How Does Addiction Relate to Our Relationship to the Living World?
How Does Addiction Relate to Our Relationship to the Living World?
By Sarah Levine /

The recently published piece titled ‘The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think' gave me a lot of food for thought for how we relate to the phenomena of addiction, and how society goes about treating it.

As a budding cultural ecologist and student of the emerging field of Ecopsychology, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between our relationship to addiction, drugs, and recovery and our relationship to oil, gas, coal, unchecked capitalism, and all the things that we think we need to keep investing in despite knowing that they aren’t serving us or the rest of life on Earth anymore.

How does addiction relate to our relationship to the living world? How have we, as a society, treated our planet and interpreted how to deal with the ecological crisis that we are currently faced with? After all, the way that we treat humans who are struggling with addiction does influence how we interpret the larger abuses that our society is acting out; the incessant fossil fuel extraction, the land grabbing, and the daily fixes that our civilization must maintain in order to keep up with business as usual. Any analysis of addiction in the wake of global climate change would benefit greatly from considering what we depend on in order to maintain our civilization, and whether those processes are helping or hindering our ability to function psychologically. As we grow into a more holistic understanding of addiction and we awaken to the redundancy of the war on drugs, perhaps we can grow in our capacity to develop more sophisticated psychological frameworks for mending our ecological crisis as well.

In the article, author Johann Hari explores traditional models of addiction. He speaks of the age-old experiment of putting a rat in a cage all alone with nothing but two water bottles to drink out of. One bottle contains just water, and the other is laced with cocaine. Lo and behold, the rat fancies the bottle that contains the laced batch, and proceeds to repeatedly and addictively drink from it until it dies. This scientific experiment has archetypally characterized what it means to be addicted to drugs, and because of its over simplification and focus merely on the physical ‘hijacking of the brain’, it has limited our sense of understanding into the deeper implications of what addiction really means, and how to deal with the delicate process of recovery. It victimizes the addict, and disregards the circumstance.

This experiment was revisited again in the 1970s by psychology professor Bruce Alexander who wanted to pry a bit deeper. He noticed that in the original experiment, the rat was in a cage, all alone, with nothing to do but drink cocaine infused water and get high all day. Bruce decided to throw in some additional features to spice things up a bit. He built a ‘Rat Park’, which included toys, tunnels, and other rats to interact with. The bottles were administered in this new environment and the results were as follows:

“The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”

After this experiment, he took the rats out of the Rat Park and placed them into isolation where they were exposed to nothing but the two bottles again for fifty-seven days. After they were sufficiently hooked on cocaine and probably in the worst shape of their lives, they were invited back into the Rat Park, alongside friends and toys. Alexander then observed that they had quite an amazing ability to adjust to the new environment rather quickly. The rats underwent minor withdrawal symptoms, which soon subsided before they began to live a normal life again. “The good cage saved them,” he writes.

What we can learn from these experiments is that addicts stay hooked and often die if there is not a healthy environment for them to transition to. Similarly, our ecological crisis is largely a crisis of addiction. To explore this idea, I turn to a 2009 report in the journal Ecopsychology, where author Christopher Bailey draws parallels between the way addiction is classified in the DSM and how those bullet points can actually apply to the way our society uses resources. To summarize, the more fossil fuels that we use, the deeper we have to drill in order to access them, and the more exotic the methods (take tar sands, for example). This is a classic symptom of addiction, as addicts typically go to great lengths to keep using despite knowing that their resources are being depleted, and that they are bound to run out and wreak havoc along the way.

Another way of classifying addiction that Bailey alludes to is that addicts typically keep using despite knowing that the problem is caused or exacerbated by the substance itself. Similarly, we are continuing to drill, extract, frack, mine, emit, blow up, melt down, convert, refine, etc., despite knowing that continuing to perform this suicidal alchemy is physically diminishing our planet’s ability to function while compromising other species’ ability to adapt and survive. We continue to use the drug (oil, gas, coal) even though they are accelerating climate change and contributing to the largest extinction event that our planet has experienced in the last 65 million years. We are doing this with awareness of what is happening and the knowledge that we are perpetuating it. This is addiction in its most delusional phase, a phase that we, as a society, are just now beginning to wake up from. As we wipe the sleep from our eyes as a culture and politicians can no longer get away with denying the mounting scientific evidence, we can finally begin to embark on the process of recovery. This is a process that will outlive us, but one that our generation can play a very important role in beginning.

What we learn about the process of recovery according to Hari is that it works best when there is an alternative model. He writes, “You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.” In short, we need a fundamentally different operating system, as Buckminster Fuller most notably refers to it, one filled with new toys and tunnels, attitudes and behaviors, and one that feeds back into the biosphere in ways that are non-destructive, and ideally, restorative and regenerative.

So, instead of attacking institutions, policies, corporations and individuals that contribute most to accelerating climate change, we could be looking at this issue from a much broader perspective. Although calling out the perpetrators and profiteers of climate change is critically important to the environmental movement (and I am not suggesting we do any less of it), we must now go beyond that if we want to achieve substantial change. The type of environmentalism that attacks without offering solutions is rooted in the same mentality that the war on drugs is, one that locks people up in cages and essentially perpetuates that which they are against. It is a psychological construct that may work temporarily to fend off destruction, but doesn’t and can never equate to systemic change that would characterize the healthier society that we all want to live in.

Don’t get me wrong, we need resistance, resistance is beautiful, and resistance works, as the recent ban on fracking in New York so beautifully demonstrates. Our planet’s life support system is currently threatened on almost every physical level and we should defend it with everything we’ve got. All I am suggesting is that we work to invest our energy both in dismantling the old, but not as much as we invest in building the new. For in creating the new models of how our society can operate, even if it’s just in theory, we are dismantling the power structures that are destroying our planet’s life support system, while paving the way for a more sustainable society to emerge.

Hari concludes in his article that addiction is really just a search for meaningful connection. When there aren’t substantial or healthy ways to forge connections in the environment, people turn to drugs in an effort to fill the void within. I see addiction as a symptom of a larger disconnection from the Earth, from other species, and from each other. This is the kind of healing that needs to be addressed in order for us to truly begin to transition away from our addiction to fossil fuels, and get on a path towards sustained recovery, both individually and collectively.

I find myself returning, time and time again, to the wisdom of the late psychologist James Hillman,

“Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.”

The more we tend to and heal civilizational pathologies of addiction, the less it will take form in the life of an individual, and the healthier we will be as a culture waking up to its fundamental interdependence with all forms of life on this wild and beautiful planet of ours, a planet patiently waiting for us to pay closer attention.



Hari, Johann, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think, January 2015,

Hillman, James. A Psyche the Size of the Earth. Ecobuddhism. 1995.

Christopher Bailey. Ecopsychology. September 2009, 1(3): 154-157. doi:10.1089/eco.2009.0022.

Cover image: Spiral Speak, by Sam Brown

Image by Dan Mihai, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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How Does Addiction Relate to Our Relationship to the Living World?