The rush to patent and control psychedelics has creepy ‘Brave New 1984’ vibes.
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Last week, The New York Times published, “With Promise of Legalization, Psychedelic Companies Joust Over Future Profits.” The subtitle: “Cash-rich start-ups are filing scores of patent claims on hallucinogens like magic mushrooms. Researchers and patient advocates worry high prices will make the therapies unaffordable.”
Right-wing Libertarian billionaires like Peter Thiel and Christian Angermayer pour hundreds of millions into companies like Compass Pathways. Compass is making an aggressive bid to patent techniques for synthesizing psilocybin-like compounds, as well as seeking to copyright basic therapy techniques that have been used for decades. Andrew Jacobs writes in the Times:
One patent application for psilocybin therapy claimed its treatment rooms were unique because they featured “muted colors,” high-fidelity sound systems, and cozy furniture. Another sought exclusivity on a therapist reassuringly holding the hand of a patient. Then there’s the patent seeking a monopoly on nearly all methods of delivering the drug to patients, including vaginally and rectally.
Such patent claims “have provoked howls of derision from some scientists and patient advocates, who warn that corporate efforts to profit from existing drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and Ecstasy could chill academic research and throttle public access by making new therapies prohibitively expensive.”
Obviously, I find all of this atrocious, if predictable. My cherished hope, expressed in long-ago essays, was that the mass rediscovery of the psychedelic experience (in a wiser, more integrated way than occurred in the sixties) would transform capitalism.
As I explored in How Soon Is Now, capitalism is inherently unsustainable because it is based on debt, forcing endless growth and unnecessary development. Money is created — issued into existence — as bank debt. Companies are forced to compete to survive in a game that we created called the stock market, where they must do awful things like evade environmental restrictions and corrupt legislative processes to fulfill their prime directive of maximizing profit for shareholders.
We can’t have a steady-state, degrowth-oriented, regenerative system within capitalism. We also can’t address our basic ecological needs or ensure our future survival. The work that we need to do — convert to permaculture, counter the Albedo effect with rooftop gardens, replenish wetlands, insulate old buildings, etc. — doesn’t fit within an economic system driven by the need to maximize financial profit to satisfy shareholders.
But now we find capitalism and its current predatory corporate structure seeking to assimilate and control psychedelics for profit. One possible result of this — if the assimilation is successful — could be a short-term Brave New World (or “Brave New 1984”) scenario, where various molecules are modulated to create a mindless, temporary bliss-state, which allows people to be functional units in an exploitative economy as it continues to dismantle ecosystems and disintegrate local cultures.
Eventually, perhaps, the survivors will live in domed cities, as methane erupts from under the melting Arctic, further cooking the planet, obliterating the last tropical forests, and killing the plankton that maintain our oxygen levels.
In another Times piece, Brett Stephens writes about climate change. Apparently he doubted anthropogenic climate change until recently. (How do these people get to keep their plum jobs?) He still believes the magic power of markets will somehow save the day. Stephens writes about Vaclav Smil’s How the World Really Works, which I have also covered in past essays, and it’s worth a read, even if I disagree with him in some core areas.
Smil is a major influence on Bill Gates, among others. Smil doesn’t believe we will be able to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in the near future because they are responsible, not just for energy, but also for fertilizer and for plastics. Basically, our entire modern world is formed from fossil fuel residue. Stephens writes:
Many people tend to think of fossil fuels mostly in terms of transportation, electrical generation, and heating. But how often do we consider the necessity of fossil fuels in the production of nitrogen fertilizer, without which, Smil noted, “it would be impossible to feed at least 40 percent and up to 50 percent of today’s nearly eight billion people”? It’s difficult to imagine modern life without plastics, made mainly from the hydrocarbons ethylene and propylene, or steel, made with coking coal and natural gas, or cement or asphalt.
Some critics respond to Smil’s arguments with a type of heroic optimism that borders on magical thinking. Why, they ask, can’t we do more to grow our food organically and distribute and consume it locally? The only way we could do that and make a meaningful difference for the climate is if millions of us returned to farming, while accepting a world that can feed far fewer people.
Here, Stephens shows the unfortunate, inevitable results of not taking psychedelics as an adult: a lack of cognitive flexibility, an incapacity to integrate new ideas.
In “real reality,” there is no reason we can’t have “millions of us” return to farming. That is, in fact, exactly what needs to happen. Massive industrial farms can be broken up. People can be retrained via the internet in the most cutting-edge regenerative systems, and become farmers again, with the benefits of current tools and cutting-edge methods. And this doesn’t mean “accepting a world that can feed far fewer people.”
That alarmist second clause doesn’t mesh with the first part of his sentence. There could be a managed switch to older practices, while we also radically reduce animal consumption and make other necessary shifts. There is nothing physically or conceptually impossible about this, except that people like Stephens can’t imagine a significantly different kind of society.
I recommend watching the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, which shows what happens when you use regenerative techniques to take industrialized farm land and convert it back to natural methods over five years. While this is, of course, labor-intensive, the end result is far more productive of nutritious food and also replenishes the entire local ecosystem, bringing back insects, birds, and so on. Industrial farming destroys the world’s topsoil. Permaculture, organic, and no-till forms of agriculture can replenish topsoil.
The fact is, most jobs in our post-industrial civilization have no connection to living systems and basic needs. The coronavirus pandemic and the huge wave of resignations after it revealed this. The only jobs that actually mattered for our survival were the essential workers. Many people would be happily reassigned if we can break through the current ideological and structural logjam.
Considering the scale of the ecological emergency, there is a massive amount of work that needs to be done. But it just can’t happen under the current model of capitalism, which forces corporations to maximize short-term financial profit. Psychedelic corporations, forced to conform to this same logic, will inevitably behave badly and create perverse outcomes. The patent war is just a foreshadowing.
A version of this piece was originally published in “Daniel Pinchbeck’s newsletter.”