The human fascination with psychedelics is nothing new. The earliest use of psychoactive plants dates back to 11,000 B.C. in Israel, with the brewing of beer, while some people theorize that the eating of magic mushrooms 20,000 years ago fostered the intellectual evolution of early humans (see: “stoned ape theory“). For Atmos, Amber X. Chen explores the current psychedelic renaissance’s effects on environmental activism, and how hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, and ancient plant medicine like ayahuasca, can stir change within individuals — and ultimately galvanize social movements.

It sounds incredibly positive on the surface, but not everyone who dabbles in such mind-altering journeys comes out the other side positively transformed. As research shows, psychedelics have enormous therapeutic potential, sure, but they also fuel right-wing movements, too (see: “‘QAnon Shaman“).

The use of psychoactive plants has its roots with Indigenous tribes, who’ve used them for healing and cultural practices for thousands of years. Before we push for the decriminalization of psychedelics and encourage their use to help stir climate activism, reports Chen, there are steps that need to be taken for these powerful, sacred plants to play a positive role in the environmental movement.

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.

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.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.