The History of Our Addictions

 The industrial world is a kind of entrancement, a pathology.
It’s addictive….It’s paralyzing, because once we’re
totally caught up in it, we think we can’t do anything about it.
Thomas Berry
 The western industrial world is caught in the
vortex of cultural addiction. The substance of abuse
is all “consumer” products. We have lost our spiritual moorings.
– ­­
Albert LaChance
Today the world is awash in a sea of both personal
and collective addictions: alcoholism, drug abuse, sex addiction,
consumerism, eating disorders, codependence, and war making.
– Chellis Glendinning

Chellis Glendinning’s (1995) long list of personal and collective addictions above  is real to us all. I certainly know that I have been touched personally by all of the addictions on her list, even if I only consider a very small circle of family, friends and coworkers. Perhaps that’s why her assertions about the connections between techno-industrialized, Western society and the reality of these addictions has so much appeal to me.

While, as Thomas Berry suggests, there seems at the moment no way to stop the trend that increasingly leaves people caught up in the cycle of addiction, it helps me to at least begin to understand how we get here. I find that taking an evolutionary perspective, in other words grasping the historical flow of how we arrived at this dilemma, at least helps bring meaning to it all, and perhaps, we can hope, awakens us to new possibilities.

In this post, then, I want to continue taking a historical look at how we arrived where we are today, with the help of LaChance and Glendinning. I do this not with any suggestion that what we need as a human community is to return to the Stone Age and live without the technologies we have developed that seem also to do so much good for people (although, ultimately that is dependent on the availability of the resources that sustain it). I do think we need to seek a balance, and ultimately to reclaim our humanness from a worldview driving an economic system that has defined humans as consumers and turned them into addicts.

In her book, Off the Map, Glendinning (2002) notes a connection between the rise of substance addiction and the rise of corporate profiteering from addictive substances during the emergence of the industrial-colonial period. Her recounting of the story begins about the time of the War of 1812 between the British and the United States. During the war, notes Glendinning, the British captured one of America’s newly invented clipper ships, and noting its sea-worthiness, began to reproduce it. She writes:

[T]he British East India Company in Bengal, the very one that muscles out the local weavers, has a nineteenth-century-style bright idea. The clipper, capable of beating into the formidable China sea like no other ship, carries opium England forces Indian farmers to grow. The Chinese buy the drug. England makes money – and buys Chinese tea, silks, and porcelain to sell in Europe. England makes money – and sells British textiles and machinery back to India. England makes money – and becomes the lord of the most profitable triangle of “free trade” in the history of merchantry. In 1770 a mere 15 tons of opium are carried from India to China. By 1900, with the aid of the deft clipper, Chinese addicts are smoking 39,000 tons.

Perhaps closer to home is Glendinning’s narrative on the connections between profit and our addiction to caffeine. She observes:

Coincidentally (or not), the explosion of global trade in stimulants like tea, coffee, and coca mirrors the demands of the industrial revolution on the human organism. (pp. 32-33).

My own international travels have taken me to several countries around the globe colonized by the British. Having learned about British colonial exploits in my early school education, I was quite familiar with the extent of the empire from an academic point of view. It was not, however, until I had spent a period of time in Cape Town, South Africa and then a few years later traveled to Sydney, Australia, that I gained a bodily sense of the distance between those two countries, and just how vast the British Empire was at its peak.

I also have to admit that I became somewhat enamored with the ritual of British “tea time.” Twice a day – mid-morning and mid-afternoon – while we were touring Australia with close friends, we would make a stop for tea with bread or scones. I liked very much the idea of a ritual that invited taking time to slow down. Years ago I went off caffeine completely, so I drank herbal teas. But now, with Glendinning’s historical narrative in mind, I question whether the goal in implementing this ritual was really to slow down, or to get people revved up on another hit of caffeine, while at the same time boosting the economy. Here’s Glendinning’s summary of the situation:

In 1669 the British East India Company ships a measly two canisters of tea home to England. By 1900, imports are 400 million pounds. Use of sugar, brought over from the colonies of the Caribbean, jumps from twenty pounds per person in 1850 to eighty pounds by 1900.(p. 33)

The first step to recovery from addiction involves seeing reality as it really is; coming to an awareness that the behaviors we are engaged in are leading us toward death, not the ongoing life our Creator intended for us. In my own steps toward greater health, I realize that I cannot change the past, or the world I live in today, but I can change the way I will live. I continue to explore how that can happen on daily basis, trying to be ever more conscious of the things I do with my time, the purchases I make, what I eat and drink.

I truly believe that we will not save our planet, Earth, from the destruction that now encroaches upon all corners of its life community, until we each do the work to save ourselves.    

Berry T. as cited in LaChance A. (1991). p.2

LaChance. A. (1991). Greenspirit: Twelve steps in ecological spirituality. Rockport, MA: Element Books. p.7

Glendinning, C. (1995) Technology, trauma and the wild. In Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E., and Kanner, A.D. (Eds).  Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, healing the mind. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club. p. 54.

Glendinning.C. (1999). Off the map: An expedition deep into empire and the global economy. Boston: Shambala.

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