Bruce Alexander
Bruce Alexander

In the 19th century, a new notion of addiction came to the fore. Although it’s now viewed as a development of modern neuroscience, said Bruce Alexander, the official understanding of addition as “chronic, relapsing brain disease” is essentially the same as that which was developed 200 years ago.

“I’m going to leave that official view in the background,” he said.

Alexander is an emeritus professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University. He has spent much of his career working with addicts on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Thursday, he gave a lecture titled “Addiction, Eco-Crisis and Global Capitalism” as part of the Environment, Sustainability and Society lecture series hosted at Dalhousie. In the lecture, he argued that thinking about addiction differently can help explain the psychological dynamics that contribute to ecological destruction.

Addiction as Adaptation

Addiction, said Alexander, should be understood as an adaptive response to dislocation. That relationship is part of a positive feedback loop, which Alexander demonstrated on a slide with a portrait of Christopher Columbus at its centre.

“He’s looking worried,” said Alexander, “and I want to show you that he was right to be looking worried.” With the colonization of the globe by Western powers, societies were fragmented. “We can see that this fragmenting of existing societies hasn’t ended,” he said, pointing to environmental destruction, increasing privatization, and “internet-ification” as contemporary forces of fragmentation.

Christopher Columbus had good reason to be worried, say Bruce Alexander.
Christopher Columbus had good reason to be worried, say Bruce Alexander.

The effect of that fragmentation is dislocation, which Alexander defines as “the experience of the absence of enduring and sustaining connections between individuals and their families, societies, occupations, physical environments or Gods — It’s the experience of being all by yourself.”

As such, he said, it’s what makes the free market work. The laws of supply and demand depend on an understanding of actors who buy and sell according to their own individual needs. It’s also, he noted, a source of creativity and freedom, in the liberation it represents from constraining social norms.

But when this dislocation is sustained, he said, “it hurts. For many people it’s unbearable.”

Dislocation comes in different forms, said Alexander, pointing out examples ranging from research on the psychological consequences when children who are prevented from forming attachments, to the dislocation experienced by middle and working class individuals trying to find decent housing in his home city of Vancouver.

“Just as dislocation tracks fragmentation, addiction tracks dislocation,” he said. Not only are there historical examples to support this — including the devastating rates of addiction among First Nations, Inuit and Metis people — but “if you talk to individual addicts, they’re always going to tell you this story of adaptation.

“Imagine dislocation is a void,” he continued. “Addiction is going to help fill that void. You are no longer nobody, all of a sudden you have a reason to get up in the morning.”

By becoming addicts, people reclaim an identity. ‘To be a junkie is to be somebody. You become part of a tragic lineage. It’s not so great to be part of a tragedy but it’s a lot better than being nothing, and that’s the alternative.”

On some level, this isn’t entirely negative, said Alexander. Addiction helps people adapt to their dislocating circumstances. But the adaptation is never adequate, which leads to individual and societal harm: “Because it’s only partial that means you need more of it, whatever it is.”

Herein lies the connection of addiction to ecological crisis.

The Limits of Adaptation

We live in a fragmented world, which consequently means a world in which people are addicted in varying degrees to many things, said Alexander. Especially in the Western world, this often takes the form of compulsive consumption. “Many people in Canada act as if they’re addicted to buying junk they don’t need. They talk to me in the same way that junkies do. The addictive dynamics are really quite clear.”

Multiplied by hundreds of millions, a little addiction to consumption becomes an environmental catastrophe.

But it’s not just consumers, he said. Producers are addicts too. Alexander invited the audience to consider auto-biographical accounts in which some of the ultra rich have detailed their compulsion to enrich themselves. A drive to accumulate wealth that gives little consideration to the social and environmental consequences of doing so is addictive behaviour.

As Alexander sees it, the responses to addiction run along a spectrum. At one end is the drive to punish addictions, a drive that lead to policies such as the war on drugs, which Alexander described as “wrong thinking.” One step removed from this is the attempt to treat, cure or modify addictive behaviors. This approach doesn’t work either, said Alexander, because “addicted people aren’t sick, they’re adapting to dislocation as best as possible.”

Re-shaping Society

“The only way that we’re going to stop the addiction problem and the environmental problem which is interwoven with it is actually to reshape society,” said Alexander.

He has no concrete data, but anecdotally, in his own experience, Alexander pointed to the addicts he knew on the downtown east side who joined community and activist groups “and all of a sudden they have an identity. I think that the little group approach is probably the most constructive thing that anyone could possibly have imagined.” When all these little groups come together in one group, as Alexander says he saw elements of in the anti-war protests of the 1960s, “the world changes.”

“And that is my hope for you,” he said, addressing the crowd. “That you will not spend your whole life waiting for this moment, that it will come and it will work its change and then you can have a good rest.”

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