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the ecology of addiction

You may find the Shadow of the Wood at your own door next: it is wayward, and senseless, and has no love for Men.

The other day my youngest son, Albert, asked me: ‘what does “to be addicted” mean?’ After some head scratching I replied: ‘being addicted is when a plant has control of you.’

By the time I came up with this answer Albert had stopped listening; but I was rather pleased with it. Discussions of addiction tend to direct all the focus on to the human subject, with the addictive substance appearing merely as a test of the limits of human will power. On reflection, though, such approaches seem old-fashioned. They speak from a time when humanity conceived of itself as something distinct from nature.

Possibly the contrast is between economic and ecological modes of thought. In the former, which is characteristic of the nineteenth century, nature is conceived as a passive resource, elements of which humans (the active agents) consume and exploit. Putting the plant into the picture as an active agent in a symbiotic relationship fits with a post-Darwinian perspective in which organisms (plants, as well as animals) are seen to be engaged in evolutionary strategies of their own.

Unfortunately, my profound ignorance of biology and all related conceptual frameworks prevents me from properly thinking through my new perspective on addiction.

Nevertheless, I am greatly attracted to a perspective in which ‘the war on drugs’ is not  something distinct from the greater ecological picture presented to us in the news. While humans are driving countless species of animals and plants into extinction, a couple of plants are in turn wreaking untold damage and destruction on our urban centers. The evolutionary success of the Coca plant and the Poppy are turning the inner cities – concerete instances of manmade environments, supposedly liberated from nature – into wastelands. In our relationship to plant life, at least, humans are not nearly so dominant and in control as we tend to assume.

I also find the evolutionary strategy itself fascinating. Take tobacco, a plant with addictive properties I know all too well. To imbibe the nicotine (the addictive element in the tobacco) the leaf of the plant is consumed (usually by smoking it). So from our own individualistic perspective, the individual plant sacrifices itself – it literally goes up in smoke. But the addictive nature of the nicotine ensures that humans will plant more tobacco; indeed, will themselves give up the opportunity to cultivate other plants or pasture livestock in order to grow more tobacco.

And on a personal level I find this ecological perspective on addiction rather liberating. After a decade of not smoking I found myself a year ago back with the tobacco. Now I’ve just made the switch to a vaporizer, and – for the first time for a very long time – I’m really happy with my drug consumption. Because the vaporizer takes out all the tar and just delivers the nicotine my body no longer feels so sluggish and my lungs are opening up again. But – and this bit is crucial – I really love being addicted to nicotine. I love the hit it gives me, and I love the act of puffing away throughout the day. Thinking about my addiction in terms of a symbiotic relationship with a plant seems to capture something quite profound about the whole experience, and is just so much healthier (on a mental and emotional level) than the old-fashioned (and o so Victorian) moral equation whereby I spend the entire day trying to exert will-power over my cravings and feeling bad about myself when I ‘give in to temptation’.

My long-term goal these days is to put together a book on The Lord of the Rings. My heart has long told me that anyone who does not imbibe nicotine and yet talks authoritatively about Tolkien is not to be trusted. After all, this was a man who woke up with a smile every morning at the prospect of an entire day of pipe-smoking before him. Even Saruman consumed tobacco, but he did so in secret, and seemed a little ashamed of his habit – and probably it was this lack of honesty and openess about his relationship with a plant that was at the root of his downfall.

3 thoughts on “the ecology of addiction

  1. Joviator

    That’s fascinating. “Mushrooms aren’t addictive” was filed away in the back of my memory with a boatload of other useless facts, but I’d never made the connection that it’s because only plants are addictive and mushrooms aren’t plants.

    It sounds like you’ve read The Botany of Desire. That book taught me a lot.

    1. simon Post author

      Hi Joviator,

      Thanks for your comment! I had not heard of this book before but, based on your recommendation, have just purchased the kindle edition and will read tonight with interest. On the mushroom point: yes, I had not thought of that either, and based on my experience (now long ago) with the Welsh variety I’d say it is a very lucky thing they are not addictive as they taste absolutely disgusting. (But that is a facile comment really: tobacco is at first quite horrible to smoke, so I daresay mushroom addicts would come in time to appreciate the subtle delicacies of their taste).

      1. simon Post author

        Joviator, I’ve just started reading the book and see at once why you connected it with my post. I’ll keep on and hopefully learn a lot. The first pages, though, sent me back to pen this brief reply and add a quotation from the late Victorian writer Samual Butler, which has remained lodged in my mind for many a year:

        “Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead.” (Erewhon, ‘The Book of the Machines’).

        Butler, it need hardly be said, was way ahead of his time…

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