Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism

A Historical View of Addiction

Throughout pre-modern times, addiction to riches, power, sexual lust, drunken revelry, social status, gluttony, opium and many other habits were recognized as deadly pitfalls for the human soul. At the worst of times, mass addiction has been seen more broadly as a factor the downfall of cultures, city-states, and empires (Alexander & Shelton, 2014, chaps. 2-4). Many people – including myself – believe that we are facing exactly that kind of a ruinous situation today (e.g., McMurtry, 2013).

Although addiction has been known since antiquity, it has waxed and waned over the centuries. At many times and places, addiction has been a relatively uncommon problem and probably not even an interesting topic of conversation. These times and places had other deadly serious problems of course, but addiction was not among them.

Some people in the room may be surprised that I am not describing addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease caused by exposure of genetically predisposed people to addictive drugs. This doctrine, which I call the “Official View of Addiction,” originated in the 19th century, was elaborated and expanded by the medical neuroscience of the late 20th century, and persists in the 21st (Alexander, 2014). I have researched this Official View in my own rat laboratory at Simon Fraser University where my colleagues and I conducted the “Rat Park” experiments, which you may have run across. I have also lectured about the Official View of Addiction to psychology students in brain and behaviour courses over many decades. However, I will leave the Official View almost completely out of the discussion tonight.

I am relegating the Official View to the background because I am one of many addiction researchers who have concluded that the Official View does not fit with observations of addicted human beings in the real world and is, therefore, not a useful part of a broad understanding of addiction. I believe that the Official View will eventually be seen as one of several dead ends in modern society’s futile attempt to medicalize its way out of its social and emotional problems. This critical outlook on the Official View has abundant support in the professional addiction literature (e.g., Alexander, 2010, 2014; Peele & Brodsky, 1975; Heyman, 2003; Hart, 2013; Satel & Lilienfeld, 2013, chap. 3; Granfield and Reinarman, 2015). But that is not tonight’s topic.

For tonight it is enough to simply leave the Official View in the background while using the historical view of addiction as a window through which we can more clearly see the environmental crisis in relationship to global capitalism.

I have summarized the voluminous academic evidence for the historical way of looking at addictions in two recent books, The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit (Alexander, 2010) and A History of Psychology in Western Civilization (Alexander & Shelton, 2014), and elsewhere (Alexander, 2014). Many, many other researchers have contributed evidence that gave rise to the historical view over the decades (e.g., Chein, Gerard, Lee, & Rosenfeld, 1964; Reinarman and Levine, 1997; Tester & Kulchyski, 1994; Homer-Dixon, 2006; Maté, 2008, 2015; Hart, 2013). For this presentation, I have also drawn heavily from recent books about the environmental crisis, particularly those of Thomas Berry (2009) and Naomi Klein (2014).

Some Classic Views of Addiction in Western Civilization 

Throughout history, thinkers have viewed addiction very broadly, and called it by a great variety of names. For example, Plato showed, in his Republic (558c-576c), how severe addictions, which he called “master passions,” can play a central role in the political degeneration of chaotic democratic city-states into murderous tyrannies. He was most concerned with addictions to power, sex, raucous revelry, and violence rather than addictions to alcohol or drugs, although he did mention drunkenness along with the other addictive possibilities. He could have mentioned drugs if he saw them as important in this scenario, since hallucinogenic drugs were used ritualistically in ancient Greece (Plato, 375BC/1987, 571d-515a; Alexander, 2010, pp. 321-326; Hari, 2015a, pp. 140-150).

Eight centuries after Plato, St. Augustine poignantly discussed his personal struggles to overcome his two most overwhelming addictions – to romantic love and to social status – in his Confessions. He saw struggles against addictions of all sorts, which he described as a kind of “enslavement,” as an essential part of the Christian path to happiness in the late Roman Empire in which he lived.

Later, after the depraved and addicted late Roman civilization was crushed and pulverized by the four horsemen of the apocalypse, St. Augustine’s vision of the (non-addicted) Christian path to happiness played a major role in creating western civilization up to, and beyond, the Reformation. St. Augustine’s harsh view of addiction was amplified, and perhaps taken too far, in the modern era (St. Augustine, 397AD/2009; Alexander & Shelton, 2014, chap. 4).

Seventeen centuries after St. Augustine, Sigmund Freud momentarily abandoned his medical view of addiction and alcoholism as symptoms of psychological disease rooted in the brain and the unconscious life of individuals. In a flash of insight late in his life, he characterized addiction and many other psychological problems as the inevitable product of modern industrialized civilization, which he saw as inherently repressive. In his book, Civilization and Its Discontents, he suggested that modern civilization itself must be put on the analyst’s couch if problems like addiction were to be controlled (Freud, 1929/1952, pp. 430-436; Alexander & Shelton, chap. 8).

Many other contemporary thinkers have developed similar ideas about the relationship between addiction and the structure of society (Emile Durkheim, 1897/1951; Karl Polanyi, 1944; Viktor Frankl, 1963; Erik Erikson, 1968; Martín-Baro, 1994; Tester & Kulchyski, 1994; Gabor Maté, 2008, 2015).
Looking at addiction this evening as part of the universal drama of civilized life – rather than as a sin to be punished or a chronic brain disease to be managed or cured – is not giving the word a special meaning, but simply using the normal meaning that it has had in the English language for centuries, as it appears in definition 1a of the Oxford English Dictionary:

The state or condition of being dedicated or devoted to a thing, esp. an activity or occupation; adherence or attachment, esp. of an immoderate or compulsive kind…

Please note that this up-to-date, absolutely conventional definition from the leading dictionary of the English language makes no reference to either sin, disease, alcohol, or drugs, but conceptualizes addiction in a broad, humanly recognizable way. Addiction has always been part of the drama of human social existence, long before was reduced to a sin, a brain disease, or a drug and alcohol issue by the doctors and moralists of the nineteenth century (Alexander, 2014). A drug-and-disease-oriented definition of addiction also appears in the OED, but it emerged much later in history, and appeared in the OED for the first time in the 1933 supplement. I predict that this definition will ultimately become obsolete, since it has not proven to be a particularly useful way of understanding addiction.

Addiction as a Feedback Loop 

In Figure 1, I have drawn this historical view of addiction as a feedback loop or “vicious cycle”. In the center of the cycle is an old portrait of Christopher Columbus looking worried. I hope that it will be clear very soon why he appears as the central image of this cycle, and why he was right to be worried.

Please keep two cautions in mind: First, the historical view does not focus on single individuals. Rather, it focuses on the societal causes of the rising tide of addiction in a 500-year period that historians know as “the modern era.” Of course we need to know each addicted person’s unique story, but the global view provides a societal framework within which the struggles of addicted individuals in general can be more deeply understood and it fits very well with the individual life stories that I have encountered in a lifetime of work with addicted and recovering people.

Second, the historical view of addiction is not an attempt to explain drug use, or “substance abuse,” as it is often called. People use drugs for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with addiction. The historical perspective is specifically and inclusively about addiction in the sense of a powerful dedication or devotion to a particular habit or pursuit that may interfere with the life that a person wants to live much of the time and that their society expects them to live. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are important of course, but they by no means comprise all or even most of the addiction problem. Rather than concentrating on drug and alcohol addictions, The historical perspective focuses on the full range of potentially destructive addictions, including sex, wealth, gambling, power, love, eating, shopping, hoarding, internet games, social networking, alcohol, drugs, pets, and on and on and on.


The historical view of addiction starts with the fact that societies everywhere have become severely fragmented in the last five centuries (See Fig. 1, top quadrant). From the time of Christopher Columbus onward, large scale colonization by western powers has crushed defenseless societies around the globe by conquest, disease, enslavement, economic exploitation, religious domination, and devastation of local ecosystems (Wright, 2004; Mann, 2011). Canadians know the history of colonization very well because it is our own history, both as the colonizers and the colonized. But is also the history of the entire western hemisphere, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and much of Europe.

At about the same time that the colonizing western powers conquered the outer world, they also crushed defenseless societies at home within their own countries, although with somewhat more restraint. The agricultural and industrial revolutions overran and crushed stable peasant villages and commons (Polanyi, 1944; Bollier, 2014). More recently, dazzling new technologies, corporate strategies, predatory lending, and neo-liberal government policies are re-invading and re-fragmenting local urban and rural societies, social "safety nets", universities, and Internet based groups that were emerging from the ruins of traditional cultures (Redding 2009; Snowden, 2014; Klein, 2014a; Bollier, 2014, chaps. 1-5).

Thousands of different aspects of the global fragmentation story have been told. Beneath the repeated passes of the steamroller of modernity, nuclear families have been crushed, extended families have been scattered, religions have been abandoned or transformed into shallow caricatures, cultures and ethnic traditions have been pulverized, and tales containing deep knowledge of the earth and heavens has been forgotten.

The social fragmentation of society that began in the early modern era continues and increases now in the 21st century, amidst the globalization of free-market capitalism, neoliberalism, corporate culture, high-tech surveillance, ecological devastation, “development”, “restructuring”, and "austerity" imposed on poor countries; ruthlessly increasing efficiency in manufacturing and agribusiness; and unending financial crises (Rowbotham, 1998; Chossudovsky, 2003; Dufour, 2003; Harvey, 2011, pp. 66, 176).

In today’s Canada, we struggle to protect society from further fragmentation that will be produced by oil and gas pipelines, fracking, destruction of the terrains near the tar sands, hard-rock mining, overfishing, real estate bubbles, uncontrolled banks and financial markets, pollution of the fresh water supply, privatization of our excellent medical and educational systems, and the Internetification of private life (Nikiforuk, 2015; Levitin, 2015). Overshadowing all this destruction is the ultimate fragmentation that will be caused by catastrophic global climate change.

Fragmentation is an intrinsic aspect of an emerging, modern world civilization that has bestowed enormous increases in industrial productivity and technical creativity on the human species, and has made it possible for the earth to support a human population of seven billion people. However, this bourgeoning world civilization is in deep, and possibly terminal trouble, in large part because of the various consequences of this fragmentation.


Following Karl Polanyi (1944), I use the word “dislocation” to describe the devastating psychological consequences of unrelenting societal fragmentation on individuals. “Alienation” and “disconnection” are equally good terms for this.

Dislocation refers to the experience of a void that can be described on at least three levels. In social terms it is the absence of enduring and sustaining connections between individuals and their families and/or local societies, nations, occupations, traditions, physical environments, and gods. In existential terms it is the absence of feelings of belonging, identity, meaning, or purpose. In spiritual terms it is the experience of "poverty of the spirit", "homelessness of the soul", or being "forgotten by god".

Mass dislocation has real benefits for economic growth and geopolitical power. The free market system needs individuals to perform competitively and efficiently, unimpeded by sentimental ties to families, friends, traditional values, love of the earth, or religious commandments.

Dislocation has genuine psychological advantages for individuals in modern times too, leading to highly valued opportunities for personal initiative, individual creativity, and self-actualization. Everyone probably enjoys a taste of unrestricted individualism from time to time.

However, prolonged, severe dislocation has a high price, because it eventually undermines the normal societal bases of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose, leaving a unbearably empty and powerless experience of the world [Polanyi, 1944; Frankl, 1963; Berry, 2009, pp. 35-48, Klein, 2014a, pp. 158-160; Tolman, 2013; Verhaeghe, 2014].

Dislocation is not just the mournful lament of social scientists, existentialists, theologians, and gurus, however. Specific linkages between societal fragmentation and individual dislocation can be observed – and sometimes quantitatively measured – at every stage of the human life cycle, beginning before birth.

Intrauterine consequences of stress endured by pregnant women in a fragmented society can make a child socially ill-at-ease and, hence, dislocated, in later years. Some of the brain mechanisms underlying this causal relationship have been worked out (Maté, 2008, 2015).

Lack of stable attachment in infancy or traumatic abuse, due to fragmentation of families (or any other reason) can make a child insecure and unlikely to achieve satisfactory integration in society later in life (Bowlby, 1969).

Lack of stable housing in volatile real estate markets dominated by speculators can make settled family and neighbourhood life difficult or impossible for adults, even those experienced little stress early in life. I witness this first hand amongst young relatives and friends in the insanely inflated real-estate market in Vancouver (Surowiecki, 2104; see also Slawson, 2015).

Work in a dehumanizing factory system like Foxconn, where my cell phone was probably made, can leave people so empty of meaning that suicide becomes an attractive alternative (Tharoor, 2014).

Existence in a hypocritical, corrupt political system run by politicians who shamelessly serve financial and industrial megacorporations leads to profound apathy in adults (Brand, 2013). Lack of family and neighbourhood support can leave elderly people in a state of extreme dislocation (McLaren, 2014). 

Severe, prolonged dislocation is unbearable; most of us cannot just “tough it out.” It precipitates anguish, suicide, depression, disorientation, and domestic violence (Durkheim, 1897/1951; Polanyi, 1944; Chandler, Lalonde, Sokol, & Hallet, 2003; Deraniyagala, (2013), White, 2014; Alexander, in preparation). This is why dislocation has been imposed as an extreme punishment (in the form of solitary confinement, exile, ostracism, banishment, and excommunication) from ancient times to the present, and why social isolation remains an essential component of today’s terrifyingly scientific technology of torture (Klein, 2007, chap. 1; Democracy Now, 2014).

If it is difficult to precisely describe what it is to be dislocated, if is even harder to describe what it is to not be dislocated. Following Erik Erikson, I generally use the term "psychosocial dislocation" to describe the fortunate state that is the opposite of being dislocated. But how is it to be defined? Surely not by saying it is normal, because in a fragmented society, dislocation is more normal, although psychosocial integration is recognized as a possibility and an ideal that some people attain, at least some of the time. The best short description I can venture of this happy condition is that it is the state of a person who feels free, but still belongs.

Avoiding Oversimplification. “Dislocation” is an inclusive concept that is easy to oversimplify and over-operationalize. For example, extreme income inequality is an obscene fact of today’s world and correlates with many measures of dislocation. However, dislocation is more than just poverty or inequality. Many wealthy people feel the full anguish of dislocation. (Slater, 1980; Alexander, 2010, chaps. 9,10). No amount of money can restore their well-being. No matter how rich you are, you cannot buy your way out of dislocation although you may be able to create the appearance that you have (Alexander, 2010, pp. 131-136; Sheff, 2008; Sheff, 2009; Klein, 2014a, pp. 161-170).

Dislocation is also more than just loneliness. It is possible to have a busy, or even frantic, social life and still experience a lack of identity, meaning, purpose, and belonging if a person is bereft of meaningful cultural traditions, and/or a sense of place in the physical world or a connection with the world of the spirit.

Worrying about the impact of dislocation in modern times is more than just romantic nostalgia for the “good old days.” The modern era is no more evil than its historical predecessors but, like earlier eras, it brings both new opportunities and unique problems to be solved. Universal dislocation is one of the new problems that modernity has brought. Of course, individuals can also be severely dislocated by events that have nothing to do with modernity, including natural catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis and individual genetic and epigenetic disadvantages. These occurred in pre-modern as well as modern times. Nonetheless, modernity itself is the dominant source of dislocation in our era, and many modern thinkers believe that dislocation is now inescapable and almost universal (Dufour, 2003; Welch, 2015).

Dislocation denotes much more than just geographic displacement of human populations. Dislocation is a kind of suffering that afflicts people who stay home in fragmented societies and plundered ecosystems as much as people who have been driven continents away from their roots (Albrecht, 2012).

Dislocation is the experience of the absence of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose. But how much of each is required to be called psychosocial integration? Can a lot of identity make up for an absence of meaning? It is impossible to say. Dislocation is a human state that is almost universally recognized but only loosely defined. There is no precise formula for producing or measuring it. This makes its existence easy to deny in an age dominated by rigid scientific epistemology, but no less real.

Addiction: A Common Way of Adapting to Dislocation

Just as high levels of dislocation follow high levels of social fragmentation, a flood of addiction inevitably tracks high levels of dislocation (see Fig. 1, bottom quadrant). A wealth of historical and anthropological evidence shows the predictability of this sequence. A wealth of clinical and biographical evidence shows why addiction tracks dislocation: Addiction can provide dislocated people with some much needed relief and compensation for their bleak existence, at least for the short term. (Alexander, 2010, chaps. 6-8; Watson, 2015).

Addiction can become an intense and even overwhelming involvement, that can provide a partial substitute for people who are severely dislocated. Addiction can fill the excruciating void of dislocation, to a degree and for a time. Because addictions provide only a partial solution to this void, severely addicted people must work them for all they are worth – insatiably – even if they feel terribly guilty about the people they are hurting or the other parts of their life that they are neglecting or abusing in the process.

To say that addiction serves a vital adaptive function is not to say that it is harmless, or to make light of it. Rather, it is to point out that it serves a vital function for people who cannot find a better way to respond to desperate and dangerous levels of dislocation under the circumstances of their lives. That is why it is so common in a fragmented global society.

Of course addiction is not the kind of adaptation that people generally want for themselves, or that their societies want for them, but it at least provides them with some meager sense of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose (although often accompanied by guilt and remorse). Without their addictions, many people would have terrifyingly little reason to live and might fall into depression or suicide.

For example, when "junkies" wake up, they at least know who they are and what they must accomplish that day. Rather than being overwhelmed by the emptiness of their existence, they keep very, very busy chasing drugs, sometimes in collaboration with their fellow users, sometimes in competition with them. At the same time, they can hold onto a tragic but exotic junkie identity, and identify themselves with William S. Burroughs, Curt Cobain, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Russell Brand, Robin Williams, or dozens of other celebrities. A kind of junkie mystique dilutes the misery of their existence with the glamorous imagery of the "tragically hip" or "the coolest” (Burroughs, 1967; Pryor, 2003). For another example, people who are addicted to horserace gambling have not found anything more important in their lives than incessantly exchanging information and hunches within a colourful subculture of characters at the track, with a mythology of famous gamblers and legendary horses of the past and an imagined future of fabulous success (Ryan, 2014a, b).

Much larger numbers of people use drugs only moderately or go to the track recreationally.They have found more effective ways of fulfilling their needs most of the time.

The adaptive function of addiction is often hidden. Many addicted people deny that they live in a state of dislocation, because they feel ashamed of their inability to find a secure social life, a sense of who they are, some values they can believe in, a place they can call their own, or a reason to get up in the morning, even though they live in a fragmented society that makes filling these needs problematic for everybody. They may deny their dislocation because it feels like an unbearable personal failure and they may be only dimly aware of the adaptive function of their addiction. In moments of insight however, even these people can explain the function of their addiction with surprising candor.

Long ago, when I worked as a family therapist, I saw parents of addicted people cling with an iron grip to the Official View that their children’s addictions were caused by addictive drugs, or by irresistible peer pressure, or by genetic predispositions, or by incurable brain dysfunctions. Acknowledging the adaptive functions that addictions served for their son or daughter would require acknowledging how much was missing in the family and neighbourhood environment they had been able to provide. I think that all of us who are parents can recognizing how excruciating painful that acknowledgement could be.It would seem to be an admission of abject failure as a parent, although it is perfectly clear that many of these parents did everything within their power for their children.

Finally, the Official View of Addiction, and the Demon Drug Myth that is built into it is lavishly funded and sponsored by our governments.  The National Institute of Drug abuse  and other governmental and professional agencies authoritatively proclaim addiction a chronic disease caused by drug use -- rather than an adaptation -- with all the force of scientific authority and media dramatization (see Alexander, 2014). Is it possible that this dogma spares the officials who promulgate it from another kind of anguish about the kind of society that they perpetuate in loco parentis?

Thus, the modern flood of addiction is best understood as a way that many individuals are able to partially adapt to dislocation, and, more generally, a way of adapting to the social fragmentation of modernity, which is the root cause of much of today's dislocation. Because addiction is essential to dislocated people’s ability to function in the world, people cling to their addictions with the iron grip that they would attach to a piece of floating junk in a stormy sea.

Consequences of Addiction: The Cycle Continues

Beyond the fact that addictions are only partially successful in reducing dislocation, there is another, more structural reason why addiction is so hard to overcome in modern society. Many of the harmful consequences of addiction exacerbate the fragmentation of modern society and, thus increase the dislocation that flows from it, and thus increase the prevalence of addiction. The vicious cycle keeps turning.

Think of the fragmentation produced by addictive pursuit of wealth and power by many high level executives and by compulsive consumption by millions of their customers. Think of the fragmentation produced by all the talented children who cannot be educated and socialized as productive adults because their school years have been lost to the world of video games and social media and because they get into various kinds of trouble later on when they could have been contributing to society. Think of all the adults who are lost from reflective work and citizenship because they are lost in active addictions to money, power, drugs, sex, wealth, celebrity worship, spectator sports, fashion, pets, social networking, Internet gaming and so forth. Think of all the addicted people lost in an endless cycle of tenuous recovery, relapse, and re-recovery. Think of all the elders whose accumulated wisdom will never be passed on because they are lost to their addictive involvements in television, crossword puzzles, or prescription drugs.

Moreover, when people’s addictions last too long or become too overwhelming, their adaptive functions go awry. Health consequences of severe addictions further fragment the addicted persons’ families, communities, and societies. In all these ways, addiction perpetuates social fragmentation, and the cycle roles on through the generations.

Addiction is not only a downstream response to social fragmentation but ultimately also an upstream cause of it. With each new turn of the cycle the flood of addiction rises to new heights and the costs to society increase.

Specific Interconnections of Addiction and Eco-Crisis

At the same time that the consequences of addiction complete the vicious cycle of addiction by augmenting the fragmentation of human societies, many of them also directly augment the ecological crisis. Thus, both the rising flood of addiction and the ecological devastation of the earth are aspects of the same vicious cycle. Both problems are built into the same deep structure of the modern age! (See also Berry, 2009, p. 169).

I want to be as specific as possible about how the vicious cycle of addiction affects the environment. Here are five psychological realities that you will probably recognize as contributing to the ecological crisis. These five seem especially grim to me because they make me aware that I am part of the environmental catastrophe myself as well – I hope – as part of the solution. All five of these grim psychological realities can be explained, at least in part, by examining the historical view addiction. (See also Klein, 2014a, pp. 158-161)


Many people in countries like Canada act as if they are addicted to grossly wasteful consumption of food, energy, and all sorts of manufactured products. Some of these apparent addictions to wasteful consumption deplete and pollute essential resources, damaging the earth’s ecosystems directly. All of these apparent addictions deplete human energy that might otherwise be devoted to more valuable pursuits, including environmental activism.

But is it correct to refer to this massive problem of wasteful consumption by obese people and obscene overconsumer as an addiction problem? Or is use of the word “addiction” a gratuitous appropriation of a word that properly describes a biomedically defined disease of alcohol and drug consumption, especially when the word is applied to relatively minor problems of everyday overeating and shopping too much?

From the historical view, there is no question. People who engage in extreme overconsumption have always been described addicted, or else with terms, like “gluttons,” “wastrels,” “libertines,” etc. These terms carry essentially the same meaning as “addiction.” Medically there is little question that extreme over-consumers are addicted either. Many overeaters wind up being treated medically for their obesity and type 2 diabetes. Others wind up in Overeaters Anonymous. Overconsumers wind up in treatment too – often for depression -- and in Shopaholics Anonymous, Hoarders Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, or Credit Card Abusers Anonymous. It is easy to learn about these important self-help groups by Googling them.

Of course, most people who we encounter are not really obese overeaters or grossly wasteful hoarders or shopaholics.However, a great many of us are excessive in more familiar ways. We usually treat these excesses with good-humoured resignation.

But think of the cost in pesticides, topsoil destruction, and depletion of fish stocks of a little excessive eating, say enough to keep a person 15 or 20 pounds overweight for most of a lifetime. Then multiply that cost by hundred of millions of slightly overweight people in the rich countries. Or, think of the cost of a little excessive consumption of fashions and electronic junk that soon winds up as landfill and multiply that cost by hundreds of millions of affluent people. Or of the cost of driving millions of fuel guzzlers, or living in, and heating, unnecessarily large houses that are renovated every twenty years or so. And on and on.

Of course not all of this everyday excess can be blamed on dislocation. People who grew up after World War II have been bombarded with advertising that encouraged overeating and wasteful consumption in countless television commercials and print advertisements every day of their life.
But, as the realities of the environmental crisis have sunk in, millions of people have curbed their excessive consumption. But millions more feel mysteriously compelled to overeat and overconsume, even though they know full well that they are contributing to the environmental problem that may destroy the earth, as well as putting themselves at risk of diabetes, maxing out their credit cards, and allowing themselves to be deceived by transparently irrational advertising claims.

Why do some of us find it so very difficult to give up our everyday forms of wasteful consumption? When speaking frankly, people talk to me about the psychological functions of these relatively minor habits in the same way that people diagnosed with severe addictions talk about their habits.
Under the Official View of addiction, this would be very bad news, because now people’s environmentally destructive habits would now be seen as chronic, relapsing brain diseases, making the problem virtually incurable. But look again at the historical analysis of addiction. There is nothing there that suggests that any addictions are incurable.

The historical analysis fits the facts of natural recovery as they have been discovered by decades of addiction research, although this is a hard sell in world that has grown accustomed to the doctrine of the “chronic, relapsing brain disease” or, in its older version, “once an addict always an addict”. When teaching, I have to document the fully-documented fact of natural recovery over and over, and even then people don’t want to believe it.

Large-scale field studies and clinical studies of "natural recovery" show that about three-quarters of the people who become addicted to a drug or alcohol as young adults recover, usually without receiving any addiction treatment or without joining a self-help group. More than half of them recover by the time they are 30 (Heyman, 2009, pp. 79-80). The most spectacular demonstration of this is the natural recovery of heroin-addicted U.S. soldiers returning after the Vietnam. The great majority of them recovered without treatment. Natural recovery has also been documented for addictions that do not involve drugs (Schachter, 1982; Slutske, 2006).

The basis of natural recovery without treatment is no mystery, since so many cases have been studied. As the historical view of addiction would predict, natural recovery occurs when people establish stronger relations with the community, or find a strong sense of meaning in a new life or religion (Granfield and Cloud, 1999; Alexander, 2010, pp. 160-161, 290), reducing their dislocation.
Addicted people who do not recover on their own, however, fill self-help meeting rooms and the treatment agencies. A large number of this visible minority of addicted people are refractory to treatment, creating the illusion of a chronic disease, which has been incorporated into the Official View to explain the marginal success of treatment regimes built on its doctrine. This misapprehension as been named the “clinician’s illusion” (Satel and Lilienfeld (2013, p. 56). The ecological harm produced by large numbers of people who overconsume for their entire lifetimes is incalculable. Even a decade of over-consumption by millions of people has a tremendous cost to the environment.

Corporate Exploitation, Extractivism, and Destruction.

Insatiably greedy CEOs and other powerful executives who extract, slice, and dice the environment as fast as they are able, putting it into the little packages that the consumers carry home to devour. Is it correct to refer to these people as addicted?

I do not count any high-level executives of multinational corporations or international financial institutions as friends, and I don’t think they would want my advice anyway. However, there is a very useful literature on such people often written by themselves, or by those who do know them personally, including social scientists and many of their children and wives. These writing often describe extreme addiction. The classic academic source is sociologist Phillip Slater’s (1980) book on “wealth addiction”, written primarily about the great magnates of huge American corporations in the early and middle twentieth century. More recent works are primarily autobiographical and serious biographical writings on, for example, Jim Cramer, Conrad Black, and Sam Polk (Cramer, 2002; Bower, 2006; Polk, 2014.)

Of course not all high level executive in destructive corporations are addicted and live in denial (Hanauer, 2014). However, those who are multiply their own destructive impulses, because their corporations have millions of dutiful servants and employees. Some of their well-paid lackeys hold very high positions in the world’s most powerful governments and professions (Gabriel, 2014; Buxton, 2014; Lofgren, 2014; Thomas, 2014).

When I reflect on my role as part of the environmental problem, I think particularly of the people Chris Hedges has described as “career addicts”. These are not CEOs but lower level managers and other workers who devote their talents to rising in the organization chart of the destructive multinational corporation, knowing full well the harm that is being done (Hedges, 2012).

My own career has been almost entirely in the field of psychology, which, at this point in history, may well be more a part of the problem than of the solution to the interlocked problems of addiction and the environment (Alexander & Shelton, 2014, chap. 9). Did my own dislocation, ultimately stemming from the social fragmentation of modernity as they played out in the scenario of my life, play a major part in my feverish pursuit of career success? I’m not sure.

Debilitating Recovery. 

Many people are trapped in endless recovery because the same environment that dislocated them in the first place continues to undermine their attempts to achieve and maintain psychosocial integration following treatment. They live in an endless cycle of tenuous recovery, occasional slips or relapses, and re-recovery.

Some (not all) of these people have no energy left to devote to the larger problems of society and the Earth, even when they are fully aware of them (Alexander, 2010, chap. 12). And some of these recoveries last a lifetime, one day at a time.

It is often noted that many people seem to be “addicted to recovery.” But in what sense can addiction to recovery actually be considered recovery? As Mary Pipher says, “It is not mentally healthy to sit idly by and watch the human race destroy its mothership” (Pipher, 2013, p. 117).

People involved in endless recoveries comprise not only an unresolved addiction problem but also contribute to the environmental problem. Even though their socially unacceptable addictions are under control, they cannot spare the energy from their endless recoveries that will be necessary to help take care of the environment or to participate in the civic life of their society in other ways that might reduce its fragmentation.

I must end this section with an unanswered question, because many of the people who are active, valuable members of the environmental movement do have histories of serious addiction that they have overcome. Why are some, but not all, people who have been seriously addicted trapped in endless, all-consuming recovery and others not?

Apathy, Confusion, Denial, and Half Hearted Resolve.

Many of us passively accept comforting reassurance about theenvironmental crisis that the mass media throw our way. Media voices soothe us with talk of “market solutions” (Klein, 2014a, chap. 6), “caring capitalism” (Andreou, 2014), “green billionaires” (Klein, 2014a, chap. 7), “sustainability” (Hurrowitz, 2014), the “global warming standstill”, “environmental centrism”, “green energy companies”, and pipelines that are a safer way of shipping oil than railroads. This kind of gratuitous reassurance is propagaged by the public relations offices of self-serving corporations and shameless governments. Most people sense that these are deceptive words, but it is easier to accept them at face value than to face up to the terrifying dangers and conflicting messages of the real world. Besides there are so many other important tasks to get done in a busy lifetime.

Apathy, confusion, and denial reign among huge numbers of people in Canada and the United States (McKie, 2014). Even those of us who actively protest ecological degradation, often reveal half-hearted resolve. Many people – and I am one of them – drop out of protest demonstrations when the police begin arresting people and threatening to crack heads. We remain silent about the lies and platitudes that surround our own positions in the productive machinery so that we can keep our jobs within it. We withhold vital financial support to protect our personal nest eggs for an imagined future that may never arrive.

Apathy, confusion, denial, and half-hearted resolution are guardians of the status quo. Although history has shown repeatedly that very rich vested interests and their complicit governments can be overcome by a mobilized populace, this cannot happen while most people remain apathetic, making it impossible for a mass movement to prevail.

Many academic thinkers are struggling to explain why people are so apathetic and confused (Gifford, 2011, 2014; Pipher, 2013;Schmitt, Droogendyk, and Payne, 2014; Edmonds, 2014).

But I believe this problem is best understood in terms of dislocation. Overcoming apathy enough to participate in the environmental struggle requires strong self-assured people who are able to see through the lies served up to them by the media and politicians, even if the lies are embellished with technological brilliance and subtle psychological appeals. Having seen through the lies, we need to act resolutely. But dislocated people are not resolute or self-assured in these ways, even if they manage to avoid overt addiction.

The political confrontations that must occur, will require courage and resolution on a mass scale, if they are to re-organize a world economic system that mass produces addiction and environmental destruction at the same time, yet each turn of the screw of the vicious cycle produces more and more dislocated and addicted people with less and less of the kind of solid values and beliefs that make brave, sustained resolution possible.

Misplaced Missionary Zeal

I keep running into people with no credentials in climate science who are eager to persuade me that there is no man-made climate change or any other environmental crisis. These people argue their dubious positions with missionary zeal and back them up with carefully selected and pre-digested data. Often they direct ugly innuendo and outright slander towards those who disagree with them, making civil discussion impossible. Their position is improbable on the face of it, according to the overwhelming majority of climate scientists (Klein, 2014a), but finds ample support in the corporate mass media, especially Fox News.

Over the decades, I have maintained my friendship with two people who defend the position that there is no man-made climate change with missionary zeal, in spite of the ever-increasing evidence to the contrary. Both of these men are kind, intelligent, reflective human beings, so I cannot explain them with simplistic stereotypes. Rather I struggle to understand how they can think as they do. They both know that they are mysteries that I am trying to solve.

In my view, both men are dislocated, fragile human beings – perhaps a bit more than average, but not much -- who are particularly terrified by the disruption of an established political and economic order that will inevitably follow the reduction of emissions from the standard fissile-fuel-based industries (Klein, 2014). For them, the established order of a bad system controlled by the military and multinational corporations is less terrifying than the spectre of revolutionary chaos. It is altogether possible that they may prove to be right about this.

Moreover, as I understand them, admiration for the hard-driving executives who are raping the environment, fragmenting societies, and dislocating human beings is a defense against realizing how badly they themselves have been dislocated and how dismally they have been able to adapt to it personally. Their own addictions are not nearly as socially defensible as the publicly known addictions of the hard-driving executives that they admire.They seem to identify with these executives as a way of enhancing their own identities and denying how weak they sometimes feel themselves! This kind of thinking has been called the “ultimate yuppie fantasy” (Wainwright, 2015).

Moreover, one of these two men watches Fox News for hours every day. I think he finds a kind of “virtual” friendship there to fill some of the gaps in a lonely life, in the same way that a Vancouver street drug addict finds friendship on the downtown east side.

These conclusions are not based on careful clinical studies, but personal observations over decades. I have discussed these ideas with both of my friends. The Canadian one sometimes (but not always) agrees with my psychologizing, although he appears to feel guilty when he does. The American one just says I am a Communist, pure and simple, but he forgives me to some extent, partly because I am one of the only people who will sit for hours and watch Fox News for hours with him.

Although it pains me to say it, green warriors with no credentials in climate science sometimes overstate the certainty of scientific predictions and guesses about future dangers with a similar missionary zeal. Although I share their sense of urgency, their exaggerations and reckless claims have been highly publicized and then used to discredit the rational science of the environmental movement (Mann, 2014). I fear that a similar fear may explain this. Perhaps, like climate change deniers, dislocated climate change overstaters cannot find the courage to live, and act upon, truths that must be stated in the form of probabilities, rather than absolute certainties.

I have used these five grim realities to show that the vicious cycle that explains addiction as a consequence of dislocation and ultimately societal fragmentation also helps to understand why the environmental crisis arose and why it is so difficult of overcome.


I am convinced that overcoming the flood of addiction along with the environmental crisis will ultimately require nothing less than reshaping world society to eliminate the vicious cycle that simultaneously fragments society, dislocates people, engenders addiction, and destroys the environment on a mass scale. Please allow me to repeat that distressing sentence for emphasis: Overcoming the flood of addiction and the environmental crisis will ultimately require nothing less than reshaping world society to eliminate a vicious cycle that fragments society, dislocates people, causes addiction, and destroys the environment on a mass scale.

When I was younger, people used to accuse me of youthful naiveté when I said things like that. Obviously that accusation is no longer credible! In my old age, I find myself more and more convinced, as are many of our greatest public intellectuals (Harvey, 2011; Klein, 2014; Hedges, 2015), that nothing less than a revolutionary project carried out on a global scale will save the world for our descendants.

In fact, old age makes it easier to contemplate radical change, because old people of my generation have seen amazing changes within our own life spans that we could not possibly have imagined. I think that the vicious cycle that I have described can help us to envision the goals that this revolutionary project will need to attain. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that, if the historical view is correct, the efforts of a multitude of devoted and compassionate practitioners in the treatment of addiction will never be sufficient to eliminate the flood of addictions that does so much harm to contemporary society, let alone the environmental crisis that grows, in a substantial degree, from the addiction problem. Vast efforts over the past century now force us to see that we cannot “treat” or “harm reduce” our way out of the vicious cycle any more than we could “punish” our way out of it in the earlier, darker days of the “war on drugs”.

I also fear that even the inspired efforts of environmentalists to stop the Keystone Pipelines and Northern Gateway Pipelines, shut down the Canadian tar sands, regulate fish farms, pesticides, and fertilizers, and even the dream of stopping the rising greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere do not go far enough either. Deeper structural changes in the global civilization will be required so that new man-made catastrophe’s do not take the place of the old ones. Many very serious scholars are trying to envision how these structural changes will look (Hawken, 2007; Berry, 2009; Harvey, 2011; Klein, 2014). This is the task of the hour.

Please do not understand me as saying that the current efforts to control addiction and protect the environment are unimportant or that my addiction-based analysis of the environmental crisis is the only way that it can be understood. The current efforts are an essential source of inspiration and their effects are real and important. It is just that they do not go deep enough yet.

And, although I believe that the psychology of addiction provides a level of analysis that can help us work our way out of our environmental crisis in the long term, there are many other useful analyses as well (Gifford, 2011; Klein, 2015b). We Earthlings will need to address our environmental problem on many levels and many time scales in the next few years. The utility of each analysis will only be revealed as we experiment with putting them into practice.

“Deep Cultural Therapy”

Thomas Berry’s book, The Sacred Universe (Berry, 2009), has helped me to see the need for an integration of physical science, evolutionary biology, social science, psychology, and spirituality in the reshaping of world society must occur if the twin problems of addiction and environmental destruction are to be overcome. (There may well be a valuable place for neuroscience in this collaboration too, although it is not evident yet). In his analysis, Berry has coined a very useful phrase that appears in italics in the following quote:
What is most needed in addition to the new technologies integrating our human needs with solar energy and the organic functioning of planetary life systems is a deep cultural therapy that will identify the sources of our pathology and provide a way of returning to the jubilant life expression that should characterize any human mode of being (Berry, 2009, p. 138, italics added).

Berry’s book awoke me, after a long lifetime as a contented atheist, to the realization that no solution can be complete without a spiritual component. So much human energy is inspired by spiritual images and language and motivated by spiritual fellowship that spirituality cannot be ignored by any sensible person in times of social change. Besides, Berry made me deeply feel things that I had previously only thought about intellectually.

But, what would “deep cultural therapy” or, as I called it earlier this evening, “reshaping modern society to eliminate the vicious cycle” look like? Unfortunately, tonight’s lecture format only allows time to discuss a couple of my ideas about deep cultural therapy. I wish it were possible on this occasion to discuss your ideas as well, because this is the great issue of the day and it will require many minds to resolve it adequately.

For simplicity, tonight, I will view deep cultural therapy as an attempt to interrupt the vicious cycle that is depicted in the historical view of addiction and environmental catastrophe. So I will keep the historical view of addiction in full view as I discuss deep cultural therapy. First, I directly consider the problem of addiction, then I will move on to confronting the colossus of global capitalism. I have more ideas that I would love to present but they do not fit the time limitations.

Treatment of Dislocation and Addiction

The vicious cycle could be interrupted by relieving individuals of the burden of addiction and thus relieving society of the consequences of addiction. Literally billions of dollars have been spent trying to do that, with only a little success. Here are the best-known approaches to intervention over the past century.
1. Punish drug users, ultimately to the extent of a “war” on drugs.
2. Treat, cure, or modify addictive thinking and behaviour with medical or psychological treatment.
3. Eliminate both punishment and treatment because, from the contemporary libertarian point of view, “addiction” is a moralistic social construction. People have the right to live as they like. If people find that addiction does not serve them, they will stop. This approach calls for both legalization of drug use and tolerance of addiction.
4.Reduce harm by offering addicted people less harmful ways to satisfy their addictive needs, while maintaining the option of voluntary treatment.
5. Intervene spiritually to help people to learn to bear the inevitable dislocation of a fragmented world. This idea is built into the Serenity Prayer of the 12-step movement as well as into ancient spiritual traditions and modern meditation practices. Therapy-linked experiences with ayahuasca and other psychedelic drugs are also used for this purpose, among others.
6. Organize a less dislocated life in local society, in collaboration with other dislocated people. When specifically aimed at addictions, this is called the Recovery Movement. Sometimes this is done within 12-step groups and other self-help groups and sometimes within local community groups that do not focus directly on addiction, but more broadly on dislocation. Sometimes professional help from social workers or psychological counselors is also involved.
7. Restructuring the world on national and international level to reduce fragmentation, dislocation, and addiction. In other words, interrupt the vicious cycle that perpetuates both addiction and environmental crisis.

Having worked within institutions committed to several of these approaches, I have seen first hand how many conscientious and compassionate people are at work on each of them. Each approach can justly claim some successes: Even advocates of punishment can point to some people who have abandoned addictions and changed their lives for the better under duress. Moreover, few workers thinking can be completely pigeon-holed within a single one of these seven ways of thinking; most allow for the importance of one or more others. Nonetheless, somehow, each of the seven kinds of practitioners tends to regard the other six with disapproval, which can range from mild amusement to dark contempt. I think all this mutual disapproval is counterproductive: All seven practices deserve acknowledgement for their compassionate intentions and for the people that they have helped over the years.

However, it must be said that until now, all seven together have not accomplished much. The flood of addiction is rising, not receding, and the environmental situation is becoming catastrophic. I think that, once addiction is understood historically, it becomes clear the best solution lies in much greater emphasis on the seventh of these approaches.

I will look at each approach briefly in my remaining minutes:

1. Punish drug users, to the extent of declaring a “war” on drugs.

This was the dominant approach in the late 19th century and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. It is based on the assumption that drug addiction is a wilful act of evil. It disregards the both the historical view of addiction of addiction as a desperate attempt at adaptation and the Official View of addiction as a disease.

The outcome of a century of drug war has been ghastly (Alexander, 1990; Hari, 2014). But, faith in drug wars has still not entirely disappeared. It is still evident, for example, in the rhetoric and actions of the Harper government of Canada (Macpherson, 2014; Webster, 2014; Woo, 2015).

MY VIEW: The war on drugs is an idea whose time has passed among well-informed people virtually everywhere (except in the Harper government). However, although this misbegotten war has proven to be a futile exercise in ham-handed violence, ending it will not solve our addiction or environmental problems. Moreover, its natural demise should not provoke an overreaction.It should not take away the power of communities to regulate their local society or of parents to control their children in a kind and sensible way. There is much to be said for the politics of reasonable, local regulation of drugs that are worrisome to local societies, as illustrated by The Canada Temperance Act of 1878 (see Alexander, 2010, pp. 379-382).

However, even the best imaginable national and international drug policies can never have much effect on the vicious cycle of addiction and environmental destruction.

2. Cure or modify addictive thinking and behaviour with medical or psychological treatment that does not give much attention to the person's social situation such as CBT, naltrexone, nalmefene, Antabuse, acamprosate, vaccines against various drugs, megavitamins, ghrelin hormone, and some kinds of personal counselling, psychoanalysis, and monitoring, and so on.

Some kinds of treatment are, of course, much more concerned with ameliorating the underlying dislocation than simply curing or modifying addictive behaviour; these forms of treatment will be considered later, under the heading of the Recovery Movement.

MY VIEW: Medical and psychological treatments that focus on addictive thinking and behaviour with little or no concern for the underlying problems of fragmentation and dislocation have failed to do much good. Focussing on addiction without dealing with dislocation is a lot like trying to treat the symptoms of diabetes without controlling a patient’s sugar intake. This kind of narrowly conceived treatment has a long history. Various miracle cures of addiction have become popular for considerable periods over the last century, and, upon closer examination, turned out to have little sustained effect (White, 1998). Nonetheless, hopes for miracle cures continues to seem plausible in the era of high-tech neuroscience, when so many other, genuine medical miracles have been produced.

Of course treatment directed at controlling addictive behaviour with little or no attention to the underlying dislocation has helped some people, particularly those who use it to augment their own natural recovery that is already in progress. Moreover, it offers the gift of social recognition and compassion even to those who are not helped by it. This kind of treatment is an expression of the natural human impulse to attempt to heal those who suffer. But, because there is no reason to think that any kind of narrowly conceived treatment can quell the ever-rising flood of addiction, I predict that it will never be more than a minor part in the solution of the problem of addiction.

3. Eliminate both punishment and treatment because, in the libertarian tradition of our times, addiction can be seen as a moralistic social construction. People who society calls addicted are basically living the way that they want to live. If people find that addiction does not work for them, they will drop it. This way of thinking points in the direction of radical legalization of drugs use and benevolently ignoring people’s addiction problems. It finds expression in the libertarian philosophy of Thomas Szasz, John Davies, Jeffrey Schaler, Peter Cohen and others, some of whom argue it with great energy.

MY VIEW: The importance of this view is that it provides a reasonable argument for ignoring minor drug addictions and simple dependence (Alexander, 2010, pp. 45-46), which people usually resolve by themselves. It also provides a basis for accepting the usually benign marijuana culture of many young adults in Canada and other countries.

However, I think it is a mistake to ignore severe addiction, which often entails terrible suffering and social harm. Although many severely addicted people do recover naturally, there are literally millions who do not. And even if our interventions do not work for most people, they do work for some and should be available.

4. Reduce Harm by offering addicted people less harmful ways to satisfy their addictive needs. Methadone, buprenorphine, Suboxone, heroin maintenance, needle exchanges, safe injection sites are offered to drug addicted people in many places. In recent times, harm reduction is often represented as a kind of treatment, but it is not, since its primary function is not to overcome addiction, but to enable people to survive despite their use of potentially harmful drugs. However, addicted people who are receiving harm reduction services are often offered access to treatment facilities as well.

MY VIEW: Harm reduction has proved itself valuable for many people who desperately need drugs to function in the world but are not addicted to the more self-destructive or criminal aspects of the injecting drug user life style. Harm reduction saves lives of many people that would otherwise be lost to needle-born diseases, overdoses, and violence. And it keeps people out of jail. It reduces the harm that desperate street drug users do to society as well. Vancouver has become a model city for Harm Reduction in North America.

The term, harm reduction, has so far been mostly limited to drug and alcohol addictions, but it is being applied to other addictions as well, often without recognizing the connection with drug-oriented “harm reduction”. For example penny slot machines in casinos, non-sadistic video games, and regulated pornography (to eliminate child and sadistic porn). I think there is room for expansion of harm reduction into other kinds of addiction as well.

Still, harm reduction leaves the underlying problem of addiction unsolved and only minimally reduces the harmful consequences of addiction on society, because it is essentially limited to drug addiction. Although I have been an enthusiastic part of the harm reduction movement throughout much of my career, I predict that, like biomedical and psychological treatment, it will eventually have only a small role in the solution of the addiction problem or of the environmental problems that are interlaced with it.

5. Intervene spiritually to help people to learn to bear their inevitable dislocation in a fragmented world. The dominant theme of this solution is working to helping people learn to keep their attention on the immediate experience of the current moment, and away from ugly images from their past, oppressive worries and unrealistic hopes in the present, and fear of the future (Chödrön, 2000, esp. chap. 7; Eckhardt Tolle, 2005; Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn, 2007).

Some times this kind of intervention is put in a language reminiscent of Rat Park and we say that addicted people have “built their own cages” in their minds, and they can escape their cages by clearing their minds. According to this view, the pain and fear arising from the dislocation that comes from living in a fragmented society can be peripheralized by concentrating attention on the present moment, allowing people can function as if they were less dislocated than they are.

MY VIEW: Ameliorating the pain of dislocation can be very helpful. I believe that it protects some dislocated people from depression, addiction, or suicide. I know that my occasional forays into eastern spiritual practices have been good for my marriage (my wife agrees!) and that practicing mindfulness helps me to be a safer automobile driver in my old age.

But these spiritual interventions are far from an adequate solution to the problem of addiction. It is impossible to get rid of dislocation without addressing the social fragmentation that underlies it. Our perceptions and feelings are not simply self-generated, but are substantially controlled by our surroundings, especially our social world. Even if we can handle our reactions to the severely fragmented world we occupy in the most enlightened possible way, we may still experience severe dislocation if we live in a fragmented world. A complete solution to the addiction problem requires not only peripheralizing the experience of dislocation, but reducing the fragmentation that makes it so difficult for people to put together a life that contains enough belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose to keep dislocation at bay.

I also have misgivings about some living-in-the-present-moment doctrines, because they seem to encourage self-centeredness. I think living a full life depends on directing full attention to the outer world and the challenges of the future as informed by memories of the past, rather than focussing too intently on oneself in the present moment. One of the chief problems of addicted people is that they never stop focussing on themselves and their immediate needs and fears. Of course there are moments when we need to take care of ourselves alone, but this seems to me far from an adequate philosophy of life.

I am uncertain about this issue, because so many of my friends disagree with me. I have participated in such practices myself (Yoga, Vipassana Meditation, and Mindfulness based meditation), and have benefitted from them. But in the end, I fear that like treatment and harm reduction, they will comprise only a small part of the solution to the vicious cycle that generates both addiction and environmental destruction.

Stanton Peele has suggested that there is a place for mindfulness at the beginning of a treatment program for addiction, but that to work effectively, treatment must move on to other kinds of transformation (Peele and Thompson, 2014). I think that these other kinds of transformation must goes as far as transforming the fragmented environment in which a person lives.

6. Organize with others to transform society on a local level so that people can live a less dislocated life. When this is done specifically by people who are struggling with addictions it is called the “Recovery Movement.” I have seen many more of the groups that comprise the Recovery Movement in Vancouver and elsewhere than I can mention here: Heart of the City Festival; St. James Music Academy; Vancouver Moving Theatre; many endeavours of the Portland Hotel Society (e.g., The Life Skills project), Addaction, Housing First, Gaadejuristen, A Community Aware.

Much personal counseling and social work can be considered part of the recovery movement as well, when it focuses on getting people to find a place in their community and to and develop the skills necessary to keep it. Professionals often steer people towards AA and other recovery groups. Some work with children in the Recovery Movement in a preventative way, long before they are at risk of any visible addiction: The St. James Music Academy in Vancouver is a wonderful example of this.

MY VIEW: Historical and clinical studies of addiction reveal that when people’s dislocation is overcome, most of them have no more need for their addictions. However, it is extremely difficult to help people overcome their dislocation, for two reasons. The first is that even in a more welcoming world, it is difficult for people who have been harmed by earlier dislocation and addiction to achieve psychosocial integration. The second is that there is no universal formula for overcoming dislocation. Each person has a unique set of requirements for what constitutes a full-enough life (this is why culture allow so many different roles for different people). A local culture that minimizes dislocation has to be constructed painstakingly over a considerable period of time, probably generations, and it is difficult to know in advance what combination of possibilities will provide a basis for psychosocial integration in most people.

“Psychosocial integration” is confusing jargon, because the phrase gives the impression that we know the recipe to create it, but we do not. We know how to put elements that support it in place, but we don’t know how to breathe life into them. In a sense it is like the biology of life itself: We know what all the ingredients are but we do not know how to breathe life into them. As some point we just have to do all that we can and sit back and wait, and hope, for the results to come – and they often do. Peter G. White uses the concept of “vocation” to discuss this issue within the overlapping domains of psychology and theology in terms of the concept of “vocation”.

7. Ultimately, changing the vicious cycle that underlies both addiction and the eco-crisis will require nothing less than reshaping world society to eliminate the vicious cycle that is depicted by the historical view. Obviously, this kind of change must come much more at the national and international level than at the individual or local level.

The clearest statement of the need for macro level change that I know is contained in a legend first told to me by a native grandmother who was also a drug counsellor for her people. She told me that drug counsellors of her tribe in northern Canada sit by the side of a raging northern mountain river and watch. When they see somebody being swept away in the raging white water they jump in to rescue them. They know how to find a path through the rapids to the drowning swimmer because their elders have told them where the rocks are hidden. Using all their strength, they eventually reach the drowning swimmer and drag him or her through the torrent to the shore and with their last once of strength heave them up on the bank.
Sometimes it is too late and the effort is wasted. The drowning swimmer slips right off the riverbank and is lost again in the foam. But sometimes the swimmer stands up and walks from the river into the forest, re-joining the people and returning to the land.
When that happens, the storyteller told me, counsellors feel that they are warriors and they swell with pride. They would feel that they are making a great contribution except…

… except that some son-of-a-bitch upstream is throwing more and more people into the water all the time and the counsellors eventually realize that they are not winning but losing for all their heroic efforts.

I believe that we who care about addiction and the environment must continue the heroic rescue work, but that the even more vital task is getting rid of “the son of a bitch upstream,” i.e., the vicious cycle that is depicted by the historical view of addiction.

And when we get around to facing the fact that there truly is a son of a bitch upstream, we will also need to face the fact that we don’t know what to do about it yet, despite the vast sophistication that we have achieved in understanding addiction and environmental issues. People sometimes say that if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can solve our addiction and environmental problems.But is this right? I am fond of a quote from Ed Ayers who pointed out that:
Building a lovable world isn’t rocket science; it’s far more complex than that. (quoted by Klein, 2014, p. 280).

This brings me to the second aspect of deep cultural therapy that I will have time to discuss this evening. The second aspect requires facing up to the most intimidating and obvious problem of our times, the colossus of global capitalism.

Confronting Global Capitalism

As time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no “market solution” to either the environmental crisis or the flood of addiction. The market solutions that have been proclaimed include countless for-profit addiction treatment programs; the miracle addiction remedies being promoted by pharmaceutical companies; the transformative environmental interventions of so-called “green billionaires” or “Gaia capitalists”; the ill-fated “carbon tax” schemes; and the conservation organizations that are funded by large corporations with vested interests in keeping things as they are (White, 1998; Klein, 2014, chaps. 6, 7).
It is much easier to show that capitalism is a major cause of the addiction and environmental problems, than that it can be part of the solution. As the historical view reveals, both the flood of addictions and the environmental crisis are the products of the modern historical era, in which market capitalism plays a central role. All indications are that contemporary neo-liberal capitalism is exacerbating both our addiction and our environmental problems even more rapidly than older forms of capitalism.

No matter what else happens, rapacious billionaires absolutely have to be stopped from their present practice of buying elections and politicians who are willing to organize the world for the convenience and profit of their multinational corporations and banks. Dispossession of many of the worst capitalists and capitalist corporations from their positions of entrenched power will be necessary, and this dispossession probably cannot be painless (Harvey, 2011, chap. 8).  Also, the absurd system of money and banking that has come to dominate the planet must be reformed, as three centuries of economic thinkers have testified (Rowbotham, 1998).

On the spiritual level, a kind of theocracy that Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox has identified with the “market god” (Cox, 1999) must be confronted and exposed for what it is. The secular version of this theocracy is the simplistic neoliberal economic doctrine of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, but people’s unthinking devotion to this doctrine goes far beyond secular commitment. It often takes the form of blind faith and cruel persecution of its opponents. Because we in the western hemisphere grew up with it, this economic doctrine/religion occupies at least a part of minds of most people living today, certainly including myself.

The theocracy of the market god glorifies billionaires who rape the earth with no greater justification than enriching their stockholders. It celebrates the contributions to the GDP of mindless consumers who waste the bounty of the earth in their vain efforts to buy happiness. It reveres economic doctrines that are demonstrably wrong as if they were unchallengeable dogma (Rowbotham, 1998; Harvey, 2011). Its acolytes have spoiled the beautiful dream of national democracy by buying control of the governments and communications media in the dwindling democracies of North America and Western Europe (Wolin, 2008; Hedges, 2009; Klein, 2014; Dobbin, 2015, Engelhardt, 2015).

Within the theocracy of the market god it has seemed reasonable for psychologists and spiritual gurus to preach doctrines that, beneath their flowery rhetoric, are essentially aimed at producing nothing more than individual happiness without changing the global society that leaves countless millions of people in starvation, virtual slavery, and political domination by merciless corporations. The wisdom of every great ancient cultural and religious tradition is that a person who cares for nothing more than his or her own happiness is less than a full human being. (e.g., Alexander & Shelton, 2014, chaps. 2-4). This ancient wisdom has been profaned by the relatively new slogans of the market god (“Greed is Good”) and the truncated spiritual traditions that have become so popular and profitable.

Surely, the theocracy of the market god must be superceded by faiths that care for the well being of human beings and the planet earth. This is a huge, metaphysical and political struggle that began in early modernity on the spiritual as well as the political level and continues today (Polanyi, 1944; Hill, 1973; McLeod & McLeod, 1987; Lerner, 2006; Berry, 2009; Blaikie, 2011; Klein, 2014).

But overcoming the hegemony of corporate power and economic theocracy is not as simple as “overthrowing capitalism”, although that rallying cry is often heard. That slogan contains more than a bit of the simplistic moonshot mentality that Ed Ayers warned against.

Although much of the addiction and environmental problem has come from multinational capitalist corporations and banks, as well as from the immense power of the dominant capitalist countries of the globe, it also has also come from the political and economic institutions of social democratic, socialist, and communist societies. Brazil’s Petrobras, Norway’s Statoil, and PetroChina are contemporary examples (Klein, 2014, p. 130, 159; Harvey, 2011, pp. 273-274).

Moreover, capitalism is a hugely adaptable economic and social arrangement and it is entirely possible that a future global economic and political system that works for human well-being and for the environment will retain some, or even many, capitalist elements, especially as these appear in small businesses. Many of the entities that work today against the vicious cycle today are small private and worker-owned companies, corporations, and banks (Klein, 2014; Pollier, 2014). The Mondragon corporations in Spain provide a set of examples (Wolff, 2014). A closer-to-home example is Eco-preserve, a small corporation in the United States that contracts services to larger organizations that want to bring their buildings or airports up to legally–defined environmental standards. This is a corporation in which the well-being of the workers is an important consideration and working increases, rather than decreases, a sense of belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose.

Now, in the interest of “full disclosure” I must make a small confession, although perhaps I should have made it earlier: My wife and I have five children. Two of them have been heavily involved with capitalism since their young adulthood. One is now a full-blown landlord, who has owned a couple of successful small businesses in British Columbia, currently a music rehearsal studio rental business. The other is CEO of the the small corporation called Eco-Preserve this is discussed in the previous paragraph. I have also met owners and CEOs of a handful of other small businesses and corporations in Canada.

Over the years, my two capitalist children and these friends have done me the great service of showing how small business enterprises can be creative, moral contributors to their community, and can provide opportunities for bright young people (including the owners as well as their employees) to find belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose in an otherwise fragmented world.

Just as ending the vicious cycle is not as easy as simply “overthrowing capitalism,” it is also not as simple as restoring the traditional cultures of our tribal ancestors, because traditional cultures in their pure forms have mostly been destroyed or rendered impossible on an highly technologized planet with 7 billion human inhabitants. A majority of people now live in cities of irretrievably mixed ethnicity. The flow of information in an emerging modern world culture throws us into a sea of diverse cultural ideas and values, because we have such different ancestries. Most of these cultural ideals are valid and sensible but they will not blend into a coherent whole without dedicated effort. "Retribalizing" society is an appealing slogan and an essential part of the solution to the vicious cycle, but it is a hugely complex undertaking.

The future world society will necessarily be constructed by creative fusion of the must useful elements of capitalist modernity with elements of the traditional cultures of the globe, and with the brand new social thinking that is emerging in this era of crisis and innovation. Nobody can say with certainty what that fusion will look like or that achieving it will be painless. Nonetheless, seeking it can be a great multi-cultural adventure.

Millions of other people are blazing the trail towards this uncertain future on the basis of their own life experiences. Paul Hawken has estimated that there are at least a million grass roots organizations in the world that are seriously engaged in trying to change to world among the broad umbrella of environmentalism and democracy. He aptly refers to these groups with the phrase “Blessed Unrest” (Hawken, 2007).

These groups protest pipelines, clear-cuts, overfishing, strip mining and the appropriation of lakes as tailings ponds. They organize community gardens, musical and theatrical training in poor neighbourhoods, clean-ups after oil spills, and environmental education centers for children. They help people to see through deceptive advertising and live more healthy lives. They create meaningful art, such as paintings of organic farms and farmers, classical music from orchestras and choruses composed of children of poverty, and rap groups that tell it like it is. They create prayer circles and spiritual ceremonies that celebrate and cherish the nature that environs us all, and sponsor community services for human beings in malls that were formerly no more than the temples of profit-making corporations. I meet these people everywhere I go and they fill me with joy. (Hawken, 2007; Klein, 2014).

No one of these organizations can restructure society and interrupt the vicious cycle by itself, but collectively, a million of them can! Revolutions do not have to be murderous but they do have to mobilize so many people and groups that they become irresistible. And they have to learn to coordinate themselves so that the world is changed in a coherent way that resolves the fundamental problems that bedevil it. The best hope for being a part of the solution to the environmental crisis as well as the psychological problems of the twenty-first century is to become an active part of one of these organizations that are working hard to shape the future.

Participating in changing the world is also one of the best possible therapies for dislocation and addiction. When people find a place in a functioning environmental or social change organization, they can expect to experience a surge of belongingness, identity, meaningfulness, and purposefulness. The organizations urgently need energy and support from new participants and offer deep, meaningful fellowship in return.
Some of the most recovered formerly-addicted-people I know are devoting the energy they formerly wasted on their addictions to the environmental and social justice movements. Not only does this work give them a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose, it gives them a deep sense of meaning, because they are working directly on what may be the most important problem facing the human species today. They appear to leave their addictions behind with confidence.

The most important conclusion in all this for me is that I must devote myself to the environmental problem and the great variety of problems that are intertwined with it, but I do not have to solve it single-handedly. This is not a project for superhero’s, but for ordinary people working together, patiently and resolutely. And if I reflect upon myself as a person who has endured painful dislocation at various portions of my life, I am thrilled to know that doing what is good for the earth will bring me in contact with the best people around, and that they need my help. What is good for the planet is good for me in the most important of ways.

Looking at successful social movements of the past allows the reasonable expectation of a culminating moment of shared accomplishment that transcends the satisfaction of the patient revolutionary labours that must precede it. Naomi Klein points out that:
During extraordinary historical moments – both world wars, the aftermath of the Great Depression, or the peak of the civil rights era – the usual categories dividing “activists” and “regular people” became meaningless because the project of changing society was so deeply woven into the project of life. Activists were, quite simply, everyone. (Naomi Klein, 2014, p. 459). 

I would add to Naomi Klein’s insight that, during such periods, dislocation and its offspring, addiction, become rarities. I think I had a faint glimpse of what such a society could look like and how it would feel in the late 1960s, when I felt a part of the swelling community of resistance to the Viet Nam War in the United States.

But the backlash against that anti-war movement that followed its temporary triumph was well funded and relentless. The task that we who participated in that movement a half-century ago envisioned did not reach completion (although the Vietnam War itself ended). Many of the dedicated activists, myself included, had to leave the country of their birth out of shame over what it had become, or fear of reprisal.

But, beneath the surface, people have carried the work forward throughout my entire lifetime in Canada. The crisis is now more full recognized as environmental and psychological as well as political. Let us hope that the work will eventually reach a conclusion, or at least a time where we can all feel comfortable to pause to rest for a while and reflect on our accomplishments.

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