Could psychedelic trips inspire faster climate action?

A growing body of research suggests that psychedelic experiences could improve our connectedness to nature and inspire faster action on the climate crisis. So, should top decision-makers be experimenting?
Ca P8 Illo

We’re approaching the point of no return on climate change far faster than the United Nations expected, according to the latest assessment by its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It reports that many impacts that were once considered avoidable no longer are – and that the world’s most vulnerable communities are likely to bear the brunt. 

But all is not lost. Experts believe it’s still possible to make a sharp U-turn. The real solution to the crisis lies not so much in developing new tech, but in finding the motivation to prioritise the planet and understanding our individual power to make a meaningful difference. 

There is hope, then, but only if the minds and behaviour of key people can be changed – and the use of psychedelic drugs might be one way to achieve this, according to some scientists.

This radical idea was demonstrated recently when financier Ben Goldsmith, brother of former environment minister Lord Goldsmith, announced that he had taken ayahuasca. Containing the class-A psychoactive substance dimethyltryptamine, this is a traditional medicinal brew that’s widely used in South America. He’d used it to help him process his grief after losing his teenage daughter, Iris, in an off-roading accident in 2019. Goldsmith revealed that one of the effects of his ayahuasca trip was an enduring and overwhelming desire to dedicate the rest of his life to environmental causes. It turns out that this is a common urge that people derive from tripping on certain psychedelic drugs.

How do psychedelics boost nature-connectedness?

Dr Sam Gandy is an independent ecologist who’s worked extensively on ecosystem restoration projects around the world. He has also researched the link between psychedelic experiences and “nature connectedness”. His latest work in this field, conducted with a team from the University of Greenwich, recently culminated in a paper entitled Transpersonal Ecodelia: surveying psychedelically induced biophilia. This concludes that psychedelic experiences have “the capacity to elicit a connection with nature that is passionate and protective, even among those who were not previously nature-oriented”.

Using psychedelics can trigger a new frame of mind. It’s almost like a secret weapon

Gandy believes that “the amount of good that can come from this is massive. There’s evidence going back 20 years showing a robust link between nature connectedness as a whole and pro-nature attitudes and behaviour.” 

He explains that “psychedelics are catalysts of connection. They elicit lasting connections with self, other people and nature.”

An earlier study he worked on concluded that nature connectedness remains significantly elevated for as long as two years after the psychedelic experience. By contrast, research exploring other ways of inspiring such feelings has found shifts that last only three months. 

Gandy says that psilocybin (from so-called magic mushrooms) is “top of the pile” for creating lasting feelings of unity with nature. This might be particularly beneficial in the UK, which has been reported as being Europe’s least nature-connected country and one of the world’s most nature-depleted nations.

So, are psychedelics a piece of the climate puzzle?

He accepts that we couldn’t exactly have every policy-maker taking psilocybin (not least because it’s a class-A controlled substance under the Drugs Act 2005). 

“It’s important to remain grounded about what psychedelics can do,” Gandy says. “More research is needed. This is just as much about how they are used and what happens afterwards to integrate and make use of the experience. But good nature conservation is about changing minds. Psychedelics change the substrate of the mind. From that, I feel that they do make a mindset change more accessible. They by no means guarantee it, but they provide more fertile terrain for the possibility.”

Dr Jens Holtvoeth, a senior lecturer at Teesside University’s School of Health & Life Sciences, explains that becoming aware that the Earth is a connected system, which psychedelics might help with, is one of the most important steps humanity can take in tackling the climate crisis.

“The changes so desperately needed can be made, but this will take all of us working together and with nature-based solutions,” he says. “It would be amazing if there were a drug that increased people’s awareness and inspired faster action, but I’m sceptical. And who knows about the other effects?”

Gandy says that psychedelics alone aren’t the missing part of the solution that will save the day, but it’s clear there’s an urgent need for a dramatic shift in priorities and behaviour – and the drugs might work with that. 

Should decision-makers be experimenting with psychedelics?

Crucially, this shift doesn’t have to be instigated by everyone. The so-called 3.5% rule, as proposed by Harvard political scientist Professor Erica Chenoweth, postulates that only a tiny minority of the population has to campaign for something for critical mass to be achieved. 

For a faster and more impactful change, this would clearly need to come from the top. That would mean government ministers, institutional investors and business leaders, including those in charge of the 100 firms that have been responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

Some entrepreneurs are already exploring the potential of psychedelic experiences. Michael Chaffe, CEO of events organiser Wolves Summit, regularly uses psilocybin for his own wellbeing and he hopes to persuade other business leaders of its benefits. 

Psychedelics can be a springboard for founders to develop themselves, their businesses and society as a whole

“Using psychedelics can trigger a new frame of mind or lifestyle,” he says. “It’s almost like a secret weapon.” 

Chaffe believes that psilocybin has helped him to focus on the things that really matter – in his home life, at work and beyond. 

“I believe that psychedelics can be a springboard for founders to develop themselves, their businesses and society as a whole,” he says. “I’m setting up to be able to take 15 of Europe’s most promising entrepreneurs to the Czech Republic [which has decriminalised possession of psilocybin for personal use]. We’ll go up to the mountains each quarter to do some deep work with psychedelics, focusing on self-development and mental resilience.” 

As anthropogenic global warming on a disastrous scale looks inevitable, the potential of psychedelic drugs in solving the climate crisis perhaps offers a glimmer of hope. To this end, another study has just got under way at Imperial College London. But Gandy, who’s collaborating with its Centre for Psychedelic Research, stresses that no one needs to go on a trip before they can become a committed environmental activist. 

“Taking positive actions for nature will be a more direct hotline to boosting your nature connectedness – which can be done with or without psychedelics,” he says. “It’s just that these substances remind us how important our symbiotic relationship with the Earth is.”