The Groovy Rat Park; and the Empty Cage

This post opens up a big topic: the idea that the real cause of depression and addiction is our dysfunctional society. Our hyper-consumerist, hyper-individualist society. As opposed to moral failure or bad brain chemistry or bad parenting being the cause. (This is NOT to say that bad parenting doesn’t happen, or brain-chemistry imbalances don’t exist.)

I’ve been having this thought for a few years now, and ever since I stumbled on a TED talk via a friend’s Facebook post the other day, I’ve been blown away. I’m sort of easing into this post because it’s a topic of deep personal significance to me. I’ll start by sharing some massive resources and a few of my own disjointed thoughts. But I have a lot more thoughts, and will add them as time permits. 

“Get a rat and put it in a cage and give it two water bottles. One is just water, and one is water laced with either heroin or cocaine. If you do that, the rat will almost always prefer the drugged water and almost always kill itself very quickly, right, within a couple of weeks. So there you go. It’s our theory of addiction.

“Bruce [Alexander] comes along in the ’70s and said, ‘Well, hang on a minute. We’re putting the rat in an empty cage. It’s got nothing to do. Let’s try this a little bit differently.’ So Bruce built Rat Park, and Rat Park is like heaven for rats. Everything your rat about town could want, it’s got in Rat Park. It’s got lovely food. It’s got sex. It’s got loads of other rats to be friends with. It’s got loads of colored balls. Everything your rat could want. And they’ve got both the water bottles. They’ve got the drugged water and the normal water. But here’s the fascinating thing. In Rat Park, they don’t like the drugged water. They hardly use any of it. None of them ever overdose. None of them ever use in a way that looks like compulsion or addiction. … Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.

“We’ve created a society where significant numbers of our fellow citizens cannot bear to be present in their lives without being drugged, right? We’ve created a hyperconsumerist, hyperindividualist, isolated world that is, for a lot of people, much more like that first cage than it is like the bonded, connected cages that we need. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” 

The above is from a TED talk by Johann Hari. It made me think about what, for humans, would be the Rat Park; and what would be the empty cage. 

I think most of our modern industrialized world is the empty cage. As noisy and crowded as it is in so many ways, it is empty of too many essentials. Not that I’m opposed to industrial activity or even mass production. But things have gone too far; we are alienated from one another and from the natural world.  

I don’t think the groovy rat park is all honey and roses. It’s not a place free of challenge or danger. I think we thrive on challenge and danger, if it’s for a good cause. Maybe for most of us, the ideal environment is a mix of cushy comforts and exciting challenges.

It occurred to me that maybe theme-parks feel like an adventure to some people because modern “real life” is such an empty cage. 

Harry Palmer, author of Living Deliberately and the Avatar Course materials, gave a talk called “Happy Tilapi.” He talks about going to a fish farm to buy tilapia to stock his pond. The fish guy says “I’ll net out the happy ones for you.” Turns out the fish who are vigorous seek out the current of the pump. They seem to like the challenge. The weak ones avoid it.

It struck me: The human version of the empty cage (with its bottled consolations) has a radically higher eco footprint than the wholesome park. Aside from its social cost. 

If consumerist society is an empty cage, what would the groovy rat park look like for you? 

Further Exploration

“Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong” (TED Talk by Johann Hari). Hari has also written a book on this topic, titled Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–And the Unexpected Solutions. 

The Globalization of Addiction (Bruce Alexander’s website). “Global society is drowning in addiction to drug use and a thousand other habits. This is because people around the world, rich and poor alike, are being torn from the close ties to family, culture, and traditional spirituality that constituted the normal fabric of life in pre-modern times. This kind of global society subjects people to unrelenting pressures towards individualism and competition, dislocating them from social life. People adapt to this dislocation by concocting the best substitutes that they can for a sustaining social, cultural and spiritual wholeness, and addiction provides this substitute for more and more of us.” Alexander has also written a book, The Globalisation of Addiction: A Study in Poverty of the Spirit.

Also: A particular article from Mr. Alexander’s blog. All his articles I’ve seen are incredibly deep but this one I particularly want to share with you. Addiction, Environmental Crisis, and Global Capitalism. Goes in depth about interconnections between addiction and eco-crisis. And outlines “five psychological realities that you will probably recognize as contributing to the ecological crisis.” Including wastefulness, extractiveness, and (ironically) the endless treadmill of “recovery.”

“Does Money Equal Happiness? It Does, But Only Til You Earn This Much.” (Josh Hafner, USA Today.) “That point for life satisfaction varies around the world, researchers found, from $35,000 in the Caribbean to $125,000 in New Zealand. Past that, lead author Andrew T. Jebb said, ‘there’s a certain point where money seems to bring no more benefits to well-being in terms of both feelings and your evaluation.'”

“Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs” (David Graeber, Evonomics).

Buzzcocks song “Boredom” (heart-clenching yet ever so foot-tapping song by one of my alltime favorite punk bands, playing in a club in Boston in 1980 — thanks to the miracle of YouTube)!