This Addiction-And-Recovery Model For Global Warming Makes A Whole Lot Of Sense

Time for societal therapy?

21/03/2017 6:26 PM IST | Updated 30/03/2017 9:20 AM IST
Arko Datta / Reuters

I have repeatedly argued that the behavioural changes needed to solve global warming are simply too daunting and the only way out is to find easily adaptable solutions. I am fully aware that some behavioural changes will become necessary but I am also optimistic that we will evolve into carbon-neutral sapiens and avoid complete disaster.

In this post, though, I want to talk about how my pessimism about human ability to make extensive and drastic behavioural changes has been tempered by an interesting new paradigm proposed by Bob Costanza and colleagues.

The so-called societal addictions are akin to individual ones— in both cases, long-term harm is overlooked for a short-term reward.

This novel view draws a parallel between individual addictions to smoking, drugs, alcohol, etc., and the human behaviour of over-consumption that has led to global warming. The so-called societal addictions are akin to individual ones— in both cases, long-term harm is overlooked for a short-term reward. In individual terms, this means reaching for cigarettes, drugs or alcohol to avoid the immediate unpleasantness of an emotional or physical state despite being fully aware of their detrimental effects. Some clear examples of seemingly benign societal addictions range from the use of pesticides to overfishing to over-consumption of food, water, and energy. Individual addictions do incur some social costs in terms of treatment for addicts, hours of labour lost, drug-related crimes and mortalities due to being under the influence. Social costs of societal addictions are obvious in terms of the ill-effects of global warming, where the addictions of rich societies often inflict pain on the poor.

The so-called marshmallow experiments of half a century ago offered kids a small immediate reward, with an incentive that if they waited for just a short while their reward would be doubled. As can be expected, some children decided to forego the waiting and the bigger reward for the immediate gratification of the smaller reward. Subsequent tracking of these subjects showed that those who could wait for a bigger reward went on to do better in life in the long run. More recent brain-mappings have shown that individuals with addictive behaviour are wired to seek immediate gratification and need to be trained to wait for a bigger reward. Clearly these findings have some bearing on social addictions, since some are more concerned and willing to act than others on the use of shared resources and global warming. So what can we learn from the treatment of individual addictions that may translate to treatments of societal addictions?

Many climate scientists have assumed the de-facto chair of therapist but not many communities are happy to lie on their metaphorical couches.

It helps to see the similarities between individual and societal addictions in terms of the conditions that may create the traps from which humans struggle to escape. Individual addiction is associated with a lack of control, stressful physical and emotional states and the temptations of short-term rewards of addictive substances dominating over other healthier habits. Costanza and colleagues argue that social traps evolve when guidelines or incentives for local and individual behaviour are not designed to be compatible with overall societal wellbeing. Driving automobiles is an example where focusing on one's own convenience may be harmful to the environment of the entire community. Consumerism that mostly evolved since World War II has essentially created innumerable social traps at local and global levels.

Treatments for individual addictions are not effective when a therapist works under the assumption that the addict lacks proper knowledge or when the addiction is portrayed as a weakness and punished. This is remarkably similar to some of the scepticism and resistance that have evolved around the global warming debate, typically driven by a feeling of being preached to about the damage done to the environment or being handed down rules about consumption, travel, driving, lifestyles, etc., without a long-term vision of the outcome of following these rules.

The treatment of societal addictions should... target and reinforce the desire to change, support society's autonomy and choice, rendering a sense of total partnership...

Two approaches that have had success in addiction treatment are the Motivational Interviewing (MI) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The main ingredients of MI are to engage the addict to create a rapport, focus on setting the agenda where the patient feels free and vested, evoke the desire to change, and plan to elicit commitment to action to bring about actual changes. Translating the individual therapy approaches to societal level may require careful thought about who the therapists will be. Many climate scientists have assumed the de-facto chair of therapist but not many communities are happy to lie on their metaphorical couches. It is clear that all the hard decisions about climate actions will be sociopolitical and the softest information may indeed come from climate science in terms of future projections. It is thus critical to groom the therapists carefully so that credibility and trust is firmly established between the communities and the therapists.

Once region-specific societal addictions are identified and the community-therapist relations are accepted, the treatment of societal addictions should build upon established MI approaches of targeting and reinforcing the desire to change, supporting society's autonomy and choice, rendering a sense of total partnership while being consistent with the society's own vision of its sustainable future. The examples cited by the authors for successful societal therapies are indeed inspiring—India's independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, the civil rights movement stewarded by Dr. Martin Luther King, and the anti-apartheid movement of Nelson Mandela.

The framework for societal therapy that has been tried in the context of shared resources and global warming is referred to as Community Scenario Planning (CSP). India has some obvious societal addictions where CSP might be applied as therapy. The water-sharing issues between states are prime candidates. Societies in each state will need to develop their own future scenarios for sustainable water resource management and then be audacious enough to develop plans for a shared sustainable future with the neighbouring states despite the limited water available for their own use. As a nation that produced the Mahatma, we must find it in us to treat ourselves for our addictions.

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