Power, the Acceleration of Cultural Evolution, and Our Best Hope for Survival

December 4, 2019

These days I’m deep in the process of writing a book on power—both physical power (humanity’s power over nature) and social power (the power of some people over others). The book’s first few chapters explore the historical process by which we developed our currently awesome powers, starting with control of fire, simple stone tools, and language. Once we had these, the pace of human empowerment picked up dramatically. We didn’t have to wait for biological evolution to slowly deliver improved organs; cultural evolution could rapidly supply new ideas, behaviors, and tools—which often took the forms of prosthetic organs (such as clothing and weapons) that enabled us to take over habitat from other creatures.

While the pace of cultural evolution was much faster than that of biological evolution, major cultural innovations like the domestication of plants and animals, the creation of the first states, and the emergence of the earliest empires were still spaced thousands of years apart. However, our sudden access to the storable, portable, and concentrated energy of fossil fuels, starting roughly in the 19th century, sped up cultural evolution to the point where disruptive cultural innovations began to be separated by mere decades, sometimes just years.

One of the factors driving cultural evolution is the rebounding interaction of technology and language. Writing, the alphabet, printing, the telegraph, telephone, radio, television, internet, and social media have sped up and spatially expanded human interaction, giving us the ability to cooperate in ever larger groups, in effect granting us expanding power over space and time.

This Great Acceleration of cultural evolution is both a danger and an opportunity. I’ll explore the opportunity in a moment; meanwhile, the danger is easy to see: developments are occurring so fast that it’s hard for many people to adapt to what is already happening in our world, much less to foresee or forestall the next disruptions. At the same time, we’ve set large processes in motion that are spiraling entirely out of our control—notably, the planetary feedbacks associated with climate change.

We humans are aggregating more power, and doing so more unequally across society, than in any previous period in history. Power is good; without it, we would be powerless. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and that’s an apt way of describing the human predicament in the early 21st century.

The problem of too much power is not unique to humans, nor to this historical moment. Evolution has found many ways of preventing power from overrunning environmental limits, and human societies have evolved ways of reining in bullies and limiting extreme economic and social inequality. In my book, I propose a new bio-social principle in evolution—the Optimum Power Principle—to describe these pathways for curbing extreme power in the short run, so that total power over time can be maximized. However, strategies to avert the concentration of too much power, whether in nature or human society, are partial and imperfect. They can’t entirely prevent occasional excesses.

The only real solutions to our current extinction-level dilemmas (the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, pervasive chemical pollution, resource depletion, increasing economic inequality leading to political dysfunction, population growth, and the availability of weapons of mass destruction) involve giving up power in various forms and to varying degrees: restraining our energy usage, reducing population, leaving giant tracts of land for biodiversity recovery, and banning nuclear weapons. Given the current benefits of power and the momentum of history, that is a difficult message for many people—especially, for powerful people—to hear. That’s why advocates for this or that “solution” often take care to speak only of job creation and profit opportunities when discussing the costs and benefits of addressing our collective problems.

The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a “correction,” though not just in stock market values but also in population, consumption levels, and biodiversity. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) cultural evolution is now happening faster than ever. There’s certainly no guarantee that it will work to our advantage: the internet and social media could easily create opportunities for extraordinary levels of cooperation, but along competing lines, thereby defeating any effort to build a unified coalition of humanity willing to check its power now so that it can sustain itself and the biosphere over a much longer period.

Nevertheless, the possibility now exists for rapid shifts in human understanding and behavior—and such shifts are essential if we are to avert the worst impacts from our past and present actions and create future societies that live happily within natural limits. As I said above, our only way out of our predicament is to give up various forms of power, often to significant degrees. Humans are well acquainted with the problem of over-accumulation of power, and cultural evolution has supplied plenty of ways of solving it—from the ancient Australian Aboriginal tradition of not hunting the red kangaroo in its mating season, to trade unions and democracy, environmental regulations, and modern billionaires like Tom Steyer who say, “Please tax me.” Today’s local newspaper here in Santa Rosa, California, featured a story about crab fishermen on the Sonoma coast who are voluntarily delaying their crabbing season (thereby incurring a substantial financial loss) in order to protect migrating whales.

We humans have the innate capability to proactively reduce our own powers—and are often happy to do this, as long as we feel that the process of doing so is fair and that others are sacrificing too. That’s why rationing succeeded during World War II. This being the case, it makes sense for those of us with an ecological, systemic view of the human condition to communicate strategically about why so many crises are currently converging (too much power), and to investigate and promulgate ways to reduce energy and material consumption, as well as population, as fairly as possible. Maybe, if we’re on the side of nature and future generations, cultural evolution will give us a boost.

Richard Heinberg

Richard is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He has authored hundreds of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature and The Wall Street Journal; delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences on six continents; and has been quoted and interviewed countless times for print, television, and radio. His monthly MuseLetter has been in publication since 1992. Full bio at postcarbon.org.

Tags: cultural evolution, Power, powering down