How Psychedelic Drugs Could Help Save the Planet

    The UN says we have just over a decade left to stop irreversible damage to the planet. Many observers think that’s over-optimistic.

    Coinciding with this crisis is a growing appreciation of the environment’s importance to our mental health. Studies have shown that connecting with nature can help with loneliness, depression and anxietynot to mention physical conditions like high blood pressure. Some doctors are now prescribing “nature” to their patients.

    Mental health is therefore a link in common between the environment and psychedelic drugs. But could the properties and use of psychedelics really have anything to tell us about how we approach the climate crisis?

    To answer this question and others, I interviewed Dr. Sam Gandy, a British ecological scientist who knows all about the benefits of nature and our “connectedness” with it. His career has combined ecology with his other passion: psychedelics. He’s currently involved in the cutting edge of psychedelic research at Imperial College London. He previously worked as a scientific assistant at the Beckley Foundation, a drug policy and research think tank.

    Gandy’s travels to learn more about both of his subjects have taken him to the Peruvian Amazon (pictured above), Texas and Ethiopia. His writing, lectures and TED talks have established him as a go-to expert. He also believes taking a trip can save the planet. This I gotta hear… 

     

    Kiran Sidhu: You believe psychedelics can help us engage better with our natural world. How so, and is there any proof of this?

    Dr. Sam Gandy: Feelings of interconnectedness with nature, of being part of nature, seem to be a primary facet of the psychedelic experience, described over and over again in experience reports, in research surveys and in key historical accounts of early psychedelic experiences.

    There are a number of correlative studies and a prospective study that strongly suggest or demonstrate that experience with psychedelics can increase measures of nature connection in the long-term, even after one or two sessions, and even if these sessions occur within clinical, nature-deprived environments.

    Psychedelics such as psilocybin have been found to facilitate enduring increases in personality trait openness, which has been found to predict nature connection and pro-environmental awareness.

    There was an interesting study published in 2017 in which use of classical psychedelics (substances such as psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, DMT), but not use of other substances, was found to predict pro-environmental behavior⁠—and that this was due to the increased nature relatedness, or self-identification with nature, that was catalyzed by the psychedelic experience.

    I am involved with research with colleagues of the Psychedelic Research Group at Imperial College, and while I can’t say too much now, due to our data being unpublished at the present time, I think I can say some interesting research is in the pipeline that will build on what has already been done, and demonstrate the capacity of psychedelics to increase nature connection in an enduring sense.

     

    How bad is the state of our planet right now?

    The state of the planet is pretty dire. It is widely considered that we have entered the sixth mass extinction of life on this planet, due entirely to human actions on the biosphere.

    In May of this year the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report was published … Taking three years, complied by 145 expert authors from 50 countries assessing changes over the past 50 years, it is considered the most comprehensive assessment of its kind. It makes for grim reading.

    The assessment found that nature is declining at rates unprecedented in human history, with ecological degradation and rates of species extinctions accelerating, with over a million species now threatened with extinction. This has dire implications for the biosphere at large, as well as the survival of our species, with fundamental, transformative change from local to global scales now essential to reverse this dire trend … a full-scale global ecological mobilization was recommend to avert ecological disaster.

     

    You have said that the state of the planet is a result of our disconnection and alienation from it. Why do you think some people are more connected with nature than others? 

    One of the few positive findings of the IPBES report I mentioned was that land under the management of indigenous people was the only land inhabited by humans not undergoing ecological degradation.

    A recent study reported that land inhabited by indigenous people can in some instances be in even better ecological shape than protected areas. A common theme that links indigenous groups worldwide is that they are the most nature-connected people on the planet, with these groups living lives in constant contact with nature in the areas they inhabit.

    One of the consequences of our materialistic, technological civilization is that we are living lives that our ever more cut off and disconnected from nature, with less nature exposure. This is particularly relevant to young children, with connection to nature later in life being partly influenced by childhood exposure to nature. Some people also just seem to be more nature-orientated than others and value that connection more … however this connection is very important for us irrespective of the value we place on it.

     

    I’ve often heard the phrase “ego dissolution” in discussions of psychedelics. Can you explain what this means? And how is this related to the “connectedness” you often talk about?

    Ego dissolution has been described as a “complete loss of subjective self-identity”. To put it another way, it is a loss of the individual sense of self, and a blurring of boundaries between self and world/universe that result from that. This experience appears intimately tied to the mystical type experiences people report under psychedelics, as well as the long-term therapeutic benefits.

    The enhanced connectedness people report seems to stem from the unitive states that are made accessible by this blurring of boundaries that ego dissolution facilitates. When the ego dissolves, perceived boundaries between self and other blur, facilitating an expanded perception of self/nature overlap.

     

    What is it about the psychedelic experience that is different from all the awe-inspiring experiences that nature has already have to offer?

    One of the things psychedelic experience and nature immersion have in common is the experience of awe. This appears to be a mediator of some of the benefits to well-being and the pro-social effects associated with both of these things. However the effects of psychedelics, and the interconnection they can facilitate seems to run deeper. I think this is largely tied to their ability to relax or dissolve the ego discussed previously.

    The experiences of LSD inventor and discover Albert Hofmann come to mind… Long before he discovered LSD, he described certain mystical experiences while in nature, describing unity, oneness and joy at being part of nature. When he later subsequently experienced LSD, he said it produced identical feelings of oneness and unity with the natural world.

     

    With the understanding of how psychedelics can help us connect with nature and overall connectedness, would it be fair to say that it could also help with issues such as racism, in that psychedelics could make us feel like we belong to one race, the human race?

    Experience with psychedelics such as psilocybin has been found to facilitate enduring increases in openness, one of the “big five” personality traits. Low levels of openness appears to be a persistent predictor of prejudice, and inversely, higher ratings of openness have been found to predict lower prejudice and racial attitudes. 

    Research has also found a correlation between low openness and authoritarianism, and psychedelics such as psilocybin have been found to reduce authoritarian political views while increasing openness.

    Experiences of universalism appear to be quite common under psychedelics, and they are known to yield a number of pro-social effects. So there could be potential for them to remedy issues such as racism, making inferences from existing data, but there has not yet been specific psychedelic research examining this.

     

    You talk about “connectedness” and “interconnection.” The modern world is all about being connected⁠—Facebook, Twitter, etc.⁠—and yet you have suggested that disconnection from the world has alienated us from our planet. What is it about modern day living that’s not conducive to helping the planet?

    Yes, we are certainly living ever more technologically interconnected lives. It does, however, seem that our growing technological dependency is further exacerbating our disconnection from nature. 

    Not that it has to. Technology is neither good nor bad; it is the intent behind its use that dictates this. Certainly the internet is playing a positive role in environmental activism and in spreading awareness and bringing light to issues, and in providing information on potential solutions to some of them. 

    We live increasingly urbanized lives … over half of the world population now lives in cities … The UN estimates that two thirds of us will be living in cities by 2050. So our increasingly urban living habitats are cutting us from nature. 

    Not that urban environments have to be nature-deprived, but they tend to be. Biophilic design⁠—incorporating nature into urban environments⁠—is one potential option, one championed by Singapore, for example. 

    But I would consider our disconnection from nature stemming from our living habits and technological dependency to lie at the root of our environmental apathy.

     

    Certain cultures have used psychedelic drugs for centuries, yet these substances remain marginal in Western culture. Why are we still so wary of these drugs, despite rapidly learning that psychedelics can be beneficial to us in many ways?  

    The various indigenous groups who utilize psychedelic substances tended to have done so for a very long time … often going back centuries. They tend to employ tried-and-tested practices when using them, and there are usually strict rules, rituals and settings surrounding their usage. This acts to maximise potential benefits, and keep potential risks to a minimum. 

    When psychedelics were (re)discovered by Western civilization, we did not possess this knowledge, and effectively had to make it up as we went along, discovering along the way the importance of “set and setting.”  

    Psychedelics still have cultural and political baggage inherited from the 1960’s when they were used widely, often recklessly, and were strictly criminalized around the globe. US President Richard Nixon referred to LSD apostle Tim Leary as “the most dangerous man in America.” He felt that LSD and other psychedelics effectively “made” hippies. And some of the research being conducted on psychedelics shows that not only can their use foster environmental concern, but also anti-authoritarian sentiment. 

    There is a tremendous sense of power and authority that can come through the primary mystical experience that psychedelics can catalyze, and it seems that this can be very threatening to existing governmental power structures. 

    If you ask Professor David Nutt, who heads neuropsychopharmacology research at Imperial College, his view is that LSD was criminalized because of its connection to the anti-Vietnam war movement at the time. So its banning was a political move window dressed as a public health measure. 

    A hangover of the 1960s countercultural use of psychedelics, I feel, is likely the reason they remain Schedule 1 drugs in the UK [and US] … substances with a much greater harm profile and addiction risk, as well as much more limited medical utility, such as cocaine, diamorphine (heroin) and methamphetamine are Schedule 2 drugs and much more accessible to researchers and doctors that wish to work with them. It doesn’t make logical sense.

     

    Are climate change deniers usually politically motivated, or is it equally about a sincere ignorance of our place and responsibility in nature?

    I think it’s a mixture of things. Certainly there is political and financial links to climate change denialism … big oil companies like Exxon and Shell were aware of the links between oil combustion, carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change back in the 1980s, and there has been a large-scale climate change misinformation campaign enacted, which unfortunately seems to have been quite successful. 

    The global climatic system is incredibly complex. I don’t think many of the climate change deniers have a strong grasp of the science, and in fact their ignorance of this is the reason they think they understand it. 

    On a more individual level, I do see our increasing nature-disconnection as being tied to climate change and other ecological issues we face. Referring to indigenous groups again, it seems that when one’s connection to nature is very high, one comes to view nature or their surrounding environment as part of oneself … so logically, doing anything to harm that environment would be foolish as you’d only be harming yourself. Our civilization has lost that connection and intuitive knowledge, and the concern that stems from it.

     

    As psychedelics are illegal, what are some other good ways to feel our “interconectedness”?

    A number of psychedelics are legal in a number of countries. Things are also shifting, and quite quickly. Successful local psychedelic decriminalization movements are symptomatic of a broad cultural shift in perceptions of psychedelics … the cat is out of the bag now, I think, and it isn’t going back in. 

    At the same time, medical research into psychedelics continues to advance, and it looks like they will be medically integrated in the coming years. So in the near future it is likely that psychedelics will become more accessible. 

    That aside, interpersonal interconnection and connection with nature can be facilitated by direct interaction on both of these fronts. Make time for friends, family and loved ones. Find your tribe of like-minded people, and engage with or build a community of some kind. Make time to get out into nature, and find something that appeals to you that gets you out into it … there are many possibilities. Even better, share in these activities with friends and family.


    Photo courtesy of Sam Gandy.

    • Kiran Sidhu

      Kiran is a London-based writer and journalist. She has written for publications including the Guardian, the Telegraph and I Paper.

    • Show Comments