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My Drug of Choice Is More: Getting Serious About Our Addiction to Consumption

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Only an addict would smoke more after they were diagnosed with lung cancer. Only an addict would drink more after being arrested for their third D.U.I. Only an addict would eat more sweet, fat, and salty foods after they had their stomach stapled after they tipped the scale at 385 pounds. And only an addict would consume more fossil fuels while they destroy the life-support system that sustains human beings on the planet.

I've worked with addicts for more than 40 years. I've also worked hard to recover from my own addictions. No one in the recovery field would think that you can change an addiction simply by educating people about the problems that their addiction is causing or giving them all the good reasons why they should change their destructive behavior. But that's exactly what we are doing when we try to change public behavior by teaching them that polluting the planet is killing them.

We talk about our addiction to oil, but that is misleading. We don't crave oil in the same way an alcoholic craves the next drink. What we do crave is the stuff of our lives. Like alcohol for an alcoholic, stuff has two purposes. The first is to change the way we feel. The second is to cover our feelings of loss.

When an alcoholic has the next drink they no longer feel depressed, worried, anxious, or scared. For a brief moment they feel powerful, safe, and secure. They also have a brief escape from the losses of their lives. They cover the loss of their connection to family and friends, the loss of self-worth and value, the loss of purpose in their lives. And it becomes a vicious cycle as we know. The more they drink, the less connected they are to the things that really matter in life.

They become like confused homing pigeons, flying 180 degrees in the wrong direction. The farther away from home they get, the faster they fly. The outcome is always death, or if they wake up in time, recovery.

Think of the stuff you have. It could be the latest iPhone or electronic gadget. It could be the new dress, shirt or shoes you got for Christmas. It could be the new car (or the new used car, times being what they are). Same thing -- they temporarily change the way you feel. For a short time you feel powerful, loved, valued. And they cover the losses that we don't want to address -- our loss of freedoms, our loss of close family and community ties, our loss of safety and security, our loss of clean air and water.

If you don't think you're addicted to your stuff, try not acquiring stuff for 30 days. Try it! You'll see how hard it is. I'm not talking about the necessities of life. I'm not suggesting you give up eating or drinking water, or driving to work, or brushing your teeth. I'm suggesting you give up your "drugs of choice." You know what they are: The things you buy to reward yourself. The things you buy when you're feeling down. The things you buy to impress others. The things you buy to be part of the tribe.

All addicts have to deal with the 3 Cs of addiction: Compulsion, loss of control, and continued use despite negative consequences. Believe me, it won't take 30 days for you to feel the compulsion (you'll say to yourself I really need that "drink," whether the "drink" is the chocolate cake, the new dress, the latest CD). You'll begin to recognize the loss of control. (You'll set limits that you continually violate. You'll rationalize and tell yourself that it's silly to stop using your stuff for 30 days.)

The third C is more difficult to see. Most alcoholics recognize at some point that there is a relationship between their drinking and consequences like throwing up on the living room rug, making a fool of yourself in front of your kids, or trying to walk a straight line when the cop stops you. But we have a difficult time recognizing that our compulsive consumption and addiction to more is killing us.

We're like the guy that Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, described who thought he could fly. He climbed to the top of a 100 story building, strapped on his wings, jumped over the side, and began flapping away. As he passed the 50th floor, he was heard to proclaim proudly, "Well, so far, so good!"

He was never flying, of course, even though he imagined that he was. He was always in free fall and the consequence was inevitable. Despite our protestations that more growth will save the economy and more stuff will make us feel better, like all addicts we are in denial. But there is still time to wake up to the realities of life.

Many are beginning to realize that we live on a finite planet and stuff is limited. We're also beginning to realize that whenever we make stuff, we also make pollution. That stuff we put in our automobiles that enables us to drive here and there to buy more stuff, creates carbon dioxide. That pollution goes up in the atmosphere and heats up the planet. If our child had a high fever we would recognize that something was wrong and get help. When our planet has a high fever we tell ourselves its O.K. We don't need help. We can adapt.

But here's the bottom line:

1. We're running out of stuff.
2. Making stuff creates pollution that is destroying the human life-support system. (although cockroaches seem to be fine with it.)
3. Stuff doesn't buy us love, or the other necessities of life.

What to do? We have two choices. We can die or we can go into recovery. Which will it be?

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