Just outside of the Land’s End in San Francisco, the craggy coastline named for its continent’s-end view of the Pacific Ocean, four stones rise from the sea: a cluster of three and a distant but neighboring fourth, known collectively as the “Seal Rocks.” In sepia-toned photos of the rocks from 1868, you can see why: small sea lions swarmed them, perching between dives for sardines and other feasts. Sometime around 1989, the seals migrated to Pier 39, crowding around a popular tourist destination, leaving seabirds to populate the stones.

San Francisco provides ample space for observing changes in nature, with well-preserved natural spaces and parks. The city is also a contradiction, being massively terraformed: the area known as “North Beach,” for example, has no beach, the shoreline was long ago filled in with debris of boats; landmarks like the Transamerica Pyramid would have flooded at high tide. To the west, the residential areas, including Golden Gate park, were sand dunes.

These transformations of the city took place over mere decades, and few of us would stop to notice. It speaks to one of the challenges of understanding climate change: not the scale of it, but the pace of it. When we live in the midst of daily technological transformations, where algorithms surface year-old social media memories that already feel distant and unfamiliar, the imagination struggles with 60 year time spans. When everything seems to be happening all at once, it’s difficult to imagine what will happen tomorrow.


Already, all around us, the familiar is slipping away like sea lions into the Pacific. Scientists at EPFL report that butterflies have stopped coming into cities. These shifts are subtle, but the collective force of these small shifts is transforming our sense of place. While the impact reaches well beyond the local in this globally connected world, the emotional impacts are often small and personal.

In Ecopsychology, this sense is dubbed “solastalgia,” coined by Glenn Albrecht of Murdoch University, and described as “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’” It is  “a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain).” If nostalgia is the pain of leaving home; think of solastalgia as the pain of home leaving you.

The concept is useful for giving a name to an emotion, but also for helping us to understand our response to a world we navigate through that emotion. It is not just unsettling to grow up in a city where, say, snow days and sledding were parts of your youth, only to raise a child who never sees an accumulation of snow. This is disruption of the worst kind: dislocating, a trigger for anxiety.

Giving name to the emotion gives us permission to mourn the transformation, rather than steel ourselves in denial or any other coping mechanism. Ecopsychology helps us understand that it’s this resistance to mourning that may create one of the worst effects of climate change: depression, a sense of helplessness. Of course, the stages of mourning also include denial. Could the powerful resistance to global warming be a manifestation of a collective refusal to mourn?

Machines of Loving Grace

Can technology help mitigate the loss of our environment? University of Washington professor Peter Kahn’s book, Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life, presents several experiments with the simulation of nature. They ask whether the experience of nature through screens, or the interaction with robotic animals, offered the same psychological benefits as interaction with authentic nature and living, breathing creatures. He concluded that experiences of “technological nature” offered lower stress reduction than experiences in actual nature: Staring out a window into nature is drastically better than staring at a screen; but staring at a screen is just slightly better than staring at a wall.

The San Francisco beat poet Richard Brautigan described “a cybernetic forest filled with pines and electronics, where deer stroll peacefully past computers, as if they were flowers with spinning blossoms.” The dream of technological interference in the degradation of nature, somehow slowing its decline, is revealing itself to be an echo of a central fallacy of climate change. In surveys on global warming, many often imagine that, when the time comes, these effects can be reversed by cleaning up the emissions from factories.

It’s not the case: carbon trapped in the atmosphere is already there, contributing to a long-term and irreversible warming effect on the planet. It is not “reversible.” The question is simply a matter of how we pace further harm to our environment. As much as Brautigan dreamed of a “cybernetic ecology” in which we are “all watched over by machines of loving grace,” we seem quite unlikely to find emotional health by streaming images of the natural world into VR headsets.

This is a sterile view of nature, one that strips away a living network and replaces it with a cybernetic one. Changes in urban environments reflect a similar trend. Artist Margaretha Haughwout participated in several natural interventions in the urban spaces of San Francisco, as part of a group of “Guerrilla Grafters,” who graft fruit-bearing branches onto non-fruit-bearing, decorative trees in the city.

“Over time, sterile plum, pear and cherry trees grow branches that bear a diversity of delicious fruit varietals, well adapted to a city’s microclimates,” she said. “The small, micro gesture of grafting a fruiting branch onto a sterile tree matches a grand interest of transforming the city away from being a space of sterility and scarcity.”

Imagine a city where trees bear fruit and buildings bear plants and bees and butterflies have as many trendy dining areas as the humans around them. But that project came to a halt when the city intervened against fruit-bearing plants in public, which they considered vectors of disease.

Haughwout has also examined the “urban” and “natural” binary in work with the Hayes Valley Farm. The project made use of materials in the urban world – cardboard from local businesses used in sheet mulching, collecting milk from coffee shops and rice from sushi bars to make lacto-bacillus culture for healthier soil. “In nine months,” she says, “we had really good, dark, soil.”

This leaves us with a unique re-assessment of the natural vs the urban and technological. Though we may not consider a tree a “technology,” look at the definition: machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge. It seems that the machinery of the living organism, the life of plants and gardens, is slowly being re-discovered and, in a sense, re-centralized. The idea of nature and society as discrete entities may have to fall away. A garden, long ignored, is being rediscovered as a form of clean tech, green energy, medical research and “narrative interaction,” while simultaneously transcending these labels and structures that might try to harness and control them.

As much as we might try to adapt the human environment into an LCD garden, it seems fundamentally more efficient to not lose it in the first place.

Climate Garden 2085

The swissnex Gallery plays with this idea in the form of Climate Garden 2085, an exhibition exploring the sensory experience of climate change. Artist and Science Communicator Juanita Schläpfer-Miller has described the experience as a “slow medium,” contrasted with the data overload present in endless streams of figures on touchscreens and news reports.

Within the two greenhouses, we experience, smell, see and even hear two possible worlds: one in which action is taken to reduce climate change effects, and one in which we don’t. The impact can feel subtle, but the garden is an immersive, narrative environment: the plants tell a story, if we give time to contemplation and patient observation. They reflect a world that is leaving them, and offer us an opportunity to contemplate, reflect, and even mourn. It encourages a different form of interaction than the world of abstract temperatures and charts; it’s the difference between seeing a climate transform through a screen and seeing it in the real world.

And, once we mourn those changes, perhaps we’ll really be able to confront what must be done to preserve what’s left of the world that is leaving us.

Climate Garden 2085 is on display at swissnex Gallery through Nov 22, 2017.

Photo: A vintage (1897) postcard showcases San Francisco’s Seal Rocks, with its resident seals. Image Public Domain via Malina Jones