Addiction to industrialisation

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Addiction is a powerful thing. You only have to observe an alcoholic or a heroin addict to understand how controlling and debilitating it is. An alcoholic who recognises in themselves that they have a problem knows that their life would be much better off without booze. Most understand that it is ruining all the relationships in their life that they hold dear, some even know that it will eventually kill them unless they stop. Despite the fact that it is not making them happy, they still can’t help themselves from doing it.

We now know that incessant economic growth, which I’ve argued can only be facilitated by a tool such as money, is making planet Earth uninhabitable for between 150-200 species every day (that’s up to 73,000 species a year, and that’s just the species we know about).(61) It may only be a matter of time before we join that statistic, not that we should consider ourselves any more noteworthy than the others: the Dodo, the Tasmanian Tiger, the Passenger Pigeon, the Po’ouli, the West African Black Rhinoceros – the list is tear-jerkingly long. Despite this, we also know that incessant economic growth is not making us happy – the person whose thirst is unquenchable can never be satisfied.

But we’re addicted. Addicted to growth, to more, to bigger, to faster, to status, to the illusion of certainty, to convenience, to mediocrity, to an unhealthy and unbalanced level of comfort, to processed food, to conformity, to non-stop round-the-clock everything. We’re addicted to consuming the planet, and with it all the elemental building blocks that make up our flesh and bone. We’re killing both our egocentric and holistic selves, and we can’t seem to help either.

Such addiction is not the most common barrier to voluntary simplicity and moneyless living that people relay to me. Not unsurprisingly, few cite it.
Yet I regularly meet people who say they’d really like to change but who then tell me they can’t. They seem so hooked on their old habits they can’t let them go. Is this addiction, and if so how can we overcome it? To find out more, I interviewed Dr. Chris Johnstone, who worked as an addictions specialist in the UK’s National Health Service for nearly 20 years. His books Find Your Power(62) and Active Hope(63) (co-written with Joanna Macy) apply insights from addiction recovery to tackling global issues.

MB: What is addiction?
CJ: Addiction is where we become so attached to using a substance or behaviour that we experience an overwhelming desire for it, keep repeating it even when we know it is harmful, and have difficulties controlling our use of it. This is well recognised with alcohol and drug use, but it is also seen with behaviours like gambling and over-eating. With addiction, the habit has such a strong grip on us that even when we want to change, we may find this surprisingly difficult. When we do succeed for a while, it can be hard to stick to.

MB: Can we become addicted to consumerism and spending money?
CJ: While I’d say yes, the term ‘addiction’ doesn’t have a universally agreed definition. When looking at addiction to substances, the World Health Organisation uses the term ‘dependence syndrome’ and defines this by the presence of at least three of the following six features. We can use this as a checklist when looking at our relationship with money.

a) A strong desire or sense of compulsion to use the substance.
b) Difficulties in controlling substance-taking behaviour.
c) A physiological withdrawal state when substance use has ceased or been reduced, or using the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
d) Evidence of tolerance, such that increased doses are required to achieve the same effects.
e) Progressive neglect of alternative pleasures or interests because of substance use, increased amount of time necessary to obtain or take the substance or to recover from its effects.
f) Persisting use despite clear evidence of harmful consequences.

When an alcoholic has a strong craving for alcohol, the desire is so overwhelming that it can be difficult to resist. It is not uncommon for people to feel something similar with shopping. A survey in the US suggests that up to 16% of the population have ‘compulsive buying disorder’,(64) where they experience cravings to buy things they don’t need and have difficulties controlling their shopping habit.

Tolerance, where someone needs more of a substance (or behaviour) to get the same effect, is clearly visible with consumerism. The level of consumption thought of as ‘normal’ in the industrialised world has been steadily rising for over fifty years. We’ve now reached the point where our collective appetite for resources is generating an ecological catastrophe. While addiction to alcohol, nicotine and other drugs are clearly threats to health, they’re unlikely to destroy our civilisation. Our collective hunger for more and more goods is another matter. That’s why it is worth thinking about the role of addiction here.

MB: Why are we getting hooked on more and more stuff?
CJ: If you don’t like how you feel, and you take or do something that shifts your mood towards an experience you prefer, you’re more likely to do that again. People get hooked on things that seem to work – in the short term at least. The more someone goes through the sequence of
a) I don’t like how I feel,
b) I take this stuff or do this thing, and then
c) I feel better, the more deeply ingrained this pathway becomes. After a while it happens without them even thinking about it.

The paradox is that people tend to become dependent on substances or behaviours because they see them as the solution rather than the problem. What helps recovery is recognising the difference between short-term and long-term effects. A smoker may use cigarettes to calm down, but nicotine dependence makes people more anxious. Someone may turn to alcohol to cheer themselves up, yet drinking heavily makes people more depressed. Addictive behaviour often appears to be a solution to the very problems it makes worse. This creates a vicious cycle, where the more someone relies on something the more they end up feeling they need it. This is true with consumerism too. The more we rely on buying things as the way to meet our needs, the less we develop other paths to a satisfying life.

Addiction isn’t just individual. It occurs at the level of organisations and society too. Our mainstream economic system reinforces our cultural pattern of looking to spending as a way of meeting needs. Tackling this isn’t just about individual change, even though that’s so important. We need a change in our economic system and culture too.

MB: How do we overcome these addictions? Are there a series of steps we can take?
CJ: If you’ve ever felt your use of resources was excessive, inappropriate or uncontrolled, the first step is just to notice the times this happens. Notice when what you’re doing is out of step with your values, when it doesn’t feel right. This discrepancy, even if uncomfortable, is motivating. I see it as the start of the journey of change.

The next step is to come to a decision about what you’d like to do. Is this an issue you’d like to tackle? Would you like to live a different way? Decisions are powerful, and we can make them stronger by reminding ourselves why we’ve made them.

Once you’ve made a decision, it is worth preparing yourself, selecting a specific area you’d like to tackle and identifying a first step you can take. I like the phrase ‘aim for progress rather than perfection’; it focuses your attention on immediate steps you can take from where you are now. Then you take another step, and another.
Addictions recovery groups have a saying ‘I can’t, we can’. It emphasises that we can’t do this alone, we need the support and fellowship of others tackling this too.

And lastly, recovery needs to happen at the level of our culture and society. It isn’t just an individual journey, but one we make together.

There are a few related notes. When we talk of voluntary simplicity, whether it be in the global monetary economy or the local gift economy, we can only imagine sacrifice and loss. Most people’s perception of it centres on having to give up something. But one of life’s great ironies is that you gain something much more fulfilling, meaningful and rewarding when you find the courage to trust life again and to open yourself up to a more connected way of being, than the little you let go of. Yes, there is a perceived loss, initially, but it is quickly replaced by a sense of freedom and connection that you’ll quite possibly have never experienced in your life before; that has certainly been my experience, at least.

When I first decided to give up money, I only intended to do so for a year. But after twelve months I had never been healthier, fitter or happier. Yes I did have to give up little things like going to the cinema, chocolate and delightful dealings with Her Majesty’s Revenue Commissioners, but I regained my freedom, my autonomy to only do things my heart agreed with, not to mention a sense of real control over my life again. I found parts of me that I didn’t even know existed, and I loved it. For the first time in my life I felt like I was living with awareness, with connection, with Nature. I didn’t continue because it made me miserable – I continued because I’d never felt so alive. The question has got to be: what do you value most in your life – freedom or stuff?

I came across an ‘extreme’ example of this recently listening to Tim DeChristopher, who went to jail for successfully protecting US wilderness from drilling by simply walking into a land auction and disrupting it by bidding prices up (without actually having the money to back up his bids). In an interview after being sentenced to jail, he said, “I went into this thinking, ‘It’s worth sacrificing my freedom for this’. But I feel like I did the opposite. I thought I was sacrificing my freedom, but instead I was grabbing onto my freedom and refusing to let go of it for the first time, you know? Finally accepting that I wasn’t this helpless victim of society, and couldn’t do anything to shape my own future, you know, that I didn’t have that freedom to steer the course of my life. Finally I said, ‘I have the freedom to change this situation. I’m that powerful.’ And that’s been a wonderful feeling that I’ve held onto since then.”

Life is the most incredible gift we’ll ever be given. It is an adventure, something to explore to its fullest. We would do well not to waste it, and destroy life for everything else in the process, because we were afraid to let go of our habitual behavioural patterns. One of the tragedies of this culture is that we are so afraid to die that we never really live. We live with superficial relationships that lack dependency or depth, we live with money instead of connected relationships with all in our biosphere, and therefore we live in isolation rather than community.

As long as we are addicted, we will never be free. Let’s encourage each other to face up to our individual and collective addictions, and to then help each other through them without judgement. The road certainly won’t always be easy, but it’s a truthful path and there are some incredibly beautiful places along the way. Grab your coat.