From above, an open-cut coal mine looks like some geological aberration, a sort of man-made desert, a recent volcanic eruption, or a kind of terra forming. When the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht first gazed at a series of such mines while driving through his home region in southeast Australia, he stopped and got out of his car, overcome “at the desolation of this once beautiful place,” he wrote in his book, Earth Emotions.
As a scholar, Albrecht was drawn to pondering language about and human relationships to the natural world. As a person, he also cared deeply for this place, which had been his home since 1982—Australia’s Hunter Region, a sublime area of dairy farms, wineries, and wallabies. The valley here offers a stopover along a flyway that runs from Alaska and Siberia all the way to New Zealand, and Albrecht’s enthusiasm for bird conservation led him to understand how coal mining was threatening the well-being of the valley’s feathered and human residents. From 1981 to 2012, the amount of land occupied by open-cut mines in the Hunter, akin to the mountaintop-removal mining that has devastated Appalachian landscapes, had increased almost twentyfold. The process leaves a permanent and raw scar, devoid of topsoil. Such mines can also discharge toxic metals into water supplies.
Albrecht understood all of this in the abstract, but witnessing it directly was more visceral—“an acute traumatic event of environmental destruction,” he wrote, air “thick with dust” and the smell of coal, a “dull roar” from a mine detonation, a “cloud of orange smoke.”
The coal industry, Albrecht felt, was wrecking his home. His observations marked the beginning of his relentless inquiry into what it means when the places we call home are remade or altered, sometimes violently.
Over a period of decades, Albrecht has devoted himself to searching for language that might describe a type of sadness, shock, and loss that now seems more and more common—grief of displacement, unease with our surroundings, a sense that damage and disaster might lie just down the road. He would feel the same rush of grief and concern in 2009 when he moved to the Perth metropolitan area in Western Australia, where he had grown up. There, thanks partly to the early impacts of climate change, regional rainfall had dropped by about 15 to 20 percent since the 1970s, and the jarrah trees he had loved since he was a child—eucalypts with lustrous wood—were dying en masse.
As he studied his own and others’ emotional responses to such damages, he was on the cusp of something, a sentiment that now might easily define our time: We live in an era of radical change, when it feels like everything is being remade and altered. What do we call this unprecedented moment of home instability? [Continue reading…]