what we call sin. It harms the earth which God calls good; it creates solastalgia; and it threatens our very future.
How, then, do we seek the shalom, the peace, the welfare of the home where we live in exile, whether that home is SW Victoria or the whole of Planet Earth?
However we frame it, it seems to me that it must mean mitigating climate change and restoring landscape. So seeking shalom will mean rehabilitating the earth—the very activity that heals solastalgia and generates hope. Whether that means supporting regenerative agriculture or growing backyard veggies or participating in community planting days or lobbying for clean power or locking the gates to fracking companies, rehabilitating the land strikes me as imperative.
Seeking shalom will also mean making personal choices about how we work, travel, shop, play and eat. It might mean political activism and disruption such as we see in the life and ministry of Jesus: maybe guerrilla gardening, or attending climate marches, or lobbying banks which continue to fund fossil fuel projects. There may be times when seeking the long-term welfare of our home might look, in fact, like disobedience and dissent, since our government, our economy, and our typical ways of life are so ecologically destructive. Of course, as we seek shalom, we’d do well to take the lead from those who have always known how to live here, the First Peoples of this continent.
And while the work will not return us to Eden or even to a pre-industrial climate, each little thing will help mitigate climate change. An article in The Guardian this week describes us as being in a race between Armageddon and awesome. The author points out that we have everything we need to turn our world into a series of clean, green economies with enormous benefits to the health and wellbeing of all people, especially the poor; and to the land. We can seek shalom and counter solastalgia by choosing awesome: by restoring and rehabilitating cities and landscapes, and by caring for God’s good earth. And this, I believe, is the path God hopes we will all choose.
Because the people of Israel were told to settle in for the long haul and to engage in the good life; but they were also told to work and pray and struggle for the shalom of their new home: to make and agitate for the changes that would lead to a healthy flourishing home for generations to come. And why?
‘Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jer. 29:11). So let’s not give ourselves over to Armageddon and despair. Instead, let’s continue to work and pray for that hope-filled future, promised by the one who calls life out of death, rivers out of deserts, and veggies out of wastelands; the one who works in even the most desolate of circumstances to redeem death and devastation; the one who continues to beckon us into full and flourishing life. Amen. Ω
Reflect: Where do you experience solastalgia? What helps? How do you seek the shalom of your region, or of Planet Earth?
Congregational responses included persuading management to invest in a fleet of electric vehicles, then training everyone up in their use; installing solar panels at home and at work; being part of a company which is moving towards regenerative agriculture; learning about locally Indigenous foods (bush tucker!) and eating it; attending climate marches and writing letters; and the simple pleasure of growing fruit and vegetables at home – and sharing the abundance. What else helps? Participating in communal worship, because praying, singing, and sharing communion together reminds us that it’s not just an intellectual problem, and we don’t face this alone.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-11 (Year C Proper 23, extended reading) given to Sanctuary on 9 September 2022 © Sanctuary 2022. References: Glenn Albrecht. The age of solastalgia, in The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337; and Damian Carrington. Hope amid climate chaos: ‘We are in a race between Armageddon and awesome,’ in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/04/hope-climate-chaos-renewables-science. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country; full acknowledgement here. This week, the creeks and waterways are alive with pobblebonks; the rivers are high, and fresh water pours into the sea. Despite grey skies, the air has a new warmth, and the season has certainly turned.
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