Is over-consumption hard-wired into our genes?

Nate Hagens suggests in his article in Fleeing Vesuvius that part of the reason for the current environmental crisis is that we are subject to insatiable cravings, induced by our brain chemistry, which goad us into over-consumption. He focuses on our need for status and on the role played by dopamine in the brain.

For those who haven’t read his article, dopamine is a chemical that is released when we notice something new which we are curious about and which reminds us of some past event which was pleasurable. After its release, the dopamine is taken up by receptors in our brain cells with the result that we experience a flood of elation and wellbeing. This provides us with a strong incentive to investigate new things and is probably a big motivator for innovation.

The problem is that we can become desensitized to the event that triggers the dopamine; the greater the flood of dopamine that a certain trigger causes, the fewer dopamine receptors will be available in the brain the next time the same event happens, and so we feel less pleasure at the same event. This is why people addicted to cocaine tend to keep increasing the amount of the drug that they take in in each hit. Hagens believes it’s also why we can be so driven to keep consuming more and more resources, continually dazzled by the latest bright, shiny gadget, regardless of the long-term damage we are causing.

Hagens implies that this tendency towards addictive behaviour derives from the laws of evolution: “Traditional drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behaviour-regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters in our brains.” He believes that people generally always want more, being ‘self absorbed’ as he puts it.  Those who appear not to fall into this category are either faking it – as he suspects his brother does when he claims not to want to catch larger fish –  or having to repress their natural impulses because of external constraints. According to this logic, our highly-industrialised economies free people from such constraints and allows their true natures to become apparent: “High-density energy and human ingenuity have removed the natural constraints on our behaviour of distance, time, oceans and mountains”.

I think that Hagens is correct to lump resource over-consumption together with heroin and cocaine addictions. They’re certainly related phenomena, and their common roots in the brain’s chemistry are clear.  But addiction is a complex matter and the reality of human addictions is both somewhat worse and somewhat better than Hagens suggests. Not everyone is equally prone to addictive behaviour, whether the addiction is to crystal meth or to buying flashy cars. Vulnerability to addiction can also vary widely within the same person during different periods of their lives.

The idea that human beings are eternally needy and impossible to satisfy has a very long pedigree. However, research from archaeological evidence and on remaining hunter-gathering tribes weighs heavily against it.  Insatiable craving turns out to be highly culturally specific; there are wide cultural differences which can’t be ascribed purely to differences in access to resources.Thomas Prugh, Herman Daly and Robert Costanza write in The Local Politics of Global Sustainability that “the hunter-gatherers offer a compelling lesson […] that human beings unschooled in the ways of modern capitalist society are not naturally hierarchical, materialist, acquisitive, territorial, overly competitive […] or power mad.”. [p 84].  In a recent article on this website , Brian Davey describes how the current Buen Vivir movement in Latin America  is based on cultural traditions that emphasise living with dignity within ecological limits.

We can get a sense of why the addictive tendency varies so much if we look at research that’s been done in industrialised countries.  In his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Gabor Maté, a Vancouver-based doctor who specialises in treating hard drug addicts who are barely able to function, brings together a vast body of research into addiction that has been carried out in several such countries over the past few decades. Maté would certainly agree with the idea that resource over-consumption is a form of addiction and that dopamine plays a key role in the chemistry of addiction – indeed, he discusses ‘soft’ forms of addiction, such as ‘shopoholism’, extensively.

What’s fascinating about the research he cites, however, is that it shows how profoundly brain chemistry is altered by the environment and how this can make people more or less prone to addiction. For example, infants born to mothers who experienced severe stress during their pregnancies develop fewer dopamine receptors, and are thus more prone to addiction throughout their lives, than infants born to less stressed mothers.Other elements of brain chemistry that play an important role in addiction are also very strongly influenced by in-utero or early childhood experience, such as the development of the frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that weighs alternatives and makes choices, and also handles social skills. People who experienced abuse or other forms of stress in their first three years of life can end up with severe developmental deficiencies in this part of their brain, which can lead them to behave as adults in ways that seem overly impulsive or childish, with problems making long-term plans.

Three-quarters of human brain growth takes place outside the womb, and 90% of the human brain is formed by the time an infant turns three, through complex interactions between the basic suite of genes – which is actually rather limited in comparison with that of some other species – and the environment. No two human brains are identical, not even those of identical twins who have identical genes, and it’s the infant’s environment that determines which genes are ‘expressed’ and which remain dormant. Moreover, even though the brain becomes less malleable after early childhood, brain chemistry continues to change throughout a person’s life. It’s clear that we are far more than what Hagens calls ‘adaptation executors’ who spend our lives trying our best to carry out the instructions given us by our genes.

Addictive behaviour doesn’t have to be directly linked to childhood experiences. People who are in stressful situations in general tend to be more prone to addiction, as with the American soldiers in the Vietnam War who had a very high rate of addiction to heroin. A staggering 20% of soldiers were judged to be addicts while on duty in South-East Asia, but much to the astonishment of medical researchers at the time, after returning home the vast majority of the solders quickly recovered with minimal or no treatment .The same phenomenon, operating in reverse, can be seen with Native American communities which can have high rates of alcohol addiction. As Maté points out, alcohol was present in these communities before the arrival of Europeans, but it was only after the decimation of their economies and cultures that it began to have such a ravaging effect. These peoples’ genes didn’t suddenly change, but their environment did, radically, and that was most likely the trigger for their addictions. Animals, too, tend to display addictive behaviour only when in captivity and particularly when they’re forced into subordinate positions in their social groups.

So what does this tell us about over-consumption? Part of the viciousness of the world economic system at present is that it creates artificial scarcities and inequalities which lead to unnecessary stress (which is not to say that real scarcities are unimportant). Our lopsided, out-of-whack economy allocates resources so unevenly that, while some people have far more money than they know what to do with, others are unable to feed themselves or their children. The erratic nature of the financial system also means that many of those who currently have enough to survive day-to-day are nonetheless finding that the precarity of their jobs and resources is a major source of stress.

Hagen points out that a high degree of inequality in a society is a trigger for stress because of our universal need for status. He suggests “lowering the amplitude of social rank” – which I assume means narrowing the gap between rich and poor – as a remedy.

I’d certainly agree with him there, but I’d go further than that. I believe that much of our addictive behaviour may also arise from extreme inequality of status, rather than being hard-wired into our brains. To this we can also add the effects of the stress caused by our economy’s wild, unpredictable behaviour. And that’s not the end of it – by making over-worked (or unemployed) parents stressed, our economy also increases the likelihood that their children will be prone to addictions when they grow up.

The bleak side to this is that addiction truly is an insidious problem. People whose brains contain relatively few dopamine receptors have brain chemistry that is so dependent on their addictions that it can be next to impossible to change it. We shouldn’t ignore how serious a problem this is, or dismiss such people as simply lacking willpower; indeed, as mentioned above, the part of the brain that controls decision-making can be heavily compromised in such people. No amount of prior planning and discipline on their part will help. In some cases, the best we can do may be to be as compassionate as possible while taking care to protect ourselves and the vulnerable from abuse by them. Punishing or shaming people with severe addictions is completely pointless and likely to exacerbate the problem, but granting them positions of high responsibility is unwise to the point of being reckless.

The more hopeful side is that not all of us are in such an extreme state and that in fact our vulnerability to addiction is highly sensitive to the environment in which we find ourselves. This means that if we adjust the economy so that it allocates resources more evenly and provides more overall stability by carrying out the kinds of measures advocated by feasta and similar organisations, many of us could ultimately end up more secure and less stressed, and therefore also less prone to over-consumption. Instead of the vicious circle of stress triggering addictions which in turn lead to more stress, we would create a virtuous circle of a more relaxed economy leading to less of a need for artificial ‘fixes’.

Of course, much depends on how carefully and thoughtfully we make the transition. But as with the American soldiers who were ‘magically’ able to overcome their heroin addictions, it’s just possible that the shift away from a growth-based economy could be less psychologically painful for many than we fear.

Featured image: Waiting for customers. Author: DFanton. Source:

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One Reply to “Is over-consumption hard-wired into our genes?”

  1. The point about changing the environment is so important because few of us are prepared to acknowledge that we have an addiction and even fewer are able to give it up, given the deluge of messages to “buy buy buy” that engulf us each day.

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