Psychedelics for Climate Action?

By Erica Avey|March 4, 2020

Can psychedelic civil disobedience really stimulate systemic reorganization?

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Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, recently called for psychedelic civil disobedience to stimulate collective climate action. 

The logic is simple: 

1) The ecological crisis is proven to be urgent.

2) Widespread changes in the way we behave/consume must be implemented to prevent further environmental and species collapse.

3) Psychedelics may change people’s minds and induce a sense of connectedness with others and the environment.

4) People should take psychedelics. Regardless of the law.

Not to rebel against humanity, but to save it. 

This call assumes if more people tap into psychedelic states, which tend to entertain certain themes — awe, beauty, dissolution of and reconnection to self, comedic revelation, ecstasy, humility — more people will likely modify their interactions with the world around them, ideally creating a more cohesive society living in greater harmony with nature.

Psychedelic optimism can often verge into idealistic evangelism, and I’ll explain why this proposal does shortly. That said, psychedelic use has been correlated with heightened nature-relatedness, improved mental well-being across a spectrum of disorders, increased empathy, and decreased chances of intimate partner violence. Not to mention the potential to offer nearly anyone new psychological, developmental, and/or philosophical insights.

So why not? Why won’t psychedelic use en masse save the planet?

First, these substances are currently inaccessible for the most part—illegal, expensive, taboo, or some combination thereof. And many people simply don’t want to experience the unspeakable. Or go to jail. Even if psychedelic compounds were more widely available, and even if it only takes a small percentage of the population to inspire meaningful change, could drug-induced love alone really push people to organize and prevent further anthropogenic damage?

Plenty of people take psychedelics and return to old patterns of behavior. I’ve met people who use psychedelics and still deny climate change and chase conspiracy theories. Some Nazis are pro-psychedelic. Psychedelic experiences are universally applicable. Across generations and borders, they can resonate in any psyche and confirm any bias, no matter the cultural background or ideological beliefs.

Taking a large dose is like going to a foreign country. It’s possible to come back as a more open-minded individual, but it’s not guaranteed. No matter what these states may reveal, or how magical they may be, there’s no proof psychedelics always shift morality or civic engagement for the better.

Calls for psychedelic civil disobedience also wrongfully assume that underground psychedelic philosophies and intentions are mostly ethical and correct. Heading in the right direction. But there are many ethical issues in the psychedelic space. Some facilitators deny personal agency within these vulnerable, malleable states for their own benefit. Whether it be for coercion into non-consensual sex or aggressive persuasion of their personal brand of sacred truth, such dynamics are predatory and unethical.

A psychedelic ‘shaman’ recently advised me and a small group of people in an ayahuasca integration session not to busy our minds with thoughts on politics or external dilemmas (this was after a few women, including me, spoke about hallucinations and experiences of deep sadness for the current state of the planet, its beings, and certain histories of oppression). He said healing ourselves is enough, the rest will ripple. If good happens here, good will simultaneously happen there. “Don’t busy your mind with these issues.”

The psychology of individuals may trickle to the whole, but this message also seems to usher reversion to faith-based mass inaction — keep quiet and take your dose — which doesn’t quite equate to widespread ecological empathy and systemic reform as quickly as we need it.

How many people have healed themselves in the past few decades with psychedelics or other forms of therapy or meditation? Has that individual healing resulted in collective or environmental healing?

Photo Credit: ‘Unknown Known’ series by Amy Hiley

Widespread psychedelic-assisted introspection might be useful to unite for a common cause. In her essay, What Is Your Place in These Times, Extinction Rebellion’s Susie Orbach says we need to face our ‘climate sorrow’ and feel the emotions that accompany this worsening condition before we can best act to halt the frightening realities we continue to fuel. “We need to mourn and organize. It should not be one or the other.”

Can psychedelic civil disobedience really stimulate personal to systemic reorganization? There are undoubtedly reciprocal impacts of countercultures tripping on psychedelics, especially culturally and artistically, but could psychedelic engagement really prevent further destruction of the planet? Haven’t we already seen the result of psychedelic civil disobedience? People trip, experience some otherworldly form, but oftentimes find integration difficult (like a severe culture shock), and either resume old ways of being or disengage further from society. It takes sensitive work in and around psychedelic experiences to avoid these outcomes. 

Haven’t humans always been tripping? Isn’t psychedelic use an ancient, underlying function of our history, through war and peace, development and disaster? Psychedelic use is dotted along our chemical lineage, interwoven within millions of years of plant and human interaction that led us to this very point. 

Maybe the results of modern psychedelic use will be different, stemming from both more specific and broader intentions for consumption. But psychedelic experiences should also remain ends unto themselves, with or without a sitter, with or without a goal, not solely limited as a means to an end. And while these substances can and should be used to treat suffering, isn’t it anthropocentric to think altering psychologies and healing humans could also heal the Earth, from centuries of damage, as quickly as needed? 

Human action — by all of us, well and sick, psychonaut or not — has and can alter the Earth, for better or worse. And collective psychologies can impact the systems in which they operate. But how could human psychedelic use alone, this far down the line, be the key to saving the planet? An ecosystem from which we’ve been born. A system with its own methods of healing and purging, fevers and shakes. 

We should do all we can to prevent further destruction and preserve what’s left, but this planet will persist long after us. And psychedelic civil disobedience is not going to heal the climate soon enough or guarantee our long-term survival. 


Asking people to tune in, turn on, and wake up may be similar to what mindfulness advocates are pushing — placing responsibility onto individuals rather than power systems that govern this planet and its resources. Putting the onus on individuals to trip and enact change is not enough. It’s another way to address symptoms, not the root causes of disorder. And oftentimes meditation and medication enable people to feel content and complacent with their unchanging precarious social and economic habits.

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher was thinking about psychedelic-assisted policy reform in his final, unpublished work-in-progress Acid Communism before his death in 2017. The gist: psychedelics could arouse some form of political disruption and restructuring that better serves the whole, not the few. These states could help people reimagine new means to produce/consume beyond the capitalistic model in a way that hasn’t been realized. Mycologist Paul Stamets also believes that we can “invent our way out of this [mass extinction] if we can creatively expand our ability to come up with novel solutions.”

If tripping could lead to climate action and reform, then who should trip? Anyone specific? What would psychedelic use to influence power systems look like beyond civil disobedience? And if it could be done, what scaffolding (set, setting, integration work) would be required to support meaningful development? Could guides ensure shifts in ecological attitudes and behaviors?

Photo Credit: ‘Unknown Known’ series by Amy Hiley

Modern philosophies are integrating psychedelic use into their vision of the future. Metamodernism is a perspective that prioritizes providing psychological, social, and emotional support to citizens (not dissimilar to Huxley’s healthcare system on his utopian Island) so average people can live well and form more functional societies, with more emphasis on cultural than economic capital. Metamodern health policy would likely legalize psychedelic-assisted therapy for social/personal development, but psychedelic treatment alone will not guarantee evolution into a metamodern system or preservation of our ecosystem. As metamodern philosopher Hanzi Freinacht (pseudonym for Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis) states in The Listening Society:

“There will be no ecological-spiritual awakening spontaneously growing from the goodness of your heart {…} We are entering a time of unprecedented transformation and we are in dire need of politics that are progressive–in a sense that they anticipate and productively respond to the upcoming multidimensional crisis-revolution.”

We cannot hallucinate or meditate out of this crisis. Even if psychedelics play an integral role in the history and future of human imagination, consciousness, and health, and must be decriminalized, use en masse will not solve the climate disaster or save humanity. Whatever happens, we’re already tripping together.

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Erica Avey

Erica Avey is a writer based in San Francisco. Her psychedelic inquiry has been featured in The Economist, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Women’s Health UK. She previously managed content at Clue, the female health app.