WORDS BY AMBER X. CHEN
ARTWORK BY AARON LOWELL DENTON
With more states legalizing psychedelics, activists are interested in exploring their power. The Frontline examines whether that’s a good idea.
When British climate activist Gail Bradbrook sought out plant medicine, it was the culmination of a healing journey she had started at the age of 19.
During a two-week period in Costa Rica in 2016, she worked with three medicines: iboga, a shrub native to Gabon; kambo, the secretion of the Amazonian giant monkey frog; and ayahuasca, a brew from South America that comes from a combination of a specific vine bark and another species of bush leaves.
In previous recreational settings, Bradbrook had come across psychedelic drugs with similar properties. She had experimented with psilocybin (more popularly known as magic mushrooms) and danced to the ecstasy of MDMA in nightclubs as a part of the ’90s rave scene. But in Costa Rica, meeting these plant medicines in their ceremonial context completely rewired her brain.
“I was shown aspects of myself that are superior, judgemental, competitive, and separating over and over again,” Bradbrook recalled. “It’s quite embarrassing and painful to see.”
Bradbrook went into the healing process with several intentions. Some were personal; others were professional. How could she help build a social movement? Who did she need to work with? What were the codes for social change she needed to unlock?
Within a month of that experience in Costa Rica, Bradbrook met environmental activist Roger Hallam, with whom she would go on to co-found the nonviolent civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion in 2018.
“At the end of it, he told me he had just given me the codes for social change,” she said. “The exact words that were in my intention prayer.”
From there, Extinction Rebellion was born.
“What is a psychedelic experience? It’s a pronounced and profound alteration of consciousness.”
Focused on direct action, Extinction Rebellion quickly grew into a bold, international climate coalition. The group now also serves as a prime example of how psychedelics and plant medicines could help galvanize the environmental movement. However, Extinction Rebellion is far from a perfect example of climate activism, having been criticized as white-centered and classist.
While it is now widely accepted that psychedelics have therapeutic potential, there is also a growing popularity in the idea that psychedelics could act as a powerful aid to social movements, particularly environmentalism. This is further supported by the rising number of U.S. states introducing and passing laws to decriminalize and legalize psychedelics. New York is the latest: lawmakers introduced a bill last week.
In the last year, at least two peer-reviewed studies have found evidence that psychedelics may influence pro-environmental behaviors. Another philosophical paper published last year argued in favor of psychedelics to help solve our environmental problems. Author Michael Pollan has even spoken to the power of psychedelics in dismantling authoritarianism or inducing closer relationships to nature—akin to the left-wing countercultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s psychedelics are popularly associated with. Meanwhile, brain scientists have examined whether psychedelics cause “neuroplasticity,” or the nervous system’s ability to change its activity and structure.
Other people are more skeptical, pointing to the history that psychedelics have with the right wing, in which neo-Nazi figures have credited psychedelic plants and drugs as their source of inspiration.
Clearly, interest in these psychedelics is not dying down anytime soon. As we enter the so-called psychedelic renaissance of the 21st century, Indigenous peoples are growing wary. The history of psychedelics does not begin with Aldous Huxley and Albert Hofmann; its roots lie in the sacred multi-millennial traditions of Indigenous medicine and ceremony. Could the future of psychedelics lie in shaping environmental movements?
Some psychedelics come from plants, and others come from manufactured chemicals. The earliest evidence of humans using psychoactive plants (all of which are not psychedelic) dates back to 11000 B.C. in Israel with the brewing of beer. Some psychedelic advocates even speculate under the “stoned ape theory” that the consumption of magic mushrooms helped fuel human intellectual evolution some 200,000 years ago. Human fascination with psychedelics has continued well into the modern day with pharmaceutical companies showing an increased interest in their potential for psychotherapy.
Under a microscope, the crystals of LSD, a drug formally known as lysergic acid diethylamide first synthesized by Hofmann in 1938, can look a lot like space with multiple galaxies and stars floating gray and blue in its dark abyss. When psychedelic plants or chemicals enter the body, people can react with hallucinations, heightened sensory experiences, feelings of disorientation, and an increased heart rate, which can all last for hours. Scientists have widely accepted that psychedelics interact with our brain’s serotonin 5-HT2A receptors—whose abnormal activities are associated with depression and that are primarily found in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which deals with one’s mood, cognition, and perception.
But what makes psychedelics different from other drugs?
“[Psychedelics are] a class of substances that evoke psychedelic-type experiences,” said Zach Walsh, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia. “That leaves you with defining what is a psychedelic experience? … It’s a pronounced and profound alteration of consciousness that leads to potentially mystical-type experiences, self-reflection. Senses of oneness of connection are frequent but maybe not necessary.”
By this definition, psychedelics can include hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin but also MDMA, ketamine, and even cannabis. There are also ayahuasca, iboga, and kambo—hallucinogenic elements from nature that Indigenous communities have used as medicine for thousands of years.
The term “psychedelics,” however, was coined in 1957. The psychedelic movement that was born then—and that continues to pick up steam now—has been characterized by flashy imagery and wild stories of people tripping: swirly-eyed art with vivid color patterns and optical illusions. It has long been associated with spontaneity, peace and love, dismantling the status quo, and a descent into chaos.
Such connotations are a stark contrast from the spiritual way Indigenous cultures have approached psychedelics for thousands of years: for healing, community, and cultural practices. This is why many Indigenous peoples are opposed to the term “psychedelics” in reference to their historic plant medicines.
For psychedelics to play any role in the climate and environmental movement, Indigenous peoples need to be made leaders of the so-called psychedelic renaissance. After all, Indigenous peoples are not only the first practitioners of these ancient medicines—they’re also the land’s first caretakers. Today, 80% of biodiversity remains under Indigenous stewardship.
In South America, about 160 different tribes have used ayahuasca to amplify one’s ability to interact with the non-human world of plants, animals, and spirits. The two plants that make up an ayahuasca brew are native to the Amazon basin, one of the planet’s most important resources for combating climate change. Now, many of these tribes face threats due to deforestation and mining.
The Mazatec in Mexico also have a deep history with psychedelics, which scientists have traced back to their ancestral lands for thousands of years. As the Western world becomes more interested in exploring the benefits of these plant medicines, the Mazatec’s story serves as an important warning of how easily outsiders can exploit and cause harm if they are not careful.
In 1955, American author Gordon Wasson and photographer Allan Richardson traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, in search of the legendary mushrooms. There, they met Maria Sabina, a Mazatec shaman who administered the plant in the velada, a sacred Mazatec healing ritual. When Wasson published the account of their experience in Life magazine, the general public descended upon the Mazatec in droves. Sabina was cast out as a traitor.
Now, as more are advocating for the decriminalization of psychedelics, many Indigenous peoples are trying to prevent history from repeating itself by conserving these sacred plant medicines, which are simultaneously being threatened by the climate crisis.
“We are up to our necks in a movement to decriminalize this particular plant,” said Steven Benally, a Diné Nation tribal member and conservationist for the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, speaking of peyote, a cactus native to northern Mexico and southern Texas that contains the hallucinogen mescaline. “Knowing how limited it is out where it grows and how sacred it is to us, it seems to me that any detailed sharing of its spiritual component only causes further curiosity.”
For Benally, the decriminalization movement threatens his hopes that peyote can be around for coming generations. This is the same movement that argues psychedelics could invigorate social movements.
Rachael Petersen was introduced to psychedelics in 2018 when she participated in a major depression study with Johns Hopkins University that used psilocybin as treatment. At the time, she was deputy director of Global Forest Watch, an initiative to stop deforestation.
She had struggled with depression for many years, trying every modality, therapy, and medication to no avail before enrolling in the study. Climate despair also exacerbated her state of mind.
“I think when you’re in the environmental movement, you can start to imagine that we’re totally screwed, and it’s actually a rational stance,” Petersen said. “It’s easy to feel burnt out because the systems we need to change are so large that no single person can affect them alone, and they’re very slow to change. So it feels both entirely necessary and entirely futile at the same time to try to change it.”
Petersen recalls having a sort of “pre-traumatic” stress, to the point where she “couldn’t look at a tree without imagining when it would be cut down or die from a pest that was becoming more prominent because of climate changes,” she said.
Psychedelics and plant medicines alike have served as powerful healing aids for people with PTSD, addiction, and depression. They may even help with feelings around climate grief and despair, as they did for Petersen.
“It made me realize that trying to ‘fix the planet’ was really a deeply egoic-striving project of my own,” Petersen recalled. “It’s allowed me to be more present to the more-than-human world without obsessing about how it’s dying.”
Using psychedelics allowed Petersen to build the resilience to stay in the environmental movement. But what about psychedelics as an entry point into environmentalism?
“I really advocate for decriminalization. That is extremely important and something that should have never been taken away from people in the first place.”
In a 2022 study that surveyed 240 people, mostly from Australia, the U.S., and the U.K., who had prior experience with psychedelics, researchers found more pro-environmental behaviors among participants who reported having had a previous mystical experience than those who had not. The researchers measured these behaviors based on a wide range of behaviors—anything from adopting a vegetarian diet and purchasing eco-friendly products to turning off your lights more regularly.
“[The] obvious limitation here is that these are self-reported environmental behaviors,” said Kelly Paterniti, a study co-author who completed her master’s in psychological therapies at Queen Mary University of London. “We chose this scale that covers quite a wide variety of pro-environmental behavior types … essentially based around your efforts to be more environmentally conscious and sustainable as an individual.”
Paterniti noted this study found a compelling correlation between pro-environmental behavior and psychedelics, not causation. It could just be that people who are attracted to psychedelics are more pro-environmentally inclined.
In the case of potential causation, we don’t know how long these pro-environmental behaviors actually last or what percentage would feel environmentally inclined after an experience. What dosage would they need? What kinds of psychedelics or plant medicines would work best in encouraging this sort of behavior? What percentage of psychedelic users actually have a mystical experience? How many actually just end up hating it?
Much of the excitement around psychedelics in environmental spaces is predicated upon the idea that psychedelics can help people relate to nature via “ego-dissolution,” an altered state of consciousness that tears down a person’s sense of self, inviting more connection. Researchers at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland have even suggested that psychedelics may reorganize a person’s brain. When people are introduced to climate action during a psychedelic experience, according to neuroscientist Gul Dolen, they can be persuaded toward action.
But do we want to brainwash people into joining the climate movement? These ideas fuel the mythology of psychedelics as catalysts for progressive ideology. We seem to have forgotten the history psychedelics have with the right wing.
Not all people have a positive experience with psychedelics. People can have a bad trip, or an unpleasant psychedelic experience, if their set, setting, and/or dose are off. Set looks at one’s mental state, and setting covers the environment in which one takes a psychedelic substance.
But beyond bad trips, set and setting inform the takeaway of one’s experience, positive or not. A positive psychedelic experience doesn’t automatically translate to positive morals.
Psychedelic literature is, indeed, filled with anecdotes of people having radical shifts in their beliefs, careers, or worldviews. Dr. Brian Pace, an affiliate scholar for Ohio State University’s Center for Psychedelic Drug Research and Education, explained that this effect could be compared to any traumatizing or destabilizing experience—like losing one’s job or the death of a loved one.
“Whatever worldview comes after that is determined by whatever ideas happen to be laying around, whatever worldview one has access to,” Pace added.
Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman” who participated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol dressed in face paint and Viking gear and also goes by Jacob Angeli, had been extremely outspoken in support of “shamanic plants and techniques” for healing, as outlined in a 2021 article by Pace. Andrew Anglin, who took psychedelics all throughout high school, founded the Daily Stormer, “the world’s biggest neo-Nazi website,” as described by The Atlantic. Rick Perry, former Texas governor who slashed environmental legislation, has similarly advocated strongly in favor of psychedelics.
What concerns Pace is that this psychedelic renaissance is occurring at the same time as the emergence of a global fascist movement.
“It’s going to be less of a countercultural thing to take psychedelics, so people who are not countercultural will be coming to psychedelics in increasing numbers,” added Dr. Neşe Devenot, who co-authored a study with Pace on right-wing psychedelia. “A lot of these people are going to remain conservatives after a psychedelic experience.”
While the two researchers maintain that psychedelics can be a source of inspiration and healing that can lead to concerted action and solidarity, that is a potential use—not an inherent feature. In fact, there’s a lot researchers still don’t know, especially regarding the health impacts of psychedelics when mixed with other drugs.
For example, it can be dangerous to mix ayahuasca with commonly prescribed antidepressants. Too much serotonin, a hormone that invokes happiness and that is released during many psychedelic experiences and when taking some antidepressants, can induce serotonin syndrome, which can cause shivering, diarrhea, seizures, and even death.
So no, psychedelics are not a silver bullet to end climate change—but that does not mean that they can’t play a positive role in building resilience and community, especially among existing environmentalists.
“I really advocate for decriminalization,” Devenot said. “Allowing people to have experiences in the woods with their friends, on the beach with their friends, people who are close to them and have meaningful relationship-building, community-building experiences. I think that that is extremely important and something that should have never been taken away from people in the first place.”
We’re not quite ready yet for full-fledged decriminalization. As exemplified by Benally in the case of peyote, some Indigenous communities do not want to share their plant medicines, primarily for conservation reasons.
For example, in the Amazon, rapid commercialization of the plants used to brew ayahuasca is driving deforestation. In our world driven by profits, there simply does not exist a strong financial incentive to conserve plant medicines and respect cultures.
And it’s not as though we have systems set up that allow people to healthily integrate psychedelics into their lives. The systems we have set up thus far, namely psychedelic-assisted therapies, have been largely hidden under paywalls, accessible only to the incredibly wealthy.
“Various investment firms have quoted figures for psilocybin therapy for two doses for treatment-resistant depression being in the ballpark of $16,000,” Pace said. “Now, this is absolutely outrageous compared to what one can obtain … foraging in the woods for these mushrooms or growing them oneself.”
Even if we could ethically get our hands on these treatments and distribute them equitably, there is no guarantee they would help environmentalists. Just because someone cares about the environment does not mean their strategies are inherently good. There are fringe eco-fascists who believe overpopulation and immigrants are killing the planet. Meanwhile, the mainstream environmental movement is incredibly hierarchical and ego-filled—from climate influencers to self-congratulatory celebrities who hoard resources from grassroots activists.
Ego-dissolution is a buzzword in the psychedelic community, but such an outcome is not promised. Under Pace’s theory, couldn’t psychedelics also strengthen narcissism? That’s what happened with Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman.” How broken is Western society that we think we need drugs in order to facilitate mass climate action? How broken is the climate movement if it needs to brainwash people into environmental action?
“God, the world is so dire,” Petersen said. “We just desperately want to fix it. Maybe [psychedelics] could help. I’m sympathetic to that because I think that just demonstrates how desperate we are.”
But shouldn’t our actions come out of care and love, rather than desperation?
“When we see this whole movement of decriminalizing and medicalizing, it’s scary because what I’m seeing is an alienation of the people who are responsible for this medicine being here today.”
There are people who become activists because of enlightening psychedelic experiences, but there are countless others who become activists because they experienced the effects of climate change firsthand or became inspired upon learning of the climate crisis in school.
Non-Indigenous folks should reclaim our power without requiring psychedelics. We should also acknowledge the power Indigenous communities hold to utilize these medicines to heal and build community. We should celebrate the promise of new science.
Before adding psychedelics to the climate action toolkit, we need to first plan for their conservation, prioritize Indigenous cultures, and place Indigenous peoples into leadership positions. This means respecting the wishes of Indigenous peoples: if a tribe or nation doesn’t want its plant medicines commercialized, we should not interfere. For those willing to share, we must not appropriate. Ultimately, we have to listen.
“We had to literally fight for a right to be able to sit in ceremony,” said Sutton King, a citizen of the Menominee and Oneida Nation and program manager of engagement and benefit sharing for the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, which works to protect the traditional knowledge, ecologies, and medicines of Indigenous communities. “That was only in 1978 with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that we truly had that legal pathway to be who we are traditionally. When we see this whole movement of decriminalizing and medicalizing, it’s scary because what I’m seeing is an alienation of the people who are responsible for this medicine being here today.”
For King, true allyship with Indigenous peoples means following the United Nations principle of free, prior, and informed consent. It also means ensuring that wealth is returned to these communities
Imagine if the environmental movement, in its quest to broaden its reach and power, were to fuel the endangerment of plant medicines and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples. At the very least, such a consequence would be hypocritical. At worst, harmful.
“To really be able for all of us to achieve healing together, we have to really take on this decolonization initiative, as well as Indigenizing,” King said. “There cannot be a collective healing without Indigenous peoples’ healings, as well.”