The Globalization of Addiction

Addiction is a hotly debated issue; is it a brain disease as some contend, or is it a collection of compulsive behaviours that arises from a psychological process, a forging of maladaptations to deal with emotional or psychological trauma. Others, like Canadian psychology professor Bruce K. Alexander, posit that the rise in addictions of all kinds (to drugs, alcohol, shopping, overeating, television, internet, gaming) are a response to the gradual erosion of belonging, of communal identity, brought out by modern society’s insistence on consumption, competition and individualism:

Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life.

People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us.

History shows that addiction can be rare in a society for many centuries, but can become nearly universal when circumstances change – for example, when a cohesive tribal culture is crushed or an advanced civilization collapses. Of course, this historical perspective does not deny that differences in vulnerability are built into each individual’s genes, individual experience, and personal character, but it removes individual differences from the foreground of attention, because societal determinants are so much more powerful. Addiction is much more a social problem than an individual disorder.

This perspective reminds me of Oberlin professor David Orr’s assertion that the current age’s rampant environmental degradation and disconnection from nature stems from our “dis-placement” — the loss of our ties to a particular place, or genus loci. Violence, destruction, the self-destruction of addictive behaviour, fill this emptiness and dislocative disconnection. Our collective dislocations allow for atrocities to occur: addictions to substances, harmful behaviours, addictions to oil and greed for money, a bottomless greed for more and more. It will never be enough, even as we annihilate ourselves. As eco-psychologists hypothesize, the way we treat our external environment is analogous to how we treat our inner landscapes, a reflection of our individual and collective psyches. Is there some kind of profound emptiness we are afraid to confront?

The “globalization of addiction” a fascinating hypothesis, speaking to the possible larger picture of what addiction — as an existential problem, a spiritual emptiness — could truly represent. More over at The Globalization of Addiction, and The Agenda with Steve Paikin.

Leave a Reply