Allison Ford and Kari Marie Norgaard
- Pronunciation: ghurbah (ʀurba)
- Part of Speech: Noun
- Provenance: Arabic
- Example: Missing the familiar birdsong that no longer greeted me in the morning, I felt a sense of ghurba, remembering the tricolored blackbirds that lived in the nearby marshes before climate change had made the place inhospitable to them.
There is a familiarity to daily life that most of us relish. We go forward with a fair amount of confidence that tomorrow will resemble today. The details may differ, but the structure of our lives will persist. We will step outside of our door and see the same landscape. The same birds will greet us in the morning, and the same trees will line our street. Our family and friends will be where we left them, and we will follow the same habits and routines. This is especially true for those who have access to resources that buffer them from contingencies that life can bring—the class-privileged citizens of wealthy nations who are more resilient to disasters than marginalized people who struggle to meet their basic needs. In good times, daily life is familiar, and there is comfort in that. Of course, we don’t really know what the world will be like in a year, let alone five or twenty years. But in the face of uncertainty, our ideas about the future are built on the shape of our present.
It takes only a few seconds of viewing the temperature graphs of climate forecasts to grasp that consistency in the experience of daily life may no longer be possible. Faced with unprecedented global environmental risk, our collective dreams of the good life threatens to come undone. In the age of climate change, the safety of some is predicated on the undoing of the daily lives of others. Social theorist Ulrick Beck calls this phase of modernity “risk society,” a phase of capitalism marked by unprecedented social and environmental risk. Even as industrial developments have made life safer for some people, industrialization has also led to a proliferation of new and unprecedented risks.
Risk society changes the social landscape. The established cultural values of progress, affluence, and what it means to be a good citizen of a wealthy, industrialized democracy will no longer hold in a climate-constrained world. This fundamentally challenges what Anthony Giddens calls ontological security—a sense of the continuity of everyday life. Climate change portends the undoing of familiar ecological and social landscapes; it challenges the belief that the world of tomorrow will look anything like the world of today. Faced with global environmental risks, our sense of home as a place that is familiar and safe begins to come undone. To understand how to respond to such changes, we might look to the experiences of people who have already experienced the loss of the ordinary as a result of significant political, social, and environmental changes, such as Native Americans who have lost much of their historic homelands, displaced peoples such as Palestinians whose land is under Israeli occupation, and contemporary climate refugees whose homes are already disappearing around them. The experiences of people for whom risks have become realities might inform how we think about security in a changing world. What does it mean to be safe? What can we hold on to from our current lifeworlds? Where do we need to let go? How might we channel the collective desire for the good life into something creative—a force that propels us into a more equitable, sustainable future? First, let us name that desire. We borrow the word ghurba to describe a sense of longing for home that we apply to the ecological undoing of climate change, with all that we stand to lose.
Ghurba is an Arabic word that has no English equivalent. It translates loosely as “a longing for one’s homeland.” It evokes the deep connection that people have to their place of origin and the longing for place as something familiar and safe. Ghurba might be used to refer to the political longing of Palestinians cut off from their occupied historic homeland, or it might be used more casually by a student away from home for a temporary but prolonged period, missing home. Mohamed Awad, a scholar from Egypt, describes ghurba as “a sense of melancholy stemming from deep longing to a homeland, family, close ones, etc. It persists even if everything else in life is going well. It can also mean ‘feeling lonely among people you know,’ even at home. It’s a state of mind just as much as it is a condition of physical separation.” Ghurba comes from the root word gharb (to go away, depart, or withdraw) and is linked to gharib (strange). One departs and becomes a stranger, but the longing for familiarity endures.
In the age of anthropogenic climate change, we propose applying the word ghurba to name a longing for home that transcends place. We also want it to include the sense of connection to space, ecological and social relationships, and feelings of security that make up home. While we may associate home with a location, it is also imbued with cultural meanings that give shape to home as both a conceptual and physical space. Rising sea levels, ocean acidification, increased droughts and wildfires, and the loss of biodiversity, including culturally significant species such as salmon, mark the undoing of the ecological fabric that buttresses our daily lives. These changes force us to address the loss of ontological security that climate change entails. We can no longer assume that the world of tomorrow will be like the world of today. As weather patterns change, species move on to new habitats or die off, and increased storms, fires, and droughts roll in, we risk becoming strangers in places we thought we knew.
For many, climate change threatens to undermine the consistency of daily life that home provides, both conceptually and geographically.For example, the Karuk tribe along the Klamath River in Northern California has seen dramatic declines in salmon populations in their lifetimes. Recalling the environmental shifts that have also led to significant changes to social life, members of the tribe express feelings of loss that exemplify ghurba. The decline in salmon changes social interactions, as well as how people internalize identity, social roles, and power structures. Karuk people describe grief, anger, shame, and hopelessness associated with environmental decline. Yet as Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte emphasizes, indigenous people have endured many such shifts already as a result of colonialism, a process of violent disruption of their ecological practices. Even if we stay rooted in the same place, the nature of that place may rapidly change around us.
Around the world, from the loss of land in island nations to the impacts of drought on the Syrian migration crisis, climatic changes are rendering homes unlivable. Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people a year have been displaced by natural disasters—a number that is on the rise. Some climate refugees may be moved preemptively to avoid disaster. In 2016, for example, the U.S. government funded the relocation of the entire community of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, which has experienced a 98 percent loss of land since 1955. In other places, where the effects of climate change are more gradual or resources are not available to assist with relocation, the environment may change around people who cannot or do not want to leave, creating what ecocritic Rob Nixon calls “refugees in place”—populations subject to “displacement without moving.” Nixon includes climate change as a contributor to the “slow violence” of gradual and often invisible environmental damage that threatens to make a place unlivable. This is especially apparent in extreme cases, where entire homelands are being lost, as in the case of the Isle de Jean Charles. Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi–Chitimacha–Choctaw tribe was quoted lamenting the loss of his historic homeland: “We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture.” What was once the stuff of daily life is now “all going to be history.”
For already marginalized groups, the consequences of slow violence are especially severe. Indigenous peoples, people of color, women, gender-nonconforming folks, immigrants, the disabled, and others excluded or otherized by dominant institutions may be especially hard hit by the loss of home, which may serve as a conceptual space that offers security and well-being as a refuge against the powerlessness of oppressive forces. The experience of home is deeply shaped by gender, race, class, and other significant markers of social location. For example, Black feminist author and activist bell hooks writes that for people of color in predominantly racist American society, home can be a refuge against the vulnerability of violence and judgement. hooks describes the feeling of arriving at her grandmother’s home after an uncomfortable passage through dangerous white neighborhoods where she regularly experienced racism: “Oh! that feeling of safety, of arrival, of homecoming when we finally reached the edges of her yard. . . . Such a contrast . . . this sweetness and the bitterness of that journey, that constant reminder of white power and control.” For hooks, home is where care and nurturing offered sustenance, development, and growth to those who were denied it in the public sphere. Although tinged with the melancholy of nostalgia, ghurba substantiates the valuation of home as a conceptual space that can protect against both symbolic and physical violence. Such a longing makes slow violence more evident by calling attention to what we are losing, even as it slips away.
As we link changing ecological circumstances to a sense of security in the world, we must consider how people in various social positions relate to the security of a home in the first place. In our respective research, we document the complex, often negative feelings that peo-ple have about climate change and its effects on daily life. Many people report feeling fear, anxiety, despair, and guilt at their part in producing greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change, as well as helplessness about their ability to respond to a problem of such magnitude. These emotions are filtered and shaped by culturally specific feeling rules—the social norms that guide the expression of emotion in specific contexts. Complex emotions about climate change must be managed; cultural norms shape forms of emotional management that make sense. Climate change threatens to undo the fabric of our daily lives, to alter our access to life-sustaining resources and culturally valued relationships to place. We must manage the difficult emotions that arise as we feel less safe.
Emotions bind people to certain ways of being in the world. Unfortunately, for many people, the management of emotion translates into implicit denial, as people work to maintain normalcy by selectively ignoring important information, adhering to norms of interaction that prohibit serious conversation about climate change, or focusing the blame on others. For many privileged citizens of wealthy nations, their ability to continue their way of life depends on the denial of climate change. For example, one of the authors of this entry found that Norwegians, whose high quality of life is made possible by the exportation of massive quantities of oil, engage in collective processes of emotional management that allow them to maintain a belief in their own innocence, even as they know that the privilege of maintaining the continuity of a high quality of life is only made possible by the exploitation of poor nations and complicity in the generation of climate-changing greenhouse gasses. Given the attachment many of us have to consistency in daily life, what will it take for those who benefit the most from the practices that cause climate change to shift their relationship to emotions like powerlessness, fear, and guilt to acknowledge, address, and work through them, rather than let them drive us? As privileged people around the world are “faced with more and more opportunities to develop a ‘moral imagination’ and ‘imagine the reality’ of what is happening,” will they adopt an “ecological imagination”—the ability to see the connections between human actions and their impacts on the environment—or will they continue to “construct their own innocence”? Where business as usual predominates (which is almost everywhere within the wealthy industrialized world), citizens act to protect themselves from ghurba. Yet in the longing that ghurba evokes, might we find the seed of a different response?
Environmentalists and social scientists have puzzled over the missing link between knowledge about climate change and a commitment to adopting more sustainable habits. Accounting for the loss of ontological security that is threatened by the changes to our homelands that climate change portends may help explain the gap between awareness and action. Addressing the environmental consequences of our current way of life is a monumental task that threatens to undo our very sense of the continuity of daily life. For daily life to go on as normal, many people must maintain silence about the implications of their privilege. Adopting societywide practices that do not contribute to climate change may mean undoing many of the things we have come to rely on to make us feel safe, successful, and valuable. This is no small thing. Emotional attachment to our existing way of life is limiting our resolve to see clearly the changes we need to make to ensure the safety of our communities.
How do we acknowledge and accept the circumstances of profound risk in which we find ourselves without giving in to fear? People report experiencing complex, negative emotions about environmental risk, especially climate change, which can seem particularly abstract and hard to grasp. Feelings like fear, anxiety, and despair can manifest in different ways depending on social context. Old ways of envisioning political modes of engagement have favored suppressing or minimizing emotions, framing them as weak or passive—barriers to rational, effective action. New ways of thinking about the role of emotions in social life challenge this, reminding us that emotions provide information about what is safe. Ghurba, the longing we feel for a homeland as a conceptual place of familiarity and safety, might point the way to an ecological imagination that will enable us to build future spaces that are inviting, sustainable, and safe.
In the face of change, many of us may be experiencing ghurba while lacking a name for the experience. It is hard, if not impossible, to transcend a nameless feeling. Failing to adequately process feelings of longing and loss may limit our ability to reintegrate changing circumstances into our lives. Ashlee Consulo Willox observes that grief and mourning are important aspects of coming to terms with climate change and its impacts, but that such emotional processes are silenced in public discourse. Failure to adequately mourn may limit the possibility of future well-being as grief becomes stuck, blocking emotional processes. Mourning involves coming to terms with loss and reordering daily life in the absence of what has been lost. The first step, then, is to understand what is being lost. Naming ghurba as an element of our complex feelings about climate change acknowledges a longing for something other than what we have. Longing is a form of desire. And desire for a homeland, a community, and a relationship with the nonhuman world—beyond the alienated fossil-fueled consumer society we occupy—is the emotional power source of the work of building a more sustainable society.
In this historic moment of being confronted with deep collective loss, there is an opportunity to open ourselves to what comes beyond that loss. To do so, we must take stock of our history, our culture, and our politics to find the fragments that inspire ghurba. What is special about our homelands that we fear losing? How might we mourn those aspects that will be lost? How might we bring aspects of home into the future, so that when we arrive there we do not have to feel like strangers? Modifying our social institutions to mitigate and adapt to global risks like climate change will require change on all levels—in our political institutions, in our organizations, in our families, in our intimate interactions, in ourselves. If we are to create a future that is equitable as well as sustainable, our environmental work will need to overlap with the work of social justice movements that demands a broader form of security for all populations, not just the privileged few who can afford it. The depth of transformation this calls for is potentially painful, but to ignore the imperative to change offers no protection.
How do we manage this tension between the anxiety of the contemporary political moment and the residual desire for some form of the good life? If we give up some of the convenience, disposability, and novelty of consumer life, what is left? A drive for materially safe, socially connective, environmentally secure lifeworlds that might keep us connected to the homes we may have to leave behind.
Another Path: Solasalgia
When something is borrowed, thanks are always warranted, and we are grateful to the Arabic-speaking world for this evocative word, and the native speakers who helped us understand its richness. We decided to borrow the word ghurba before the 2016 election, without knowing how extreme anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment would get in Trump’s America. In the current political climate, we consider it especially important to acknowledge our gratitude, and to honor the beauty and richness of Arab cultures that are so often overlooked in its cultural othering.
1. Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, ed. Mark Ritter (Los Angeles, Calif.: Sage, 1992).
2. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 36.
3. Mohammed Awad, personal communication, 2017.
4. Hans Wehr, The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1993).
5. Kari Norgaard and Ron Reed, “Emotional Impacts of Environmental Decline: What Can Attention to Native Cosmologies Teach Sociology about Race, Emotions and Environmental Justice,” Theory and Society 46, no. 6 (2017).
6. Kyle Powys Whyte, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene,” in Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, ed. Ursula Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann (New York: Routledge, 2017).
9. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 17.
10. Davenport and Robertson, “Resettling.”
11. bell hooks, “Homeplace: A Site of Resistance,” in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (New York: Routledge, 1990).
12. Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure,” American Journal of Sociology 85, no. 3 (1979).
13. Kari Marie Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011).
14. Kari Marie Norgaard, “Climate Change Is a Social Issue,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/. On the construction of innocence, see Kari Marie Norgaard, “‘People Want to Protect Themselves a Little Bit’: Emotions, Denial, and Social Movement Nonparticipation,” Sociological Inquiry 76, no. 3 (2006).
15. See Norgaard, Living in Denial and “Climate Change”; and Allison Ford, “The Emotional Landscape of Risk: Self-Sufficiency Movements and the Environment” (master’s thesis, University of Oregon, 2014).
16. Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, “Climate Change as the Work of Mourning,” Ethics and the Environment 17, no. 2 (2012): 141.
17. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson makes a similar point in “Affect,” his entry in Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, ed. Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, and Patricia Yaeger (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 28–30.