- More people than ever are living healthy, happy lives
- Pollution and garbage are growing and accelerating
- Predictions suggest our waste is going to cause nearly everyone on Earth to suffer including many dying
and, here’s the big confounding issue
- We can’t stop ourselves.
With rare exception, everyone I know and even know of knows they are polluting, hurting people by it, so potentially contributing to the greatest catastrophe ever, yet won’t or can’t stop.
Why? How? What do we do about it?
How is this conflict possible? I’ve been trying to figure it out. I’ve worked out a framework I’ll develop here.
One: The human mind’s reward mechanisms
Some reward feels like pleasure, others excitement, connection, relief, and more (people associate various forms with dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, prolactin, and epinephrine).
One kind of reward, what I’ve called “want more” and many associate with dopamine, says “do what made this outcome happen,” which makes evolutionary sense. When something valuable takes effort, a reward system that motivated us to do those things again would help us create value. It also demotes distractions from achieving that goal.
Note that everything we need for a long, healthy life and community, we can get without changing ourselves or the world. The mechanism exists, I presume, because nature has made attaining some things challenging:
In our evolutionary past, reward took effort
You have the emotional system our ancestors did. It evolved to motivate behavior that helped them live and pass on their genes. That is, it rewarded healthy behavior. What you enjoy, they enjoyed, such as the things I put in bold below:
- Sugar gives us energy, but tends to be wrapped up in fiber, roots, or protected by bees.
- Fat gives us energy, but tends to be wrapped up in fiber, shells (like nuts), bone marrow, and in the arctic.
- Sex is required to pass on our genes, but the other person has to agree.
- Giving birth is required to pass on genes, but human babies’ heads are life-threateningly big (I read once that the endorphins a mother’s body produces after giving birth is the highest level of endorphins humans experience. If so, it would explain reports of post-birth like “Emotionally, it is the most amazing experience. Pain disappears when your child is in your arms.”).
- Fashion and novelty show our value, create status, and attract mates but required making jewelry and the work behind it.
- Learning requires facing and revealing ignorance and vulnerability.
- Seeing a mountaintop or remote natural beauty required hiking and climbing.
- Seeing family and friends for the first time in a while required traveling away from them in the first place, which required initiative, walking, resourcefulness in getting food and shelter.
- Winning and beating the odds required risking something important.
Two: Act on rewarding stimulation enough and it gets stuck
You can call it rewiring your brain, making a rope out of many small fibers, making a river out of many small rivulets, or whatever you want. Each time you act on rewarding stimulation, you create a pattern that gets increasingly hard to stop.
If you’re an ancestor digging roots from underground, creating reward from finding and tasting sweet roots improves your life. The roots’ sugar’s sweetness motivates you to dig more, which improves your life. If you hated digging, you wouldn’t dig as much. Instead we condition ourselves to love it. We call it learning or mastering a skill. It applies with all the activities I put in bold and more.
If someone got the root for you, got the sugar out, and gave it to you, it would motivate you to depend on that person. Instead of learning, we might say they trained you or created a dependency. I’d say you created a rut that’s easy to stay in and hard to get out of.
Three: Someone supplying your reward without nature’s regulation, locks you in a cycle of dependency
If someone supplies what causes the reward without your effort, you’ll feel motivated to get that reward from them. Consistently supplying it will lock you and them into a cycle. You will motivate them to keep supplying it, which will cause the cycle to grow.
What will stop the cycle from growing? Possibly you finding you’ve lost your freedom. You might try to avoid the reward, hoping the rut goes away. It’s more effective for many to create new patterns based on other, healthier rewards.
Four: People’s emotional responses to the cycle create a culture
The person feeling the reward (you, the user) feels good while stimulated, though may feel lacking the rest of the time.
Suppliers will feel like they are supplying a need, performing a service, helping people with a natural human need. They’ll profit from it. They’ll feel incentive to increase your demand and lock out other suppliers.
People outside the cycle (non-users, non-suppliers) may see users as pathetic. If their dependency grows enough, they may see them as gross, disgusting, or repugnant. They may see suppliers as immoral, abusive, and selfish.
Note how moral the pattern becomes.
Five: Individuals who want to avoid the rut protect themselves with rituals
Most of us feel the urge to eat sugar and buy new clothes and trinkets. If we see people locked in dependent cycles and want to avoid becoming that way, we will create behaviors to keep us out. That is, we create rituals like going to the gym or creating an identity like minimalism that keeps us from starting down that path.
Six: Cultures protect themselves from addiction with customs and rituals
Like individuals, cultures create behaviors, beliefs, stories, and other cultural elements that discourage people from becoming users or suppliers. Many religions, legal structures, stories, images, and other cultural elements teach and motivate defense from getting addicted.
Seven: Cultures that don’t protect themselves from addiction see it grow to hit natural limits
Cultures ridden with these cycles adopt the values of the cycles. Over a threshold users seeing themselves as living rewarding lives and suppliers seeing themselves as meeting their needs, the culture finds people’s interests aligned. It moves ahead in what people inside the culture consider consider the height of culture (imperial Rome or Versailles) but from outside look pointless (Dutch tulip mania) at best or more often cruel (the slavery that enabled imperial Rome and Versailles, which perpetuated it).
From outside, an addiction-ridden culture looks devoid of values, craving, out of control, gluttonous. It keeps demoting more and more in favor of satisfying its material craving. Witness this account of France when Versailles was being built in the seventeenth century by a native American visitor, Kandiaronk:
Kondiaronk: I have spent 6 years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that is not inhuman and I generally think this can only be the case as long as you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “thine.” I affirm that what you call “money” is the devil of devils, the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils, the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one can preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity—of all the world’s worst behavior. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false—and all because of money. In light of all of this, tell me that we Wyandotte are not right in refusing to touch or so much as look at silver.
Do you seriously imagine that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris? To take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make up? To bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happens to have been born with an inheritance? Do you actually imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry? That I would carry a sword but not immediately draw it on the first band of thugs I see rounding up the destitute to press them into Naval service? If on the other hand, Europeans were to adopt an American way of life, it might take a while to adjust but in the end you will be far happier.
Callière: Try, for once in your life to actually listen. Can’t you see, my dear friend, that the nations of Europe could not survive without gold and silver or some similar precious symbol? Without it, nobles, priests, merchants and any number of others who lack the strength to work the soil would simply die of hunger. Our kings would not be kings. What soldiers would we have? Who would work for Kings or anyone else?
Kondiaronk: You honestly think you’re going to sway me by appealing to the needs of nobles, merchants, and priests? If you abandoned conceptions of mine and thine, yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve. A leveling equality would take place among you, as it now does among the Wyandotte and yes, for the first thirty years after the banishing of self-interest no doubt you would indeed see a certain desolation as those who are only qualified to eat, drink, sleep, and take pleasure would languish and die, but their progeny would be fit for our way of living. Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wyandotte believe ought to define humanity: wisdom, reason, equity, etc. and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interest knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason.
Eight: Innovations accelerate that culture and its cycles
People like improving our lives. In an addiction-ridden culture, that drive leads people to find ways to remove nature’s regulation. It feels like improving life. In such cultures, these innovations accelerate the cycle. Examples include the cotton gin, the steam engine, and the search engine. Today it includes electric cars, nuclear energy, and the pursuit of fusion.
Energy sources accelerate other innovations.
Nine: Addiction-ridden cultures steamroll other cultures
Consider the addiction-ridden culture. Many people within it crave more. Some are innovating and inventing ways to accelerate its processes and augment its supply. Other cultures don’t value material stuff so much so haven’t used up as much. The addiction-ridden culture has the means and motivation to plunder materials from the cultures free from addiction.
The free cultures’ citizens may live more happy, healthy lives, but if their culture is less aggressive and offensive, the addiction-ridden culture will likely defeat and override the free culture, even if its citizens are less happy or healthy.
Side note: Oppressive empires oppressive not because of skin color, geography, etc but to satisfy their craving
Empires built on oppression may appear based on skin color, geography (east versus west or, more common these days, “global north” versus “global south”), sex, being indigenous, or other observable properties. Those correlations don’t stand up as potential causes because when members of one culture switch to the other, they can act just as consistently with the new group. In other words, we’re humans underneath, all able to become addicted, all able to get clean.
I’m no anthropologist so please scrutinize my hypothesis, but I see this cycle of craving and addiction taking root and metastasizing explaining oppressive empires more than skin color, geography, etc.
Ten: There are ways out
When we identify the problem as unchecked craving we see solutions. Many cultures aren’t overridden with addiction. We can learn from them. The point isn’t that they are indigenous, “Black or brown,” or from the “global south,” all vague terms that distract from the problem. The point is that if they have endured a long time, we can learn from what works.
- Personal rituals like cooking, gardening, playing sports, creating art, and so on.
- Cultural rituals and customs like sports, drama, education, arts, and so on.
- Learn to identify the roots of an addiction-ridden culture as craving, dependence, insecurity, and the opposite of freedom, even if within that culture people consider themselves free. People have long said “addiction is slavery” for a reason.
- My culture describes itself as based in freedom and free markets, but it is needy, dependent, and insecure. It considers itself wealthy, yet plunders resources from other cultures and steamrolls them. Other cultures (not other countries within my culture like Europe or China, but ones we haven’t steamrolled yet. I tend to think of what’s left of the Hadza and San because I’ve talked to experts on them).
- Recognize this pattern in oneself, one’s culture, and history, especially collapses. Are there examples of addiction-ridden cultures that didn’t collapse? There are examples of free cultures enduring tens of thousands of years, even hundreds of thousands of years, showing resilience and durability addiction-based cultures lack. The most-enduring empire, Rome, lasted a mere 1,500 years, less than one percent of how long the San lived.
- Honor our inborn social emotional responses to gluttony, selfishness, neediness, and other addictive behavior such as disgust, shame and guilt. We don’t like feeling them. Addicted people in an addiction-ridden culture may, as a majority, try to stop others from provoking those feelings, but we have them for a reason. I’m not suggesting trying to make people feel bad. I’m suggesting not repressing our humanity. I’m suggesting avoiding living in denial.
- The result of honoring our humanity is restoring community and intimacy through open communication, listening to understand, empathy, compassion, and other forms of support.
- Find free cultures and learn from them. I mentioned several free cultures. History abounds with them. They resisted being steamrolled, though my culture steamrolled nearly all of them.
- See the pattern in individuals, especially people you know, even loved ones, especially ones in denial.
- Reveal craving institutions as suppliers helping drive addiction. You know about the Sackler family and other creators and pushers of addictive drugs. Also organizations that profit from supplying addiction like Facebook, Tesla, Amazon, Google, H&M, McDonald’s, Netflix, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Monsanto, Whole Foods, Ford, GM, Delta Airlines, Disney, the whole advertising industry, and so on.
Eleven: You can’t clean the addictive system if you’re worried about your own supply. You have to clean yourself to clean the system.
In particular, you can’t clean the global heroin trade if you’re worried about your supply. By contrast, experience outside an addiction-riddle culture liberates and all addicts can get clean.
Addicts inside an addiction-riddled culture may feel unable to conceive of their lives or culture without their supply. They’ve come to see it as good, as Rome and European colonial nations felt about slavery and we do about disposable packaging and flying.
These views are the addiction speaking: rationalizations we don’t believe ourselves or say out loud. They don’t make sense or have to. They only have to placate our minds from shame, guilt, and disgust for ourselves until the feelings pass.
Until you get free from addiction, you will view cleaning the system as deprivation and sacrifice. No matter your words (“There is no planet B,” “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” “Live simply so others may simply live,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” “Have dominion over all creatures”), your behavior to satisfy your craving will lead you to put yourself before others. You will be needy, dependent, and cruel.
Freeing yourself from addiction will hit you with shame, guilt, disgust, fear, and related emotions you’ve suppressed and denied. Then you will restore your humanity and wish you had gotten clean earlier.
Twelve: Even after you get clean, huge challenges remain the challenges of changing the system.
The big challenges of changing a system aren’t learning more about how smoke causes lung cancer or carbon traps heat, nor coming up with plans like Project Drawdown. It’s talking about the changes that to the addicted person look like deprivation, sacrifice, burden, and chore. Examples in our polluted world include:
- You were born in the U.S. and married someone in France. You want to see each other’s families a few times a year. Flying comprises forty percent of many people’s pollution.
- Your business took out loans or promised returns on investment based on a craving-based business model, like selling things people don’t need. You’re worried if you stop doing your business you won’t know how to eat.
- You believe your economic system requires population growth, which, since we are above what Earth can sustain, requires fossil fuels to feed it.
- You live in a suburb that you believe requires driving. If the highways leading into the city were removed, you worry you don’t know how you’d eat.
- You fear if your nation’s population and economy don’t grow, other nations will attack, militarily or in the market.
- You fear everyone coordinating globally or nationally would lead to government overreach, possibly leading to authoritarianism.
- You believe we should be fruitful and multiply and should have as large families as practical.
- You think what you do doesn’t matter.
Thirteen: Acting may be difficult, but every move from addiction improves your life in the moment. You’ll wish you got clean earlier.
Even talking about some of those bullet points, like population, is hard for many people. Addicted people see actions that would lead to living without their supply as deprivation, sacrifice, burden, chore, and even morally wrong.
Those fears don’t change that almost nothing improves an addicted person’s life in the here and now than getting clean. That outcome includes you too, since if you live in my culture, you are addicted and living in an addiction-ridden culture. You almost certainly can’t imagine living without air conditioning, flying, and takeout, let alone preferring living that way, any more than heroin or meth addicts could imagine living without their supplies.
As with anyone who recovers, in kicking your addiction, you’ll find and create supportive, nonjudgmental community. You’ll create rituals that create new ruts that undo the ones you’ve reinforced your whole life. You will change your view of the future to something you can create and improve, not suffer.
Crazy as it may sound, you will love seeing your past destructive, craving, selfish, needy self as disgusting and shameful. You will have to endure withdrawal, but you’ll wish you acted earlier.
Fourteen: Saving graces and a brighter future
If you’re addicted, you fear unimaginable outcomes like not being able to fly, a decreasing population, or not being able to order takeout.
If everyone in an addiction-ridden culture got clean at once, the economy would shift, not collapse. Note that we don’t get addicted to life essentials like vegetables or water. A lesson from the pandemic: as much as people were locked down and as much as people died from the virus, people didn’t starve. Houses didn’t collapse.
Everyone stopping using fossil fuels at once would not lead to collapse. Entire industries would end: advertising, cruise ships, and factory farms, for example. Farms would have to shift fast, but we wouldn’t run out of food. We’d have enough shelter, more love, and more support.
As demand shifted from airlines and video games to bicycles and in-person sports, entrepreneurs would meet the new needs expressed in the market. We wouldn’t try to innovate more ways to promote flight-based tourism. We would innovate ways to sail or tour more locally.
All the values we thought we needed our addiction for, like visiting family, helping the sick, and exploring nature, we will get more of. We’ll get less of the jolt of flying to the Amazon, but more overall value from experiencing nature near us. We’ll order less takeout but cook from scratch more, which will save time and money and connect us more with our families and friends.
People experienced more travel, adventure, family, awe, wonder, sweetness, euphoria, security, anticipation of a brighter future, and all we think our addictions bring before they riddled our society.
Nothing will change that we can’t see every beautiful place in the world we’d like to visit. We couldn’t with flying. Only now we’ll experience that beauty in nature near us.
Nothing will change that we can’t spend as much time as we’d like with all the people we’d like to. We wouldn’t with flying. Only now we’ll spend more time with fewer, closer people, meaning deeper relationships and more intimacy.
Nothing will change that we are all mortal. We will all die. We will all experience pain. We will see loved ones suffer and die. These results were inevitable with addiction. They will remain so without. There will not be more pain or death. Only now we’ll face them with dignity and honor. Instead of shipping grandparents off to old age homes, we’ll take care of them, learning and growing from the experience.
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