Overcoming societal addictions: What can we learn from individual therapies?

Robert Costanza and three co-authors think that, to bend society away from destructive habits, something can be learned from effective individual therapies.  In particular, they describe “Motivational Interviewing:”

“a collaborative, goal-oriented style of communication with particular attention to the language of change. It is designed to strengthen personal motivation for and commitment to a specific goal by eliciting and exploring the person’s own reasons for change within an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion.”

Following a few examples of actions that succeeded in overcoming “societal addictions” (Gandhi: overcoming colonization; the civil rights movement; cigarette smoking), they suggest that a process of engaging / focusing / evoking / planning could take the form of Community Scenario Planning (CSP),

“a way to engage the broader public directly in a positive discussion of societal goals, motives, and futures”

The authors conclude:

“At the individual level, MI techniques engage with addicts in a nonjudgmental way to help them overcome ambivalence and develop a positive vision of a better life that is based in their deepest values.  Such a vision can often motivate substantial change. This is what a strategy of what we have labeled CSP (scenario planning and envisioning extended to include public opinion surveys and broad societal dialogue about alternative futures) could provide at the societal level. What is necessary to implement this strategy is to fully engage the larger society in discussing and sharing alternative futures and building consensus on preferred futures.”

Overcoming societal addictions: What can we learn from individual therapies?, Ecological Economics 131 (2017) 543-550, available October 2016

Erwin – 5 March 2017



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. Examples include our societal addiction to inequitable over-consumption fueled by fossil energy and a “growth at all costs” economic model. This paper explores the potential to learn from successful therapies at the individual level. In particular, Motivational Interviewing (MI) is one of the most effective therapies. It is based on engaging addicts in a positive discussion of their goals, motives, and futures. We suggest that one analogy to MI at the societal level is a modified version of scenario planning (SP) that has been extended to engage the entire community (CSP) in thinking about goals and alternative futures via public opinion surveys and forums. Both MI and CSP are about exploring alternative futures in positive, non-confrontational ways and building commitment or consensus about preferred futures. We conclude that effective therapies for societal addictions may be possible, but, as we learn from MI, they will require a rebalancing of effort away from only pointing out the dire consequences of current behavior (without denying those consequences) and toward building a shared vision of a positive future and the means to get there.