The “maximum power principle” may sound like the doctrine of an evil supervillain, but it actually applies to all living creatures. The principle states that biological systems organize to increase power whenever constraints allow. Given the way humans adhere to this principle, especially by overexploiting fossil fuels, we often do behave like supervillains, wielding power in wildly irresponsible ways and triggering climate change, biodiversity loss, and other aspects of our sustainability predicament. Sometimes it seems like we’re using a backhoe to dig our own grave. Fortunately, once you understand efficiency and its different flavors, you can see opportunities to optimize power rather than maximize it. While considering the outlook for humanity, the Crazy Townies ponder a weird question: are we smarter than reindeer? Richard Heinberg, author of author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival, joins the team to share his research on how people can optimize power. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Asher Miller

Hi, I’m Asher Miller.

Jason Bradford

I’m Jason Bradford.

Rob Dietz

And I’m Rob Dietz. Welcome to Crazy Town where Mad Max looks like a documentary. The topic of today’s episode is the maximum power principle. And please stay tuned for an interview with our very own Richard Heinberg.

Rob Dietz

Asher, Jason, it’s that time of year where I like to hit the Oregon coast. What about you guys?

Jason Bradford

Oh, it’s so warm over there.

Rob Dietz

I wouldn’t go that far. But you know, the oceans nice, big beautiful beach. It’s just beautiful.

Jason Bradford

It’s beautiful.

Asher Miller

I want to find pirate ships out there.

Rob Dietz

This is not “The Goonies” movie, okay?

Asher Miller

You got my reference.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, well, that should usually be my special little contribution to this podcast. But anyway, I bring it up because I was thinking maybe the three of us could get out there for a little R&R, a little vacation when put the microphones down.

Jason Bradford

Little Crazy Town retreat?

Asher Miller

Can we wait till I get my second shot?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah, I’m actually scheduled as well. So I bring this up because I also want to have a competition with you guys.

Jason Bradford

Classic.

Asher Miller

Of course you do.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I like to play a game when you go to the beach, you know? It’s all that sand. You could play frisbee, you could play with the dog, but no, I want to play, “who can dig the biggest hole in an hour.”

Jason Bradford

Okay.

Rob Dietz

And what I want to play with this game, I’m gonna let each of us bring some item, some artifact.

Asher Miller

By the way, how old are we?

Rob Dietz

I don’t know. I like to be like a 12 year old when I go to the beach. Ride the waves and. . .

Asher Miller

Okay, we’ll dig holes, man. If that’s what you want to do.

Rob Dietz

So I want to invite you each to bring a tool and we’ll see who can dig the biggest hole. Jason, what are you gonna bring?

Jason Bradford

Well, I’ve got a lot of shovels to choose from. And a couple of them I’m pretty good at using so I’m just going to use a nice, sturdy shovel.

Rob Dietz

Why, you are a farmer who puts in a lot of work in the field, so . . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I’ve got muscles building.

Rob Dietz

I am a little scared of how much you can do. How about you, Asher? What are you gonna bring?

Asher Miller

I can bring anything I want?

Rob Dietz

Yeah.

Asher Miller

Okay, fine. How about a John Deere 410K backhoe, baby.

Rob Dietz

That’s pretty good. I think you –

Jason Bradford

I don’t know if I’m going to show up anymore.

Rob Dietz

Vegas is kind of far from the Oregon coast. But if I’m going there, I might lay a bet on you having a bigger hole at the end of an hour than Jason has.

Asher Miller

And we’re ignoring, you know, any restrictions, license?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, yeah.

Rob Dietz

Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. Because I’m gonna bring a Bagger 293 bucket wheel excavator.

Jason Bradford

Oh, that sounds like it’s even bigger.

Asher Miller

What is that?

Rob Dietz

It’s the biggest mining machine ever created on the face of the planet.

Asher Miller

How are you gonna get it there buddy?

Rob Dietz

Hey, details All right? Let’s not.

Jason Bradford

Logistics.

Rob Dietz

How big are we talking about? I thought I was going big..

Rob Dietz

Well, okay. I grabbed a table with some stats on it. With some horsepower and kind of sand amounts we can expect to move in an hour based on how big these things are. So let’s do a little comparison.

Jason Bradford

I’m in last place.

Rob Dietz

So Jason, how much does your shovel weigh?

Jason Bradford

I don’t know. 5-10 pounds.

Rob Dietz

Okay, how about your backhoe, Asher?

Asher Miller

Eight tons, maybe?

Rob Dietz

Oh, well, my Bagger 293 weighs 14,200 tons.

Asher Miller

Are you sure it’ll fit on the beach? Which beach are we going to?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I know. Well, it’s not going to be there for long after I start digging. Horsepower, Jason, we kind of talked about this. A trained athlete can generate about 0.35 horsepower over an hour.

Jason Bradford

I’ll be like 0.25, maybe.

Rob Dietz

Oh, I was gonna say like 0.8.

Jason Bradford

For an hour I could probably work at a quarter horsepower, I’d say.

Rob Dietz

Pretty solid.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, maybe a third.

Rob Dietz

And Asher, your backhoe?

Asher Miller

About 106 horsepower.

Rob Dietz

So Jason, you’re one person over an hour. Asher, that’s the equivalent of about what?

Asher Miller

Over 1000 people.

Rob Dietz

Over 1000 people yeah. And my Bagger 293 has over 22,000 horsepower. So I’m at over 222,000 people.

Jason Bradford

Nice.

Asher Miller

Again, I don’t think we could fit that many people on the beach. And I’m of course worried about you know, the three foot rule and all the COVID stuff.

Jason Bradford

It’s hard to do in this day and age. If we’re in Florida, we’re clear.

Rob Dietz

This is incredible. So let me run through this a little. Like the excavation, we think Jason could get about 12 cubic feet cleared out. That’s like digging a grave basically, or something like that.

Asher Miller

Working hard.

Rob Dietz

Asher, I doubt, you know, who knows? Maybe in the sand it’s not as hard to dig as soil.

Asher Miller

He’s digging his own grave.

Rob Dietz

But Asher, you could get about 3600 cubic feet. And I can get about 500,000 cubic feet. Weight wise, you know, we already said, mine is about 14,000 tons. So fuel usage. Jason, you need like a bologna sandwich.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, basically I’m going to use probably up about 300 kilocalories or something like that an hour, burnin’ through that baby.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. And Asher, over the course of an hour?

Asher Miller

About two gallons of diesel.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, you might also eat a bologna sandwich.

Asher Miller

I would, yeah. Multitask.

Rob Dietz

Well, I need a power plant that produces 16.5 megawatts.

Jason Bradford

Over an hour. So that’s a lot. So you know, you’re gonna use way more magnitude more fuel than even Asher would.

Rob Dietz

Yes, but this is actually leading us into what we’re trying to talk about today. And it’s the way that I win, because…

Asher Miller

You set this up.

Rob Dietz

Well, yeah, I chose the Bagger. Because I’m gonna win. Because, you know, you’ll have a little hole on the beach, Jason. You might have a nice trench on the beach, Asher. I can basically remove the beach.

Jason Bradford

The beach is gone.

Rob Dietz

I do want our listeners —  go look this thing up — The Bagger 293 bucket wheel excavator. We actually had it as the cover art for an episode a couple episodes ago.  Really an amazing piece of machinery.

Asher Miller

I mean, they’re pretty cheap, right? Just $100 million.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. It costs about 100 million.

Jason Bradford

Well, next year, when we do this in season four, I’m getting the Bagger 294.

Rob Dietz

Well, good luck with that. Yeah, we’ll see how that works out. Yeah, there’s actually only one of these in the world. But no, the idea that we want to explore is that it’s whoever can take in the most energy and create the most power, turn that into useful work, that kind of wins the game these days.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And that’s fine if we don’t give a shit about the consequences, right? Who cares if there’s a beach left for kids to play on?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, exactly. So what we’re really talking about here is something called the maximum power principle. And the way that it works, it’s a tendency that all living creatures follow, and all people since we’re living creatures, most of us anyway. But I want to turn it to our resident biologists to maybe dig a little deeper here.

Asher Miller

Yeah, let’s put Jason on the spot. Jason, can you define the maximum power principle?

Jason Bradford

After I sneeze. Okay, I will come to a simple definition. But a little the history. . . There was a mathematician that got into ecology, and helped ecology turn into a more mathematical discipline, Alfred Latka. So, he started developing theories around this and really got popularized a bit by an ecologist, well known ecologist from the middle 20th century, named Howard Odom. A descendant of his academically, Charley Halls, talked about this a lot. And actually, Richard Heinberg, is going to come out with a book dealing with this topic as well. And we were looking at definitions, they’ve all sort of, you know, rewritten these definitions. But our favorite we found was from a guy named John Delong, another ecologist. And very succinct and clear. The maximum power principle states that biological systems organize to increase power whenever the system constraints allow.

Rob Dietz

So basically, what he’s saying, and you guys, correct me if my interpretation is off, but the way I hear that is, depending on what’s in your environment, you as a creature out there will draw in energy as quickly as you can, and turn it into work in an attempt to basically out compete anybody else that’s out there.

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And it’s not just individuals, it’s species, right?

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Populations.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. And so our little digging competition again, I just want to re-emphasize that I’m the winner. I maximized the power.

Jason Bradford

Theoretically, even though we’re on the Oregon beach that does not have a 16.5 megawatt power plant right there. Theoretically, you were still able to do this.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Again, details. I don’t understand why you’re so focused on the details.

Asher Miller

So actually, I think the last bit there, Long’s definition, I want to pick on that a little bit. Whenever the system constraints allow? Can we talk about what we mean by constraints? Like what kind of constraints do we think we’re talking about here?

Jason Bradford

Well, this is the key point to get into. We often think about like, “Well, oh, this is an efficient system. Or trying to optimize for that or this.” And really what it is, is we’re making trade off decisions in our work, and how we design our work, and the equipment we use, etc. So when I pick a shovel, I have a very simple tool, but it’s going to take me quite a long time to do that work. So I’m very low material use. I have five pounds of shovel. I’m not using a lot of energy, my energy output is really low. It’s just me. But I’m spending time and labor. So I’m very energy and material efficient with my shovel. But I’m pretty labor intensive and time intensive compared to Rob on the other end of the spectrum.

Rob Dietz

So those are the four constraints you’re mentioning. Labor, time, energy and material.

Jason Bradford

Exactly.

Rob Dietz

I think you’re leaving out a key one.

Jason Bradford

What’s that?

Rob Dietz

Intelligence? We’re very constrained in this podcast by intelligence.

Asher Miller

But that’s actually interesting what you said, If you compare the shovel to the —

Rob Dietz

Bagger 293 bucket wheel excavator.

Asher Miller

Exactly. The Bagger 293.

Asher Miller

That puppy has minimized the labor in the time, honestly. Think about how much fucking sand you can move with that thing in a short period of time. Probably being operated, well they probably have a team —

Rob Dietz

They have a crew of five. Again, details that I didn’t want to get into. I gotta bring four buddies.

Asher Miller

But a lot of materials, a lot of energy to go into. Right?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah.

Jason Bradford

So that’s sort of . . . When people say, what’s an efficient use,  we have to really understand, okay, how are we defining efficiency? What are we defining by labor efficiency? Which, this equipment that Rob brought is very labor efficient. The backhoe is pretty labor efficient. But it’s not really energy efficient. In fact, I did some math, your table, I did some additional math on it. And I moved the most sand per unit of energy.

Rob Dietz

Wow.

Asher Miller

You got beat, buddy.

Jason Bradford

I beat you from efficiency on turns of energy.

Rob Dietz

That’s not the competition though, really. Was it? I mean . . .

Asher Miller

Yeah, right. It was our how much sand can you move.

Rob Dietz

That does remind me, we talked in a previous episode about how the bicycle is the most efficient way that people have invented to get around in terms of calories in and distance traveled. It’s basically the same thing.

Asher Miller

The problem guys, you can’t profit from that that much.

Rob Dietz

This is very true. So I mean, this gets to the idea of efficiency which is that you focus what efficiency you’re striving for, based on what’s abundant and what’s scarce. So today, when energy and materials are cheap, and abundant and easy to get to, we basically don’t give a shit. We’ll build a Bagger 293. You know?

Asher Miller

Right. We care about labor, and we care about time.

Rob Dietz

Right. Right. The example I was thinking of with time has to do with transportation. A few years back, I got invited to a conference in England, and of course, being the fuel burning ass that I am, I flew. So you know, if you fly from the east coast of the United States to London, or somewhere in the UK, what does that take, like six, seven hours, maybe? Maybe?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, maybe five, six hours?

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Well compare that to the sailing voyage of Greta Thunburg. Where remember, she was coming over to the US for a conference on climate. And she sailed from Plymouth UK to New York on a racing yacht. And it only took 15 days, right. Compare which actually feels —

Asher Miller

That was like a racing yacht?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, that was fast yacht trip across. I actually read about it. It said there was no toilet on board and no shower.

Jason Bradford

Details, details. No need to go into these details.

Rob Dietz

I was just like, wow, that’s a bare bone ship. Good for Greta.

Asher Miller

It definitely motivated them to go as fast as possible, right?

Rob Dietz

But I mean, look at the difference there, right? Like, here I’m getting this great time efficiency. And she’s obviously, because she’s a good person compared to me, is getting the energy efficiency, which is what we’re talking about, you know? We need to start looking at that.

Asher Miller

Right. And, I mean, we’ve talked about this, maybe ad nauseum. But really, a lot of this just comes back to energy, right? For most of our history, energy was scarce. It was constrained. Which means that we, you know, had to focus much more of our labor and our time on things. Things took a lot longer. Took a lot more labor.

Rob Dietz

Well, and this idea of like competing and winning. It’s easy to get in this mindset of, “Oh, I took the plane and I won. Because I got there in six hours instead of 15 days. I didn’t need to get seasick.” And that’s where the focus is.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. And, you know, what’s interesting is like, we’re kind of making jokes about this a little bit and making kind of silly jokes examples. But this has real world consequences. And actually geo-politically, people think about this in terms of power and projecting power. And it actually can come down to literally the quality of the fuels you have and your industrial production. And all that it’s tied to then, can you harness energy? So a good example  talked about among historians is World War Two, where the U.S. built up the hydroelectric dam system, during the Great Depression, right? We were putting all these installations on the Columbia River. That created this incredible electricity source for Washington, the State of Washington, and parts of Oregon as well. Which allowed them these manufacturing plants from Boeing to get established and all this aluminum manufactured. So we were able to turn out ships and airplanes in massive numbers quickly because we had this incredible electricity supply. We also had the most well developed oil industry in the world. And so we were able to turn out better fuels, higher octane, more reliable supplies, to fuel those planes and essentially, therefore fly higher, faster, longer than competing powers in World War Two. It made a difference.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, maximum power principle. If you can suck up that energy and get more resources going you can out compete.

Asher Miller

And in fact, I mean, you look at at wars broadly, but you look at World War Two specifically, and a lot of the tactical strategies were really around minimizing access.

Jason Bradford

Oh, North Africa.

Asher Miller

North Africa, Indonesia, these areas where the Japanese wanted to conquer these areas in order to have access to these resources.

Jason Bradford

The Caspian was a big area for that. Yeah, so definitely. But this also works of course, not just in humans, but in other species. So there’s really fun examples to think about. You lived in the desert in New Mexico, is that right?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I was in Albuquerque for a few years, and actually doing studies of ecosystems including the Lower Colorado River. So pretty big time desert dried down areas.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. So it’s interesting to think about like this idea, you change what you do depending on if resources or environment are scarce. And in desert, often  —

Rob Dietz

There’s plenty of sand in the desert, Jason. It’s not scarce at all.

Jason Bradford

We can have all the backhoes we want? Well, I’m thinking about different strategies, for example, for the plant, so like the cacti, right? Have these columns, and they’re green, and they’re succulent. But one of my favorite plants is the ocotillo.

Rob Dietz

That is an awesome plant. I know, you know, plants way better than I do. But those are the ones with the big, long, spindly arms. They get these beautiful red flowers on the end of them.

Jason Bradford

And what happens after a rain?

Rob Dietz

The flowers come out?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, but also they leaf out. So they have this sort of ability to just send out a bunch of leaves when there’s water. But when there’s not water, they just go bye-bye. And so again, they’re maximizing the intake of energy when the resources, in this case water, allow them to do that.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, when that constraint temporarily goes away.

Jason Bradford

Now, other animals have different stresses. So like I think of hummingbirds. So right now we have a lot of hummingbirds in our yard. And they aren’t here in the winter because it’s too cold. There are not nectar resources. These things fly from 1000’s of miles away and migrate. And they’re always just making sure they’re following where there’s a lot of plant life and young flowers and insects.

Asher Miller

Well, they should be really glad that we’re warming up the planet and that they don’t have to fly.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, let’s hang out. Actually, some things like that are happening where birds are stopping migration because they’re like, “Yeah, it’s warm enough here year round.”

Rob Dietz

You say you have hummingbirds in the yard, but I think I’m hearing redwing black birds. I don’t know if our mics are picking that up. Little bonus for today’s episode if they are.

Jason Bradford

But you think about like mammals have this constant demand and so do hummingbirds to always be burning energy. We’re warm blooded. And so mammals either have to migrate to find food sources. Think of the big migration and the savanna of those animals.

Asher Miller

Bison.

Jason Bradford

Bison and stuff.

Rob Dietz

Wildebeest, come on. Right in the Serengeti.

Jason Bradford

But some animals like bears hibernate. So they essentially say, “This is the winner. I’m going to just chill out and sleep and not burn much energy,” right? So they’re changing their power use according to when they hibernate and all that.

Rob Dietz

I feel like people are somewhere in between. I feel like I know some people who hibernate. Kind of get shut down during the winter. I wouldn’t mind doing that.

Jason Bradford

Have you ever seen a snake den?

Rob Dietz

No.

Jason Bradford

Oh, those are pretty cool. You’ll see like giant piles of snakes tucked into these dens and they’re just doing the same kind of thing. They’re just trying to keep themselves warm out of the cold and then they move out into the sun when they need to.

Asher Miller

So we’re talking about constraints. And the reason we’re bringing this up is that the constraints of energy and other material resources have been lifted temporarily for us humans. But this maximum power principle, again, does not only apply to other species in the sense of like, how they figured out how to maximize considering constraints. But other species also have gone crazy when they haven’t had constraints.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, right.

Asher Miller

And my favorite example is one that’s often talked about when people tried to illustrate the concept of overshoot, which we’ve talked a little bit about before. But I think it really applies to the maximum power principle as well. And that is the story of St. Matthew Island. You guys familiar with that story?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, a famous ecology story as well.

Rob Dietz

Tell it to me again, Daddy. Please.

Asher Miller

It’s a nice bedtime story. Cuddle up, Rob. Get your pillow and your Little Bear Bear. And I’ll tell you . . .

Rob Dietz

It’s the reindeer, right? They land on the roof and the guy in the red suit comes down the chimney.

Asher Miller

Yeah, that’s the one. That’s the one I was going to tell you about.

Jason Bradford

Okay, kids, here’s what happens where you might die.

Asher Miller

Here’s what happened to the reindeer when you leave him alone. Santa goes away.

Rob Dietz

No, it’s an amazing story, please.

Asher Miller

So back in World War Two, we’re just talking about World War Two. The U.S. Coast Guard was really worried about the Japanese attacking the West Coast, right. And we set up and down the West Coast all kinds of I mean, I think San Francisco had the most sort of, you know, coastal whatever alarm systems set up. But they decided that they needed to put some stations, U.S Coast Guard wanted to put some station outposts up in Alaska area, Bering Strait. So they set up an outpost on this little island called St. Matthew Island. Totally barren island. They set up some guys out there. They had some food supplies for them. Obviously, t’s really, really fucking cold.

Rob Dietz

Right? Yeah. And it’s like, I’m looking at a map of it right now. It’s looks like it’s basically halfway between Alaska and Asia.

Asher Miller

Sarah Palin could see it from her house. But, so they had emergency supplies, but they decided that they actually needed to bring some reindeer as well as backup in case they got iced in, no ships could come in and provide . . .

Rob Dietz

They’re going to eat Rudolph, and Donner, and Dancer.

Asher Miller

Exactly, And so they brought like 29 reindeers, like an emergency food supply for themselves. And of course, this was like in ’44. The war ended just 18 months later, or whatever it was, a year later. And they left. And they decided, well, let’s just leave the reindeer here. They seem pretty happy.

Rob Dietz

Right. They just open the pen and let them go.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And there’s a biologist who heard the story years later, like, you know, 15 years later, a dozen years later, a guy named David Klein. And he said he wanted to go see what the impact was on this island. What happened to these reindeer that were left behind? So he went there with an assistant and he discovered something insane. Right? So 29 reindeer have been left there. Guess how many were there? Just like, you know, 12 years later?

Rob Dietz

Double.

Jason Bradford

No, more than that. 1,000.

Rob Dietz

How fast do reindeer breed? That was not in my biology class.

Asher Miller

There were 1,350.

Jason Bradford

I was pretty close. I said 1,000.

Asher Miller

So about 46 times the original number. In a dozen years.

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Asher Miller

And then he came back six years later after that. He got some extra money or whatever it was he came back. 6,000.

Jason Bradford

Oh.

Rob Dietz

So what were they eating?

Asher Miller

They were eating lichen. So they had this situation where there are no predators, right?

Jason Bradford

No wolves.

Asher Miller

Nobody eating them. And they had this abundant food source. You know, reindeer, apparently like lichen. And there’s a lot of lichen there.

Rob Dietz

And the way that they fly, they could cover all kinds of distance. All over the island.

Asher Miller

Yeah, exactly. And they weren’t being put to work. You know, they were left alone. Santa wasn’t bugging them. But then, you know, Klein came back three years later, only three years later now. It went from 6,000 to 42.

Jason Bradford

Ouchy-poo.

Asher Miller

6,000 to 42.

Jason Bradford

That’s a pretty miserable 42.

Asher Miller

And there was only one male in that population.

Rob Dietz

So luckily, that male had evolved into a carnivore and was eating the other reindeer. Is that right? Is that what happened? Do I have this story straight?

Asher Miller

No matter how hard he tried to procreate, you know, the tide was against them. And, by the 80s they’re all gone. So again, this is like —

Rob Dietz

Sort of like bell bottoms. By the 80’s, they were all gone.

Asher Miller

Exactly. So you know, this is an example that people talk about with overshoot, right? This reindeer population had an abundant resource, went kind of crazy, overshot the capacity of the ecosystem. They ate all the lichen up because they had no predators to check their population. And then you know, they went essentially extinct on that island. But it is a good example of the maximum power principle when you remove constraints.  All species probably, or very many of them would behave in that way.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, they’re trying to maximize the intake of lichen in order to reproduce as fast as they can. So that sort of like the work they’re doing, right, the idea is you’re converting the energy you intake into something. And that in this case is just reproducing. Like they’re not worried about shovels or excavators. They’re basically just —

Rob Dietz

I’m thinking of these Charlie Sheen reindeer just going, “winning.”

Jason Bradford

What’s interesting to think about is theoretically lichen is a renewable resource, right? It grows. But it doesn’t grow that fast. Have you ever sat and watched lichen grow?

Jason Bradford

It’s fascinating.

Rob Dietz

It doesn’t grow anywhere near as fast as paint dries. But no, obviously, like you said, Asher, that story has been used as a, “Hey, watch out for overshoot.” But I do think dissecting it a bit in the maximum power realm is a good idea. Because you know, Jason, you were saying before, all living creatures, basically all these self organizing systems have this tendency. People have it too. Which was probably okay when we were in our foraging days. Before we figured out how to make so many wondrous tools, and before we figured out how to grab this once in a lifetime lottery major supply of energy in the form of fossil fuels. And it seems like, you can make the argument, well, humans are a lot smarter than reindeer. We’re not going to do what they did. But if you look at how we’re behaving, it seems like we’re right on the reindeer path here. If you kind of equate lichen to fossil fuel.  I mean, we grab that stuff as fast as we can. Even once we’ve come to this time where we understand the climate impacts of burning so much fossil fuel, we’re still fighting for more pipelines and more tar sands.

Jason Bradford

Oh, I know. Like Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister. It’s a riot. Because on one side of his mouth, he seems to be this liberal who cares about climate and believes in it. And then, the next thing you know it’s like, pushing through pipeline projects. It’s just absurd.

Rob Dietz

The good thing is it’s a lichen pipeline. So it’s not nearly as damaging.

Jason Bradford

They got so much lichen in Canada. Oh my gosh.

Asher Miller

I think there’s an interesting paradox here. I mean, we’ve talked about sort of evolutionary biology stuff, adaptation over time, getting benefits. It’s an evolutionary trait, I assume, this maximum power principle, right? It may make sense that so many species have it. But having that in the context of scarcity or limits of resources. It not only puts it to check, but we have that and a scarcity mindset as well. That’s sort of still built into us, right? Like these driving kind of, I don’t know, these influences that we’re not even conscious about.

Jason Bradford

Instinctual drives.

Asher Miller

We think we’ve been living in this period of the most material abundance imaginable. But we’re functioning as though we have the scarcity mindset to it. And at the same time, we’re completely checked out on the likelihood that we’re going to actually hit scarcity.

Jason Bradford

Well, here’s what I think we need to do then. If we’re going the way of the reindeer, we need to get your, what’s your thing called again?

Rob Dietz

My what?

Jason Bradford

Your shovel.

Rob Dietz

Oh, it’s the Bagger 293.

Jason Bradford

We just got to just start digging graves with the Bagger 293 because we’re gonna need them.

Rob Dietz

And let’s just figure out how to do it with three people instead of five. You guys are invited on my Bagger.

Asher Miller

Such a morbid picture, Jason. Do you really need a Bagger?

Jason Bradford

No, we’ll just use your backhoe. You’re right I’m sorry.

Asher Miller

Thank you. Can we just moderate this?

Rob Dietz

Okay, good work, guys.

Asher Miller

Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial do the opposite segment where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of Crazy Town.

Jason Bradford

You don’t have to just listen to the three of us blather on anymore.

Rob Dietz

We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration.

Asher Miller

Rob, Jason, I wanted to share a view this time from Joanne B.F. on iTunes. Joanne says, “these guys give us climate change activists a look at the state of affairs with enough humor to make it feel like we’re all in on the joke.”

Jason Bradford

That’s excellent.

Rob Dietz

That is sweet. First of all, it’s great that an activist is listening to this show and getting something out of it. That makes me feel nice and warm. But you know, the three of us like to have fun together and it’s hard to talk about some of these subjects. You get tired, you get beaten down. So we have to make some jokes and try to spread a little cheer as we do it. So I’m glad that that’s resonating with someone out there.

Jason Bradford

That’s right, everybody needs to try to enjoy the day.

Asher Miller

Thanks for that review, Joanne. And if you like the podcast, please take a few minutes to just rate us or give us a review on your favorite podcast app.

George  Costanza

Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

Jerry Seinfeld

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Jason Bradford

All righty, here. We are going to do the opposite, huh? So what that means in this context. . . It’s interesting because we’ve grown up in this culture where we’ve been optimizing for being labor efficient and time efficient, right? So if you’ve ever run a business, it’s like how do you reduce the number of workers? Right? How do you get things done faster? And I think the opposite then is to think, instead of those efficiencies, right, to remind you, what we talked about earlier in the show, is that there’s other things to optimize for which would be energy and materials. So it turns out that typically, when you substitute human labor with machines, you end up using more energy and materials, obviously.

Asher Miller

Like your shovel versus the . . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah, the Bagger. Right that’s the opposite. That’s the opposite structure we’ve had. And it’s the opposite strategy. But anyways, the first thing to do is recognize what you’re doing, right? Recognize what’s being optimized for, and knowing that there’s these different things to optimize for. Labor, time, energy, materials.

Rob Dietz

I’m picturing you, Jason. Every time somebody says something’s efficient, you’re very skeptical. You’re trying to go, “efficient at what? What resource are we talking about? What’s the constraint here?”

Jason Bradford

Yes, exactly.

Asher Miller

But you know, human societies have made these calculations whether they’re conscious about it or not, depending upon the kind of the constraints that they had. So, I was thinking about the pyramids, the pharaohs . . .

Jason Bradford

Aliens made those, right.

Asher Miller

Right.

Rob Dietz

No, they were made by reindeer.

Asher Miller

They’re made by my people. Way back when.

Jason Bradford

Oh, congratulations.

Rob Dietz

Who are your people?

Asher Miller

The Jews. There are lots of slaves that were involved. But you know, for them, I think the pharaohs motivation was you got to get this fucking thing built pretty quickly. And by pretty quickly, in their context, it wasn’t like, six weeks. It was 10-20 years, or whatever it was. Before the pharaoh dies. So you can get buried in there and you know . . .

Rob Dietz

Oh, so that’s where the aliens then pick you up at the top of the pyramid?

Asher Miller

Can you just stop with aliens? So for them actually, time was something that they were trying to maximize for at a certain level. So they churn through labor like nobody’s business.

Jason Bradford

Oh, if you’re a slave building a pyramid, you’re not going to last that long.

Rob Dietz

Oh, the hernia rate was incredible among those slaves.

Asher Miller

They didn’t care about that. Right? Whereas you contrast that to the, you know, we talked about Cathedral thinking before . . .They’re building these things over centuries. So in the sense, time was the thing that they were not optimizing..

Jason Bradford

But they wanted to have craftsmanship. So they were willing to hire people for good wages, and all these guilds that formed. And you had to make sure you knew what you’re doing because these arches had to be perfect.

Asher Miller

And they are constrained by energy.

Jason Bradford

And money.

Asher Miller

And they’re constrained by labor on some levels.

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Asher Miller

So yeah, I mean, these are calculations that society has made. Now we’re not thinking about it at all. Other than thinking about two options. Like time and labor, right?

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Nothing’s really thought of when it comes to energy, because it’s just like we said, it’s always been there. So what is doing the opposite then? We start working towards being efficient with energy and materials, right?

Jason Bradford

Yup.

Asher Miller

Yeah.

Rob Dietz

Well, how are we gonna do that?

Jason Bradford

It’s hard. Because right now they’re cheap and abundant. So that’s why we call it, “do the opposite.”

Asher Miller

Well, we have to limit ourselves.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Cuz I think what we’re saying, it’s not going to happen with the economic system that we have in place.

Asher Miller

Well, here’s the rub. It will happen to us, or we could do it to ourselves. If we do it to ourselves on some level, we might be able to, you know, actually have future humans living on this planet. If we don’t, and we’ll have other species to enjoy this planet with. If we don’t do that —

Jason Bradford

Yeah, then it’s use the backhoe and dig the graves. But anyway, what this reminds me of, the Amish, what you’re saying a culture –

Rob Dietz

Right. They actually do limit themselves.

Jason Bradford

– that says I’m going to limit the technology, the tools I choose. The tools they choose are tools that actually limit their power. And that’s interesting. They’re deciding, okay, I’m going to use horses, and I’m not going to use these machines that put the fossil fuels in, right? So I think, choosing your tools and deciding what you’re going to do with them and how much power you’re gonna wield.

Rob Dietz

I understand they’re able to do this because they’re a tight knit community and have a lot of religious ideals and values that they’re trying to follow. Do either of you have any idea why they came up with that point. You know, the tool set? Like, we’re gonna limit it right here?

Jason Bradford

No, I don’t remember.

Asher Miller

No, I don’t know. But I think what’s important here, and I think there’s tradeoffs with this. It’s not just a collection of individuals who are like, “Hey, we’re all going to band together and agree on these limits.” They strongly reinforce with social norms that I think can come with some real restriction on people’s freedom, individuality, these kinds of things. And that gets to the fact that it’s not just an individual making a choice. It’s these reinforcing cultural norms and expectations, and probably laws and societies, that  create the conditions to restrict these things.

Jason Bradford

That’s why I wish we had things like rationing of energy, right?

Asher Miller

And I think it’s really important for those of us who are thinking about climate, for example, and limiting carbon. Whether you want to have a carbon tax or not have a carbon tax, or what is the price you want to put on carbon or not, if we don’t have a cap on it, an actual cap on it, I’m very skeptical and concerned about our ability to limit ourselves the way that we need to.

Jason Bradford

Until those constraints bite and we go reindeer.

Asher Miller

Which is in a sense too late.

Jason Bradford

It’s too late.

Asher Miller

Maybe it’s not that too late. But still very painful, very difficult.

Rob Dietz

Right. So clearly, we need to be working on policies that limit our use of energy uptake, or limit our energy uptake and limit our ability to wield power.

Asher Miller

And creating social norms and cultural . . .

Rob Dietz

Right. So this is whole system change. But that’s all well and good, but we don’t have to wait for that either. I think we also need to look in our own households, and in our own individual behavior. What is it that we can do that goes along those lines? We gave the example earlier how Greta took the sailboat across the Atlantic. You know, she clearly made this trade off. One of those choice trade offs. Time versus energy expenditure.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. And we talked about how amazing bicycles are. They take a little more time. It takes about twice as long to bike into town as it does to drive. So it’s not that bad . . .

Rob Dietz

I think the hard part there. . . Again, you’re still fighting some cultural norms, right? Like, oh, you have to be at your job at this time. And you got to be over here to pick up the kids from school at that time. And I’m not saying that you couldn’t do it by bike, but it’s really about finding ways to get the job done without having to maximize power. You have to be really creative.

Asher Miller

This is why I basically have just stopped using my body for anything. I mean, I don’t exercise at all. I don’t lift anything more than I think one and a half pounds, something like that. So, you know, I’ve created conditions where basically I have no power.

Rob Dietz

You actually stay in the cockpit of your backhoe and use that for all tasks.

Jason Bradford

Is this your excuse at home when they ask you to do chores?

Asher Miller

Yeah, I can’t do it. I am trying to minimize my power.

Rob Dietz

Well, you’re very not powerful.

Rob Dietz

Richard Heinberg is a senior fellow here at the Post Carbon Institute. So he’s one of our gang members. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on the history of fossil fuels and a respected advocate for the shift to a renewable energy economy, which includes a strong case for the limits to growth. More importantly, he’s written tons of stuff, spoken at events all over the world, and appeared in dozens of media productions, and his most recent book with a publication date of September 2021, is “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival”. But I’d also like to say what I think Richard is really best at is breaking down complex and nuanced topics, and explaining them with logic and insight so that anyone can understand it. He’s really a natural born teacher and I’m happy to count him as a friend and colleague here at Post Carbon. Richard, welcome to Crazy Town.

Richard Heinberg

Hey, Rob. Good to be in Crazy Town with you. Thank you.

Rob Dietz

Well, yeah. Maybe to some extent, right. Okay, I’ve got a lot of questions for you, Jason, Asher and I have been engaged in a conversation about the maximum power principle, as one of the hidden drivers that has pushed humanity into the sustainability crisis. I know you’ve spent a lot of time considering physical and social power while you’ve been working on your book, “Power.” So first off, I am curious if there was a topic that surprised you, or especially stood out, as you dove into your research on the book?

Richard Heinberg

Yeah, well, I think what stood out to me was just the immense variety in the expression of power. On a pound per pound basis, life is actually far more powerful than the sun. And I know that seems incredible, but the sun is very massive. And if you divide its mass by its luminosity and then compare that with the rate of energy transfer in the average cell, the cell wins every time. Life is just amazingly powerful. And from the very first living cell right up to the present, life and evolution have been all about gathering and using energy to do things. And what an amazing variety of things living beings have learned to do. Moving, sensing, thinking, reproducing, communicating, fighting, cooperating, list goes on and on. And it’s not just all about survival and reproduction. It’s also about beauty. Animals that reproduce through sex have found ways of attracting mates. And flowering plants that have to be pollinated have learned amazing ways to attract pollinators. Now, for animals, the production of beauty often becomes an obsession in and of itself, apart from its value in sexual selection. And the result is that nature is just incredibly beautiful. And it’s not just an inadvertent byproduct of everything else they’re doing. And I’m not talking about beauty just in terms of human subjective impressions. No, what I discovered is that nature is intentionally beautiful. It works hard at it. And again, all of this is the result of the workings of power.

Rob Dietz

Wow that’s actually kind of inspiring, right? We can sleep better at night knowing that nature is working hard at being beautiful. Well, I appreciate that insight, and I’m one of the lucky people who has gotten a chance to read your book ahead of publication. And it’s got the usual amount of clarity and organization, excellent writing that you’re known for. But what I really appreciated about it was the depth of analysis. It’s my sense that this book took you on a different sort of journey maybe than previous writing experiences. And I want to know, if my sense is correct there, or in other words, could you describe what the process of researching and writing this book has meant to you?

Richard Heinberg

Well, I’ve always been kind of a big picture guy. And my MO is mostly to synthesize other people’s work. Of course, I aim for the best, the latest thinking about the most important questions. And there’s a lot of that in this book, as well. I ended up reading literally dozens of books and lots more technical articles as I was preparing to write this book. And it turned out to be an opportunity to brush up on the latest findings and thinking in fields from cell biology, to anthropology, to communications theory, to game theory. And it was pretty exhilarating. A lot has changed in these fields in just the last few years. But at the same time, on this occasion, I feel I may also have made an original contribution. The word power certainly gets used a lot. But to my knowledge, nobody has tried to tie together power’s many meanings and manifestations in the world. And to look for links and commonalities and in general rules. I found myself having to define power rather carefully, depending on the context. And then I had to reflect on what I thought I had found, and look for exceptions, and see if this was really true. Of course, that’s just critical thinking. Nothing new there. But it was exciting to be in somewhat unexplored territory and with a responsibility for mapping it properly for others who might follow.

Rob Dietz

While you were describing that, Richard, I was glad to hear that you’re the one taking on that responsibility. I can’t think of anyone any more well qualified. In fact, I was thinking, if I were in that position, I might just have to quit writing. But we well know that you didn’t do that. So thank you.

Richard Heinberg

I can’t help myself. I probably should. But . . .

Rob Dietz

Well, one of the main points that you make — or a big case that you make in the book is that we humans have to control our thirst for power. And you also claim that we have the capacity to do that. And you go on to recommend a new principle that you call the optimum power principle. I was hoping you could describe what you mean by that, and how it might interact with the maximum power principle. And then, how you see the quest to limit power playing out.

Richard Heinberg

Right. Well, the optimum power principle is not an alternative to the maximum power principle. It’s more an addition to it. And in a way, it’s nothing new. Everybody knows that life is full of checks and balances, whether it’s homeostasis within organisms and systems and cells, or predator prey relationships in ecosystems. In human societies, there are always ways of at least partially preventing the accumulation of too much political or economic power. Like in modern societies, we have environmental regulations to keep us from overrunning nature, and redistributive programs to keep economic inequality from growing to catastrophic extremes. Of course, these measures aren’t always sufficient, either in nature, or human society. That’s why societies sometimes collapse.

My book makes the argument that our current efforts to limit and share power are falling way behind where they would need to be in order to avert a crisis. But to my knowledge, no one has given this general phenomenon a name before. This tendency of living systems to find ways to limit or balance power. And actually, Rob, the specific term came from you and a conversation we were having early on about the book. Anyway, once we have a name for something, it sometimes becomes easier to see it and to recognize it. Just last week, I heard a podcast about the discovery of a protein within cells, called mTOR. And this protein senses when there’s sufficient food and space for the organism to expand. If there is, the protein triggers growth. If there isn’t, it instructs the cell or the organism to shut down growth and instead engage in repair activities. So there’s the optimum power principle at work at the cellular level. It’s everywhere really.

Rob Dietz

Wow, I had forgotten the conversation we had. So I’m happy to steal some credit. But I don’t feel like I really deserve any there. Yeah, well that’s a really amazing and interesting idea. That if you look around, you can find it in places, the optimum power principle, where you weren’t necessarily expecting it like this mTOR protein that you’re talking about. So I’m wondering, then, if like you said, that some parts of society have struggled with dealing with kind of keeping their power in check, and maybe they would even tend toward collapse. I’m wondering if you could give us some good examples of how an individual or a community of individuals could go against that when it comes to their relationship with power. So the question is, really, how can we limit our power as individuals, not continually expand it, while also trying to live the good life?

Richard Heinberg

Mmhmm. Yeah, that’s a good one. I guess you could say that indigenous peoples and especially hunter gatherers were the original power geniuses. They eliminated bullies through ostracism, or if necessary by executing them. They made all their important decisions by consensus. Authority within their societies was always situational depending on who had the relevant skills and experience. Men had their areas of special ability and women had theirs. Of course, it wasn’t paradise and groups sometimes fought each other over foraging territory. But when you look back, just about everything that we try to do in modern civilization to keep economic and political power within bounds can be seen as a way of trying to somehow approximate or recover the balance and the freedoms that we enjoyed back then.

Of course, now we have vast power in the form of fossil fuels. And that’s really upset our relations with nature and with one another. Somehow we’ve got to limit that power or the whole human enterprise goes bust. Of course, collectively, our challenge is to zero out our carbon emissions. But this is ultimately going to require behavior change. I’ve always advocated like, day long or week long energy fasts as a way of coming to understand just how dependent we are personally on these relatively new energy sources, and how freeing it is to unplug. That makes it easier to come to grips with the kinds of collective restraints we’ll need in order to minimize the threat of climate change. Maybe we can think of similar sorts of exercises to help ourselves think more creatively about species extinctions and resource depletion, pollution, and economic inequality. Moderation, and reciprocity have to start somewhere. And the best place is in our own lives in our own households, our communities. It’s a matter of noticing how much power you have that’s actually contributing to environmental destruction and inequality. And how you take it for granted. And then of finding other ways of sharing and using power that are less harmful and that actually make you feel empowered by doing something. Even if it’s as simple as sharing with your neighbors, or going for a walk, or paying attention to nature. So it’s as much about finding new forms of power as it is about giving up power all together.

Rob Dietz

Well, you always have a way of helping me and people that read your works see the world differently. And I really appreciate that about you. Richard Heinberg is the author of “Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival,” set for publication in September of 2021. You can find out more about that at postcarbon.org. Thanks so much, Richard, for visiting Crazy Town.

Richard Heinberg

Hey, it’s always a pleasure, Rob. Good talking with you.

Jason Bradford

Thanks for listening to this episode of Crazy Town.

Asher Miller

Yeah, if by some miracle, you actually got something out of it, please take a minute and give us a positive rating or leave a review on your preferred podcast app

Rob Dietz

And thanks to all our listeners, supporters and volunteers, and special thanks to our producer Melody Travers.

Jason Bradford

Hey, guys, I’m thinking I might have to take a little respite from the show. Not right away, I have to plan this out carefully. But it’s actually something I learned about one of our sponsors. It’s called the Powerdown Bar.

Rob Dietz

Was it invented by Richard Heinberg?

Asher Miller

It was sort of inspired — He inspired the inventors of this. But also they were inspired by the notions of the maximum power principle and the need to sort of work with our environments. I’m thinking over the winter, I’m going to take one of these. What it does. you eat one and you won’t wake up for about five months. So I might do like three quarters of one.

Asher Miller

How many calories are in this thing?

Jason Bradford

Well, not many calories. In fact, there’s actually a problem in that you should put on a lot of extra weight before you eat one of these because you’re going to lose 40 to 80 pounds.

Asher Miller

In hibernation?

Jason Bradford

In hibernation.

Rob Dietz

I’m glad, Jason, that you have such good relations with our sponsors because you’re the one who’s going to take the “put you down for 5 months.”

Asher Miller

So this is a pill that basically has this massive shot of like heroin in it, or something?

Jason Bradford

No, it’s a proprietary ingredient.

Asher Miller

Oh, we don’t know what it is?

Jason Bradford

I don’t even know but it’s been approved. So, you know, it’s totally legal. Totally on the up and totally legal. And, hey, you know, it really cuts down on laundry. You save money. You can cancel all your subscription services.

Asher Miller

You need to get somebody to come in every once in a while to turn you over so you don’t bedsores.

Jason Bradford

Well there is that additional cost.

Asher Miller

And a catheter to put in. Sorry, I don’t mean to . . .

Rob Dietz

Can we just say, “happy hibernation,” and be on our way?

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Clear your calendars and eat a Powerdown Bar, folks.