Civilization Seen Through an Addiction Model Lens:
Social justice, societal maturity and “social sobriety”
By Lance Echo-Hawk, MA, LPC, LMHC, NCAC-II
This is an essay about civilization, or more specifically, the benefits of civilization (BOC). A benefit of civilization in this essay refers to the array of important technological gifts from the modern age in which we live. BOCs are the everyday things like cars or telephones, clean running city water and electricity, things that vitally connect us to modern life. Importantly, our continued enjoyment of modern day BOC’s is totally dependent upon a highly evolved and complex infrastructure composed of industrial systems such as power grids, cellular towers, highway systems, railways, and water and sewer lines. A complex web of industries is needed to keep it all running.
This essay looks at the parallels between addiction and our modern day dependence upon BOC’s. We typically think of alcohol or other drugs when we list substances of abuse. This essay expands that list and frames a BOC, when not used wisely and in moderation, as another potential substance of abuse. A picture of tolerance, dependency, and the progression of disease all take shape with BOC abuse just as it does with chemical abuse (or any of the other process addictions such as gambling, sex, food, internet use, etc.). Here is a list of symptoms operating at the collective, social level that constitutes the classic profile of addiction. The (1) tolerance of negative effects that accompanies industrialization, (2) dependency upon civilization’s benefits (rooted in denial), (3) progression (increased need for civilization’s benefits despite increasingly damaging environmental results), and (4) continued inappropriate use of BOCs in spite of lethal long-term consequences.
Indicators of an addicted collective
Using unsustainability (out of control use of resources) to assess societal addiction reveals certain negative outcomes such as: unmanageable social consequences and loss of control (of national economic, business, and social justice practices). These outcomes (unmanageability and loss of control) are used as markers of a society suffering from a collective addiction. Tolerance for social injustice can be used as another metric for the impact of a collective addiction.
In the individual, addiction impairs normal human growth and development, making addiction a serious developmental problem. Nationally, in the life of a young nation, we hope to see social justice become one of the core values, a developmental victory in the growth of a new nation. It follows then that social justice can be used as an indicator of the social maturation of a society. Knowing that addiction impedes healthy human growth and development at the individual level raises the concern that a collective dependence could impair our development as a nation.
Therefore, our industrialized society’s capacity to normalize (1) unsustainability and (2) injustice is used as indicators of social maturity, or the lack there of. Uninspected collective participation in the unsustainable implementation of modern civilization creates a culture of good people who would like to live in a sober manner but “can’t quit.” Society itself is drunk on benefits of civilization. (It should be said that civilization, like alcohol, is morally neutral. It is not civilization or the use of BOCs that is the problem. It’s the abuse and misuse of the intoxicating power of civilization that creates social dilemmas.)
Development of a Healthy Nation
Civilizations and nation states rise and fall in history, indicating a lifecycle. The progress of America’s social development in its short history is the question being examined.
Different fields of study use the term “development” differently. A behavioral health professional working as a clinician speaks of “human growth and development” when referring to the passage we take from infancy to old age. A successful maturation process is measured by the degree to which a person develops into the best version of the self, or self-actualization (a highly valued western concept). A sociologist uses “development” differently when referring to twentieth century post-cold war nation states. The difference between a developed nation and a developing nation is self-evident by western standards. A nation today is considered developed according to the level of wealth and technology available to its citizenry. Generally, in a western worldview, countries such as the USA are regarded as First World developed countries while other less so-called advanced countries in the world not aligned with the west are regarded as lagging behind in the Third World and in need of catching up.
When cultural values specific to western society attempt to define for non-western societies what “developed” means and looks like, the discussion easily becomes pejorative in nature, placing western values over the values of other cultures. Consciously or unconsciously, cultural imperialism can come into play. Non-western and traditional cultures around the world get disrupted, even dismantled, by the process of modernization (a.k.a. modernization meaning “westernization”). It can foster ill feelings internationally, and the more dependent on technology we are, and therefore the resources of others we are, the easier it is to say, “That’s progress. You can’t stand in the way of modern progress.” This is a dangerous sentiment when it gives permission to various forms of aggressive cultural and economic imperialism.
Industrialized, technologically advanced civilizations have developed so rapidly in world history that humanity’s maturation processes have struggled to keep pace. This has happened in a world plagued by long histories of national and social traumas. An unwanted result has been the normalizing of trauma in the national psyche. This essay argues that unresolved social trauma can breed addiction in society itself, just as unresolved trauma can contribute to addiction in the individual person. Further, a society shaped by a culture of addiction (with its underlying untreated trauma) remains vulnerable to ongoing traumatic social turmoil. This setup impairs healthy personal and collective human growth and development. The cycle is set and plays out from one generation to the next. The social maturation processes that are needed to empower us to grow, live wisely, and manage our technological power without harming others, are thus impaired.
Society is organized by a shared culture. The idea argued for in this essay is that civilization itself is a collective solution to problems facing a people group, meaning that civilization is fundamentally survival oriented. Likewise, addiction is also about survival, not about thriving. Here we find another relevant facet to using addiction as a lens on society.
Addiction significantly arrests maturation and the development of emotional intelligence in the individual at approximately the age at which the addiction takes hold. Grown adults who suffer from an early onset of addiction who, for example, make the decision to drink and drive are doing so with the judgement of a child. Arrested development of the powers of judgement characterize addict behavior. And addict behavior has consequences that are unfair and unjust for those around the addict. Addict behavior at the national level would be no different. Just as an individual ticketed with a DUI gets mandated for drug and alcohol assessment, a nation plagued by the unjust consequences of immature social actions likewise needs an objective assessment, using metrics that go beyond years of existence or technological and economic achievement.
Looking at history through simple bi-causal lenses (sustainability versus unsustainability; justice versus injustice) is not done in this essay to advocate for a simplistic view of history, but is a teaching device to achieve clarity around several complex ideas: (1) that social trauma left untreated blocks societal maturation resulting in significant and detrimental social consequences, and (2) that societal maturation is predicated upon the active presence of social justice much like healthy personal development is predicated upon a healthy home environment, and (3) that a socially immature society is predisposed to toxic progress representative of impaired progress.
The Problem of Societal Trauma
Generational trauma, in which original trauma is transferred from first generation survivors to descendants through intergenerational complex PTSD dynamics, is recognized by mental health and substance abuse clinicians as a common theme in many of the clients they serve. Historical trauma (a specific form of generational trauma) since the late 1980s is also recognized as a significant factor. Historical trauma impairs the wellbeing of a whole people group. It is perpetrated by a more powerful group on a less powerful group. Its impact “compounds over time in the lifetime of an individual and expands across generational lines” according to Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, PhD. The concept of historical trauma has been studied as an ongoing after effect of the Holocaust in the Jewish community. Dr. Yellow Horse Brave Heart applied the concept of historical trauma to her people of the Sioux Nations in the 1980s as part of her doctoral work.
Indigenous peoples around the world and here in the United States have survived massive genocidal histories. A historical trauma lens provides a surprising insight into how this came to be. Within the frame of our relatively recent history as a nation, immigrants coming to America typically suffered significant levels trauma in their homelands. Immigrants left an Old World racked by a legacy of social trauma only to face oftentimes traumatic circumstances in the so-called New World. European colonizing nation-states had deep histories with their own legacies of societal trauma. Trauma forged and shaped the very nature of colonialism. After centuries of Europe colonizing itself colonization was an accepted norm, along with its inherent violence. Bringing this behavior to the shores of the New World was not questioned.
It may at first be surprising and possibly unwelcome to hear historical trauma being applied to the colonizer as well as the colonized. It may sound like making excuses for the dominant society’s past (and present) unacceptable behavior. It is not the norm to apply historical trauma to the general white American population. This application is made not to excuse anything, but rather to shift focus to the need for healing of all members of our society. If trauma is trauma, Euro-American descendants have layer upon layer of traumatic chapters stretching back in their histories, too. This is not to diminish the injuries done to indigenous people or to ignore the horrific human rights violations perpetrated under colonization and slavery. It is more to point out the tragic reality of how traumatized people have traumatized people throughout history. This being so, we then as a nation must take full responsibility for our actions in history and in the present. It is past time to take our responsibility for national healing seriously for the sake of building a more just society.
To the point, when the problems we face as a modern nation-state (internally and internationally) are handled in the energy of a collective trauma-response instead of an appropriate, thoughtful response, the outcome can be destructive. Reactive trauma-responses to problems can be a means of perpetuating trauma generation after generation—domestically and abroad.
Justice at the Intersection of Progress and Sustainability
Sustainability is a necessary precondition for the ongoing wellbeing of a civilization. Sustainability also represents the sober use of the environment. Achieving environmentally just and sustainable practices are choices made by a stable, mature society. Furthermore, social concerns regulate the choices a society makes in how is uses its resources. Concerns for a more justice society shape a society’s ethic of the land. Correspondingly, in a dysregulated, addicted society appropriate and wise use of the land are seriously flawed by self-interest. Greed holds sustainability in low regard. Environmental harm gets downplayed, along with the accompanying social ills that affect the people that live in the land. Consequently, the destructive effects of unsustainability are accelerated by the combination of two factors: (1) the absence of social justice and (2) the presence of unresolved societal trauma, no matter how deeply buried. Under these conditions both people and environmental resources are at risk of misuse and abuse.
Civilization’s maturation process remains disrupted and stunted when a society demands and expects advancements without accounting along the way for social healing and justice.
By way of illustration, we can look at the progression from sustainable tribal horticultural practices to the unsustainable agri-business practices of today. Unsustainable and socially harmful agri-business practices include a compilation of big money strategies used in intensive farming practices. These practices lead to the overuse of toxic chemicals harmful to consumers and the environment, and the overuse of irrigation on lands naturally unsuited to the commercial crops being farmed, thereby draining huge aquifers. The progression from sustainable to unsustainable practices has had unintended but far reaching consequences.
Today in the same Great Plains locale that was once destroyed by the Dust Bowl due to agricultural practices of greed, lack of environmental understanding, and mismanagement of the land, we are once again seeing new environmental catastrophes taking place. Currently there are daily man-made earthquakes from oil and gas fracking and wastewater injection wells, permanently poisoning the huge amounts of water. Vast amounts of water are being drained from natural aquifers by big business agricultural irrigation systems (much faster than can be naturally replenished–they will be drained for many future generations). Ecologically we are at the beginning of this new development and have yet to fully appreciate the scope of its threat. Big business has not learned from the past, and by our complacency neither has society at large. This exemplifies dysregulated social practices and thinking in action.
Learning from History
Historically horticulturalists could sustain a whole tribe using stone and bone based implements, technology in its basic form. A tribal population could exist indefinitely with access to a resourced land base, the environment itself providing the natural infrastructure necessary for this organic way of life. The simple technology and the infrastructure of this way of life was self-regulating in many ways, including resource management and population growth.
However, when a shoulder bone hoe was replaced by an iron plow (i.e., when a so called “primitive” horticultural society advanced to an early-stage industrialized society, or was colonized into such a society) production increased. Things evolved. The farmer displaced the horticulturalist. One farmer with a good team of mules and a metal plow could feed more people. This meant that a class of people could emerge that was freed for other pursuits (pursuits necessary to the existence of things like metal plows). The population grew. But note, these same people were now not only dependent upon the more powerful farmer, they (including the industrialized farmer him or herself) no longer knew the skills necessary for a former, indigenous way of living. Furthermore, the environment changed. The infrastructure that was necessary for the former lifeway was lost. Sufficient populations of wild animals living in their natural habitat, habitat that was likewise wild, such as free running rivers for salmon, and open prairies with prairie grasses that had evolved over the eons to survive the hard winters and long droughts, in other words, the natural infrastructure was gone. The indigenous environment looked unused and wasted to a new people geared by industrialized technology. The industrial infrastructure was wholly missing for that way of life. The solutions to this so-called deficit involved clearing away the wildness and replacing it with the domestic. Gone were the free flowing river-ways, replaced by modern highways and railways. Industrialization, from the 1700’s on, transformed irreversibly one type of infrastructure (a wild environment and ecosystem) into another type suited for industry (power grids, pipelines, mining and factories). Man-made infrastructure displaced natural infrastructure so thoroughly that today there is no going back. The survivalist’s illusion that in an apocalyptic future we can live off the land is simply that–an illusion. Survivalism is not the best answer for our modern collective. Finding our way to sustainability is.
Moderns, freed by industrialism to move from the land to the city, became dependent upon the agricultural practices of the civilized farmer. Population centers grew, creating divisions of labor that fed the growth and development of an ever more technologically sophisticated civilization. Dependency upon technology grew. Not only was the farmer dependent upon keeping pace with changing technology, civilization itself became dependent upon its own technology. Technology bears the preponderant weight of its dependent civilization. If technology vital to infrastructure fails it all comes crashing down. This is where we find ourselves today, in a modern society severely threatened by any disruptions to infrastructure, coupled with the growing power to addictively mine the environment for its resources faster than the environment can naturally replenish itself. This disturbing predicament lies under blanket of collective denial. Meanwhile as we adapt to new levels of civilization (the corollary to building tolerance) we build new levels of expectation and entitlement in the culture. Newer and newer developments are in higher and higher demand to sustain and grow the economy and its infrastructure. The hopes are for an even brighter future, however imperialistic it may need to be. Newly achieved levels of advancement, with every advent of higher technologies, are soon insufficient (as is characteristic of tolerance—you need more of the same substance to maintain the next high). Never mind the cost to the environment. This is dysregulated collective addict thinking.
Collective Tolerance and Withdrawal
Tolerance (the ability to take in more and more of a substance and remain seemingly unaffected) and dependency (the need for a regular intake of a substance-of-use at an achieved level in order to remain “normal,” that is, without going into withdrawal) are synergistically related. Tolerance facilitates dependency and dependency builds tolerance ever higher. It is a vicious cycle. The higher the tolerance the greater the dependency. Tolerance in a BOC addiction model means a person becomes dependent upon the use of BOCs. Indeed, in the presence of BOC dependency a person with high BOC tolerance must consume their achieved level of BOCs to remain in a normal, secure state of mind.
Advancing levels of civilization seem irreversible—no one wants to live without the benefits of progress once they have become critical entitlements for a well ordered life. As moderns, we need access to the basic BOCs of modern life. A life organized by BOCs means use of cars and highways to get to the grocery store and to work, cell phones and the internet to maintain vital connections, a house to come home to warmed by fuel supplied by the grid, a home complete with electrical appliances and gasoline powered yard equipment, access to modern medical care to keep us fit to work, etc. We’re put at an unfair disadvantage in the modern age without the basic BOCs of industry. Once our lives depend upon these things, to lose them would have serious, possibly even life threatening consequences.
Tolerance also means that when the functioning of infrastructure is perceived to be threatened, personal and social “withdrawal symptoms” (symptoms such as a sudden lost sense of wellbeing leading to outbursts of social fears, public insecurity, collective panic or aggression, etc.) ensue. The fear of loss of supply asserts itself. In an addiction model, unmitigated withdrawal is serious business. Certain kinds of withdrawal symptoms are even life-threatening. The nervous system goes into a state of riot. The same can be said of a social group in collective withdrawal from the sudden perceived or actual loss of access to important BOCs. Our basic instinct to riot gets triggered to avoid the anticipated lethal BOC withdrawal. Think about the mayhem and public danger that happens when panicked people are confronted with shortages at the gas pump or empty shelves at the grocery store during or after a time of crisis.
Collective Denial, the Earmark of Addiction
For modern life to continue on its current long-term trajectory, in spite of the growing list of disconcerting questions about sustainability, we will need to continue our participation in a culture of denial. If we’re honest, we all exercise some degree of denial. The voice of denial says, “It won’t happen. We’ll fix it in time” Or, “It will happen someday but not now. In the meantime what more can be done?” The exhaustion and collapse of the environment seems far-fetched, at least for the time being? In an addicted society denial keeps the wheels of unchecked industry lubed and turning. Certainly there are growing voices sounding the alarm and those activists that are making a difference. But as a whole the culture lacks the will to make the radical changes needed now. It is said that an alcoholic won’t change until he or she hits bottom. It seems that way for a culture, too. If change doesn’t come until we as a culture are on the brink of immediate disaster then apparently we have yet to hit bottom.
It remains to be seen if the new, more environmentally friendly technologies of the future can fix the problems of industrialization. It does smack of denial to hope that the problems caused by modern technology will be fixed by modern technology, but we can hope. One thing seems clear, there is no way to give up the industrial practices and infrastructure of modern life we currently enjoy without a willingness to sacrifice BOcs in some manner. If the soothing voice of denial weaves a trap (and it does), then we’re all in it together.
Progression (increasingly lethal side effects)
To continue the theme from “Learning from History” above, there are very real economic pressures bearing down on people to advance with the times. If we don’t advance with the times we fall behind. Our ability to compete is compromised. Deprivation and poverty can descend upon those who get left behind, even though the environmental and social side effects get more and more lethal (hence, progression).
Small family farmers today find themselves competing with big business farming. Large scale industrial farming requires machinery that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, creating debt burdens that are crushing. “Green Revolution farming is a must if you want your farming operation to compete. More and more small family farms that were once passed down from one generation to the next are getting assimilated into big business farming.
The ever faster turning wheels of civilization create environmental potentials that did not exist in “primitive” society. Consequently, the world’s population has more than doubled, growing exponentially by billions in my lifetime. This has not happened apart from the industrialization of the last two or three centuries of human history. On the grand scale of time this has happened in the blink of an eye (see figure 1, above). Humanity hasn’t had time to adjust to its new powers. In a sense, this new power is in the hands of children. Environmental limits are now more readily reached and exceeded by immature civilized societies in denial of the consequences. The lack of maturity in a society’s collective judgement and behavior leaves the door open to the worst of human nature taking charge and setting agendas.
Exceeding natural limits invariably leads to destructive environmental conditions and, not surprisingly, destructive social conditions. Dynamics of greed and denial go hand in hand producing a growing list of lethal social side effects. Enduring social conditions rooted in ill-gotten wealth, the exercise of unjust power and privilege over others as a sign of success, inhumanity and routine wars of aggression for territories and resources, economic policies undergirded by racism that insures unjust disadvantage for the marginalized and unjust advantage for the privileged, and the like, create a cultural atmosphere of normalized abuse. These abuses aren’t normal; they’re traumatizing. Without justice to regulate the power of civilization, society fails to provide for the wellbeing of each other, to say nothing of caring for the environment. The collective breaks down into braided streams of societal immaturity, rife with the potential for violence.
In a dysregulated and addicted society, the need for BOCs is blinded to long term consequences. If just processes fail to regulate human behavior—with social justice being a requisite for and an expression of social maturity—a socially immature society is at risk of tragically self-destructive outcomes. It is this author’s hope that disastrous environmental destruction with tragic consequences of human suffering isn’t what it will take for human activity to rebalance itself with nature. That would truly be a sad case of “hitting bottom,” as AA puts it in the recovery world.
When an unjust society feeds the machine in ways that the environment cannot sustain while everyone benefiting from so-called civilization complacently looks the other way, denial is engrained into the fabric of society. We are trapped by modernity seemingly with no realistic way out. Denial protects unjust social practices and keeps us stuck on a self-destructive course. We become a society “drunk on civilization,” a society anesthetized by the benefits of civilization stumbling down the road of unsustainability—unless there is a major course correction. No one wants to “detox” (migrate from unsustainability to sustainability). It’s too painful. It means giving up something at great cost to the way we live. Even then, can it really be done?
It also means squarely facing a history of injustice and the underlying unresolved, unrecognized trauma that is an ever present source of sabotage blocking social maturation. We are at a cross-roads. Are we to continue our path unchanged or do we chose a difficult, seemingly impossible, but higher road into the future?
 see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization#Fall_of_civilizations for a description of “civilization”
 Also referred to as transgenerational and intergenerational trauma
 For a healing training program see http://www.echohawkcounseling.com/ehc-resource/workshops/healing-generational-historical-trauma-training/ by this author
 Some of the outcomes of unsustainable practices are positive for the short-term but are out weighed by negative consequences in the long-run. More can be read about recent developments in agricultural practices by researching the Green Revolution – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution