Human civilisation is becoming increasingly alienated from nature, and the environment is in crisis as a consequence.
Environmental activists are calling for systemic change. With the new wave of scientific interest in psychedelics, it’s clear that Western medicine is adopting age-old practices to revolutionise psychiatric treatment, but could we take it further?
Perhaps psychedelics – drugs proving to be invaluable for the health of our mind – could also help to rescue the health of the planet.
Nature is in crisis
Since the emergence of industrial societies, human activity has experienced unprecedented growth. With a rapidly expanding global population and remarkable advancements in technology, our consumption of natural resources continues to skyrocket. As a result, human life creates an environmental demand so high that our own planet cannot sustain it.
The environment is in crisis. Rising temperatures are exacerbating large scale loss. The ice caps are melting. Sea levels rising. Forests burning. And the crisis isn’t limited to the natural world; human populations will inevitably face extreme economic, social, political and technological issues – a consequence that will disproportionately affect marginalised communities.
It is near-impossible to live a fully eco-friendly life in modern Western society. Individual sustainable swaps feel almost insignificant in comparison to the mass damage caused by major corporations; when the onus is so often placed on the individual, it leads many to think, “why bother?” And because the scale of global destruction is too large for us to even begin to comprehend, it becomes all too easy to turn a blind eye to this looming crisis.
Humans have alienated themselves from the natural world. We will continue to destroy and pollute the planet on a mass scale until we, as a species, are able to reconnect with nature, but how do we do this?
The importance of environmental virtues
A new paper, due to be published in Philosophical Psychology, has addressed this very question. The paper’s authors, Dr Chris Letheby and Dr Nin Kirkham, are philosophers at the University of Western Australia (UWA). They argue that psychedelic drugs could “catalyse the development of environmental virtues” and therefore act as a solution to environmental challenges, such as “climate change, plastic pollution, [and] habitat destruction.”
On the face of it, the theory that psychedelics could be the solution to the climate crisis is somewhat dubious, but the authors delve deep into the argument and build a solid case. They claim that psychedelics could build environmental virtues – the traits that reflect our moral duty to protect the environment – and, in turn, promote “the development of an environmental consciousness.”
According to the authors, this eco-awareness “can help to moderate individual choices and actions, which…plays an important role in our ability to get traction on environmental problems.” The paper isn’t arguing that it is the duty of the individual to save the environment. Instead, it highlights that building personal environmental virtues creates a drive for large-scale change.
It makes sense; the more people that care about the health of the planet, the more likely it is that corporations and states will take action on this environmental crisis. It’s certainly a compelling argument, but how exactly do psychedelics encourage eco-friendly behaviour?
Psychedelics enhance nature-connectedness
The psychedelic experience produces an enduring shift in our mindset – an ego loss. The boundaries between yourself, others, and the world around you dissolve and you begin to view yourself as part of the natural world, rather than a distinct entity. This dissolution of the barrier between nature and self evokes a sense of nature-connectedness, which is a primary feature of a psychedelic trip.
Research has established that nature-connectedness promotes pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling and reducing energy consumption, so it is not overly presumptuous to suggest that psychedelics encourage users to live a more sustainable life.
There is even growing evidence to support this idea. An observational study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology in 2017, found that lifetime use of LSD, psilocybin and mescaline was associated with increased nature relatedness and pro-environmental behaviour.
More recent evidence suggests that this link goes beyond a simple correlation. A 2019 study found that “nature relatedness was significantly increased 2 weeks, 4 weeks and 2 years after the psychedelic experience,” verifying a causal relationship between using psychedelics and being connected to nature.
Could psychedelics really save the planet?
Dr Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR), has been particularly vocal about how her experiences with psychedelics have shaped her relationship with the environment and contributed to her decision to create XR.
Bradbrook told The Independent that the psychedelic realm “can help bridge the gap between science and humans’ spiritual needs.” According to New Scientist, Bradbrook has called for “mass ingestion of psychedelic substances” as a form of rebellion against drug policy, which she claims would “lessen the ecological crisis that we’re in”.
The authors of the Philosophical Psychology paper adopt a slightly less radical stance. They argue that for psychedelics to be “safe and effective” at promoting pro-environmental behaviour, they require “controlled and intentional administration”, such as “clinical trials and tried-and-tested religious ceremonies”.
However, the paper didn’t offer a suggestion for how this could logistically be carried out, particularly on a large enough scale to yield significant social change. “Obviously the devil is in the details, and determining precisely how to bring this about will be no trivial matter,” the authors state. So, despite the plausibility of the theory itself, we cannot overlook the legal and ethical obstacles in the way of using psychedelics to solve environmental challenges.
Classic psychedelics, such as LSD and psilocybin, are currently classed as Schedule I controlled substances in the UK, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Comparable restrictions are in place in the US and in Australia, so the prospect of using psychedelics to foster worldwide change is no mean feat.
The authors also pre-empted the objection that “becoming more ethical by taking drugs is cheating”. The case of moral enhancement has been widely disputed amongst academics. Some philosophers argue that a modification that leaves a person with morally better motives than before is, itself, immoral.
In response, the paper suggests that the assistance of pharmacological avenues to remind us of our duty to protect nature is a valuable thing. “It seems almost truistic to argue that if people were better, then the world would be a better place, so if we want to make the world a better place, then we should support the moral enhancement of human beings.”
Whilst it would be naive to assume that psychedelics can act as a “magic pill” to save the world, we should recognise their role within a multifaceted solution to the environmental crisis. Nature-connectedness certainly promotes environmental consciousness, so it is not unthinkable that the widespread use of psychedelics could help to redirect us back onto a path that values our intrinsic connection with the natural world.