A bucolic field dotted with plump cows might not seem like a depressing sight, but as I passed by this serene landscape each day to pick up my son from school, that’s exactly how I felt. Depressed. Helpless. Mired in melancholy.
But why? They were just cows, after all.
I was worried about them disappearing, though. And by “disappearing,” I mean being hauled in livestock trailers to some other pasture far away so developers could have their way with the field. Much of central Texas, where I live, was once farmland. Now I was watching those wide-open spaces get bulldozed and covered in asphalt as opportunistic developers threw up cookie-cutter housing developments and apartment buildings where cedar elm and wildflowers once grew. I loved staring at those cows, but it was also painful, because I knew that one day soon, I’d likely see construction signs pop up in that field, and my pastoral vista would become a parking lot.
These feelings wouldn’t leave me. I had no words for what I was experiencing, so I did what any curious human with internet access does in 2022. I started googling. My searches led me to terms like solastalgia, coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It means, in essence, distress caused by a changing environment, or the loss of a comforting place. I then stumbled across Alicia Escott and Heidi Quante’s ongoing participatory art project called the Bureau of Linguistical Reality. They weren’t just coming up with one word to describe feelings of climate grief—they were creating thousands, in collaboration with people across the globe.
The project started eight years ago, when Bay Area artists Quante and Escott had no words to describe the anxiety they were experiencing over California’s drought. “Angry” was too simplistic. “Sad” didn’t feel quite right. So they got creative. When they couldn’t find the words, they decided to make them up.
“The weight of the drought started to impact our psyches,” says Escott, a visual artist working across mediums, always with the goal of conveying the “shape and scope and feeling of climate change.” They first met around 2009 when Quante organized and curated a juried art show in San Francisco, and Escott was one of the artists. They reconnected for coffee in 2014, and that conversation centered around art and their own personal feelings about climate change.
When they discovered that they’d both felt despondent during unseasonably warm Northern California days, while everyone else was playing frisbee in the park, they knew that climate anxiety was to blame. It should be chilly and drizzly, not bone dry and hot, they thought. And if they were feeling this way, other people must be searching for words to describe their emotions about weather, wildfires and floods too.
“I remember thinking that someone needed to come up with a lexicon, but I never thought I could be that person,” says Quante, a multi-disciplinary artist who has been working on climate change initiatives for decades. In 1997, she lobbied for the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that set limits on greenhouse gasses. The Bureau started soon after that coffee date, when Escott and Quante invited friends and colleagues over for a “word making salon.” Quante says that most of her friends later told her that they “had absolutely no idea what on earth a word making salon was,” but they trusted her and wanted to give it a try. That first salon, in January 2015, was so popular that the guests stayed until one o’clock in the morning. After that they held three salons a month, and had to put a cap on participants.
Later in 2015, the artists traveled to France when the Paris Climate Agreement was adopted. They set up a “Mobile Field Office,” complete with a desk and office setup. They wore matching jumpsuits, put up banners and signs that read “The Bureau of Linguistical Reality,” and engaged with anyone who was curious about what they were doing there. The pop-up experience was the first time they had taken the Bureau outside of Quante’s living room. At events and pop-ups, they never solicit or coax anyone to interact with them. The point is for someone to become curious enough to engage on their own. Quante says that a curious but skeptical lawyer who sat down with them in Paris ended up revealing his own anxiety over climate change.
“He broke down and cried,” she says. “He looked at some of the words we’d come up with and was moved that someone else was feeling what he was feeling.”
By “the words,” she means the neologisms, or newly invented terms, that she and Escott help others create to describe their own personal experience of climate grief, eco anxiety, or, as climate psychology educator and author Leslie Davenport prefers to call it, climate distress.
“I use climate distress because it can hit people in different ways at different times,” says Davenport, who advises individuals, organizations and corporations on the importance of integrating climate psychology into mainstream life. “Climate anxiety is used the most but it leaves out people feeling angry and frustrated and depressed and overwhelmed. It can take on so many flavors.”
Much like Albrecht, who combined the words solace and algos (Greek for pain) to come up with solastalgia, the Bureau of Linguistical Reality merges words from any language, in any configuration.
“We’re playful,” says Escott.
When I ask Quante and Escott about some of their favorite words of the over 1,000 they’ve helped create, quieseed comes up. Quante describes it as meaning a seed that, due to social trauma, has stayed dormant until it finds itself in a safe environment. Then it takes root. Basically, it means speaking your truth.
Other favorites are shadowtime (acute consciousness of the possibility that the near future will be drastically different than the present), blissonance (when an otherwise blissful experience in nature is disrupted by the feeling that your presence is harming that very place), and—one of my favorites—ennuipocalypse (a doomsday that occurs slowly, instead of all at once).
Coming up with a word to express your climate distress won’t end a drought or put out wildfires, but it might, eventually, motivate you to act in some way. The more I talked to Escott and Quante, the more I understood that their project isn’t really about the words, it’s about giving people a space to talk about the fact that they have nightmares about carbon emissions, or that they cry every time they see a field of cows.
After Hurricane Sandy devastated communities on the East Coast in 2012, the Bureau later set up a Mobile Field Office in the street outside of a subway stop in the Rockaways in Queens. It didn’t take long before curious passersby sat down and told their stories.
“The volume of people was off the chain,” says Quante. “No one had ever asked them how they were feeling. People of all ages were desperate to tell stories. They were traumatized. That’s where we want to see the Bureau go, into public spaces with communities that haven't been given an opportunity to share their grief. We’re just here to listen.”
In their seven years of operation, they’ve created words with farmers in California, and a woman in Paris who used Haitian Creole terms to come up with her neologism: SonjeKoukouymõn (a longing for the sound of cicadas and the lights of fireflies). The Bureau has set up shop at festivals in Scotland and events across the U.S., and they’ve partnered with organizations, like the French Ministry of Culture, Berkeley Art Museum, and Rockaway Community Group, as well as schools like Cornell University and UC Berkeley, where they encourage students to think more deeply about climate change, across every discipline. They’ve been invited to participate in the upcoming biodiversity conference Festival Agir Pour Le Vivant in France, and are in discussions with several U.S. organizations about 2023 events. A New York City jazz band wrote a song called “The Bureau of Linguistical Reality,” and a group in Canada wrote a series of poems inspired by the word quieseed. Anyone can submit words via the Bureau’s website, but they say the real power of the project comes from the in-person interaction, the conversation and the space that helps people understand that their feelings are valid.
The words aren’t always lovely. Quante says that, especially with younger generations, “anger is a top sentiment.”
One participant coined the term gwilt (when you cause plants to wilt because you’re trying to conserve water). Another created morbique (the morbid desire to travel to places before they are radically altered by climate change).
Davenport says that she sees this in teenagers that she’s worked with as well.
“They have a lot of outrage towards older generations, anger at governments and institutions for not doing things fast enough,” Davenport says. Before she went into psychology, Davenport was a dancer, and the arts are integral to who she is. She understands the value in a project like the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, in that it can help humans process their fear or anxiety in healthy ways.
“Our predominant Western society has shut down the creative, the intuitive, the expressive,” says Davenport. “I feel like we’re operating with sort of a partial brain in general, and the arts help open up and reactivate those capacities.”
She says it’s important not to pathologize feelings of climate distress, and she doesn’t condone “magical thinking,” as in believing that someone, someday will swoop in and solve the mess we’re in. Acknowledging the feelings, though, through art or action, is important.
“If you’re paying attention and you care, you’re going to be feeling big feelings,” she says.
I’d been paying an awful lot of attention to that field of cows by my house, so I decided to give the Bureau a try, to see if we could dream up a word that might help define my discomfort. Instead of sitting down in person at a Mobile Field Office, I hopped on a Zoom meeting with Escott, having no idea what to expect. I came ready with a few words that reflected my region and the way I was feeling: helpless, tuckered out, yonder and reckon were on the list. And then Escott started asking me questions. It felt, in the best way, like a therapy session entirely devoted to my feelings about climate distress. Nothing I said about the cows was laughed off or dismissed. The list of words got longer as we brainstormed and told stories. At last we hit on one that felt, to me, just right.
It means mourning a wide open space that you fear will soon disappear. It’s kind of like my own personal brand of solastalgia. Most importantly, it just feels right. Will it stop the forward march of “progress” and cause all the bulldozers in Texas to stop working, and the developers to abandon their grand plans? Definitely not. Will any one word or art project end climate change as we know it? Sadly, no. But creating words does help. Acknowledging a feeling can make it more manageable.
“If our words are clumsy, we’re okay with that,” Escott says. “We’ve gone all over the world, and people tell us they have experienced a feeling but they don’t know how to talk about it, and we’re like, ‘Oh, we have four words for that.’ We just want to get as many voices in the conversation as possible.”