By Donella Meadows
–July 14, 1988–
As we limit the public spaces where smokers can indulge their habit and consider calling out the Army to apprehend drug dealers, it might be well to step back and consider the behavior we are trying to control — addiction. Addiction permeates our private and public lives in more ways than we are willing to admit.
The addictions we try to deal with publicly in varying degrees are drug abuse, alcoholism, smoking, and gambling. Addictions to caffeine and sugar are not considered matters of social concern. Then there are addictions we are unaware of and sometimes perversely proud of. On an individual level they include compulsions toward money, sex, work, or violence. On a societal level some examples are government borrowing, oil, pesticides, fertilizers, and militarism.
If that sounds like a strange list, keep in mind what addiction is — a habit you’re hooked on though it hurts you, a quick fix that relieves or hides the symptoms of a problem while actually making the problem worse. The fix drives you deeper into a hole, while making you feel momentarily better, because when you are under the influence, you are out of touch with your real condition.
The government acts like any common addict in spending money it doesn’t have, thereby accumulating debt, thereby incurring interest charges, which it pays by further borrowing. Listen to Congress and the President explain how they plan to reform any time now. They sound like an alcoholic who swears he can quit whenever he wants to.
Our policy toward oil perfectly fits psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef’s description of addiction, “When we are functioning out of an addictive process, we will do anything to protect our supply — whatever that supply is.”
We send military forces to maintain shipments through the Persian Gulf at a defense cost of $180 a barrel for $20 a barrel oil. We displace people, despoil wilderness, search the bottom of the sea to find the last oil deposits, like a drunk ransacking the kitchen hoping to turn up one more bottle. If we can keep the oil flowing and pretend it’s cheap by not counting its environmental or political costs, we can put off facing our real problem, which is how to moderate our energy demands and tap renewable supplies.
If we use enough fertilizer, we can cover over the fact that our farming methods use up the humus, tilth and natural fertility of the soil. If we can invent new pesticides faster than the pests become resistant to the old ones, we won’t have to admit that our monocultures are unmanageable. The smoker doesn’t want to know what’s happening to his lungs or the alcoholic to his liver, and we prefer not to know how agricultural chemicals are affecting our soils, our waters, our ecosystems, or our own health.
Addiction is ingrained in our society. It is reinforced by every speech or advertisement that tells us to feel good and not look too deeply into reality. Our public discourse encourages us to indulge in substances, sex, or materialism, rather than come to grips with either temporary upset or long-term inner emptiness.
The roots of addiction lie in selfishness and self-deception. Once an addiction has started, it takes on a formidable power that cannot be weakened by reason, shame, laws, armies, or ordinary will power. A compulsive overeater can no more “just say no” than can a cocaine addict or a defense contractor going after a fix of public money. They are all capable of any act, no matter how crazy, or harmful, that will maintain their habits.
The amazing thing is that addiction can be overcome. This country of addicts has spawned what must be the largest, most effective network of recovery in the world — Alcoholics Anonymous and its many offshoots.
The members of Alcoholics Anonymous never speak as a group on public issues, even those like drugs or smoking that deal directly with addiction. But they will tell you as individuals what has worked in their personal experience. Its a process worth thinking about as we struggle with our nation’s addicts and our national addictions.
The first and crucial step is admitting the addiction, the lack of control, the insanity of one’s actions.
That step of humility is followed by surrender and honesty; surrender to one’s higher purposes and powers, and honesty about one’s past and present actions, followed by restitution wherever possible. The final step is the maintenance of recovery by helping others to recover.
That may sound like more than an ordinary human can do, much less a crack addict or politician or defense contractor. But all around you are ex-drunks who have done it. They did it slowly, one day at a time. And they did it with the constant support of a society of fellow addicts, who understood their struggle.
We are all addicts of one kind or another. As they say in A.A., God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988