- A Brief History
- The Current Scene
- Habit and Adaptation
- Addiction as Habitual Maladaptive Behavior
- Shedding Our Own Addictions
“Addiction” has become common in English language usage only during the last century. Essential qualities of addiction, as the word was originally defined, were the regular ingestion of opium, the development of tolerance (i.e. — reduction of effects with identical dosage), torturous withdrawal symptoms in its absence, and anti-social behavior both to gain access and while intoxicated. Today we use the term in a much broader sense, to denote any of countless types of repeated behaviors where actual outcomes consistently result in failure to be satisfied.
A Brief History
English-speaking people first became aware of addiction in the early 19th century, as a result of their participation in the manufacture and distribution of opium in the Far East. Towards the end of the century, European artists and literati began experimenting with a variety of psychoactive substances in search of new heights of aesthetic experience. Opiates, cocaine, cannabis derivatives, and assorted other substances which affected brain function became readily available, both in patent medicines and in admittedly recreational preparations, and an era of naive and widespread drug abuse was inaugurated.
Between 1900 and 1940, medical researchers discovered and synthesized an array of potent compounds which acted on the human brain. For awhile doctors prescribed them with abandon, but disillusionment came quickly. Addictive behavior which had previously been observed exclusively among opiate users, was soon evident among large numbers of those who had been exposed to whole new classes of substances, including barbiturates, amphetamines, and tranquilizers.
The Current Scene
As millions more people have become obsessive users of a growing pharmacopaeia, an ever more stringent set of national and international controls has been set in place to suppress what is now recognized as a global health problem of epidemic proportions. Despite continuing research into addiction, substantial law enforcement activity aimed at halting drug trafficking, and diverse experiments with treatment for the purpose of making something other than premature death the most likely fate of the addict, drug abuse appears still to be growing. Every year humans consume billions of doses of synthetic stimulants, depressants, and tranquilizers, as well as even larger quantities of illegal but naturally occurring psychoactive substances. Socially accepted drugs, like coffee, tea, chocolate, alcohol, sugar, tobacco, et cetera are now admitted to carry potential for addiction. In fact, more and more habitual behaviors, whether observable or confined to individual consciousness, are being termed “addiction.”
Habit and Adaptation
Human adaptation and survival may be viewed as information processing challenges. There are far more stimuli impinging upon us than we can simultaneously process. One way that we deal with this is by putting some aspects of living on “automatic.” Having once decided how to act in certain circumstances, we behave that way repeatedly without further consideration. A peril of this approach is that an act which is innocent in the first instance may become damaging if repeated. We also risk the possibility that the negative repercussions of an act occur after a substantial lag. Finally, changes to the environment may go unnoticed if we think we “know” what we are perceiving and how to respond.
While the ecologist will claim that all humans, indeed all organisms, are apparently joined in the fundamental purposes of survival and reproduction, individuals commonly aim towards additional, sometimes mutually incompatible goals. Questions of adaptivity are problematic, for we are without the ability to precisely determine the adaptive value of either our own or others’ behaviors, including goal-setting. Looking from within the constraints of our own personal world-views, or the ethos of our own culture, we see a very partial and assuredly distorted reality.
Addiction as Habitual Maladaptive Behavior
Addiction may be viewed as a special class of repeated behaviors, where short-term satisfaction is linked to longer-term frustration. Using the principles of ecology, we may generate a variety of plausible explanations both for the rise of addictive (i.e. habitual, maladaptive) behaviors, and for our growing consciousness of, and concern for them.
The ease with which an organism adapts may be viewed in terms of the ecological function. As population increases and resources are depleted, additional or altered information becomes necessary to successful adaptation. Over the past two hundred years, humans have increased our numbers in ways that are both absolutely and relatively without precedent. We have employed a sequence of steadily more disruptive technologies to convert earth resources to human use, with the unintended and unwanted simul-taneous effect of rendering the environment less fit to support us.
With our large scale organization of human activity and grandiose alterations of the environment, and with the speed of our operations, we have necessitated major changes in human behavioral adaptation. Under these circumstances, previously acceptable habit can easily prove maladaptive, and innovation, however inspired, is difficult to evaluate. More and more of us are finding familiar patterns untenable, yet few of us are confident that we have identified viable alternatives.
The current official focus upon addictive substances and the vast resources being marshalled to reduce their availability are indications of a change in attitude which we may trace back more than one hundred fifty years to the initial efforts of the Chinese to control opium. As all humans have become more tightly bound in our network of resource conversion activities, each of us is increasingly concerned with, and of concern to, being characterized as an integral part of a whole system, including both our individual selves, other people, and the remainder of the environment in which we live. From this perspective, those who address singular addictive behaviors in isolated individuals, seeking linear chains of causation, appear doomed to failure. An ecosystem is too filled with multiple feedback loops, where cause and effect are to some extent qualities of all system elements, to be accurately modeled with simplistic ideas born of a mechanistic paradigm. Viewed ecologically, with concern for relationships between individuals and the environment, addiction is more easily recognized as something impossible to vanquish without collateral change.
Shedding Our Own Addictions
Why bother with addiction, and label it negative, rather than merely accept it as part of living? Many of us share a sense that addiction is somehow inconsistent with our deeper purposes. We find unpleasant the perception of freedom which we associate with addictive behavior. We recognize in ourselves and our environment a system out of balance, one that we have destabilized. And we want greater satisfaction for ourselves and others
What are our purposes? How shall we be satisfied? These age-old, fundamental questions are the framework against which we lay the stories of our lives to date as we look for evidence of addiction. What we find may vary from regularity in brushing and flossing teeth, which many will agree to be quite adaptive, to daily ingestion of drugs, which most will agree merits question, to repeated expression of anger by violence towards others, which almost all will deem an addiction of the worst kind.
Addiction may be characterized as an integral part of a whole system, including both our individual selves, other people, and the remainder of the environment in which we live. From this perspective, those who address singular addictive behaviors in isolated individuals, seeking linear chains of causation, appear doomed to failure. An ecosystem is too filled with multiple feedback loops, where cause and effect are to some extent qualities of all system elements, to be accurately modeled with simplistic ideas born of a mechanistic paradigm. Viewed ecologically, with concern for relationships between individuals and the environment, addiction is more easily recognized as something impossible to vanquish without collateral change.
How shall we extinguish addiction? Embedded in this question lies perhaps one of our most subtle addictions: we move so quickly to “how,” and shrink so rapidly from “why”. Many of us have been taught, “Not ours to reason why, just ours to do, or be fired, or ostracized, or violently suppressed.”
Living such a large fraction of our waking lives with this consciousness, with so much dependent upon steadfast adherence to it, we may well be losing both the appetite and the capacity for “why” thinking. Seeing so much that seems so contrary to common sense, which we are nonetheless expected to rationalize and carry forward with some enthusiasm, we become inured to the nonsensical nature of much that we do, and take it for granted. To question or challenge “why?” in the face of such widespread conformity seems futile, so we channel our energies to the “how” of living. In an era of profound and rapid environmental change, such behavior may be an impediment to the radical personal changes necessary to successful adaptation.
Ours has been an engineering age, an age of manipulating both the non-human environment and other people. The values of stillness, reflection, observation, are rarely taught, practiced, or rewarded. As so often seems the case with addiction, the very manipulative behaviors by which we imagine escaping our plight serve only to worsen it. At least at the meta-level, our determination to “do something” about our addiction, may be incompatible with observing it, and thus addressing the question of “why” in less mechanistic terms.
Addictive behavior might as well be viewed as the absence of some alternative way of being. Locked as we are into old ways, we fail to even conceptualize the alternative. Addiction thus might be explained more in terms of what we have yet to imagine and become, rather than in terms of what we are. Internal consciousness, rather than externally visible behavior, may be the neglected substrate with which we nourish addiction. Learning to observe our mental processes, and to assess them in the light of our objectives, may be a first step in abandoning addiction.
Most traditional approaches to addiction have proven only marginally effective. Wholistic techniques, usually including a period of residential treatment in a carefully controlled environment with intensive practice of alternative behaviors, followed by a careful transition to a less circumscribed situation where ongoing monitoring remains an important element, seem more promising.
We can restructure our own lives in analogous ways, using a pattern of observation, evaluation, and planning repeated over and over, to approximate ever more closely the vision of healthful self that we carry.
As ecologists, we deal with organism and environment in their entirety. We address individual, society, and non-human environment. All of us are to varying degrees free to move, or to alter the environment in which we remain. Though permanently related to family, we may choose friends on the basis of shared values. While stuck with our genes, we can alter much that we have become through experience. These are our choices.
For some time many of us in the United States have carried, in fact celebrated, an ideology of progress, rooted in the notions that we know what we’re doing, that we’re happier than ever, and that more of the same determined alteration of the environment will pave the way to heaven on earth. This belief, in fact all belief, may be our most debilitating addiction. If this be the case, then an ecological approach to living, robustly skeptical, rational, and empirical, may be a path to recovery.