Monday, October 30, 2023

Breaking Our Consumption Addictions

Americans are addicted. We see this all around us. Our addictions range from the pleasurable but mostly innocuous (coffee and caffeine) to more concerning on a society-wide scale (think overeating and obesity) to the pathological and clearly harmful (such as the fentanyl overdose crisis).  These addictions benefit some in our society, such as food conglomerates selling junk food or drug dealers, both illicit and legally sanctioned.  They also have serious harms to both the addict and to society more broadly.  Breaking our addictions could go a long way towards reducing some of the excesses of our consumer culture and its devastating environmental impacts.  But how can we, collectively, go about breaking the cycle of addiction?

It is tempting to blame the addict. But although consumers bear some individual responsibility, there are also bigger forces at play. It would be much easier for individuals to reduce their overconsumption if our society facilitated and encouraged such changes.  Merely calling for individual responsibility is not enough and can be counterproductive.  We might also envision regulatory interventions that would curb the addictive nature of consumer products or restrict marketing those products to consumers who would become addicts in the future.

Of course I am not the first to view overconsumption and consumerism through the lens of addiction.  So while not claiming to have had some novel insight, I hope to refocus some attention on this topic in the context of reducing the environmental impacts of consumption, especially overconsumption.

Analogizing our Consumption Patterns to Addiction

Our gathering of environmental law professors focused on 4 main areas of consumption, but I will only focus on two of those that best fit the addiction framework.

Food Consumption: Medical views of obesity have recently  recognized overconsumption as a result of biochemical pathways that have been driven out of whack by unhealthy food systems, lack of available and affordable healthier options, and marketing and product development by food conglomerates to cultivate addictions in consumers.  And while there is certainly debate about whether obesity by itself is truly a health epidemic or not, overeating and food waste definitely have significant environmental impacts related to the overconsumption of food. 

Water Consumption:  It is hard to separate consumption of water from consumption of food, as water is used primarily for crop irrigation in the United States, particularly in the arid western states. The domestic use of water accounts for a much smaller portion of water use, even in the arid West, but lawns have spread across suburban areas in spite of water scarcity in western spaces.  Many have noted Americans’ addiction to lawns with their associated wasteful water use.   

Breaking the Cycle of Addiction

The diagnosis of addiction under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition was updated in 2013 to include substance-related and addictive disorders. Substance use disorder combined prior understandings of substance abuse and substance dependence, and there is a separate disorder for each substance, for example alcohol.  Behavioral addictions were also included in the DSM-V, although gambling disorder was the only addictive disorder explicitly included.

The concept of food addiction has also received attention in the literature, with a focus on overeating as primarily a substance use disorder but also perhaps a behavioral addiction.  The concept of food addiction should not be overinterpreted, but may help in understanding some forms of overeating.

Water use addiction is more of analogy and is certainly not a psychological diagnosis.  But there are many references to lawn addiction (which uses large amounts of water) in the popular media.  A quick Google search will yield many results about the water use resulting from lawn addiction especially in suburban areas.  But I do not want to be mistaken as suggesting that these have risen to the level of psychological disorders recognized by medical professionals and the DSM.

Diagnosing addiction is one thing, but treatment is yet another challenge. Organizations such as the Partnership to End Addiction are working to gather, organize, and spread the word on the latest evidence-based treatments for addiction.  Treatment programs include inpatient or outpatient rehab programs, medication, individual and group counseling, integrated care including mental health treatment, and follow up treatment including recovery support groups (think of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, although there are also non-12-step groups). Harm reduction also features prominently in this area, which is the idea that any steps towards reducing substance use or lowering the risks when using is step in the right direction.

How can this view of overconsumption as akin to addiction inform our policy and legal approaches to reducing the impacts of consumption? For food addiction, the latest buzz has been focused on the development of medications to reduce appetite. This is an evolving area and while long-term effects are not yet clearly known, many short term side effects can be quite severe. But the pill has appeal because it is a relatively easy fix compared to behavioral interventions and other non-medication treatment models.  However, the costs for these drugs might be prohibitive if used on a broader scale, unless something is done to lessen the monopoly power of Big Pharma’s drug patents.

Turning to water use and lawns, experts have long suggested that the prevalence of lawns is due to structural issues such as the decisions made by developers and the lawn care industry, suggesting that people don’t actually want lawns, they are just stuck with them and change is hard. Laws and policies can help break this cycle such as limits on turf lawns in new development or incentives to replace existing lawns. 

Finally, across all of our consumption addictions, we should not overlook the impact that marketing has on us, and recognize that regulation of marketing might facilitate better choices regarding consumption. Tobacco regulation has lessons on effective interventions to curb addictive consumption. But also, we should not lose sight of the importance of us addicts recognizing the harm caused by our addictions and wanting to change, as well as the value of support systems and social reinforcement for long term recovery.

-- Kevin Lynch

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