A Walk Through Rat Park

written by Shari Oosting
1 · 29 · 19

This is Part 1 of a 2 part series by Ministry Incubators’ own Shari Oosting.

One of the great things about missional enterprise is how it provides an approach to wicked problems. By that, I simply refer to problems that are complex in nature, enduring over time, and resistant to simple solutions. Wicked problems include vexing systemic issues like poverty and gender violence. At first glance, rats may not have much to do with missional enterprise, wicked problems, or the Christian faith. Stick with me.

In a TED talk about addiction, Johann Hari explores an experiment performed on rats to explore the nature of addiction. Given two beverage options, water with morphine or plain water, confined rats consistently chose to consume the drug-laced water. They always overdosed, and they died as a result. One might conclude from the results that the brain is inclined toward drug use. However, one scientist noted that the rats were alone in a confined and bare space for the duration of the experiment. The scientist, Bruce Alexander, decided to change the context. He built an idyllic park for rats, surrounding them with food and balls and tunnels and mates. Within Rat Park, two beverage options were offered again, water with morphine or plain water. The scientist observed dramatically different results. Rats in Rat Park rarely, if ever, chose to drink the drug-laced water and they never overdosed. While the experiment has proven difficult to duplicate and has therefore drawn the criticism of the research and psychology communities, Hari uses this experiment and other evidence to argue that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection.

Hari’s 2015 TED talk video went viral, even though it oversimplifies the complex nature of human addiction and fails to address differences in chemical substance addiction (it is only a 15-minute TED talk, after all). Perhaps this is because he closes with a plea for unconditional love, and such a plea resonates deeply with viewers. His longing to construct a stronger social fabric got me thinking about the point of missional enterprise (For an interdisciplinary exploration of addiction, check out Addiction and Pastoral Care by Sonia E. Waters, Eerdmans 2019). Hari’s argument, intended to break down stigma and challenge society’s acceptance of the criminalization of substance abuse, is compelling. But not because the Rat Park experiment offers a simple solution to the problem of addiction, as he implies. Rather, it’s compelling because Hari was brave enough to broach a wicked problem. He was brave enough to let his assumptions be questioned and to challenge the status quo. He was brave enough to better understand how to be in relationship with a group of people whom he has found difficult to love. Hari uncovered a partial solution, to be sure, but one that could reframe the way in which people think about, criminalize, support, or holistically engage with people who are addicted. A partial solution that taught him how to love.

The Rat Park experiment and Hari’s conclusions about it brought to mind the work of Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. Yunus’s pioneering work in Bangladesh sparked the microfinance movement in the 1980s and won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. He recognized that poverty was more than a matter of not having enough money. Coined “banker to the poor”, Yunus worked to create an alternative economic system. The new bank did not simply increase access to lending for poor people. More importantly, it pivoted from a monetarily-motivated economic system toward a communally-motivated economic system – a system in which money was leveraged, but only in the context of sustained relationships, shared accountability, and social connection (To further explore the connections between economics and social enterprise, check out two podcast episodes on Princeton Theological Seminary’s podcast The Distillery. An interview with Keri Day explores neoliberalism, an underlying economic rationale leading to hyper-individuality, creating fertile ground for exploitation. An interview with Mark Sampson explores the history of missional enterprise and challenges prevalent free market economic assumptions.). Women living in poverty pooled their limited resources, formed groups of accountability, and took out micro-loans to support new small business ventures. The women who participated in micro-lending and micro-saving programs upended traditional power structures by holding ownership of the bank itself, a role they could never have held in their traditionally patriarchal society.

This creative approach to addressing poverty did not simply result in increased financial capital; it sparked an even greater increase in social capital. Just as Hari argues that a better approach to addiction is social connection, Yunus compellingly makes the case that a better approach to the complex issue of poverty is social connection. The existence of Grameen Bank did not eradicate poverty globally. But female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh did enact something new in micro-saving and micro-lending. For many women and their families, the new system allowed basic human needs for food and housing to be met consistently for the first time. This new reality had generational implications for access to food, housing, education, and enterprise. An alternative imagination not only alleviated poverty, but also created a stronger social network. It reshaped communities.

Johann Hari does not solve the problem of addiction. He does not cure addicted people. But he pushes us to imagine something new and finds a way that average people can engage in constructing a new and better reality. He goes on a learning journey in which his own assumptions are challenged. He emerges with a new posture, learning how to better love people. Muhammad Yunus does not solve the problem of poverty worldwide. But he pushes toward a new economic system in which relationships hold more sway, and money less. He takes us on a journey in which assumptions are challenged about who is a worthy participant in an economy. Grameen Bank created room for friendship to work in transformative ways within an economic framework.

Stay tuned for the next installment!

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Shari Oosting

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