Addiction as a Metaphor for the Climate Crisis: An Interview with Charles Eisenstein

By Kevin Franciotti 02/01/19

The conventional response to climate change is like the conventional response to addiction: “Well, you're just going to have to try harder to stop.” I understand climate change as a symptom of a much deeper malady that is inherent to civilization as we know it.

Charles Eisenstein, addiction as a metaphor for climate change
I'm looking at the ways in which we are at war with nature, and at war with each other, and at war with parts of ourselves, and how addiction fits into that pattern.

In the fall of 2011, a small protest began in New York City that would later become known as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement; it later emerged in major cities around the world. Among the many leading voices to provide an analysis of the economic crisis that preceded the movement was author Charles Eisenstein.

Eisenstein had been writing about a variety of crises afflicting postmodern society for years, but his views on the perils of capitalism and the growing ecological and climate issues resonated strongly with the people involved with the Occupy movement.

Perhaps to humanize, or just to make sense of many of the complex, broad, and intertwining topics he writes about, Eisenstein relies heavily on the power of storytelling, and often uses analogies. One analogy he regularly comes back to is the phenomenology of addiction. Though he does not personally identify as having an addiction (at least in the conventional, pathologized sense), his writing indicates his deep understanding of the myriad ways that addiction may be the best metaphor we have for understanding some of society’s greatest ills.

Eisenstein recently published his sixth book, Climate: A New Story, and agreed to an interview with The Fix:

The Fix: Your writing has often relied on the phenomenology of addiction as a metaphor for the harms of capitalism, and now in Climate: A New Story you rely on the metaphor again to help explain the global climate crisis. Why do you often come back to the metaphor of addiction?

Charles Eisenstein: In the popular media, we hear things like “our addiction to fossil fuels,” and it's usually used in disparaging terms, which taps into the general prejudice people often use against addicts, too. But I like to take the metaphor seriously – if we are addicted to fossil fuels, what is the underlying need that drives the addiction that the fossil fuels aren't actually meeting? Fossil fuel consumption, of course, is a symptom of the addiction to economic growth. Or the addiction to consumption; accumulating more and more stuff – bigger and bigger houses, and so on.

What is addiction, in your view?

Addiction, in my view, is the result of an attempt to meet a genuine need with something that does not actually meet the need. You're using a substitute for what you really want, so no amount of it will be enough to meet the real need.

One should ask then, what drives such an addiction? Well, we have to look at the unmet needs of our society. One of those is certainly the need for community, which has broken down even in the course of my lifetime, but especially in the last century or two. When I was a kid growing up in a suburban neighborhood, we had community. Everybody on the street knew everybody else, and all the kids knew each other, and we all pretty much knew what was going on in everyone’s lives. All the families talked with each other, and we had neighborhood volleyball games, and all the kids were playing stickball in the church parking lot.

Years later, when I resettled in suburbia for a brief time, after I started having kids, it was a totally different scene. You didn't see packs of kids roaming around on bikes. The playground in the park, in the middle of the sub-development, was empty most of the time. The neighbors didn't really know each other. I remember when one neighbor got a divorce and no one even knew about it until six months later. We had no community. We were simply living in proximity to each other.

How did you first come to learn about addiction, and what perspective are you hoping to bring through your writing?

I guess I just picked up little bits and pieces of it from the popular culture. I came of age in the mid-eighties/early-nineties, and at that time, there was certainly mention of addiction as a disease in the media. I read some books that had an impact, like Whiskey Children, which was a really beautiful book, but really, my understanding of addiction is part of a more comprehensive worldview.

I'm looking at the ways in which we are at war with nature, and at war with each other, and at war with parts of ourselves, and how addiction fits into that pattern. I’ve never identified as an addict; I don't have that kind of story. But, like most people, I saw people around me suffering from addiction and what it did to their lives. My views on addiction are part of a larger program of ending the war against the self, which is a reflection of the war on nature. And that's why I'm attracted to using addiction as a metaphor.

Our society likes to wage war on problematic areas – the “War on Drugs” is an obvious one, but we’ve also had the “War on Poverty,” the “War on Terror,” and so on.

Dealing with an addiction is not about fighting yourself – [it’s] finding an enemy and overcoming that enemy. That is the near universal template of problem-solving in our culture. Find the disease. Find the germ. Find the weed. Find the bug. Find the criminal. Find the bad guy. Find the terrorist – kill him. Find a bad thing in yourself. Destroy it, overcome it. That's a recipe for endless war. If the conditions that breed disease, weeds, terrorism, crime, and addiction remain present, then fighting the symptom while leaving the cause untouched is a recipe for endless war. I am a peace worker. I want the war to end.

The first step in 12-step programs is to admit powerlessness over addiction. Another way of viewing this in terms of “internal warfare” is the paradox of “surrendering to win.”

I have a soft spot in my heart for 12-step programs. My ex-wife had been an addict, and she got tremendous value from being a member. She had this book of daily meditations called Just for Today that she would read. For her it was a source of not only comfort, but also inspiration and strength.

The principle of the first step is one that I find most aligned with my understanding of addiction. “We realized we were powerless over our addiction.” That's a key insight. Because in the mindset of fighting the addiction, the implicit solution is, “My willpower will overcome my desire. My willpower will overcome my craving.” The problem with that is that willpower is finite, and the unmet need is an infinite generator of craving. You can resist it for a while, but then you're going to have that moment of weakness and the willpower disintegrates. And you have a binge, because the unmet desire isn’t met.

How does the climate crisis resemble this paradox of the failure of willpower to overcome addiction?

This is obviously a society in pain. When looking at climate change, the conventional response to it looks a lot like the kind of ignorant conventional response to addiction, which essentially is, “Well, you're just going to have to try harder to stop.” But it doesn't look at the underlying causes. I understand climate change as a symptom of a much deeper malady that is inherent to civilization as we know it.

What are the underlying causes?

The idea that there is a linear direction of our ascent to dominance over nature. That is what needs to change. In my new book, I weave different threads of that narrative. One is our perspective of nature as an instrument for human utility, as a resource. This view might compel us to do something about climate change, because otherwise bad things will happen to us. But that separation from nature is part of the problem; that kind of relationship to nature, where it is an object for our use. That is part of what has distanced us, and isolated us, and cut off our intimate connections with the soil, and water, and plants and animals around us, that makes us feel so lonely and so in need of compensating for that lost connection with more and more stuff.

And yet it is often said that in order to surrender, one must hit “rock bottom.”

What “rock bottom” is varies from person to person, and the more love that someone has had in their life, the higher their bottom is going to be. One way to look at it is then, of course, how do we raise the bottom for the people and the planet that we love? Why is it that for one person, rock bottom is when their spouse walks out for a day, or they go to jail for a night? Yet, for another person it’s smoking their last cigarette through their tracheostomy hole after they've already gotten lung cancer and emphysema.

That's a really important question, which I look at in my Sacred Economics. I look at the question of how do we get out of our addiction to debt? How do we raise the bottom before everything is consumed in order to service the debt? Which is what's happening. That's what drives the entire world destroying machine – the debt-based financial system. So how do we raise bottom? In the economic context, the question becomes, “What functions can we reclaim that have been lost to the money economy?”

What have we as a society lost because of our economic pursuits?

We are not separate individuals that can thrive as long as our quantifiable needs are met. We are in relation to all beings. As our relationships to other people and to nature are truncated, we suffer a hunger, a loss of our “being-ness,” if you will. We then seek to compensate for that loss through many addictions, but especially through acquisition – adding more and more onto this narrow, cramped, separate self in futile compensation for the loss of connections to people and to nature.

To make matters worse, the growth economy destroys community, because with economic growth we meet more and more of our needs through the money economy – we purchase more like that's what economic growth is. It's the expansion of the realm of monetized interests, and that expansion comes at the expense of the gift realm, the realm of reciprocity, of people helping each other, taking care of each other's kids, sharing, sharing meals, creating our own fun instead of purchasing fun, creating our own entertainment, our own recreation. Helping each other out with projects, borrowing things from each other instead of renting them.

When all of those communal functions are converted into owning, or renting it, or hiring someone to do it, the economy grows. But our connectedness withers and our felt connectedness to each other disappears, and we're left even more lonely. So that's maybe another hallmark of an addiction, is that the results of the addictive habit strengthen the wound from which the addiction is coming. They make your life worse so then you need even more of the things that fuel the addiction.

How do we stop fueling the addiction then?

Our story of the world that told us who we were – how to live life, how to be human, what was important, and what we served – is falling apart. And not only our story, but the systems that are built on that story are not working very well anymore, either. We have a crisis – not only is it a crisis of meaning, but it’s also a crisis of our being, because we are storytelling creatures, and our weave of stories is also a weave of our identity. Until we emerge with a new story, and regain our relational identification with all beings, we will remain stuck in the downward spiral of addiction.

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Kevin Franciotti is a graduate psychology student and writer based in New York City. He regularly covers topics related to psychedelics, harm reduction, and addiction. His writing has appeared in New Scientist Magazine,, VICE, and The Huffington Post. For more, visit or find him on Linkedin. You can also follow Kevin on Twitter.