Solastalgia in the 2020s

a/n: I don’t think the idea is fully fleshed-out yet, but I can always add and revise.

TL;DR

  • According to Sterling, the twenty-teens are defined by Dark Euphoria, a cultural temperament of exhilarating unthinkableness. This is the topic of the preceding post.
  • The tone of Sterling’s speeches in the past couple of years has moved on from anxiety to exhaustion.
  • Solastalgia is the feeling of dislocation without having gone anywhere, as a result of damage (natural or artificial) to your ecosystem.
  • Cultures can learn and adapt, which is why Sterling is a short-term declinist but not a doomsayer, fitting in the “Stagnated Future” category in this old taxonomy I used a few years ago.

I. A Change in Mood

Bruce Sterling’s analysis tends to come from his involvement in scenes and microcultures that he suspects may be the ‘undistributed future’ of a mass cultural sensibility. His early musings on Dark Euphoria in the 2010s were based on his observation of the growing world of the Stacks (large tech companies) on one hand and the hacker aesthetic on the other. Both aesthetics were a response to some idea that more things seem possible (in a distinctly negative way). In 2009 when he presented the concept of the Dark Euphoria of the 2010s, the idea was interesting and imaginative, but partway into the 2010s his observations seem more alive- perhaps he was onto something.

Since 2012, Bruce Sterling has been using the phrase “Old People in Big Cities, Afraid of the Sky” to describe our immediate cultural future. This phrase encapsulates a few of the things we can find highly likely about life in ten years:

  • Old People: Median ages across the ‘West’ is reaching for 50 years old
  • In Big Cities: Digital technology will facilitate even more and faster urbanization
  • Afraid of the Sky: Environmental decline will continue
  • Further, ongoing slow-moving issues will persist: the global refugee crisis is only just beginning. Nativist backlash is predictable, and will get worse

This year, Sterling spoke at the NEXT conference in Berlin, and the Arts & Environment conference in Reno, Nevada, giving his preliminary musings on the 2020s and 2030s. (Both videos are currently available on Youtube.) My immediate reaction to these newer talks was to the emotional contrast. In place of irritation, anxiety, and trepidation at the rush of the upcoming Dark Euphoric decade, Sterling now feels an exhausted, worn down, bearish atmosphere developing. In the past couple of years, the tone of his speeches has changed a bit-  instead of excitement and dread of Dark Euphoria, Sterling speaks in terms of degenerative disease or permanent debilitation- a treatable one, not a fatal one, but definitely not an upbeat angle.

Sterling notes in various speeches that he talks about Climate Change every year, and every year it gets hotter, and it’s not news but it’s important. In his 2017 and 2016 SXSW keynotes, he increasingly refers to Digital not as a movement but as an industry, he observes that his audience is ‘maturing’, expresses disinterest in the same toys he feels he sees every year at the demo booths, notes that social reality has gotten too weird to really shock anyone anymore, and compares Silicon Valley to Detroit. In March 2016, he nonchalantly describes how absolutely plausible a Trump presidency is, looking at Berlusconi in Italy (where he spends a lot of time) as an analogue- dragging everyone into the mud, demanding the country’s attention and failing to exercise any real responsibility. In his 2017 keynote he brushes off Trump, saying he has nothing else to add to the cacophony really.

He is clearly just getting started with expressing the idea about next decade’s cultural sensibility, but as he refines it I expect that the theme he’s working on is something about the end point of Dark Euphoric anxiety- exhaustion and psychic damage.

 

II. Solastalgia

The built and natural environments are now changing so rapidly that our language and conceptual frameworks have to work overtime just to keep up. Under the intertwined impacts of global development, rising population and global warming, with their accompanying changes in climate and ecosystems, there is now a mismatch between our lived experience of the world, and our ability to conceptualize and comprehend it. (Glenn Albrecht, 2012)

Bruce Sterling adopts the eco-philosophy phrase solastalgia to describe the emerging cultural sensibility that he expects to see propagate. He admits it doesn’t quite perfectly fit what he’s grasping for as-defined, so perhaps in future talks he’ll revise and flesh out the concept. Sterling describes solastalgia as “anguish of evident environmental decline.” His characterization veers on post-traumatic stress.

It’s a form of post-disaster shock that hits you when you realize this is not a temporary setback, it’s like a permanent mutilation. You really lost something you’re not going to get back. (Paraphrased  – Sterling, 2017)

“The bison are gone.” They may not all be literally gone yet, but it dawns on you, as the Archdruid argued in his now-defunct blog, that you’ve already just passed the last exit ramp to execute a safe turn back the other way. Your car is stuck on the highway path ahead. The Anthropocene is progressing already- it is no longer preventable, and it won’t be all horror and sadness, but it will make bad things more intense, it will make uncommon events more common- and if your head isn’t in the sand, it is clearly exacerbated by our collective behavior.

Solastolgia, as described by its popularizer Glenn Alrecht, is “the homesickness you have when you’re still at home,” or the feeling of dislocation without having gone anywhere, as a result of damage (natural or artificial) to your ecosystem. As Sterling paints it, solastolgia is the secure knowledge that where you live is not supposed to drown or burn, nobody expects it there, but it very apparently just did, and probably will again. Solastolgia is noticing that the sky is the wrong color over London, an unnatural orange. A new normal.

“A psychic shadow awaits us”- not apocalyptic, but instead “our version of The Troubles”. Slow and recurring, but dangerous in its own way. Resource stress and increased cultural dynamism will interfere in our personal and social affairs. There are 60 million refugees, and their stress echoes out as we realize that they could be us. Sterling suggested that drug epidemics, mass shootings, and other somewhat unique epochal symptoms of psychic stress will be on the uptick.

 

III. Post-Traumatic Response

A diagnosis of solastalgia is based on the recognition of the degree that distress within an individual or a community is connected to the loss of an endemic sense of place. All people who experience solastalgia are negatively affected by their desolation and likely responses can include the generalised distress and feelings of loss and bereavement outlined above but can escalate into more serious health and medical problems such as drug abuse, physical illness and forms of mental illness. So powerful is the connection between a loved place and the experience of negative transformation, that for some people, suicide is seen as the only form of relief from psychoterratic distress (particularly indigenous people). (Albrecht)

The psychic damage will be slow, accumulative, and potentially dangerous.

Per Sterling, we should be careful of buckling under the pressure of our responsibility, of sliding too far from the “too glamorous” 60’s spacerace sci-fi to the older, equally authentic Lovecraftian sensibility, which encourages the urge “to flee from the unbearable light of knowledge into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age.” Sterling doesn’t believe that the Lovecraftian sensibility will catch on, but would find that uniquely unhappy. “At least in cyberpunk, many of the people involved are having a really good time!”

Guilt-tripping behavior around anthropogenic climate change is boring and self-serving in its own way- it denies other people their agency to make the climate about your personal guilt, it’s arrogant. We often collectively did some damage, didn’t change our habits quickly enough, but despite that the world is not actually about us. We made the mistake of shitting where we eat, and we and our favorite ecosystems, (and those of us who individually were not yet given the chance to make sacrifices to Moloch) are all damaged for it.

Sterling notes that the human condition is tragic, but also comic. “All we really need to be happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” Solastalgia is a problem because “We can’t spend all of our time regretting our irrevocable crimes”- it’s not pragmatic even if our crimes are irrevocable. We have injured ourselves, we should tend to ourselves and move forward.

Sterling points to modern Germany as proof that cultures can learn. Berlin is one of the sanest cities in the world. Perhaps the tradeoff of the 2020s is that we may lose a proverbial limb (that we’ll never get back) but maybe we’ll get wisdom and forethought out of it.

Sterling ends his talk by noting that the future sensibility will likely rise from the danger zones. It will rise from “among you” – addressing the environmental scientists and artists in attendance, those who are paying close attention to this serious issue- who will be tasked with measuring and coping these first waves global, civilizational solastalgia, with themselves among the first patients.

Positive outcomes from the negative experience of solastalgia stem firstly from the recognition of the psychoterratic cause of the distress. There is potential empowerment in the clear acknowledgment of that which needs to be confronted. Secondly, a commitment to engage in action to cooperate with and support distressed people and heal distressed environments is itself a profoundly healing act. (Albrecht)

 

 


Appendix

Some other notes from the Berlin and Reno talks.

Bearish on the Digital Industry in 2027

The talk opens with “Everything we’re passionate about will be ‘old fashioned’.” This makes obvious sense- hype cycles and fads. On a decade-long timeframe, economic downturn, political ugliness, and (despite all of that) new ideas and technologies are likely.

Sterling proclaims that Apple’s new headquarters is a mausoleum for Moore’s Law- it is already dead, we just haven’t accepted it yet. Intel heroically labored to fulfill Moore’s Law, but “couldn’t make it pay”. Instead, Silicon Valley has renewed interest in building a laundered servant class (e.g. Uber)- this was an unforced error.

He’s bearish on many of our prized “Official Next Ten Years” tech predictions. Among other things: AR and VR, autonomous cars, the Internet of Things (insecure, with a huge attack surface), and spaceships (“nowhere to go”, he notes caustically. He suspects the International Space Station will be gone by then as well.)  The “personal computer” will be gone altogether.  Silicon Valley itself will follow the logic of industrial development- this California gold rush will end, and San Francisco will become Detroit. Apple is a fashion company for the wealthy. But there’s more to science and culture than the baroque final projects of the Digital Industry, with its surveillance marketing, uber-ization, and precarious employment.

Continued Weirdness in Politics 2027

Many of the major political players of the 20th century may continue to be ‘disturbed or disenchanted’, unable to adapt or take leadership. (2027 is little more than two Presidential cycles from now. We in the US will probably still very much be in the shadow of 2016- depressing because that already feels like a decade ago. Sterling notes caustically that the US is “trying its best to make itself Brazil”). Speaking at a conference in Berlin, Sterling calls the UK “a compass that always points South” and advises using them as a gauge for what the opposite of a good idea is. He notes that China is a threat to Silicon Valley ideology with its ascendant internet model, but has even worse problems than Europe does.

At Berlin, Sterling declares, “Events are kinda going Germany’s way!” Germany is immunized to many UK/US problems because of its cultural understanding re: spying (not 100% clear what this means), and it sports a better regulated economy and humane social policies. Recall that in Reno, he also pointed to Berlin (the capital city of Nazi-dom) as a great lesson in how cultures have learned, as they are now “one of the sanest cities in the G7”.

  • What can Europeans do in 2017 that will look good in 27? Ignore everything Britain ever says. Don’t worry about US State Dept (they’re busy purging themselves, they’ll be too impotent to consistently apply political pressure on you). This is a historical moment for European activism because everyone else is ‘disturbed or disenchanted’. Ideas include:
    • European centralized army [?!]
    • European border controls
    • Decarbonize the  economy to de-fang Russian interference
    • Transnational European parties
    • Democratic and representational European government
    • A Constitution, Human/Civil Rights progress
    • Stop strangling Portugal, Italy, Spain. Spain is cracking from the pressure now.
    • Make nice w/ Japan and Canada, they’re just not crazy like US & UK are right now
    • Europe is a complicated place, but learn to exercise soft power.
    • Do the opposite of whatever Britain wants (“a compass that points South” lol); could do what China says (China model is the ascendant internet model), which destroys the CA ideology. The Stacks can’t get a toehold. BUT the Chinese have worse problems than Europe.
    • The German project is a more European Europe (not in blood-and-soil terms, but in terms of identifying with the transnational union)
    • Tax, fine, regulate, or threaten to outlaw the big Stacks
    • Be kind to the young and the immigrant.
    • Build cities that aren’t just “Smart ™” but are well-organized and worth living in.
    • “Living in truth is hard” h/t Václav Havel [a/n: if there is one thing that I will probably regret not expanding on, it’s Sterling’s reference to Havel in his Berlin talk. I couldn’t make it fit thematically and already upon re-read/edit I’m irritated about it]

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