Treating unsustainability: learning from addiction

By Joern Fischer

Unsustainability is bad. Humanity is screwing up big time – what was it thinking? Humanity must change its ways. So we set targets … and fail. Have you ever noticed how similar this is to people suffering from addiction? Can we learn by drawing a parallel between the successful treatment of addiction and the successful treatment of unsustainability?

Addictions, at their root, are habituated responses to emotional pain. Individuals learn that something about them is wrong or inadequate, and to feel better reach for some kind of “drug” or pattern. This makes them feel better temporarily – but typically results in spirals of pain and shame. Feeling pain and shame makes them feel worse, of course, and so reaching for more drugs becomes highly appealing… and so on. There are of course chemical dependencies with some drugs, too, but let’s just stick to the psychological spiral for now.

How do people overcome such addictions?

It seems that what does not work is simply telling addicts that what they’re doing is “wrong”. In fact, this just reaffirms the feelings of worthlessness and pain that underlie the destructive patterns in the first place. What does tend to work is identifying the deep causes; integrating aspects of personality that were “forbidden” or suppressed earlier on in life and that caused pain or inner dissonance – shining truth on patterns of pain; and healing these patterns through compassion and love by others and to oneself. Many previous addicts also find spiritual practices and supportive peer communities useful to experience connectedness with a greater whole.

So … let’s take the jump to sustainability. Are there parallels?

If we see humanity at large as the patient, we find that humanity is overdosing on material growth. Exponential patterns of economic activity or resource extraction from an increasingly depleted planet mirror escalation of addictive behaviours that are increasingly affecting the lives and bodies of addicts.

Now, the interesting thing is that we largely treat sustainability by telling the patient he must do better. We say it’s “wrong” to have endless resource extraction – it will kill you, Mr. Humanity (or Ms., of course)! Mr. Humanity feels bad for a moment, and organizes some conferences – and sets targets. Okay, he promises, I won’t do it again! But then … he does. Again, the parallels to the addict are quite clear.

What then if we were to treat unsustainability as an addiction? We’d need to reintegrate humanity’s shadow – to look those aspects of what it is to be human in the eye that we have moralized away but that are undoubtedly there. Humanity can be physically powerful. Humanity can be sinful in so many different ways. Instead of saying these forces are “wrong” – can we lovingly look at them and recognize their presence? Can we see that humanity’s “sins” are simply humanity having lost its way? And through greater awareness of the many forces at play, can we harness their energy in constructive instead of destructive ways?

Can we find out why humanity is “acting out” the way it is – what’s it suppressing, and what as a result, is it over-compensating in its ever intensifying patterns of binge drinking? Where is humanity hurting – and what does it need to heal?

From this framing, it seems likely that the answers lie in “deep leverage points”, around paradigms and values underpinning how we organize our societies. For example, can we exchange competitiveness and individualism with care, busy-ness with being, and dissatisfaction or anger with love? Can we replace unhealthy habits (institutions) with healthy ones?

While the parallel between unsustainability and addiction doesn’t offer an immediate solution for what does work (it’s only a blog post, after all!), it does suggest that a few things might simply not work: reprimanding the addict, forcing him to resolve to do better, and setting him ultimatums and threats of further love deprivation – these aggressive methods act on shallow leverage points, and will fail. What might work is looking beneath the surface – what is humanity aching for, and how can we collectively heal an increasingly sick patient?

16 thoughts on “Treating unsustainability: learning from addiction

  1. Thanks for the post Joern – insightful as ever! I agree with you that the treatment of addiction is a useful example to draw parallels with sustainability. I also agree that certain values, paradigms, and worldviews are likely the underlying causes of our sustainability crisis. I wonder whether – just like with addition – once it goes on for long enough, habits become so entrenched that the initial cause of the sustainability crisis (addiction to consumption) has become disconnected from the original driver. So there’s a need for practical action to help get us off the downward spiral before we can even start to look at the root causes.

    I also wonder whether there’s something we can learn from the successful AA programme about how to address sustainability problems. AA’s first step is to require participants to identify their need; to own the problem for themselves; to face up to reality. I worry that certain “sustainability” initiatives (payment for ecosystem services, carbon offsetting, green growth) divert us from looking hard at the underlying problem and operate within the same paradigm of economic growth as a pathway for well-being.I think we have to get better at taking a realistic look at ourselves!

    • Thanks Chris. Yes, I agree with everything you say — indeed, first to get “crisis” under control, and then look deeper… that makes sense. A realistic look, I suppose is what things like planetary boundaries are trying to do. But this realistic look should also encompass really, truly facing the mess we’re creating — facing, with eyes and heart wide open, global inequities, species extinctions, and so on. Mr Humanity needs to feel the suffering he’s causing to himself and others… Take care! – Joern

  2. Thanks Joern
    Good reflection. I think a number of people are beginning to look at unsustainability as an addiction. Earlier this year Costanza et al made this connection (see
    “Societies, like individuals, can get trapped in patterns of behavior called social traps or “societal addictions” that provide short-term rewards but are detrimental and unsustainable in the long run. Examples include our societal addiction to inequitable over-consumption fueled by fossil energy and a “growth at all costs” economic model.” Their main point was that scenario planning was a possible part of the solution. Possibly an inadequate response but at least the root problem of unsustainability is being acknowledged as irrational and a systems problem.

    • Thanks, interesting! Indeed, the parallel is one thing — what I suggested here is that this may also imply something for the way we then deal with the problem. all the best — J

  3. Hi Joern. I just saw your message over at ResearchGate and so came to your blog. This is excellent! Are you on Facebook? If so that is the easiest place for communicating. I will share this today on my FB page Creative Systems Thinking.

  4. Pingback: Breaking addiction – Wozukunft

  5. I appreciated your post, Joern, and I agree that addicts and consumers may often react to negative emotions. However I think it would be important to recognize the inverse, that behaviour may be a reaction to positive emotions.

    I would suggest that, rather than simply consuming to remedy an inadequacy, people may consume in an attempt to gain benefits. Advertising’s often emphasises pleasure-seeking, and many goods (including potentially addictive substances like tobacco and alcohol) are deliberately associated with positive emotions such as happiness. In this light, I think it may be worth distinguishing between consumption that attempts to overcome negative emotions (e.g. dissatisfaction), consumption that is an attempt to gain positive emotions (e.g. happiness), and consumption that (as Chris Ives suggested) is disconnected from its initial drivers.

    I also think it is important to recognize that people within current systems do not only receive information suggesting that consumption is “wrong”, but also may receive information implying that consumption is either the “right” thing to do (e.g. for the economy), or at least socially acceptable.

    Thanks for getting me thinking.

    • Thanks for the feedback! Yes indeed, consumption as our common drug is indeed widely advocated … it sometimes reminds me of the drug “soma” in Huxley’s Brave New World a bit …

  6. Hi Joern –

    Thanks for writing this up.

    I have often thought that there are deep structural parallels between addictive behavior at the individual level and unsustainability at the social-economic level.

    For example, both diseases are diseases of “more!’. Both have a strong component of denial. Both have runaway positive feedback loops, where the supposed “solution” only makes the problem works.

    One of the most successful long term approaches to recovery from addiction, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, is based on spiritual principals. I would suggest that a socio-economic recovery will necessarily be based on the same.

    How does this spiritual solution play out in the social sphere, in the economic sphere? Let’s explore and figure it out!


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