What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 43 Richard Heinberg

June 8, 2021

Show Notes

Richard Heinberg is an author, Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, and widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost educators on the need to transition society off fossil fuels. His forthcoming book, POWER: LIMITS AND PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL is now available for pre-order.

Since 2002, Richard has spoken to hundreds of public, government, and business audiences around the world, and has made countless appearances on radio and television. He is the award-winning author of fourteen books and a recipient of the Atlas Award for climate heroes (2012) and the M. King Hubbert Award for Excellence in Energy Education (2006).

He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • That there are many definitions of power – energy transfer, ability, authority, domination.
  • That the adoption of fossil fuels was the most consequential event in human history – providing many benefits, but at enormous cost of climate change, resource depletion, pollution and crowding out other species.
  • That we have to relearn and apply the wisdom of power self-limitation, “in a way that enhances our experience of life”.
  • That “native cultures, indigenous cultures, had ways of conserving resources and sharing resources and preventing some people from getting a lot more powerful than others.”
  • That today’s social fabric is woven of vertical social power, whereas pre-agricultural societies were characterized by horizontal power of “we can all do this together”.
  • That we need to consider: “How do we use power responsibly, in order to overcome some of these unhealthy systems of power that have gotten out of control?”


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Vicki Robin

Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute where we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking each one of them our core question: With all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? Our guest today is the wonderful and dear old friend Richard Heinberg. He is the author of 13 books, the first of which, “The Party’s Over: The Oil War and the Fate of Industrial Societies”, was my inspiration in 2004 when I read it, to turn my attention toward relocalization as a strategy for claiming a better future. Eventually I joined him on the board of the Post Carbon Institute, where he is a Senior Fellow in Residence, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for the shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He has authored scores of essays and articles that have appeared in multiple journals and on many websites. He has delivered hundreds of lectures on energy and climate issues to audiences in fourteen countries, addressing policymakers at many levels, from local and city council members, to the European Parliament. He has been quoted and interviewed countless times and has appeared in many films and television documentaries. He remains through all of this a truth teller, a sweet, humble and honest man, and delivers this message of our trajectory towards civilizational collapse in a good spirit and directly. He’s a treasure for all of us who want to see more clearly, act more courageously, and serve the common good. So here’s my interview with Richard.

Vicki Robin

Welcome, Richard, to What Could Possibly Go Right? In 2020, I brought that question to cultural scouts to help us see through the confusion of the rolling crises into what little green shoots might be sprouting, that we could cooperate with. So here we are in 2021. I feel like we’re just emerging from the category five storm of a year, and entering a time of naming and claiming the new normal. It’s sort of an opening again, even though the pandemic still rages, and of course, we’re now facing into the very bigger headwinds of the climate disruptions. But it’s an opening again, to choose a different future. So I’m asking my guests to tell us what possibilities are already present that we might now energize. Your book names and claims a bold possibility in the realm not of whizbang tech or a New Green Deal, but with something catching hold in collective self-awareness. In a way, it feels like the 60s have grown up. 50 years of seeing the problems in developing prototypes, and then a year of revelations that we really can’t keep going to where we’re going. So here we are. Over to you, Richard. What could possibly go right?

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Richard Heinberg

It’s great to be speaking with you, Vicki. First of all, thank you for inviting me, and thank you for doing this wonderful podcast series. Everything I say is going to be based on my new book, which will look something like this. This isn’t the actual book, but it’s kind of what the book will look like. “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival” is the title and it’ll actually be out in September. It’s kind of the capstone on my career as an author. It’s a big book, like 400 pages. I’ve been working on it for years. It’s kind of the whole enchilada, and people warned me not to write a book like this; that this kind of big picture book, there’s no market for it anymore, and you should write something on a very specific problem and what are the specific solutions to that specific problem. That’s kind of not where I am right now. I said, the heck with it full speed ahead, down the torpedoes. And here we are.

So the book is about power, which is a very familiar word. We all use the word all the time and very few of us really stop to think what it actually means, how to even define power. Physicists define power very simply and clearly as the rate of energy transfer. So because that’s a clear definition and it’s measurable, I started with that and looked at how power evolved, starting with the very first cells 4 billion years ago in their processes of energy transfer and through the evolution of life.

Another definition of power is the ability to do something. What do we do with energy? We do stuff. Energy is what enables us to do stuff. So the ability to move, to digest, to reproduce, to deceive, to communicate, to organize socially; all of these things, all of these abilities were developed by organisms long before humans came along. Actually, my compulsion in writing the book was to answer three very specific questions.

First: How has our species, just one out of millions, come to dominate the whole biosphere?

Second: How and why have we come to oppress one another in so many ways and to such degrees that have very few parallels in the rest of nature?

And the third question, of course, is: Can we change our relationship with power somehow to avoid what could otherwise be a pretty bleak future?

Of course, looking at the evolution of power, it’s very clear that there were specific turning points where everything changed; the origin of life, human beings and the acquisition of language and toolmaking, and so on. Then grain agriculture, and the origin of the first states, which had full-time division of labor and slavery, and extreme division of labor between women and men, and all that that entailed, and so on. Then, most recently, the advent of fossil fuels.

Again, from a measurable standpoint, in terms of the amount of energy used per person and the number of people on the planet, just about anything that you can measure, this last one that has just happened in the last couple of hundred years, the adoption of fossil fuels, has been more consequential than anything that’s happened up to this time. I mean, you could probably go back in biological evolution to the origin of cyanobacteria or something like that and make a case, but certainly, since the origin of human beings, there hasn’t been anything that has affected our species and our environment as much as the adoption of fossil fuels. We are familiar with the benefits of fossil fuels that enable us to travel cheaply and communicate over long distances quickly and all this stuff that we enjoy now. But the costs are enormous. It’s not just climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, crowding out other species, environmental pollution of various kinds, much of the worst of which is from microplastics which are made from fossil fuels and other kinds of chemicals produced by fossil fuels when we burn them or extract them. So it’s hard to overstate the level of peril that faces us this century as a result of the accumulating consequences of our reliance on fossil fuels.

So your question: What could possibly go right? Well, it’s going to have to come… And this is really the core message of the book. It’s going to have to come from a change in our relationship with power. Fossil fuels have given us more power than anything before. Some of us have enjoyed a lot more power than the rest of us. The scale of inequality among human beings, economic inequality, has grown dramatically, especially in the last few decades, because we’re producing so much wealth and that wealth is ultimately coming from nature, but then it gets processed through the human social pyramid and ends up mostly with the folks at the top of that pyramid.

So we face social and economic peril, as well as environmental peril. The only way we’re going to deal with that is to find ways to moderate our power. There are a lot of people out there who are saying, Oh no, we can’t do that. It’s impossible, because we human beings are power hogs, and we enjoy all this power and we do such great things with it, and that’s what makes us human, so we just have to find ways of using our power more responsibly, while we keep getting more and more of it. You know, we’ll build solar panels and wind turbines, but economic growth will still continue to grow our population and everything. I’m sorry, but that’s not a solution.

We have to change our relationship with power itself. Part of the book is a description of how that actually happens in nature. It’s not something we can’t do. Human beings have done it from time immemorial. Native cultures, indigenous cultures, had ways of conserving resources and sharing resources and preventing some people from getting a lot more powerful than others. A lot of those self-limits on power, fell away over the course of history as we developed grain agriculture and so on, especially once we got to fossil fuels. Because with fossil fuels, it’s like, Limits? What limits? Limits to soil productivity? Well, just throw some energy at it. You know, limits to some natural resource? We’ll just throw more energy at it, and we’ll dig deeper and find lower grade ores, and just spend more energy in processing them and transporting them; we can solve all human problems, because we have so much cheap energy.

Well, guess what? If energy isn’t cheap and abundant in the future, and I think it won’t be, that’s not going to work anymore. So again, we have to change our relationship with power. We have to really learn the lessons of power self-limitation, that indigenous cultures and other species and ecosystems have spent thousands of years and in some cases, millions or billions of years, in developing. If we do so – this is when I’m getting now to the very end of the book – if we do that, we could find other things to do with our outsized human abilities of language and tool use, that would actually make us a lot more happy and give us much more interesting lives. Because power isn’t just about agglomerating more resources and lauding it over everybody else. Nature uses power in so many instances, to create beauty. Nature is intentionally beautiful. You go outside and you look at the flowers and beautifully colored birds and listen to them singing. They’re trying to be as beautiful as they possibly can, because that’s their strategy for reproduction and survival. We human beings have that bug too, you know. We are amazing aesthetic creatures. Almost everything around us is designed and made to be as pleasurable as possible, so we’re really good at that. Well, guess what? We could get even better at it, especially if we didn’t indulge in aesthetic decadence, which is my term for artistic creation that’s specifically for commercial purposes. There’s more about that in the book, too.

Vicki Robin

I wonder about so many things of what you’re saying. I’m just gonna like, popcorn some topics that are floating around what you said. So number one: Even before we found fossil fuel, we found money, right? We found a debt-based money system that we could go into debt to enable ourselves to exploit more, and then with the productivity of what was exploited, we would pay off the debt. So we have a fossil fuel system, but we also have this money system. Maybe it’s the same thing? Maybe money is a source of power that we discovered, that was completely intoxicating; that debt is an intoxication. Like, I don’t have to have the money, I’ll just go do it. The future will take care of it. So there’s a piece of that.

Then there’s another piece of religion. I had the privilege over 20 years ago of being in a delegation that was with the Dalai Lama for four days. The last day, I asked him a bold question, saying we wonder about why the Germans didn’t do something. They saw the trains going by, and they probably knew at some level, but they didn’t do anything. I said, What are the trains that are going by now? And I thought it was going to be something about climate or I thought it would be something else. He said, It’s the loss of spirituality. So in a way, the word religion holds, whether it’s the golden rule or the social cohesion or our obligations to one another. So there’s an element here, an element of beauty you’re talking about. There’s also an element of human bonding. It’s like consumerism has broken all the bonds. Of course, the pandemic has potentiated separation. Here we are on Zoom. I mean, the brilliance of what you’ve done is you’ve created a central column that allows us to ask ancillary questions.

Then the third thing. The first one was about money; the second one was about love and religion. Then the third thing is more about leverage points. Where do you see right now, if we were to be able to jump on something that would spring this vision that you have into the public sphere; where are the leverage points right now that people could act on or could energize or could cooperate with.

Richard Heinberg

Oh, there’s so much I could say about the three questions you just asked. Money, first of all, I’m going to make this as brief as possible. Economists tell us that money is a neutral medium of exchange, and that’s crap. Money is storable, transferable, social power. We all know that intuitively. It’s a fact of our lives. So we have to start treating it that way. That means if we’re going to limit power for the survival of society and nature, that means we have to start thinking about limits on money and debt, and the use of money and debt and demonetizing society in various concrete ways. Enough about that now. There’s a lot on that subject.

Vicki Robin

A huge amount, yeah.

Richard Heinberg

Then, religion. Religion has served very, very different purposes in human societies over the millennia. With the origin of empires roughly 3,000 years ago, religion became a moralizing force in human society. It hadn’t served that purpose before. It wasn’t in shamanic cultures, hunter-gatherer cultures. It wasn’t about morality; it was about reconnecting with the spirit world, and the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and contacting the powers of nature and all that stuff. Morals? Nothing. But with the advent of empires, suddenly if you could implant a moral watcher in everybody’s head, then that created the kind of cooperation that you needed with these huge, far-flung societies with people speaking different languages and coming from different cultural backgrounds and so on. And that promoted trade, because if you knew the person you’re trading with worships the same moralizing big God – and you can be sure of that because they have to do costly personal public professions of faith by going to church and tithing and doing all these things – then you know you can trust them in a business deal. So religion suddenly served a new function. I think it’s going to have to mutate again in our time, so that it reconnects us with community and nature, in a way that it’s currently failing to do. I don’t want to give away religion altogether, because it’s part of who we are; our spirituality is part of who we are. In fact, I think it could play an enormous role in future human cultures in, again, giving us things to do that actually enhance life, rather than dividing it up and turning it into tokens of power. What was the third question?

Vicki Robin

I’ll tell you the third question in a second. I think that, for me, religion as an institution is an institution of control and empires. But there is also a religious sentiment. There is also that, whether you call it interiority, whether you call it affection or bonding. There’s something in humans that is awakened in smaller scale societies where we have a debt of love to one another. Anyway, I think that there’s a lot more to it than systems of control, and that interior dimension that people are accessing through meditation, that may be an ally for us. I just wanted to put that in. The third question is allyship. Really, what can we ally ourselves with right now? Where are the promising leaders that people may or may not recognize, where we could go like, Okay, fine. Here we are at 2021. What could possibly go right? Show me where I can step in your framework.

Richard Heinberg

First of all, applying this understanding and wisdom about self-limitation of power, applying that in our own lives, and doing so in a way that enhances our experience of life. But second, more in a political sense, I think it’s really important right now that all of us who understand that power has gotten out of bounds, whether it’s the social power of great wealth, or the power of nuclear weapons to destroy the world, or the power of fossil fuel companies, or the power of humanity to overwhelm other species; we each have different concerns and different levels of concern about the way we see the world going wrong and coming apart. This needs to be an anti-collapse coalition. All of these folks need to be appreciating one another’s perspectives and working together. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s much chance. If each of these interest groups is just pursuing its own, “this is what’s really important… no, no, you got it all wrong. It’s not about Black Lives Matter, it’s really about saving the whales” or vice versa, I’m afraid we’re not going to accomplish much.

Vicki Robin

Yeah, we’re gonna have to walk and chew gum and play ukulele or violin. Another thing that occurs to me is people sometimes put this in the framework of patriarchy; a post-patriarchal society. Now, it may not be the right little tom-tom. But the vision beyond that is partnership, that we create a partnership society and there’s roadmaps for partnership. There’s roadmaps, like intersectionality; that big word intersectionality, which I’ve never bonded with, but it says, Look, all of these different issues. We’re all sort of dealing with this one big thing which Richard has now labeled, how power functions in running through the living systems of the planet. Regeneration is another word. What you’re saying is that we need to start to recognize that post-patriarchal partnership society, solidarity, regeneration; that somehow or another, we need to start creating a language, that we need to be able to almost like speak into being this possibility of another purpose for humans. Am I hearing you right?

Richard Heinberg

Yeah, absolutely. And it all fundamentally comes down to power and how we understand power. For the last 5,000 years, we’ve been living under systems of vertical power, which is where a few people get to tell other people what to do by way of threats and bribes. That bribe can be a paycheck. The threat can be laws. On and on, our whole social fabric is woven of various forms of vertical social power. It wasn’t always this way. Pre-agricultural societies are generally characterized more by horizontal power, that’s where the basic message is we can all do this together. There are some forms of authority, but they’re situational authority based on demonstrated skill in a particular area. If somebody knows a lot about herbalism, then if somebody else is sick, you’re going to go to the person who knows about herbalism to ask them. You’re not going to just try to come up with something yourself and go, Well, I should know as much as them. It’s just common sense. And that’s basically how society operated, was through this kind of common sense trust in partnership that you were just talking about. We’ve got to get back to that, but the only way we’re going to, is to address the forms of power that are currently out of whack in society. We’ve got to whack them back in.

Vicki Robin

We’ve got to whack ’em back. We got to use power. It’s a ginormous project, this sort of turning of the wheel. It’s an enormous project.

Richard Heinberg

One of the chapter subtitles in the book is, Fighting Power With Power. So it’s how do we use power responsibly, in order to overcome some of these unhealthy systems of power that have gotten out of control?

Vicki Robin

And actually, if you want to talk about hope, one of the hopeful things is that there’s so many bottom up initiatives, from the grassroots or social businesses. I mean, there’s so much bubbling up from the grassroots of ways to address power, whether it’s the Sunrise Movement, or the Movement Voter Project, or Black Lives Matter; there’s so much organizing. In the face of recognizing the danger of the dominator, there’s so much organizing going on bottom up. Perhaps that’s a pool of power, that somebody listening to this can go, I can step into any one of these grassroots movements as part of my participation in the large pool of exercising of citizen power. I’m just trying to let the picture…

Richard Heinberg

As you do that, keep your mind open to how that route to power sharing or power self-limiting can be related to what other people are doing too because that joining of hands, that’s going to be important.

Vicki Robin

Not competition, not competition for scarce resources, for scarce power called money. So one final question, and I know every question is the final one. You and I have talked a lot over the years about relocalization. Is there a scale at which you think societies can remain responsible to one another and to limits? Is scale something that you investigate?

Richard Heinberg

Yeah and partly, that’s an open question. Right now, it appears that so many of our questions, so many of our problems can only be solved at the global level by governments working together; climate change, elimination of pollution, war crimes, all these things. But as you say, a global super organism, which is what humanity has become, may not be able to persist as we self-limit power and as the amount of energy that’s available to us declines and diminishes over the next few decades. So I’m a little bit on the fence. A part of me, maybe a little more idealistic, would love to see this super organism – which currently is like a bacteria; it just wants to grow, it just wants more and more – maybe that super organism could mature through a collective awareness of limits. Maybe. Or maybe it’s that this super organism turns out to be just a very temporary social phenomenon, and we evolve past it. I don’t have a hard and fast answer to that.

Vicki Robin

It’s an epiphenomenon of the level of power that we’ve been able to accumulate to our species. It’s like a golem or something. As that superorganism is de-energized, as less power flows through because there’s less resource to keep fueling the fire, then there will be this retribalization. There will be these smaller scale human settlements and who knows? So, basically, it’s an exciting time to be alive, right? Really, the stakes are high.

Richard Heinberg

We get to reinvent everything, because we have to.

Vicki Robin

We do. We have to at every level of scale, from breakfast to the United Nations. It’s not like no rest for the weary. It’s a different thing. No lack of fun things to do for somebody who wants to contribute. Thank you so much for this heavy, heavy lifting that you’ve done for all of us, providing a framework of understanding that we can all see ourselves in and through and help us to understand our dilemma, and if not our solutions, at least our directions.

Richard Heinberg

Thank you, Vicki. Thanks for all you do and it’s always a pleasure talking with you.

Vicki Robin

Likewise, Richard. Take care.

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Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient societies, Power