We Need Societal Addiction Therapy

J. Lokrantz/Azote
Johan Rockström and Pavan Sukhdev of the Stockholm Resilience Centre have presented a new way of viewing the Sustainable Development Goals and how they are all linked to food. See more at http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/research-news/2016-06-14-how-food-connects-all-the-sdgs.html

Societies, like individuals, can get trapped in patterns of behavior called social traps, or “societal addictions,” that provide short-term rewards but are detrimental and unsustainable in the long run. Current examples include our societal addiction to fossil fuels, and the “growth at all costs” economic model. The need for human society to rapidly deal with climate change is widely accepted in the scientific community, and in the pages of Solutions, but movement in this direction has been slow. Despite the increasingly obvious warning signs, society still has not taken appropriate action and changed its behavior accordingly. In fact, policies expected to come into effect as a result of Donald Trump’s recent election can be seen as a major step in the opposite direction—a societal relapse. It may be some time before we recover and remedy the damage caused. But, perhaps we can learn from what works in addiction therapy at the individual level to help overcome our current societal addictions before it is too late.

It is well known in addiction therapy that it is rarely effective to directly confront addicts concerning the damage they are causing to themselves and to others. Rather than motivating addicts to change, such interventions often result in denial that there is a problem. Yet, such a confrontational approach is typical of the strategies used by scientists and activists who try to effect change at the societal level regarding climate change, overconsumption, overpopulation, inequality, misplaced use of GDP growth as a societal goal, and many other issues. While the dire long-term consequences are true, simply pointing them out more and more urgently may actually make change more difficult. From a psychological perspective, the lack of progress is to be expected as long as the issues continue to be approached in a confrontational and judgmental way. Perhaps more progress would be made with a different way of framing and discussing the issues that is more analogous with the practices that help people overcome individual addictions.

Presenting evidence about risks is important, but how that evidence is presented, and contrasted with values and positive goals, is critical if we hope to change behavior. At the individual level, a technique known as Motivational Interviewing has been shown to be very effective. This approach engages with addicts in a non-judgmental way in order to help them develop a positive vision of a better life based on their deepest values. Such a vision can often motivate substantial change. At the societal level, making the transition to a sustainable and desirable future will not be easy, and will likewise require more nuanced conversations and consensus building about societal goals than has so far been the case. One therapy that may help is Community Engaged Scenario Planning—scenario planning and envisioning extended to include public opinion surveys and broad societal dialogue about alternative futures.

Perhaps the most important current global process relevant to this discussion is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.1 These 17 global goals were agreed to by all UN member states in September 2015. They embody an essential recognition that we live in a finite and interconnected world where we must integrate prosperity, equity, and sustainability. They cover poverty, inequality, economy, the environment, and more. Taken together, they represent a positive global scenario meant to apply to all countries. While the UN goals have been agreed to by all member states, converting that agreement into a shared vision among the world’s people that will drive change is another matter that will require significant additional work. A version of Community Engaged Scenario Planning might be useful in this regard. The UN goals represent a vision of a positive future not unlike several that have been put forward in the context of scenario planning.2-5 While the goals, in their present form, will be difficult to communicate to the global public—especially in contrast to simplistic appeals to a return to imagined better times in the past—a narrative description of the sustainable and desirable vision as one possible future scenario would be more compelling to more people. Global surveys of people’s preferences for this scenario, in contrast to other scenarios, would begin the broader engagement and discussion of the future that most of humanity wants, among national and global populations, in the spirit of Motivational Interviewing.

What is necessary to implement this therapy is to fully engage the larger society in discussing and sharing alternative futures, and in building consensus on preferred futures. Putting future scenarios out to the public in the form of public opinion surveys,6 dialogues, media events, and other approaches can do this, and preliminary results are encouraging, but this is a largely unexplored approach. There is certainly ample room for creative design and testing of a range of societal therapies. Learning from what works at the individual scale may be an important path to more effective societal therapies in order to help us achieve the sustainable and desirable future that most of humanity wants.


  1. United Nations. Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Outcome document for the UN Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda (United Nations, New York, 2015).
  2. Costanza, R. Visions of alternative (unpredictable) futures and their use in policy analysis. Conservation Ecology 4(1), 5 (2002).
  3. Raskin, P et al. Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Stockholm Environment Institute, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Boston, 2005).
  4. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Volume 2 Scenarios (Island Press; Landcare Research Scenarios Working Group, Washington, DC, 2007).
  5. Frame, B, Brignall-Theyer, M, Taylor, R & Delaney, K. Four Future Scenarios for New Zealand: Work in Progress (2nd ed.) (Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand, 2007).
  6. Costanza, R et al. Scenarios for Australia in 2050: A synthesis and proposed survey. Journal of Future Studies 19:49-76 (2015).