Long Read

A psychedelics boom is galvanising a new kind of climate activism – here’s why

Studies are finding a positive link between psychedelic use and “pro-environmental” behaviours, and the activists behind the movement argue it can turn the tide on climate change

Amanda Joy Ravenhill got interested in soil health after an experience with psychedelics. Photographer: Mark Abramson/Bloomberg

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for Amanda Joy Ravenhill’s first psychedelic experience than Burning Man, the Nevada desert festival that is to fans of hallucinogens what a bouncy castle is to rambunctious toddlers.

In September 2009, while lying in an art installation resembling an osprey nest, Ravenhill queried the universe as the mushrooms kicked in: “What should I do next?”

The answer pulsed through her. It was as if the psilocybin (mushrooms’ active trippy ingredient) told her “to get my hands dirty” she says. “It came through with such potency, and I got obsessed with soil’s role in stabilising our climate.”

A graduate student in San Francisco at the time, Ravenhill returned home and went on to write two books about climate solutions. In 2013, she co-founded a global warming reversal plan (now a nonprofit) known as Project Drawdown, and is today co-founder and chief solutions officer for the Museum of TMRW, an organisation focused on climate solutions. The psilocybin experience “led to all sorts of incredible projects” Ravenhill says.

The scale of change required to avoid climate catastrophe is far beyond any one person. But Ravenhill is at the vanguard of a new movement arguing that psychedelics could perhaps move the needle.

In the US alone, 1.4 million people tried hallucinogens for the first time in 2020, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, incited by factors that include growing de-stigmatisation and emerging research on medicinal benefits.

While this psychedelic renaissance has its share of cash-hungry capitalists, advocates say there are also many people like Ravenhill whose experiences lead to environmental epiphanies.

The next few decades will be “very turbulent” due to climate change, Ravenhill says, “but there are some options that are way less awful than the worst ones. Psychedelics helped me see and act more clearly to help make those happen.”

Ravenhill is at the vanguard of a new movement arguing that psychedelics could move the needle when it comes to climate action. Credit: @amandaravenhill

“The most difficult truth”

How many people transform their lives after taking magic mushrooms? Many, insist the founders of The Journeymen Collective, a Canadian startup whose “contemporary shamans” guide guests through multi-day psilocybin journeys on a mountaintop estate that features luxury hotel-style rooms.

Executives, entrepreneurs and other professionals willing to drop at least $11,000 (€10,079) to “connect deeply into self” and “amplify their multi-dimensional awareness” Journeymen Collective clients often emerge newly protective of the planet, says co-founder Rob Grover, who previously worked in oil and gas.

Sometimes that change manifests in small ways, such as switching to organic household products, eating more whole foods or deciding to plant a garden.

“When we start to recognise at a deep, visceral level that we are nature and we are connected to it,” Grover says, “we realise we all have a responsibility to be a part of something greater.”

There’s some science to back up the woo-woo. In 2017, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published a study showing that using LSD, psilocybin and mescaline — “classic psychedelics” — led to a boost in self-reported “pro-environmental” behaviours.

The study even controlled for other substances that don’t cause tracers, like cannabis, and for personality traits that might predispose participants to being green, like “openness to experience, conscientiousness, conservatism”.

The result, while correlative and not causative, suggests that long-term psychedelic use changes how people think about their place in the natural world.

Enough people to turn the tide on climate change? Not anytime soon, but early findings are intriguing. Another study called From Egoism to Ecoism found a positive link between lifetime psychedelic use and “feeling close and kindly towards nature” especially for participants who experienced “ego-dissolution” wherein the sense of self dies during the hallucinogenic experience.

“Psychedelics are default mode network dampeners” that “lower our awareness of the individual self,” says Joel Brierre, who leads retreats at the Tandava Center in Mexico, where participants ingest a powerful psychedelic known as 5-MeO-DMT.

Mode network dampeners battle the brain system that keeps us from paying attention to the world around us; Brierre says many of his clients have emerged with new resolve to live cleaner, greener lives.

The last time psychedelics had a major moment was the 1960s, which is also when the modern environmental movement was born

There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical. The last time psychedelics had a major moment was the 1960s, which is also when the modern environmental movement was born.

Whether that’s a coincidence hasn’t been examined scientifically, but those who did drugs and marched for the end of all wars certainly found themselves disappointed in the long run.

“All these utopian hopes associated with psychedelics in the ‘60s didn’t pan out” says Nicolas Langlitz, an anthropologist and science historian with The New School for Social Research who has studied the history of psychedelics. “The question is why they would pan out 50 years later.”

Psychedelics enthusiasts say a lot is different today: the climate crisis is reaching an unprecedented level of urgency, hallucinogens-as-medicine are more mainstream, and a growing body of research suggests psychedelics can change the way people think, feel and act.

“When you feel self-love and self-acceptance, that can lower the activity in your amygdala and increase blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, so that you’re able to entertain difficult emotional truths you might not otherwise entertain,” says Luke Pustejovksy, founder of Tactogen, a start-up that develops empathogenic drugs derived from and sometimes mirroring the results of psychedelics. “Ecocide is the most difficult truth for anyone to entertain.”

Ravenhill says her psychedelics use does exactly what Pustejovsky is describing: “It’s enabled me to have more capacity, conceptually and emotionally, to be able to hold climate change. Because I’m able to hold it, to understand it, I’m able to do more about it.”

For psychedelics to realise their full potential, research suggests that “set and setting” are critical. Taking mushrooms on a comfortable couch with an eye mask on might do nothing for a person’s nature-relatedness. Taking them in nature can more obviously present the user with an all-encompassing alternative to a dominant ego.

“Seeing yourself as part of an interconnected wider community of life that makes up the natural world — it seems psychedelics can reliably elicit that state,” says Sam Gandy, who co-authored the egoism study and is an ecologist with Ecosulis, a UK-based company focused on ecosystem recovery. “But nature connectedness doesn’t necessarily translate to behavioral change.”

For Christine Mason it did, thanks in large part to set and setting. Until 2011, Mason was living a comfortable life with her husband and four children in Chicago. She ran a tech company, practiced yoga and didn’t even try cannabis until her early 40s. “I was driving a Mercedes and wearing Armani,” she says.

Then her husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Mason was overwhelmed with anxiety, and a friend suggested she try ayahuasca. “You can imagine, going from my biggest high as a glass of champagne to ayahuasca,” she says. “It dropped me into [my husband’s] body, the chemo, the radiation, I could feel it.”

It took a few years to “integrate” that journey, Mason says, but in 2016 she sold her tech company, bought 20 acres of land on the Big Island of Hawaii and moved there full-time (she ultimately separated from her husband, who is now in remission).

A year later she started an eco-village, yoga retreat and permaculture learning centre for people to grow their own food and live off the grid. In 2022, Mason formally co-founded Radiant Farms, which makes gummies from legal, plant-based substances such as kava, a non-opiate plant that helps with pain relief and anxiety.

A group setting was key to Mason’s ayahuasca journey, she says. Roughly a dozen people participated in the ceremony at a Native American church in Northern California, led by a shaman from South America.

“We had this deeper ecological understanding that we couldn't heal [the environment] one-on-one, that this was a systems illness” she says. “In that ceremony, we were working it together. We needed to heal it together.”

While it’s a leap to suggest psychedelics could knock humanity into some kind of tipping point on climate action, they might serve as a valuable nudge for people who are already inclined towards sustainability, says Imperial College Centre for Psychedelic Research student Hannes Kettner, also a co-author on the egoism study.

“People who take psychedelics are not necessarily the people who need the most convincing,” Kettner says. “Where I see the potential is where people are already moving in that direction but get a particular impetus, feel a stronger urgency and more of an emotional connection to the environment.”

That sense of connection is key, says Rosalind Watts, a clinical psychologist who has led psilocybin trials for Imperial College London and who co-founded the UK’s first psychedelic integration group.

During a trial on psilocybin’s potential to treat depression, Watts says participants “immediately reported that the drug made them feel more connected to nature,” even in a hospital setting.

But while one session can reset your brain, she cautions that “a year later it won’t have changed that much, because the root cause, the societal container, is the issue.” In other words, consumerism.

In 2022, Watts launched ACER (Accept, Connect, Embody, Restore) — an online “integration community” whose participants follow a 13-month process to connect more deeply to the self, others and nature. The idea is to mimic the way psychedelics foster connection to communities and the natural world.

Amplifying anxieties

Kettner cautions that research in this field is still in its infancy. Despite science’s earnest attempts to control for the obvious — like that people who do drugs probably already love nature — it’s still hard to find healthy sample sizes of psychedelics users.

Even promising findings cut both ways. Psilocybin as a treatment for depression can relieve climate dread and “generally lower tendency to worry,” researchers Christina Sagioglou and Matthias Forstmann noted in a 2022 study in Drug Science. But it can also throw an unstable subject into a heightened state of anxiety.

The field is difficult to study, Sagioglou says: “Pro-environmental behaviour” is hard to define and measure, and survey participants tend to try and “help” researchers by reporting that they’re more green than they actually are. Her latest research attempts to solve that problem by including a multiple-choice knowledge quiz on the climate. (Psychedelics users scored higher.)

Action can be even more challenging to measure. Changes in behaviour tend to be cumulative versus instantaneous, and it’s tough to pin down explicit motivations.

“For some people, riding a bike is pro-environment, but what really matters is whether that person could have taken a car,” Sagioglou says. “Or if riding a bike is much cheaper than taking a car — if that’s the only motivation — that person won’t get us anywhere.”

Indeed, the biggest variable in psychedelics’ potential is the nature of any given user. The drugs “amplify whatever you’re concerned with,” Langlitz says. “That might be a mechanism for change. But the clients of these retreat centres are usually getting on airplanes to fly across the globe. None of that is good for climate change.”

The scale of change required to avoid climate catastrophe is far beyond any one person

And while mushrooms inspired Ravenhill to get into soil health, they can just as easily encourage someone else to double down on a different set of interests. “The QAnon Shaman [is] basically the product of a filter bubble plus psychedelic experiences,” Langlitz says. “So the set and setting is that Fox News-Breitbart filter bubble, and what you get is somebody who storms the Capitol.”

The future of the psychedelics industry is still unclear: de-stigmatisation may be boosting medical and casual use, but it has yet to translate into full-on legalisation. And there’s no science to suggest that widespread use would change core political beliefs or translate into mass mobilisation around the environment.

But there is plenty of hope to be found in the psychedelics-inspired activists already working on a small scale. Many are now themselves evangelists for the connection between psychedelics use and a greater commitment to nature.

Colette Condorcita was a wrestler in high school when, at 14, she suffered a spinal cord injury during a match. Initially paralysed from the neck down, doctors gave her a less than 2 per cent chance of walking again.

But after weeks of physical therapy and meditation, Condorcita walked out of the hospital and went down what she describes as a “shamanic path”.She left high school two years early to enrol in community college, and tried psilocybin for the first time during a hike in West Virginia in 2011.

The state is home to the world’s second largest mountaintop-removal site, where miners blast Appalachian peaks to access seams of coal and dump the waste into local waterways.

Taking mushrooms in the forest “dropped me into this new consciousness about the individuals impacted by all that,” Condorcita says. Then came ayahuasca, which “brought me into a deeper sense that I needed to protect nature in a very dramatic way.”

Today, Condorcita’s career is devoted to the intersection of psychedelics and climate. In 2020, she founded the Philadelphia chapter of a Bay Area organisation called Decriminalise Nature, which aims to sanction certain psychedelics in Black and brown neighbourhoods — in part to foster greater connection with nature.

“These plants are influenced by us, and we’re influenced by the plants,” Condorcita says. “Nature is kind of giving us one more chance, before it’s like, ‘Y’all are gone, peace. If you can’t figure out how to live here, you’re gone.’”