Worlds are intersecting at unexpected points these days. The latest juncture: Can street art and psychedelics like ayahuasca steer us away from abdication and help us to reclaim our planet and our health?
If art seems like a frivolous indulgence at a time of monumental global crises — climate change chief among them — artist Shepard Fairey wants you to reconsider that estimation.
What fuels the street-cum-gallerista artist is change and justice, Fairey said at a recent Live Talks LA event where he was interviewed by musician and activist Moby. “Art’s a healing thing,” Fairey told Moby, explaining that creating artwork that’s just visually pleasing is not enough for him. His work has always come from a place much deeper.
With his new book Covert to Overt, Fairey says he’s delivering a message about creating change, an “amplification” of his work that’s always been driven by a punk-rock ethos — that of a DIY entrepreneurial spirit, and an ability to infiltrate and upend the system from inside. It’s that system that desperately needs upending today as it’s not only poisoning our politics, but our people and our planet in the process. Art like Fairey’s may be only a Band-Aid on the system, but it also serves as a pointer to the unhealed wound beneath it that needs our attention in order to heal.
Seeming almost as indulgent as art in these challenging times is the notion of tending to the “self” — that ego we’re all doggedly bound to until our departure from the physical plane. But “self-healing” continues to boom in all industries, from pharmaceuticals, therapy, and self-help books, to mainstream topical indulgences in fast fashion, cosmetic surgery, and extreme diets. Where the two — art and self — meet is the surprising crossroads of necessity. Art inspires us to think bigger, deeper, and in the case of artists like Fairey (and Moby for that matter), more critically about our relationship with the world. Similarly, dialing into our own physical reality can bring profound clarity, strength, and healing — and that directs us toward our innate ability to change things, which may be why art and plant medicines including ayahuasca, play a pivotal role in the future of the human race, if not the planet.
“[W]e are undergoing a rapid evolution of consciousness as a species and visionary medicines like ayahuasca as well as chemical catalysts like LSD are crucial instruments because they can induce rapid awakening and also help people see beyond their ego and the different ideological and social constructs they are trapped in,” author Daniel Pinchbeck told me in an email.
Society helps perpetuate these “traps” Pinchbeck speaks to, and while psychedelic shamanic journeys in the Amazon may seem like the furthest thing from Fairey’s punk rock-inspired DIY attitude, they’re actually quite similar in spirit.
“If we accept that our sense of emotional well-being is dependent on having a sense of purpose during our lifetime, then it is crucially important to determine our place and role in a ‘bigger picture,’ “ Greg Graffin, author, professor, and frontman to punk rock band Bad Religion, writes in his book, Population Wars.
Often dismissed as the woo-woo excuse for rich white people to visit South American countries where ayahuasca is legal, Westerners, myself included (white, but not rich), have been making the exhausting trips into Amazonian jungles to seek council with the medicine and the shamans who administer it.
Ayahuasca is an ancient brew made up of several jungle botanicals that delivers a strong dose of DMT (dimethytryptamine), the most potent hallucinogen on the planet. People who’ve consumed ayahuasca often report powerful images, connection with “spirits,” and clear messages about their life purpose. Many also report profound reflection, a microscopic look into the self — and the wounds, be they physical or emotional, which are often holding us back. Those wounds aren’t always just about our own lives, though.
Pinchbeck wrote in great detail about his experiences with ayahuasca and other plant medicines in his seminal book, Breaking Open the Head, which helped pivot the conversation about psychedelics away from the label of reckless party drugs to their deeper psychological implications, many of which the scientific community now supports.
Pinchbeck is also not the first to come to the conclusion that there’s a distinct connection between the ayahuasca experience and our relationship to the ecological world, “I have witnessed many people receiving particular messages about the environment,” he told me, “and some have changed their lives and careers totally because of it.”
The first time Pinchbeck drank ayahuasca was in Ecuador with the Secoya tribe, and that experience was profound not just because of the experience with the medicine. “Their homeland was under assault from the oil companies. We passed huge areas where the oil companies had destroyed the forest and opened up roads, leading to farmers coming in and removing the jungle,” says Pinchbeck. “So I intimately associated the two experiences of ecological destruction and the medicine.”
My own journey to South America in 2011, which involved several ayahuasca ceremonies, was also peppered with messages from our local hosts about the impact climate change is having on the region and the world at large. Aside from industry-caused destruction, growing and hunting seasons are being altered by the weather; Rain patterns are shifting, and high up in the mountains, the tribes we met with are also noticing changes in air patterns, and in the soil quality.
“We are only just starting to realize how much harm we can do by opening up roads and stringing barbed wire through prairies, clear-cutting timber in forests, and removing alpha predators from the oceans or mountains,” writes Graffin. “Yet even after hundreds of years of thoughtless behavior, it is still possible to salvage seemingly ruined landscapes and environments.”
Moby and Fairey briefly discussed the recent climate change rally that Moby performed at in Washington, D.C. in September. The Pope was expected to attend during his U.S. visit, but his appearance was thwarted by a staunch republican blockade and threats that his safety “could not be guaranteed” at the event.
“Global warming is god’s retribution for perpetuating the myth of climate change,” Moby and Fairey joked. But there’s a truth in there: we are collectively perpetuating a myth about climate change — even if we accept that it exists — by continuing to allow its impact to go unaddressed. We’re not holding our politicians or government agencies accountable enough. And according to climate expert and author of This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein, whom the Pope has consulted with on the issue, we’re at a critical time. “[R]ight now capitalism is winning hands down,” she wrote. “It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as the excuse for putting off climate action yet again.”
In early October, the USDA said it would not be updating the Dietary Guidelines to reflect the impact livestock animals have on the planet, despite urgent warnings from the scientific community. Many point to pressure from the meat and dairy industry for the agency’s decision.
The Dietary Guidelines panel made recommendations to the agency to take into consideration climate change’s impact on our food system, and subsequently our health, specifically the role livestock animals plays in our troubled climate. Livestock production not only requires significant amounts of resources including land, fresh water, and crops such as corn and soy — there are more than 10 billion animals being raised for food in the U.S. right now — but even after all that takes a toll on the planet, animals (in particular cows and sheep) also contribute large amounts of methane back into to the environment (from belching and flatulence). Some estimates put the livestock industry at contributing nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector.
According to numerous studies, our changing climate will directly impact our health in a number of ways — from widespread food shortages, to the decreasing nutritional value of the foods we’re able to grow on a warming planet, to outright food scarcity on a major scale. Other research points to the increased spread of communicable diseases. And if we continue to indulge in eating animals (and their byproducts) we’re perpetuating climate-intensive behaviors that threaten our not-so-distant future food supply. While Moby served as the interviewer to Fairey the other evening, his position on the climate change issue is also critical: the 50-year-old musician is a longtime vegan and animal rights activist. More and more, animal rights groups are shifting focus away from animal suffering issues as the main impetus to give up meat, and point instead to the devastating environmental impact raising animals for food has on the planet. At current consumption rates, we’re literally going to eat ourselves out of a planet if we keep eating so much meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood.
Our planet is mostly ocean, and within these waters, microscopic plankton forests exist, burning off oxygen into the environment, much of which fuels our lungs. Warming temperatures, overfishing, pollution, runoff, and sewage are all taxing the planet’s waters. Life-blood to ocean ecosystems is coral, and reefs are in major trouble as a result of the changing climate. This could be the tipping point in worldwide ocean health. There are other issues, too. According to the World Resources Institute, “many countries with coral reefs have little to no sewage treatment; the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Pacific regions discharge an estimated 80 to 90% of their wastewater untreated.” And these are countries that are continuing to experience population and industry booms. As much as 25 percent of our fish stocks are regularly consuming plastic, nylon, and other manmade materials, and overfishing is throwing ecosystems and populations out of balance. When our oceans go berserk, we land-dwellers undoubtedly go with them, and not in a good way.
Despite the upset we’re causing to the natural world, it may still be our greatest healer and our most effective tool in igniting a worldwide effort to reverse climate change.
For years, scientists have been validating the importance of spending time in nature, with it providing not only mental and emotional benefits, but great physical ones too. Additionally, and most significantly, that sense of connection we get in nature is a feeling that we can’t access from our couch; we see things more clearly when we’re surrounded by crunchy leaves and earnest crickets. We know things when we’re out there that concrete and steel make us forget, things that intense experiences like ayahausca can quickly resurrect and reset.
Klein recently wrote about her visit to the Vatican for the New Yorker, and it seems the Pope himself understands the power and the role nature plays: “By asserting that nature has a value in and of itself, [Pope Francis] is overturning centuries of theological interpretation that regarded the natural world with outright hostility — as a misery to be transcended and an ‘allurement’ to be resisted.”
Klein is now extremely hopeful that this change at the Vatican will spread: “If one of the oldest and most tradition-bound institutions in the world can change its teachings and practices as radically, and as rapidly, as Francis is attempting, then surely all kinds of newer and more elastic institutions can change as well.”
Fairey says that art can also help to “reawaken a sense of wonder about our environment.” That street art has become one of the hottest art trends in recent years speaks directly to that point.
Banksy, the anonymous street artist behind the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, recently reimagined Disneyland as “Dismaland” — a dystopian pop-up exhibit in Somerset, England, pointing to the polluted state of the planet and our role in it. The unbound freedom of street art speaks directly to our growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. “I love public art because it exists where people live,” Fairey said. It’s free and it democratizes thought in a way that the rest of the art world doesn’t. One need only skim through Vogue magazine to see how painfully Anna Wintour skews art, beauty, and fashion to appease her corporate overlords, and just how that dictum runs our lives, even and especially when we’re not conscious of it.
Just like ayahausca visions have been fodder for visionary art that continue the teachings of the medicine, through artists like Fairey, Banksy, and publications like Adbusters, we’re offered contemporary visual mediums that illuminate another reality. And just as journeying with the medicine often takes us through the deepest darkness before the light, confrontational street art does much of the same thing — a menacing Andre the Giant telling you to “OBEY” on every street corner in New York City, for example, serves as a reminder that freedom is subjective in a capitalist culture. But art may just be longer lasting than plant medicine, particularly when it’s unbounded street art thick with political and cultural messaging that millions of people are seeing on a daily basis.
Psychedelics may never become as widely accepted an agent for change as art, but they are becoming less stigmatized — veterans with PTSD are experiencing successful recoveries with psychedelics and heroin and cocaine addicts are able to break their addictions with the help of psychoactive drugs. Art is also being used to combat issues like PTSD and even addiction. What’s clear is that both art and psychedelics offer us an opportunity for awakening and healing, something most of us are aching for, even if it’s not yet apparent.
“Pain for the world — the outrage and the sorrow — breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are,” explains author and activist Joanna Macy. “It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life.”
That pain for the world corresponds to the uptick in the use of antidepressants, rising obesity rates and other lifestyle-related health issues hitting record epidemic levels, and on the flipside, the mushrooming interest in, well, mushrooms and other psychoactives that can help deliver clarity about the world and our place in it. In other words, we’re all feeling that things in our lives and on our planet are out of balance, even if we’re not conscious of what’s causing it.
Some people say the planet speaks to us. My journey in Colombia with ayahuasca yielded an unexpected and profound vision from the forest itself. Obvious to me now, everything was connected there in the luminous forest night as if for the very first time the world was plugging into itself, lighting up with one undeniable current, and seeking to connect with every inch of every thing on the planet.
“I do suspect that visionary plants may be ambassadors from the plant realm and the larger community of life, sent to humanity to make us aware we need to change our ways of being,” Pinchbeck says. “I am also not sure at this point if we can awaken sufficiently in the time we have to avert our own extinction.” But, he says, “We still can try.”