‘We as a civilization are too much like someone addicted to a drug that will kill if continued and kill if suddenly withdrawn.’ (James Lovelock)1
To the surprise of commentators worldwide, in his State of the Union Address of 2006, George W. Bush began a call for investment in climate change solutions with the assertion that ‘America is addicted to oil’; that ‘the best way to break this addiction’, moreover, ‘is through technology.’2 The claim was met with displeasure by critics who, insisting on the need to differentiate between economic necessity and the euphoria of uncontrolled consumption, saw the 43rd president legitimating hyperbole habitually identified with the political left. Others have sought to demonstrate that the metaphor is not metaphorical: ‘Just as the consequences of alcohol abuse, from DUIs to cirrhosis, are symptoms, global warming is a symptom of oil addiction’.3 The tension between the two positions can be resolved by loosening the etiological criteria of addiction in line with contemporary research. In this context, it makes more sense to speak of our increasingly pathological attachment to the world of technological pharmaka made possible by oil, rather than directly for the black stuff itself. Our focus is therefore less on a narrow definition that encompasses only the stereotype of far-gone, destitute, and seemingly irrecuperable abusers of a small range of traditionally recognised addictogens, like alcohol and heroin, and more on what the social psychologist Bruce Alexander terms ‘addiction3’: a category that admits the prospect of consuming more or less anything to the extent of consequential ‘overwhelming involvement’ (shopping, eating, video games, pornography…), and which for the most part sustains the appearance of normality by denying the potential ‘fatal consequences’ of our actions.4
If, as Alexander claims, addiction is a ‘substantial and growing danger in the twenty-first century’, contrary to myth, that is not because we have been seized by uncontrollable hedonism. (We have known for coming up to thirty years that the neural mechanisms for craving are bound up with but not identical to those for pleasure.)5 It is because of the short-term therapeutic role addiction plays in facilitating our adaptation to the stressful environments of contemporary living, however detrimental it proves to be beyond that.
Foreshadowing Bush, and with a greater emphasis on the simultaneous curativity and toxicity of technology than we find in his eulogisation of ecotech, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote, back in 1977, of ‘mankind’s addiction’ to the ‘comfort offered by the exosomatic organs’. ‘This addiction’, he continued,
is completely analogous to that of the first fishes which evolved into air-breathing reptiles and thus became irrevocably addicted to air, now constitutes a predicament because the production of exosomatic organs became from a certain moment on dependent on the use of available energy and available matter stored in the bowels of the earth.6
The analogy risks being unhelpfully simplistic if read as diluting the concept of addiction to the point where even air is addictogenic. But Georgescu-Roegen’s point can be made more sophisticated by linking it back to his work on the use of technology to stave off entropy and what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms ‘psychic entropy, a disorganization of the self that impairs its effectiveness . . . to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals’.7
Through the technological organisation of our local milieus, we construct our own little ecological niches, or microworlds, and create our own interiority in the process. This is what Bernard Stiegler calls the anti-entropy of ‘work’, in strict opposition to the entropic, or ‘anthropic’, exhausting, forces of ‘labour’.8 This sense of work is fundamentally related to what Csikszentmihalyi famously calls the vitalising, ‘transcendent’ happiness of ‘flow’, or immersion in a self-contained and autotelic world of one’s own making, oblivious to the distractions of competing external stimuli. He called this ‘being in the zone’. Csikszentmihalyi also saw, however, that flow experiences, from watching television to performing surgery, can be powerfully addictive, providing zones of calm focus in the midst of bewildering transformation.9 Subsequent research, most notably by the addiction anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, has shown that the gap between therapeutic work and toxic addiction may be imperceptibly narrow. Technologies from gambling machines to smartphones, often designed explicitly with addictogenesis in mind, serve as substitutes for world- and self-creation, a means of restructuring the turmoil-afflicted mind with goals and direction, alleviating stress and anxiety⏤in other words, psychic entropy⏤for those otherwise unable to achieve flow states.10 Proponents of the ‘entropic brain theory’ in neuroscience similarly posit that stability-reinforcing patterns of activity associated with addiction (as well as OCD and depression) ‘could be functional in . . . working to resist a more catastrophic collapse [in]to’ the regression they identify with ‘primary’, or elevated-entropy, states of consciousness.11
Yet whatever the relative health, or capacity for withstanding environmental perturbation, afforded by the respite of these zones, a potentially explosive problem results from the way that local sites of anti-entropy tip out entropy into their surrounding environments, be they individual bodies or the societies that house them. Mental stability comes at a price, and one that becomes all the costlier when the stress produced by the labours of our ever-expanding technosphere goes hand-in-hand with exosomatosis, or the spiralling doses of technology needed to prop up our ailing biology and planet. This ailing has become all the more acute of late, on account not just of climate change, but moreover because of a mooted ‘evolutionary mismatch’ between the anthropic forcings and pressures exerted on us by our technologically organised milieus, and the ability to accommodate them of our evolved (‘endosomatic’) physiology most notably, an overburdened and increasingly dysregulated dopamine system.12 The central contention of this chapter is that the two phenomena are indissociable: we cannot hope to combat the collapse of our planetary ecosystems if we do not first address the ‘functional uncoupling’13 of Homo sapiens from the delocalised global spaces to which we are pushed to ever greater lengths to adapt. At the very heart of ecological catastrophe is a chronic-systemic crisis of our psychological and social habitats, caused by populations who consume to dangerous excess as the only available strategy for coping with the pressures of exploitation to which contemporary society exposes us.
1. The Entropocene as Limbic Capitalocene
It is a fundamental premise of this book that ‘Technology’, in the words of John Stewart, paraphrasing Stiegler, ‘is Anthropologically Constitutive’.14 We cannot grasp what it means to be human without reference to the technical prostheses that regulate our experience of time, desire and attention, not to mention our ability to participate in the expected norms of society. Our tools are as vital to social life and the life of the mind as oxygen is to our physiological existence. For our evolved physiology to be continually reinvented by our technics, however, there needs to be a biological correlate that explains our plasticity; one that allows for who we are to be transformed by what we use to navigate the world. The latest suggestion attributes the enlarged cerebral cortex of members of the genus Homo to a ‘dopamine dominated striatum’, which differentiates us from earlier hominid ancestors by accounting for enhanced sensitivity to social and environmental cues, as well as diminishing aggression in favour of sociality and cooperation.15 The dopamine system thus constitutes the neurobiological interface through which the human organism learns from and adapts to its surroundings, governing our responsiveness to external stimuli.
While it has long been understood that certain pharmaceutical substances, like alcohol and nicotine, exert a decisive modulatory effect on dopaminergic activity, and correspondingly on our behaviours, it is now becoming increasingly apparent that our experience of the world is continually rewritten, via the brain, by the technical objects that organise our lifeworlds. There is no hard and fast distinction, in other words, between pharmaceuticals and the simultaneously toxic and curative pharmaka that are technologies. From ritual drinking and smoking, to the ever-bigger and more energy-demanding cars needed by commuters (Georgescu-Roegen’s example), to the takeaway coffees and smartphones that now serve as unavoidable entry-points into the contemporary world of work, whose very necessity disinclines us to acknowledge the extent to which we are automated to accommodate their presence, our social and mental lives are habitually structured around the legitimation of certain modes of addictive, up-dosed, technology consumption. But just as breathing oxygen is a principal cause of carcinogenesis, the life created, or sustained, by our exosomatic organs is also inseparable from what, following Stiegler, we are here calling anthropy and the deterioration of our artifactual environments. In a vicious circle of consumption, leading to environmental destabilisation, leading to further, more pathological, consumption, the greater the stress placed on us by those environments, the more we become reliant on the therapy provided by the very technologies that do so much to cause that stress in the first place, and at ever greater cost to the planet.
The impact of some of this dependence is already well established and, indeed, being tackled, for instance, in the commitment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to reducing deaths from ‘non-communicable’ diseases by one third. The WHO’s report on Health in 2015: From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals devotes two whole chapters to NCDs: one focusing on mental health, dementia and substance abuse; and another on maladies stemming from poor lifestyle and preventable, anthropically-caused, environmental conditions including cancer, chronic respiratory problems, and so-called ‘diseases of poverty’ and ‘despair’ like cardiac illness and diabetes.16 The report remains conspicuously silent, however, on what can be identified as the underlying dopaminergic and ecological above all, economic causes that link the two chapters, and has just as little to say about newer forms of environmental illness tied to the excessive consumption of more recent technologies. The effects of excessive screen-time on childhood development, and of social media on the health of our democracies,17 are only now becoming the object of emerging scientific knowledge. The recourse to digital tablets by exhausted parents, who use them for respite, to pacify small children, has led to diagnoses of attentional deficiency and linguistic and emotional under-development often confused with autism.18 In another indication that the fallout of technology intoxication calls for an understanding of addiction that takes us beyond conventional ideas about the scale and social impact of problematic consumption, connections have been made between election-hacking in the UK and United States, and digital media consumers’ craving for a ‘buzz value’ that trumps the veracity of online content.19
Luca Pani is the progenitor of the aforementioned theory of an ‘evolutionary mismatch’ between ‘current environmental conditions in industrialized countries’ and the ‘completely different’ ones ‘in which the human central nervous system evolved.’ One ‘remarkable example’ of this uncoupling of the human organism from its habitat, he argues, is the development of ever more powerful delivery mechanisms of drugs into the brain, the cumulative effect of which is to
interfere with the global adaptation of an individual to its environment, producing not only an impairment in his/her hedonic capacities, but also a more disruptive effect on the cognitive and emotional abilities that are necessary for an effective interaction with the external world.20
The claim is made specifically in relation to hypodermic needles, crack pipes and the organic solvents often sniffed by addicts. But it also lends itself readily to a reading of the increasing potency of everyday technologies across the whole history of capitalism, which should no longer be separated into distinct producer- and consumer-led phases. What began with the trade in spices and sugar, proceeds through tobacco, opium and caffeine on the way to pornography, pop music, modified corn starch and carfentanyl. The portable screen as a route of administration for the intoxications of ubiquitous gambling and fake news is just the latest stage in this history, and needs to be understood ecologically, in relation to the environmental stresses that push people in their direction, most notably the proletarianisation of world-building, which the industrial production of craving, if not pleasure, seeks to offset. The passage to commodity-harvesting of comparatively mild psychoactives previously used only for medicine coincides with the early-modern onset of what the environmental historian Jason W. Moore calls ‘Cheap Nature’, referring to the un(der)paid toil extracted by merchants who would credit themselves for the industry of slaves, not to mention that of plant matter and the progressively depleted soil of the plantations. This concept of Cheap Nature, encompassing ‘Cheap Food’, ‘Cheap Energy’, ‘Cheap Raw Materials’, and ‘Cheap Labour’, all priced in a way that ignores the long-term consequences of systemic overwork, takes us to the heart of what Moore reclassifies as the ‘Capitalocene’.21 But there’s also another, vital, ‘cheap’ at stake, here: one that cuts across the binary of nature and culture, forcing us to see the collapse of planetary ecosystems in terms of the degradation of our social-technological environments, and the undue stress that this places on our biological functioning. Let us call it Cheap Desire, or Cheap Attention, in reference to a will that the climate-change-disavowing mentality of business-as-usual needs to be infinite. The exhaustion of this will, both individually and collectively, is bound up with increased reliance on the manufacture of habitual and frequently addictive consumption as a coping strategy.
The long-standing but increasingly explicit elicitation of dopamine release in the human limbic system functions as the under-acknowledged engine of contemporary economics, not least because it constitutes the flipside our enforced adaptation to the disadjusted environments in which we consume. Biologists have been warning for years of the risk posed to our health and intelligence by endocrine-disrupting pollutants,22 but the reciprocal reinvention of humans and the technosphere is yet more profound than even this warning implies. The Anthropos of the Anthropocene is one whose biochemistry is undergoing constant modulation by extractive technologies that engineer consumptive habits to maintain the waning levels of demand around which global order is organised. In the words of Bruce Alexander, addiction has been ‘globalised’ through the exploitation of the very nervous system via which we interact with and learn from our surroundings. This ‘dopamining’ is, in turn, inextricable from capitalism’s production of ‘psychosocial dislocation’23 and our corresponding attempts to withdraw from what David Graeber has called the ‘dead zones’ of our traumatised working habitats.24
When Jason W. Moore speaks of the ‘Capitalocene’, he does so to avoid holding the planet’s various populations equally responsible for an ecological catastrophe caused vastly disproportionately by the ‘developed’ capitalist economies of the prevailing world system.25 In so doing, he runs the risk of unduly divorcing us from complicity, as if capital is somehow distinct from the people who continually remake and enact it; hence our (Stieglerian) stated preference for Anthropocene, with its echo of Entropocene.26 A more nuanced assignation of responsibility comes from reframing the problem of causality in relation to habit-creation and the manipulation of the pleasure circuitry of the brain. The American historian David T. Courtwright has coined the expression ‘limbic capitalism’ to describe the coupling of the entrepreneurial exploitation of the ‘evolved drives’ of our neural infrastructure of reward, with the provision of goods and services designed ‘to cope with the damage’ inflicted by free markets on the psychosocial structures that enable us to absorb the shock of change.27 Limbic capitalism has been brought to the fore by the combination of relentless labouring under conditions of mounting precarity and deficient social support systems, which places the burden of coping firmly on the side of individuals whose only survival mechanisms become the panoply of cures-for-sale offered up for consumption by the market. Recent research into the social psychology and neurobiology of addiction suggests that this process should no longer be framed around the idea of the brain being irreversibly ‘hijacked’ by substances that destroy its natural chemical composition.28 But there is a legitimate question of our complicity in the surrender of an agency that is only ever fragile. We willingly, albeit passively, submit to bombardment by ever more refined forms of stimulation to distract us from the perturbations of a market system that⏤be it via workplace deregulation, or through the imposition of structural adjustment programmes on developing countries systematically dissolves communities’ capacity to employ collective niche construction in the service of vitality, that is, to participate actively in the formation and modification of their living environments.
Bringing together Moore and Courtwright enables us to see that the ‘Entropocene’ is also a ‘limbic Capitalocene’: an epochal disaster encompassing not just the planet and human civilisation, but one moreover rooted in a retreat into oblivion that Alexander describes as a ‘rational’, ‘adaptive’ response to the entropic climate in which we labour.29 Ecological catastrophe is less about a surfeit of human ecosystem-engineering than its absence: the surrender of agency to an automation of the nervous system by technologies that think and feel in our place. The result is a vicious cycle of excess, where climate change is biochemically intertwined with the overworking of the dopamine system, produced by the ever more efficacious doses of intoxicants we consume to anaesthetise ourselves against the impact of social breakdown. And this means that attempts to deal with climate change will only, and futilely, be treating its symptoms, unless they also engage with the addictogenic, ‘hyperdopaminergic society’ that lies at its origin. By the same measure, the solution will not reside in implementing consumption abstention, ‘dopamine fasting’, or a global ‘Twelve Steps’ programme either. We cannot do without our pharmaka, and nor can we simply eliminate their constitutive toxicity through some fantasised process of purification that preserves only their curativity. But we can aim for an organisation of society that curbs their toxic potential, lessening the stresses that leave us so in need of their intoxicating power to salve that we consume them to pathological, destructive, excess, by generating alternative forms of therapy. Understood in these terms, the project of planetary detox intersects felicitously with the philosophico-political aims of the Internation: to cultivate locality and a restoration of depleted social bonds as means to recapacitate the agency that we have surrendered to automations of the nervous system.
2. Dopaminergic Animals in a Hyperdopaminergic Society
The crux of what looks like our collective pathology revolves around the relationship between culture and the neurotransmitter, dopamine, whose functions include social bonding, the facilitation of experiential learning, habituation and anticipation. The principal role of dopamine concerns its involvement in the seeking out of novel information and the encoding of repeat behaviours that prove initially rewarding, or ‘salient’. To put this in the recent language of Yuk Hui,30 it works to absorb contingency into a routine, by bringing us to crave the stability of habitual repetition. The process begins at birth: one currently dominant idea builds on the attachment theory of John Bowlby to argue that the limbic system is responsible for the formation of social bonds between mother, child and the extended family.31 Bowlby observed that young children starved of maternal attention quickly adapt to their environmental instability by becoming withdrawn and emotionally detached, reacting more to the novelty of new toys than to the unfamiliar adults who bestow them.32 These changes are now understood in relation to neuroplasticity, meaning the ability of the neuronal organisation of the brain to be dopaminergically moulded by the stimuli of its surroundings. Rat studies have shown that contact between mother and child influences not only the development of dopaminergic circuits in the newborn’s brain, but also conditions the parents’ emotional and physical attentiveness, by bringing them to suffer the absence of their offspring through cravings more familiarly recognised as love. Pups reared in prolonged isolation demonstrate ‘elevated baseline dopamine levels and increased dopamine release in response to acute stress in adulthood’.33
The dopamine system, in other words, compensates for the lack of a familial anchor point by facilitating the creation of stabilising habits in the face of stress. Through it, we reach out and latch on to anything able to create an emotional impact, with our neuronal circuitry reorganising to become more responsive to the source of reward, pruning away synaptic relations linked to the decreasingly necessary wider orbit of attention, in the process. This mechanism for coping with the absence of a social bond proves highly adaptive, equipping us to live through anxiogenic periods of instability. But it is also linked to ‘enhanced sensitivity to psychostimulants such as cocaine’ and ‘may lead to increased vulnerability to addiction’.34 Addiction thus ‘shares a common neurobiology’ with attachment,35 in an identity that explains the scientific recognition that love bears all the neurological and psychological hallmarks of substance dependence. It should also, therefore, be seen as a kind of substitute for social investment a way, we might say, of fabricating (ontological) ground, there where its absence becomes most apparent. The effect cuts both ways, with addiction characterised by a retreat from the social relations for which it substitutes. Looking at the tightly knit networks of companionship that often exist among street users, we can also see how it functions as a complicated attempt to create social attachments there where they are found wanting.36
The biology of attachment is one way of making sense of Bernard Stiegler’s claim that addictions are not solely pathological, but simultaneously toxic and curative.37 It likewise sheds light on an established, but debatably successful, therapeutic tradition of seeking to replace toxic addictions (heroin, smoking, alcohol) with ‘better’ ones (to God, methadone, vaping, AA meetings and running, for instance).38 Catherine Malabou is another recent exemplar of this tradition, arguing that ‘addictive processes have in large part caused the Anthropocene, and only new addictions will be able to partly counter them.’39 We need to be careful not to conflate ‘better’ with toxicity-free, or next-generation technological quick fixes, intended to facilitate sustained consumption, however. The looming future of geo-engineered skies, seeded with a shield of aerosol phosphates to protect the planet from the solar heat building up behind it, has already been compared to enabling alcoholism, as the ‘dialysis that allows the patient to continue drinking’.40
The release of the dopamine neurotransmitter is at the heart of our capacity to adjust to environmental change, and its relation to managing uncertainty, in particular, explains why it has arguably played a vital role in both making and now unmaking the modern, globalised, world. Writing in The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History, the psychologist Fred Previc argues that the story of human ecological history is one of the increasing dominance of dopamine in the brain, which he links, in turn, to the rise of ‘abstract intelligence, exploratory drive, urge to control and conquer’, as well as acquisitiveness, goal- and future-directedness, long-term planning and the pursuit of religious and scientific truth.41 The emergence of the dopaminergic mind is developmental rather than evolutionary, a product of ecological shifts inducing neurochemical, but not genetic, change. It begins with prehistorical alterations in diet before intensifying around 6,000 years ago, alongside the growing need to compete for resources and ensuing calculations of settled societies. Previc’s argument, here, resonates with major evolutionary-anthropological claims about the inability of our cognitive architecture comfortably to manage large numbers of social relationships, and the breakdown of our sense of communal belonging and motivation to participate in the life of the collective, once a certain scale threshold is passed.42 We can identify neolithic sedentarisation and, in particular, the ensuing rise of cities as a significant source of this growth of competition, because they removed people from the familiar, small-scale networks of extended family life and transplanted them into ‘depersonalised’43 urban settlements where they had to ‘suppress suspicion of others’, negotiate cultural politics and ‘adapt to densely crowded neighbourhoods’ of complete strangers: ‘unfamiliarity became the measure of human relations’.44
The result of this heightened stress, Previc contends, was neurochemical imbalance, triggered by the depletion of serotonin and norepinephrine relative to dopamine. The next stage of his argument corroborates Peter Sloterdijk’s identification of early-modern European expansionism with the rise of a ‘risk-taking’, ‘disinhibited’ subjectivity.45 Previc posits that the reorganisation of society around dopamine was a decisive factor in colonialism, the growth of capitalism and the Enlightenment and has become even more pronounced since the second, ‘hyperdopaminergic’, half of the twentieth century.
‘Hyperdopaminergic society’ describes the neoliberal era of enforced adaptation to the demands of free markets; the ideology of ‘disruption’; and the proliferating use of dopamining techniques to colonise what has elsewhere been termed the ‘available brain time’ of consumers. ‘A highly dopaminergic society is fast-paced and even manic, given that dopamine is known to increase activity levels, speed up our internal clocks and create a preference for novel over unchanging environments.’46 Previc reels off a list of ‘hyperdopaminergic disorders’, including depression, obsession-compulsion, autism, schizophrenia, Tourette’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We can also add ADHD to this list, though it is also, ironically, linked to traits that can thrive in hyper-doperminergic conditions. The D4 dopamine receptor is believed to have evolved around forty thousand years ago, at a time when the enhanced susceptibility to stimulation it confers would have proved adaptively advantageous for ancestors who took risks to explore new territories in search of food. Nowadays, the allele is thought prevalent in sufferers of attention deficit disorders, who end up being pathologised by the absence of unexplored palaeolithic landscapes from the cramped and understimulating conditions of contemporary urban living.47 Homogenised, metric-heavy and greenspace-poor classrooms would be foremost examples of environments to which holders of the gene now risk being maladapted.48
The attempt to diminish this maladaptation, by increasing our margins of tolerance for the ‘inconstancies of the environment’ (to borrow a phrase from Georges Canguilhem),49 is a major cause of addiction, which should be recognised as another hyperdopaminergic disorder; perhaps even the most prevalent one. Its inclusion within this category of stress-related illness need not presuppose the classical and now, it is argued, outdated ‘disease model’, which treats dependence as a neurobiological disorder of the dopamine system, routinely said to be triggered when the brain is ‘hijacked’ by a limited range of corruptive intoxicants. If this model offers an all-too-easy mechanism for separating out problem drinkers, junkies and pornography users from mere model consumers, contemporary research is moving in the opposite direction, disentangling addiction from threshold-surpassing quantities of specific substances to focus more on the hyper-dopaminergic settings that occasion an increasingly universal culture of obsessive consumption. Addiction is now increasingly located at the intersection of the neuroplastic brain with the instability of what the clinician Jean-Pierre Couteron, a former president of France’s Fédération Addiction, has baptised ‘addictogenic society’.50 Pathology no longer resides solely in the addict, but is learned, stemming from the viciously circular moulding of synaptic circuits around manufactured intensities that substitute for the social bonds we are losing the luxury of forming. As our surrounding environments become more hyper-competitive and antisocial, ever higher doses of supply-maximised stimulus respond to both rising baseline levels of dopamine and the desensitisation that follows from the brain’s adjustment to habituation.
3. Adaptation and Encapsulation
Addiction as a strategy for managing ecological stress is what we saw with the ‘Gin Craze’ of anomic, industrialising London, and in the gambling and opium dens through which the dislocated peoples of dopaminergic society absorbed the disadjustments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Phenomena like ‘white morbidity’51 and the current American opioid crisis combine with the ‘soaring’, non-medical recourse to Tramadol in parts of Africa and Asia,52 to say nothing of the ubiquity of staring vacantly at the screens of our digital devices, as instances of what Bruce Alexander describes as capitalism’s contemporary ‘globalisation of addiction’. There is nonetheless a difference between earlier, historical, epidemics and those that mark our hyper-dopaminergic present. Patterns of abuse appear alongside periods of rapid technological change the evolution of distillation and techniques, or instruments of stimulation delivery as new sources of stimulus overwhelm the social norms organised around older forms of technology. But there is reason to think the organisation of culture can prove highly effective in regulating consumption. One post-millennial rereading of China’s Opium Wars emphasises the success of traditional Chinese smoking rituals in absorbing the massive increase in supply and facilitating the management of functional habits. Frank Dikötter attributes much of received wisdom regarding opiate-addled Chinese people to colonialist-biological stereotypes of evolutionarily weak-willed orientals, which resurgent nationalism also exploited. Far more destructive, in terms of eliminating the social shock absorbers of ‘backward’ imperial culture, were the nationalists’ politics of prohibition and the emergence of the disease model of addiction, which rewrote history to cast opium as wholly and singularly toxic: a destroyer of agriculture, work ethic and national character.53 Fredric Jameson has written that ‘the postmodern, or late capitalism, has at least brought the epistemological benefit of revealing the ultimate structure of the commodity to be that of addiction itself.’54 But this was perhaps already apparent from the time of the Opium Wars, with opium’s change in status coinciding with its commodification.
In any case, as has been argued elsewhere, historical addiction epidemics have tended to fade out as affected societies readjust their educational norms and social organisation to accommodate hitherto disruptive technologies.55 Bernard Stiegler has argued that, in our present age of the economics of ‘disruption’, the historical pattern of innovation leading to a ‘readjustment’ of society around new technologies, breaks down.56 It comes as no surprise that global consumption has sky-rocketted over the last thirty years, during the very period when knowledge of climate change suggests that we would be taking actions to curb it. Since the conservative revolution of the 1980s, relentless waves of technological change have combined with labour market reforms intended to reduce the welfare safety net and spur us on to adapt to a more aggressively competitive, Darwinian, way of living, dressed up as creative destruction. There is no time for systems of social support and integration to catch up with the disintegrations created by waves of technological-stimulatory overload. Coupled with the built in obsolescence of technological devices designed for shortness of lifespan, these changes make chasing to keep up with the rest of society our default mode of existence. It is in this context that the contemporary pattern of consumption is for multiple, overlapping, addictions, overlain on a metanarrative of unending adaptation, which leaves us struggling to equate curativity with intermittent, ‘hormetic’, doses.57 A constant state of excitation has become the ideological rule, irrespective of the longer-term damage this inflicts on our capacity for life-building.
Previc also suggests that, while posing potentially ‘the greatest threat to mental health’ in the industrialised and post-industrial world, the prevalence of dopaminergic disorders is ‘much rarer or at least less severely manifested in non-industrial societies’.58 Emerging research on the serious under-diagnosis of mental illness in the developing world raises questions about the latter part of this claim.59 So, too, should the continuity of ecological factors behind the rise of addictogenic societies. We can read the adaptationist economics underpinning the manufacture of dependence in the West as a direct continuation of the policies of dependence-inculcation trialled and imposed on Africa and Latin America, first through colonialism and then through the ‘structural readjustment’ programmes of the IMF and WTO. The effect of both has been sustained disadjustment, where consumption comes to substitute for community-led vitality and social support systems.
Between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, the British East India Company imposed organisational reforms on Indian agriculture that, in addition to causing massive starvation and catalysing the Opium Wars, also set the tone for the whole of the limbic Capitalocene. Prior to colonisation, subsistence farming on communal land had been the norm. A traditional system of grain storage and reciprocal, mutual support enabled farmers to stave off the worst of climatic instability. But the British enclosed the commons and compelled the sale of grain reserves to drive up agricultural productivity, forcing the replacement of subsistence crops with those, including opium, specifically cultivated for export. The same opium was dumped on China to create habits and a demand that would be financed by the sale, hitherto refused, of Chinese tea to a British public newly enraptured by caffeine.60 Similar stories of enforced adaptation come from Latin America, where the carefully managed diversity of indigenous agriculture gave way, under duress, to the dominance of calorie- and dopamine-boosting sugar for export, which, in turn, freed up European labour to focus on urban industrialisation.61 Later, postcolonial efforts to overturn industrial under-development and the dependence of the developing world on Western industrial technologies, were battered into submission by Western loans, distributed in the manner of a dealer looking to snare new clients, and which merely reinforced relations of patronage. The conditions of loan receipt, and eventually also of their forgiveness and restructuring, went further in necessitating the destruction of techniques of social readjustment ruled to constrain the free functioning of the market.62 ‘Resilience’ came to denote the very opposite of how the philosopher of medicine, Georges Canguilhem, understands health: not the capacity to reinvent one’s milieu in the face of environmental perturbation, but relentless adaptation to the demand to open up domestic economies to international competition. The proletarianising effect of dependence on licensed Western technologies is redoubled by the active inhibition of local forms of community vitality.
Dopamine is linked to globalisation, on the one hand, by its contribution to abstract spatialisation, exploration, conquest and the pursuit of stimulation; on the other, by its links to the destruction of locality to which we are now bearing witness. If the history of dopaminergic society is coextensive with that of the stresses and seductions of the city, with the latter now collapsing from the centre outwards, the two may yet also prove coterminous. Much recognisably modern state-building was also born of the pressures of urban intoxication. Well into the nineteenth century, cities were plagued by cholera-infested water, the pernicious effects of which were diminished by the ‘antidiarrheal properties of narcotics and the antimicrobial properties of alcohol’.63 According to Courtwright, the building of waterworks and public fountains provided both hygiene and alternative sources of much-needed stimulation. Public parks and spaces worked to similar counter-stimulatory effect. Their ongoing disappearance is already recognised as a contributory factor in the rise of the ADHD64 that has been described as the other ‘side of the same mental coin’ as addiction,65 due to the way in which both conditions habitually entail a compulsive switching of focus away from socially preferred objects of attention, and towards more potent, distracting, sources of stimulus like screens and video games. One of the great problems of the digital stage of dopamining, on this note, is that the conventional organisation of our lives and analogue living spaces routinely provides little in the way of sufficiently attractive alternatives to coax those who have withdrawn from society back into it. If the city just about survives as a commercial entity, that is surely in large part because its high streets have been colonised by outlets furnishing the very objects of addiction and heightened stimulus, like mobile phones, electronic cigarettes, coffee and alcohol, that push us away from it. As a site of ritual coming together and localised point-of-retreat, it is ceding its place to the delocalised, virtual microspheres of Amazon, Netflix and social media.
Hence, more broadly, the irony of our unfurling planetary crisis: it corresponds to the fracturing of the world, understood in the Heideggerian sense of an ecology of possibility. Bruno Latour has recently analysed the politics of climate change disavowal around the idea of ‘the absence of a shared common world’.66 Faced with the choice between sacrificing their way of living, or maintaining business-as-usual at the price of condemning vast swathes of the globe to devastation, Latour argues, governing elites have retreated from the aspiration to rule in the interests of the many, and simply seek to sequester themselves away in privatised niches, from whence they can ride out the Apocalypse. His argument works equally as a description of a much greater spectrum of limbic Capitalocenic behaviour, insofar as disavowal a classic symptom of addiction has become the default mode of experience; insofar as we are all seemingly engaged in a process of withdrawal from the universal public spaces formerly characterised by joint attention, collective projects and what Jacques Rancière would call a ‘common aisthesis’, or unifying experience of what amounts to the same place.67 In dopamined, addictogenic society, the shared world succumbs to fragmentation into the hermetically self-contained bubbles of private islands, gated communities and internet echo chambers in which one can escape the feelings of stressed out hopelessness The reference to bubbles, here, recalls not only the filter bubbles of Web 2.0 evoked by Eli Pariser,68 but also the social and psychological structures of immunity, the ‘capsule architectures’ and ‘foam’ of Peter Sloterdijk: ‘In foam worlds, the individual bubbles are not absorbed into a single, integrative hyper-orb’,69 but remain separate. The limbic Capitalocene reveals itself as just the latest stage of the foaming of the world into self-contained capsules.
According to the psychiatrist Daniel Casriel, this search for insularity and ‘safe spaces’ is exactly what is at stake in addiction. Casriel understood ‘encapsulation’ as a third way out for those maladapted for ‘fight or flight’ to ‘anaesthetise’ the feeling of being unable to cope.70 And his generation of drug therapists sought to counter the tendency towards withdrawal by recreating a bridge between the zones of retreat of the addict and the sphere of the public by reabsorbing individual bubbles of foam into a communal milieu. Their project of detox through a reintegration of addicts into the public sphere was derailed by a combination of rehab consumerism that is, of treatment models that reinforce the very proletarianising tendencies they are supposed to combat and the shift of policy-making towards the War Against Drugs. But proponents of this resynthesis of the public also ran up against the complexities of seeking to replace toxic dependences with others deemed beneficial. Even during the 1970s, therapeutic communities of the kind pioneered by Phoenix House were accused of functioning as ‘encapsulated addict worlds’,71 where addicts were allowed to live without thought for their reinsertion into the shared space from which they had withdrawn through addiction.
3. Towards a Psychosocial Ecology of Detoxification
If climate change is a problem of the limbic Capitalocene, which is to say, a phenomenon of addictive consumption induced by generalised proletarianisation, then what would that mean for how we treat it? Interestingly, there is a parallel argument present both in the dominant paradigm of addiction treatments and partly also in discourses of climate change. Its main logic consists in emphasising the necessity of a radical break with existing patterns of consumption. We owe to Daniel Ross the observation that, in an image much exploited by the industries of climate denial, the public imagination is dominated by visions of carbon cuts leading to enforced cold turkey: abrupt withdrawal from a way of life organised around technology-led consumerism, followed by the misery of endless abstinence, planet-wide ‘counting the days’, and slip-ups where we indulge in fracking ‘just one more time’. In the best case version of this scenario, we might manage to get by as ‘functional’ addicts, carefully allowing ourselves a few minutes of internet, oil and shopping for plastic per day, but only in the strictly controlled doses already (ineffectually) advised in the small print of greenwashed society. Anything to avoid the intolerability of withdrawal symptoms that would be experienced both individually and collectively: perhaps not the vomiting and diarrhoea induced by discontinuing opioids, but certainly anxiety, irritability and fatigue. And who knows how these would scale up at the level of politics and society? Distaste for such symptoms, not to mention conviction in their absolute unviability, has already been circularly deployed to proscribe the diagnosis of addiction in relation to pathological digital media consumption72. Environmental writers have been equally quick to insist that abstention from technology consumption is simply not an option. Saving the world, it is routinely argued, will require more and greater technological modernity, not a reversion to ‘collective sacrifice’.73
The dubious advantage of framing ecological collapse in terms of the intolerable price of cold turkey, and more broadly of clinging to a disease model of addiction that allows us to distance climate change from a pathological consumption, is that it exonerates us from taking preventative climate action until it’s effectively too late until, that is, we hit the mythical, iceberg-free, point of ‘rock bottom’. Most famously spelled out in the second of AA’s Twelve Steps, ‘rock bottom’ is the moment where we supposedly, finally, take the crucial measure of admitting ‘hopelessness’ and ‘complete defeat’ in the face of a ‘mental obsession so subtly powerful that no amount of human willpower could break it’. It dawns on us once the object of addiction becomes so all-consuming as to exclude everything else we hold dear from the increasingly narrowed orbit of attention. According to this logic, the typical alcoholic is so selfish and lacking in care that they will only be roused to action when it becomes a matter of literal life or death. Only having lost their job, their money, their family, their health and perhaps even their home and now their planet, will they recognise the need to replace their own defective willpower with the motivation provided by AA, through God.
We should note a degree of wiggle-room in the original formulation of the Twelve Steps. AA co-founder Bill W refers to some early success in recruiting ‘young people who were scarcely more than potential alcoholics’, and even states one aim of the nascent society as being to spare them hell by ‘rais[ing] the bottom the rest of us had hit to the point where it would hit them’ sooner. That ambition was ultimately abandoned and he concedes that ‘few people will sincerely try to practice the AA programme unless they have hit bottom’.74 The doctrine of rock-bottom has since hardened into a cornerstone of the rehab industry, in spite of doubts over its basis in evidentiary science. According to the addiction writer Maia Szalavitz,75 the consecration of hitting bottom is due in part to a judicial system that legitimates the counterproductively punitive treatment of addicts, not least by dressing up retribution as tough love. Writing in The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, the Harvard clinician and psychiatrist Lance Dodes is similarly critical. For Dodes, it is a myth that constitutes the ultimate form of marketing for a defective cure we are encouraged to consume all the more fervently when it emphatically doesn’t work.
The continued success of the commercialised rehab industry cannot be divorced from the way that its failures are routinely explained away through reference to clients who, having yet to hit the nadir required to spur them towards committed sobriety, just don’t want ‘it’ badly enough. The typically neoliberal emphasis on deficient personal responsibility conveniently covers over more compelling accounts of rehab’s production of relapsing recidivists: namely, its replication of the paralysis and enforced adaptation to stressful circumstances that pushes people towards addiction in the first place.
Fortunately, however, abstention is no longer the shibboleth it once was in therapeutic circles. The majority of the ‘addiction treatment industry is based on a defective model that has been unchanged since the 1930s’, namely one built on the reification of the Twelve Steps into the kind of doctrinally rigid and proletarianising, mass-produced consumerist model never envisaged by the Kropotkinian forefathers of Alcoholics Anonymous. Ideological dogmatism and the marketing of abstractly universal and ultimately branded modes of therapy have rendered many therapeutic institutions incapable of the self-transformation they preach, unwilling to share and create knowledge with ‘rival’ providers, and unwilling to devolve decision-making autonomy to patients who are frequently there by coercion, court-mandated to undergo rehab as an alternative to prison, and with no option but to comply with inflexible regimes imposed on them from above.76 But ‘there is also significant evidence’ of ‘empathetic and empowering approaches that let patients set their own goals’ yielding greater success than those that ultimately reproduce the environmental dislocation underpinning recourse to addiction.77 An emerging panoply of alternatives to the dominant one-size-fits-all programs of rehab includes elements of a return to the roots of AA in the anarchist theory of ‘mutual aid’.78 Other chapters in this volume sketch out how localities might be revitalised around the use of digital platforms to cultivate participatory, citizen-led, research, as per the territorial experimentations being undertaken in the Plaine Commune Contributive Learning Territory, Greater Paris. In a clear nod to the ethos of self-organising, spontaneously emerging community support, their potential is to provide groups and networks of groups with their own means of generating self-knowledge, which enables them, in turn, to transform and revitalise through their own efforts the toxic environments that push them to misconsume in the first place.
One pioneering experiment of this nature is Plaine Commune’s ‘Clinique Contributive’,79 which, under the auspices of the child psychiatrist Marie-Claude Bossière, brings together researchers, healthcare professionals and parents of young children diagnosed as suffering from the effects of overexposure to the distractions of digital technologies. Its aim is to combat screen addiction by creating a locality in which parents can learn from one another, in a non-judgmental setting, and generate shared knowledge about the developmental impact on their children of both parties’ excessive consumption. The clinic also provides the basis for recreating the extended networks of care whose erosion has made often isolated, tired and stressed out adults cling to the comfort of their smartphones in the absence of better psychosocial integration. In exploring the connections between tiredness and the sustained use of sleep-impoverishing devices, they discover alternative forms of invigoration to digital overstimulation.
Contributive therapy thus becomes a technique for inventing forms of emotional and social connection that transcend commercialised individualism, new forms of philia tied to the pursuit of the common good, echoing the kind evoked by Aristotle in books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics. We can also see it as a form of work (not labour!) and as a process of ‘capabilisation’ in which the contribution to knowledge allows people to become what they are ‘able to do and be’.80 The therapeutic potential of contributory research can also be understood through the insights into human development of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s conviction was that human action is a transformational process where individuals, Homo sapiens as a species, and tools, exist in a network of mutual co-creation. In an essay on ‘The Collective as a Factor in the Development of the Abnormal Child’, Vygotsky characterised the social dimension of development as a ‘function of collective behaviour, as a form of cooperation or cooperative activity’.81 He borrowed from city-planning the concept of a ‘zone of proximal development’ to articulate how, with the help of peers or another more competent individual, the child becomes able to do things that she was not previously capable of doing.82 Vygotsky saw this phenomenon occurring especially in playful situations, where the ‘child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.83 Development, he argued, emerges from a social, relational context in which the individual and the group grow into something different, by creating new norms in their relationship with the environment.
One of the few attempts to transfer this perspective into practice took place in the East Side Institute in New York, where, in the 1970s, the therapists Fred Newman and Lois Holzman combined Vygotskian conceptualisations of development with Wittgenstein’s work on language to create the psychotherapeutic method of ‘Social Therapy’.84 Social therapy starts from the premise that individuals ‘are forced to adapt to conditions which increasingly and more and more obviously are against not only their own interests but those of the human species as a whole’,85 with drugs and homelessness being part of a wide range of failed attempts at adaptation. And it understands the group as a ‘unit of transformation/change/growth/learning’ through which individuals can be transformed without a specific focus on ‘fixing the problems’ of its members.86 The group becomes both a method and a result, its activities serving as an emotional zone of proximal development. This volume’s chapter on ‘social sculpture’ outlines a similar ‘transindividuation’ of individuals within a collective through knowledge-sharing. Despite criticising the rigidity of the Alcoholics Anonymous, Dodes similarly reinforces the value of this kind of localised therapeutic community, suggesting that ‘groups would be a highly valuable component’ in the treatment of addiction ‘if they were designed to help patients . . . to experiment with new ways of relating.’87
From this perspective, the function of addiction treatment is to facilitate the co-creation of forms of life hitherto impossible to imagine. And the relationship between what constitutes the possibility and impossibility of future development should be considered one of the most important steps in a therapeutic endeavour. In his book The Psychology of Experiencing: The Resolution of Life’s Critical Situations (1991), another Russian, Fyodor Vasilyuk sought to investigate ‘just what a person does when there is nothing to be done, when he or she is in a situation that renders impossible the realisation of his or her needs, attitudes, values, etc.’88 These moments were ‘critical situations’ in which the individual is unable to ‘cope with the existing external and internal conditions of life.’89 The same encounter with a metaphorical brick wall is addressed in DeYoung and Krueger’s understanding of psychopathology as a ‘persistent failure . . . to generate effective new goals, interpretations, or strategies when existing ones prove unsuccessful.’90
The Anthropocene presents us with the mother of all critical situations, one that threatens the very habitability of the planet, over and above exposing as ineffective the existing norms around which our lives are organised. But it also thus offers an opportunity for the abandonment of old norms that are making us ill, and an overdue end to hyperdopaminergic society. Hence its paradoxical promise of renewed vitality.