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Artwork by Hiller Goodspeed for DoubleBlind Issue No. 8

 Why the “Psychedelic Renaissance” is just Colonialism by Another Name

A new psychedelic renaissance that remains grounded in colonial habits risks replicating historic and systemic harms and injustices

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DoubleBlind Mag

& Rene Suša //
Updated December 1, 2022

DoubleBlind Mag is devoted to fair, rigorous reporting by leading experts and journalists in the field of psychedelics. Read more about our editorial process and fact-checking here.

“All has been consecrated.

The creatures in the forest know this,

the earth does, the seas do, the clouds know

as does the heart full of

love.

Strange a priest would rob us of this

knowledge

and then empower himself

with the ability 

to make holy what 

already was.”

– “Consecrated,” St. Catherine of Sienna

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

History (as portrayed by ironic t-shirts)

There is a growing belief that we have entered a renaissance of sorts in the realm of psychedelic substances. That is, if you are inclined to agree with the narratives of popular culture, from The New York Times to former wrestlers-cum-intellectuals. We do not disagree that there is a surging interest and a co-optation of psychedelic substances into the machinery of the dominant economic operating system. Whether this amounts to a renaissance, or if this is even a useful descriptor, is less clear. 

The etymology of renaissance derives from the Latin nascor which means “to spring forth,” which gives us the French naissance, meaning birth or creation. The re is the Latin prefix for an action that occurs again. Hence, renaissance as rebirth. It is a grand word with specific historical connotations, especially attached to 15th-century Europe’s artistic and cultural Christian revivalism and imperialist expansion. 

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The term renaissance assumes there is something to be reborn from. In the case of psychedelics, the assumption is that the current resurgence of mainstream acceptance, interest, and experimentation, with the requisite increase in financial investment and academic research, is the continuation of the legacy of the 1960s. From the first synthesization of mescaline in 1919 to the discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1938, the research (and antics) of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard in the 1960s, and the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 along with the mass incarcerations that ensued, one could argue that the initial psychedelic movement of Western culture was more akin to a stillborn than a finished labor. Can a movement have a rebirth if it never had a proper birth in the first place? 

What is often forgotten in this discourse is that the first psychedelic boom in the 1960s was a novelty only for the West. Countless other cultures, especially Indigenous nations, have been well acquainted with a large number of psychedelic or entheogenic plants and medicines for millenia. It merely took the West generations to catch up. In relation to the recent uptick of interest in psychedelics in the West, the current “renaissance” appears to be far from a deep intellectual and spiritual rebirth, grounded in something other than the survival instinct of Western modernity. As is, it is more akin to a reboot of modern society’s failed attempt to re-imagine (and somewhat heal) itself in the 1960s, while continuing to conveniently place the cost of its survival and continuity on other peoples and cultures elsewhere (i.e. continued coloniality and exploitation as a salve for the existential woes of Western culture).

Artwork by Hiller Goodspeed for DoubleBlind Issue No. 8

Without a deeper understanding of the context in which the current “renaissance” is unfolding, most of the mainstream notions of the future of psychedelics import some kind of Western progress narrative, without ever truly looking at the toxic environment in which this rebirth is purportedly happening or the externalized costs of the project. As such, they end up replicating the logic of capitalist modernity

We use modernity and capitalist modernity interchangeably to describe the current paradigm, the economic/cultural/political operating system of the dominant culture. This includes all the attendant attributes and thought-forms including human exceptionalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, dispossession, progress as linear and inevitable, techno-utopianism, and, of course, America’s favorite memetic overlord: more-is-better.

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Baked into the current notion of the psychedelic renaissance is the sense that it already knows where it wants to go: more scale, more global distribution, more money, more people, more markets, more “social impact.” Psychedelics are the new Terra Nullius, new, uninhabited ground for the market to expand into and human ingenuity to uncover.  And of course, ironically, we will need psychedelics to help us cope with the cascading collapses of crises that have been created by the market system in the first place.

The subjects and beneficiaries of the coming changes are, in their most problematic and widely-publicized version, the “renaissance men” of the 21st century, a new breed of optimized, efficient, neurally-hacked, cyborgian, and financially successful mavens. Whether through microdosing or heroic doses, they have achieved states of enlightenment while tripling their crypto portfolios, learning a rare form of Himalayan tantra, acquiring new languages, starting successful tech companies on the side, and remastering Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Surely, the world must need more of such people.

We are not writing this article to simply unleash a scathing critique of the ambitions and vision of the new “psychedelic elite.” We actually believe nobody, including ourselves, is off the hook. Almost all of us who have been born into and embedded within capitalist modernity have been raised with the subject/object split fully intact—our engagement with pretty much anything (things, plants, people, relations, you name it) is through consumption and commodification of the “other,” guided by perceived self-interest. Whether that manifests as techno-utopianism or self-care and ‘personal growth’ projects is secondary. What is primary is that we want to extract something from the plants (and their traditional guardians and knowledge keepers—the Indigenous peoples) that will benefit ourselves. 

Our engagement with pretty much anything (things, plants, people, relations, you name it) is through consumption and commodification of the “other,” guided by perceived self-interest.

In this article, we are trying to understand the contours and contradictions of our relations with the sacred (entheogenic) plants and medicines and their guardians and keepers, so we can better navigate the complex ethics of what it means to engage with them (plants and people) in ways that are more collectively and historically accountable, contextually-sensitive, and geared toward collective (planetary) well-being and interruption of problematic (neo-colonial) extractive and consumptive behavior. Rather than consuming these medicines as a salve or fix for the troubles of modernity, perhaps the desire for deeper communion with plant teachers, informed by a more structural understanding of modernity, may help contribute to a different kind of birthing environment. 

Progress as a Single Arrow

One of the most powerful stories used to describe changes in global human society throughout time is the single story of progress, development, and human evolution. In this story, humanity is portrayed as constantly progressing (evolving) from “primitive” (poor, violent, lacking technology, un-educated) to more modern, “civilized” (wealthy, peaceful, technologically advanced, educated) forms. 

The very words of progress, development, evolution, and their counterparts, such as renaissance, enlightenment, and modernity, all originate from Western European traditions and, as such, have been mutated to become the modern universal blueprint for social, economic, political, cultural, and other evolutions to be imposed upon the world. This imposition is rationalized by the idealized historical trajectories of Western European societies. Since it worked for us, it must work for everyone. Reality musn’t get in the way of a good story.

Artwork by Hiller Goodspeed for DoubleBlind Issue No. 8

Throughout the period of colonialism, which, in different forms, continues to this day, and is more aptly described as on-going coloniality, the dominance of this single story spread across the globe and was violently foisted upon those deemed “non-modern” or less than fully human, according to the hierarchical standards set by the leaders of Western modernity. Within this modern/colonial imaginary, everyone that is not white and not ascribing to the same dominant beliefs, knowledge, and value systems of Christian Europeans and their colonial descendants is deemed as lacking full humanity. Education and mass media continue to perpetuate and legitimize the assimilation and annihilation of all non-modern modes of existence. 

Within this single story of progress, modern Western societies are presented as the pinnacle of human evolution and set as the example that all other societies should emulate. The idea of modernity allows for no co-existence of any other ways of being, knowing, sensing, and relating to the world, which is particularly visible when taking account of the extreme violence exercised against Indigenous peoples, minorities, global South communities, and peoples-of-culture across the globe. 

At best, alternatives to modernity are seen as quaint and exotic and thus should be made available for consumption, commodification, and exploitation. At worst, they are “primitive” and thus unworthy of continued existence—or even dangerous and, therefore, in need of active annihilation. The only plurality of existence allowed within modernity is the one that offers no challenge to modernity’s main constitutive elements.

The House that Modernity Built

The education philosopher Vanessa Andreotti and her colleagues in the activist collective Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures use the metaphor of the ‘house of modernity’ as shorthand to describe modernity as a way of being, seeing, desiring, and relating to the world. The house is grounded on the foundation of separability between humans and nature (anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism). This foundation supports the wall of the nation-state on one side (the supreme legal authority and mediator of relationships), and universal reason on the other (humans have the ability to conquer and understand all knowledge). These walls are sheltered by the roof of global capitalism

Through centuries of consumptive, extractive drive for economic growth and power, the resource-intensive needs of the house of modernity have now exceeded the capacity of the planet to continue sustaining itself and have driven countless beings to death and extinction. In other words, we took and keep taking more than our share, destroying the ecosystem and ecological equilibrium of the world as we know it. The drive for unsustainable growth and consumption, which is inherent to the functioning of the house, is subsidized and maintained by violence against humans and non-humans “elsewhere.”

At this point in the text, you may be wondering why this historical and sociological, somewhat moralizing crash course is part of an article on the psychedelic renaissance: That’s great. We, as authors, are similarly wondering why conversations about topics such as ecocide, genocide, colonialism, imperialism, Indigenous rights and rights of non-human beings so rarely, if ever, are a part of conversations about the psychedelic renaissance. 

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You may be wondering why this historical and sociological, somewhat moralizing crash course is part of an article on the psychedelic renaissance: That’s great. We, as authors, are similarly wondering why conversations about topics such as ecocide, genocide, colonialism, imperialism, Indigenous rights and rights of non-human beings so rarely, if ever, are a part of conversations about the psychedelic renaissance. 

We are asking this, and other similar questions, mainly because for many people, and especially for many Indigenous people—the entheogenic plants’ and medicines’  traditional keepers and guardians—the so-called psychedelic renaissance is potentially bringing more harm than good. Historically speaking, when the West enters a period of “renaissance” it tends to steer toward colonialism and massive exploitation, dispossession and genocide. At least that was what happened the last time around—during the European renaissance and Enlightenment periods. 

What is critical to remember is that the shadows of modernity (including destitution, dispossession, genocide, ecocide) are constitutive (necessary for the existence of) modernity’s progress, which manifests as economic prosperity, well-being, and social stability for some at the expense of others. So, if someone is gaining something (extracting profit), such as the psychedelic self-care industry in the West, then somebody else, somewhere else, is being exploited. So then the question becomes: Who and where are they, how are they being exploited, who benefits from this exploitation, and by what means and mechanisms (legal and otherwise) is this allowed? Just because there are no visible costs doesn’t mean that there aren’t any—it just means we can’t see them (yet) or that we are (un)consciously making sure that we are not looking at them.

The Four Denials

Capitalist modernity is maintained and sanctioned by the majority of people through  what the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective calls “the four denials.” These denials perpetuate the belief that modernity can ultimately deliver solutions to the problems it has created and that modernity is still the best and only game in town. Here is a brief summary of each denial:

1. The denial of systemic violence and complicity in harm—the fact that our comforts, securities, and enjoyments are subsidized by expropriation and exploitation somewhere else.

2. The denial of the limits of the planet—the fact that the planet cannot sustain exponential growth and consumption.

3. The denial of entanglement—our insistence in seeing ourselves as separate from each other and the land, rather than “entangled” within a living wider metabolism that is bio-intelligent.

4. The denial of the depth and magnitude of the problems that we face as a human species.

Embodying these four denials makes it possible for us to continue investing our hope in simplistic solutions that make us feel and look good, but ultimately they fail to address the fundamental underlying systemic issues. They are also making it possible for us to keep turning away from the difficult and painful work of acknowledging the reality, depth and, magnitude of the predicament we find ourselves in, of being in the here and now of omni-present systemic violence and unsustainability, rather than in the there and then of an imaginary better future, fueled by “renaissance people” and their plant allies.

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The Denials in Practice

Modernity’s ambiguous relationship with the “other” is extremely visible in its relationship with entheogenic plants and their traditional and ancestral custodians and guardians, Indigenous peoples. When entheogenic plants are seen as potentially beneficial to modern societies by making people more functional within modernity (more willing to accept the world as is, more efficient at work, etc.), they are embraced wholesale with tremendous investments in research, production, and marketing. When they are seen as a potential threat to the existing social order, they are demonized, criminalized, and severely persecuted. 

The tremendous drive and hunger for profit-making and commodification of these sacred medicines has been nowhere more visible, perhaps, than in the enormous “cannabis boom” in Canada and the US, where billions of dollars in investment poured into cannabis start-up companies almost overnight, once legalization took place. The global cannabis market is projected to grow tenfold between 2020 and 2028, according to a report by Fortune Business Insights. Contrast this with the demonization and persecution of cannabis and other entheogenic plant users that took place for many decades under the framework of the global “War on Drugs.” Cannabis growers became entrepreneurs overnight, while many of the original growers remain criminalized or unable to compete in the new market. 

Artwork by Hiller Goodspeed for DoubleBlind Issue No. 8

A similar ‘boom’ is happening now with psilocybin mushrooms, however, arguably because of the greater disruptive potential of deep entheogenic work, drug development companies, and even some government-funded programs, such as one supported by the US Military’s research arm, DARPA, are already looking for ways to harness the therapeutic potential of these compounds, while removing their most important transformative effect—entry into altered states of consciousness and non-consensual realities. 

Governmental investments pale in comparison to the private capital that is pouring into psychedelic research. For example, Atai Life Sciences, a Germany-based start-up company, whose mission is to develop “psychedelic and non-psychedelic compounds for various mental health indications” raised more than $2 billion in private capital. The company is exploring research on multiple new drugs in collaboration with other partners. The company is backed by Peter Thiel, the founder of Palantir Technologies, a big data analysis company that was originally created to provide services to US military intelligence and police agencies. We have not even felt the first consequences and implications of private/corporate ownership and patenting of newly-developed psychedelics, with specifically designed properties (devoid of their spiritual/visionary component) aimed at placating the increased (and arguably justified) anxiety and depression that is rampant among an ever-greater number of people. What is clear, however, is that whoever holds the patents of any substance will control the form, price, and scale of delivery.

The original plants and medicines that these companies—alongside dozens of others—are using for development of their synthetic products and treatments, have been used and cultivated by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. There have been attempts by a few Western pharmaceutical and biotechnical companies to partner with Indigenous peoples to modify the plants they have responsibly stewarded and/or offer them compensation, but this pales in comparison to the number of companies who have not and, while a step in the right direction, is negligible relative to the exploitive history of the modern pharmaceutical industry since its inception.

The denials of violence, limits, entanglements, and depth are immense and incalculable. 

Alternative Approaches: The Five D’s

Most of us probably would not be alive today if, through theft and trade, Western colonizers had not acquired free access to the genetic materials of thousands of plants and animals that now make up a significant portion of our diets and pharmacopeia—and that have been protected, and cultivated by different Indigenous nations over millennia. Of course, none of the Indigenous scientists (medicine people, pajes, shamans, curanderas, healers) ever came up with absurd notions such as patentable intellectual property or private ownership. 

There may be many reasons why this never happened, but perhaps one explanation, which can be validated by any semi-experienced entheogenic practitioner, is that when one achieves deep non-ordinary states of being, one can remember that being entrusted with such knowledge is a gift from the larger planetary metabolism outside the skin-encapsulated ego. As such, plant-derived knowledge should be treated as a sacred gift and medicine that must be shared freely and responsibly for everyone’s benefit, rather than something that we hold onto for ourselves or make others pay for. 

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Rather than looking to markets as our guides or the ethics of life-destroying modernity as the default morality, we could take lessons from the Indigenous peoples as ethical guides in their stewardship of plants and places. What would this mean in practice? We do not claim to know what would be required, but our starting place would be to ask the Indigenous peoples and the relevant communities most affected by the commodification of plants on how to proceed in collaboration with them. Not in linear order, but relatedly, we could, for instance, look to support the Indigenous nations in their struggles to protect their traditional lands, which both sustain them and are the natural habitats of many entheogenic (and non-entheogenic) plants and other beings.

We could look into the possibilities of historical reparations for the harms done and engage in the difficult work of reconciliation (if such a proposition can even be considered) and the repairing of relations, which essentially means learning to clean up the colonial mess that we have created, inherited, and continue to benefit from. It also means learning to respect each other’s full humanity (the good, the bad, the ugly, and the messed up) and the integrity and legitimacy of worldviews and cognitive-relational frameworks entirely different from our own. Maybe then, we could hope for different starting conditions than those that exist now, but there are no guarantees, and looking for certainty, “success,” and “positive outcomes” will sabotage even the most generative attempts.

From a legal perspective, we could shift our gaze from legalization, which is the market signal for commodification, to decriminalization. This would allow those who work in support and cultivation of these plants to do so without legal recourse and without the machinery of the corporate-state nexus underwriting the extraction and expansion of psychedelics. It goes without saying that any attempts toward decriminalization must focus upon the needs of Indigenous communities and be in solidarity with the traditional wisdom carriers of each plant.

All the while, we need to continue deepening the work of decolonization of mind, heart, body, and spirit, or at least start with it, if we have not yet tried. As “A Collective Call for Accountability in Plant Medicine Experiences,” an important piece by the network “Teia das 5 Curas” published on Chacruna reminds us: “Our modern addiction to consumption (of stuff, experiences, relationships, self-care, knowledge, and even critique) still drives our engagements with the plants and prevents us from fully accessing their teachings.” This work is continual and discursive, feeding upon itself, allowing us to deconstruct our dominant beliefs in service to an emergent symbiosis with life, and life-centric models. 

Artwork by Hiller Goodspeed for DoubleBlind Issue No. 8

This work also requires that we spend time contemplating our beliefs, our first principles. Do we continue to blindly assume the future will carry on as an extension of the past? Have we implicitly adopted universal notions of progress as an arrow, and are not even aware of it? If we believe modernity will continue as it is, perhaps the existing model makes sense. But if modernity as we know it is coming to an end, as climate science, economics, ecology, earth systems science, cultural anthropology, and collapsology (and intuitive common sense) are teaching us, then how do we proceed in changing the very nature of our relationship with the plants and their guardians and keepers? This requires a profound change in the way we imagine ourselves and our role in the world. It starts by removing ourselves from the center.

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When it comes to organizational structures working in psychedelic spaces, we could encourage more decentralized forms, from worker-owned cooperatives to traditional guilds and gifting circles in service of bio-regional sovereignty, without a profit-first orientation. Such experiments, while imperfect and provisional, are nevertheless necessary, because the forms of how we organize ourselves and the cultural environments that are created by the people who work in the psychedelic space, are as important as the content of what they do. And the manner, form and space from which we approach any subject is as important, if not more important, than the subject of our approach. One of the first things about manners is that we need to start learning to ask for permission for what we do from those that have been doing this much longer than we have.

The five d’s of dialogue (without entitlement or expectation), de-commodification (which requires re-imagining the borders of self and other), decriminalization (rather than legalization), decolonization (of heart, mind, body, and soul), and de-centralization (of organization forms) are starting points for deeper discussion and reflection amongst practitioners. We see them as guideposts in our dialectic work of contemplation and action, not a heuristic by which to tick boxes or feel self-satisfied. 

The Will of Plants

Contrary to popular Western belief, in Indigenous understandings, entheogenic plants are not supposed to rock you into some blissful, comforting embrace of an ever-loving, ever-giving universe that will make you feel good about yourself or the world you live in, or to help people re-experience the child-like “lantern consciousness” of primordial awe, wonder, and joy, as author Michael Pollan puts it. According to Indigenous teachings, the entheogenic plants are here to help people grow up and sober up—and get them ready to start facing their own and the collective trauma that they have historically inherited. They are here to help facilitate the deep, and often difficult and painful work of maturing and owning up to our roles in the world, not to lead us in regression exercises of womb-like comfort or infantile reassurance. 

A responsible and accountable engagement with sacred plants and medicines is not about self-realization, self-aggrandization, self-creation, self-expression, self-validation or anything else that may be the devotional goal of Western well-being. It is more about getting over ourselves, our ideas of what constitutes the self, of where we end and someone or something else begins. It is about moving deeper into the Earthly realms, outside self and culturally-created delusions. Of course, this is a lifelong task with no end, but it has the worthy direction of moving beyond a primordial sense of innocence and joy (the self-help industry’s equivalent of the Garden of Eden). Perhaps, it behooves practitioners to ask the Indigenous elders what the trip is supposed to be about in the first place, but also for them to be aware that they may not understand what they are being told and that no authorities are definitive.

A responsible and accountable engagement with sacred plants and medicines is not about self-realization, self-aggrandization, self-creation, self-expression, self-validation or anything else that may be the devotional goal of Western well-being. It is more about getting over ourselves, our ideas of what constitutes the self, of where we end and someone or something else begins.

It would also serve us well to be in deeper dialogue with the plants themselves and the animate planet of which they are a part. Humility rather than hubris as a starting point may change the directionality of outcomes, but, of course, it will not change the structure of the house.

If the plants and fungi are supposed to change the world, then this transformation will have to begin by listening to what they and their traditional ancestral custodians are saying to us. What is it that they are suggesting that we should or should not do? We should also not feel entitled to receive an answer or be educated by those that the dominant culture has marginalized and terrorized for more than 500 years. 

Rather than claiming some certain victory of progress, a renaissance that has already come, we have suggested that perhaps we first start with acknowledging the context of capitalist modernity. By contemplating the house in which we live, we can better understand the structures and characteristics of the broader system that we inhabit and that inhabit us—somatically, cognitively, culturally, spiritually, epigenetically, memetically, etc. 

By deepening our reflection on the times we live in and what they are doing to us, we will at least question, even for a moment, the trajectory of modernity and where we cast our will and resources. Do we want to contribute to the “expansion of markets?” Do we willingly accept the dogma of “more is better” and its alibi of “we can help more people?” Will we continue to impose on and assimilate other beings, assemblages, and ecosystems—including plant teachers, psychedelics, and other allies—into the industrialized, globalized, corporate supply chain of extraction and consumption? Are we entitled to these plants in service of our “self-realization?” What if the manner by which we approach is more important than what we approach? How do we contribute to reciprocity when we engage with plant teachers and their ancestral custodians?

Perhaps we will start to question whether we want to force “more” into the house of modernity. And indeed, if we would rather contribute to the conscious dismantling of its edifice in deeper service to the living world. 

Perhaps our roles are to learn how to be hospice workers, helping to transition the world away from obsolete ways of knowing, being, and seeing rather than taking on the old roles of missionaries of market expansion. What skills will be required to become well-versed in hospicing modernity? What will we have to unlearn from the dominant culture of destruction and the relentless promise of progress as an arrow?

We are not suggesting that there are tidy answers or final outcomes to these questions. Rather, by reflecting on our predicament, interrogating the dominant culture’s proclamations, and re-casting our gaze, we may be able to become more contextually sensitive to our time of crisis, and as a result, we may become more contextually-relevant

At least for us, this is a more compelling proposition than being crowned an entrepreneur of ingenuity, rewarded for entering the field of commodification soon enough to “gain market advantage.” This does not necessarily mean we can stop others from doing so, but we can invite more people into the shared practice of becoming death doulas for modernity, to deepen our inquiry on how to let go of outmoded ways of thinking, being, and sensing. We can then start to face the world as it is, in its full shadow and full light, in order to move more responsibly and with more accountability, to navigate the inevitable transitions so that other, more viable, but still unimaginable, pathways may emerge.

*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Magazine Issue 8

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