The strength of attachment to what Indigenous Australians call their ‘country’ is difficult for many people from contemporary ‘European’ cultures to fathom. A translation of a song from the Oenpelli region in the Top End of the Northern Territory captures the emotional power of this connection:
Come with me to the point and we’ll look at the country,
We’ll look across at the rocks,
Look, rain is coming!
It falls on my sweetheart
However, Aboriginal Australians are not the only people to have thought about life in terms of home, health and love. The ancient Greeks saw life in terms of a struggle between the forces of unity and dissolution. The Pre-Socratic lover of wisdom, Empedocles wrote about love and strife and he maintained that only when love “is at the centre of the whirl, in it do all things come together so as to be one only.” Plato, in his Dialogues, repeats the theme of the need for balance between love and strife and, in The Symposium, he has Eryximachus maintain that for health to flourish, “… he who is able to separate fair love from foul, or convert one into the other … can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends.”Nineteenth century philosophers such as GWF Hegel and Goethe also saw love as foundational to life but from the twentieth century onwards serious conceptions of love and life have been few and far between. The very idea that one could think of the relationship between person and place as one between lovers seems to have no relevance in a world now obsessed and assessed by value-neutral science and utility cash values. The ‘philias’ of life have been either neutralised or commercialised while philiafiles such as artists and writers struggle to find empathetic audiences for their expression of the environmental crisis as a loss of love.
Rudolph Steiner was a notable exception to the lack of love in the C20. In 1923 he wrote in an essay on bees that “… you’ll begin to understand the life of bees once you’re clear about the fact that the bee lives as if it were in an atmosphere pervaded thoroughly by love … and the bee, if you could express it this way, brings love life from the flowers into the beehive.” He expanded on this idea with a further comment that in order to understand life, “… you need to take a deep look into the entire ecology that nature has to offer.” The connections between ecology and love were thus established at the very beginning of the modern use of the term ‘ecology’.
The concept of an ecological or interconnected life of love and love of life was first clearly articulated by Eric Fromm in the 1960s. Based on the work of Freud, he distinguished between ‘necrophilia’ which involved the love of destruction and death and ‘biophilia’ which he described as the “love of life”. In On Being Human, he defines biophilia as the “love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom”. The evolutionary biologist, E.O. Wilson, writing in the 1980s, defined his own version of biophilia as an innate tendency to focus on life.
Founded on Indigenous, ancient Greek and more recent philia traditions, I would like to reinvigorate the politics of the human-environment relationship with a philia that we have within us. Dig deep enough and we all, no matter where we live, have a store of strong attachments to the home environment. However, under the pervasive influence of both acute and chronic change to built and/or natural physical environments, we suffer distress. I have termed this distress ‘solastalgia’ and it is the feeling of melancholia or sadness experienced when what you love about your home environment is in the process of turning bad. Your lover can no longer welcome you and your love no longer has an object and a focus.
A positive impact of solastalgia is that it enables its victims to focus on that which is being lost. There is a moment where the very thing that was loved and is now fading, suddenly comes into sharper focus. As Joni Mitchell almost said, “don’t it always seem to go …that you really value what you’ve got when it’s almost gone”.
I call the love that humans need to reconnect with their home, at all scales, ‘soliphilia’ [from the French solidaire (interdependent) and the Latin solidus (solid or whole) and the love of one’s fellow citizens and neighbours implied by the Greek (philia)]. Soliphilia has its origins in the interdependent solidarity and the wholeness or unity needed between people to overcome the alienation and disempowerment present in contemporary political decision-making.
Humanity needs a new cultural meme, one that strongly focuses our attention on our collective responsibility for the whole earth and its future. Just as the concepts of biophilia and biodiversity entail a love of interdependent unity-in-diversity in the natural world; ecocultural diversity and soliphilia entail a love of interdependent unity-in-diversity in the cultural world.
Soliphilia is neither left nor right in the realm of politics, it goes far beyond debate about who owns and controls industry and technology. To love the earth we must re-learn to love the polis or the place where decision-making is undertaken and enjoy the organic connections between citizens that form the cooperative enterprise that is our society.