Ed.note: Due to a mixup, this episode of the Power podcast was  missed off of Resilience.org last week. Future episodes will be published on Wednesday of each week, so Episode 3 will follow tomorrow. 

Show Notes

To understand humanity’s relationship with energy and power, and to get a handle on why we’re experiencing a polycrisis of climate change, social inequality, and loss of biodiversity, you have to go back to the beginning – all the way back to the origins of life on Earth. Explore how power functions in nature, including predator/prey relationships, self-balancing mechanisms in organisms and ecosystems, and the maximum power principle. Along the way, you’ll tour exotic locations like the Grand Canyon and volcanic vents at the bottom of the sea, as well as more humble destinations like a neighborhood pond and a root cellar – places that will help you appreciate how power in nature drives evolution and determines biological success. For more information, please visit our website.

Melody Travers
Welcome to Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. In this series, we explore the hidden driver behind the crises that are upending societies and disrupting the life support systems of the planet. That hidden driver is power, our pursuit of it, or overuse of it, and our abuse of it. I’m your host, Melody Travers.

Rob Dietz
And I’m Rob Dietz, your copilot and Program Director at Post Carbon Institute. Join us as we explore power and why giving it up just might save us.

Melody Travers
Hey, Rob, how are you? I’m doing pretty good Melody. How are you? I’m doing well. You know, last episode, we talked about how power is everywhere surging all around us. And I learned from Richard that power at its most elemental level is the rate that energy is transferred. So in essence, life depends on a controlled exchange of energy with the environment. And in that way of thinking about it all life on Earth is really about power. And when that energy exchange stops, that’s death.

Rob Dietz
I feel like I’ve experienced lots of times when that energy exchange stopped, or at least it’s slowed down an awful lot in my own body. And it’s always when I do something kind of dumb out in nature, like go for a bike ride, that’s a little too far, or run a bit too far down the trail. And when you do that, and run out of energy, to me, it feels almost like a miniature death. Yeah, so yeah, let me give you a quick story, where something like that happened, because I think maybe it gets at what you’re talking about with that flow of energy and how important that is to life. So I was at the Grand Canyon with my girlfriend, just out of college. And right before starting the nine to five grind of work. So great place to go, of course, iconic, we went to the South Rim and decided we had to hike down into the canyon. So the main trail there is called the Bright Angel Trail. And the Park Service does a great job of telling you how bad it’s going to be and how you’re going to die if you go down this trail. So they talk about risks of dehydration, they talk about the risk of falling, how tough of a climate is getting back out. So we were, I’d say optimistic but cautious and I carried probably something like 437 gallons of water with me. Melody Travers Smart Yeah, just to be safe.

Rob Dietz
I don’t know if smart would be the word since I could barely carry the amount that I took. But I know we had a lot of water, so I felt good about that. So we ended up hiking down to a spot called Indian Garden. And that is a nine mile out and back hike with 3000 feet of descent when you go and do that. It’s a beautiful trail. We did great on the water. But it turns out we didn’t do that well on the food. We took only one box of granola bars, I have no idea why, let’s just attribute it to inexperience. But after we got to Indian garden and hung out there, we started hiking up and of course this is a really difficult, steep climb and in hot weather. And I think both of us got hypoglycemic or kind of abnormally low blood sugar. And this is way beyond hangry right? Like I didn’t even have the energy to be angry. I just felt lethargic and not having much energy and you know, we just stuck with it and eventually we’re able to make our way out of the canyon. But I guess that’s the point is that when you’re running out of energy because you have no flow of energy into your body, you know if you kept going that direction, you would die eventually right?

Melody Travers
Yeah, and you were in such a harsh environment. There weren’t yummy berries on the side of the trail for you to complement your granola bars with.

Rob Dietz
There were there were a few aggressive squirrels that we might have been able to eat but I don’t think squirrel sushi is all that appetizing.

Melody Travers
I don’t know why but my brain went when you said you know literally die I went straight to death and thinking about the first time that I ever saw a dead body. I went to my friend’s father’s funeral and it was an open casket and I had been warned ahead of time. It’s gonna look like him, but not look like him, and I didn’t really know what that meant. And I remember doing the procession to go pay my respects and looking down at this human body that was really more like a wax figure than a person anymore. The person-ness was gone.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, yeah, just missing something, right?

Melody Travers
Yeah and it was so different than like somebody who’s sleeping right? Not just because you can’t see their breath, flow in and out. But it was like the spark of life was gone. And I was just thinking about that, like, you were talking about those moments of running out of energy. And then the ultimate running out of energy is death, of course. But like, what, what is that spark of life? And how did it get going from being inanimate objects or rocks and stuff? And then, you know, boom, people?

Rob Dietz
Oh, well, clearly the answer is Ra, the Egyptian Sun God set this going. Or maybe it was Helios, the Greek sun god, or maybe even NT, the Incan Sun God are met. Or maybe it’s a whole team of sun gods from all the ancient cultures, it kind of makes a little bit of sense, right? After all, we’ve got the sun as a driver for just about all the energy and power processes on Earth.

Melody Travers
Rob, I’m very impressed by your deep knowledge of, of ancient sun gods. Wow.

Rob Dietz
Yeah. Only 80s Pop Culture surpasses it in my brain. No, if I knew the answer to that question, I would be in way bigger demand.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny. It’s something that from your examples of the sun gods, that’s a question that humans have been puzzling over for millennia. And some have created religions around it and have creation stories. You know, we like to think of ourselves and our creation stories as scientific theories. But right, they’re all kind of us trying to suss out something that’s still kind of mysterious. And there was a kind of an origin story in Richard’s book that I thought was super interesting, because it centered around power. So I asked our friend, Jason Bradford, who is an evolutionary biologist to help me tell the story

Rob Dietz
Yeah, you know, I get to work with Jason all the time, he and I are cohosts on the Crazy Town podcast. And sometimes I even help him with his farming. So I could see that I trust him just about as much as anyone else to explain how life got started.

Melody Travers
Well, he made it clear that there’s sort of physical and sort of chemical concepts that we need to understand that relate to energy transfer and living organisms. And that’s the concept of gradient. Here’s Jason:

Jason Bradford
Think of a dam that’s full of water. And there’s this pipe running through it and it’s at an angle tilting down, and there’s a turbine that spins and generates electricity. And so the power comes from the gradient between the water level above the dam and below the dam. And similarly, whenever you charge your smartphone, the battery in it, you are creating an electrical chemical gradient that powers the phone. And actually, if you were to pull apart that battery, it would be a bunch of folded membranes. And actually, life looks a lot like that on the sort of the nano scale, there’s membranes with gradients to power cells. These look like mitochondria.

Melody Travers
So the processes that work in the hydroelectric dam and in the cell phone are also at work at the cellular level. And these are processes that power life. Here’s Jason again:

Jason Bradford
Life is characterized by these membranes that enclose cells and a metabolism based upon electrochemical gradients using protons.

Melody Travers
Jason’s explaining the idea of the proton pump, where a difference in electrical charge exists across a membrane.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I can see how that membrane serves as a gradient, this big concept that he’s bringing up

Melody Travers
Right. And then Jason explained the proton pump in the context of ancient seas. So the ocean was acidic at the surface, meaning there were excess protons floating around, but alkaline at the seafloor. So down on the floor, there were these volcanic vents that would burp up iron and sulfur bubbles, and the bubbles would float up through the water column in the acidic part of the sea. And then you have an inside/outside difference in acidity across the membrane of the bubble or the outside of the bubble. And that difference creates an electrical potential of several 100 millivolts, which is about the same electrical charge that powers bacteria today.

Rob Dietz
Okay, well, that’s a cool story. I like that bubbles coming up to the surface, and you get this gradient across their membrane. But how do we go from bubbles pumping protons to living cells doing it inside of plants and animals in our own bodies?

Melody Travers
That’s a very good question, Rob. And I mean, really, we don’t totally know. Here’s what Jason said, when I asked him the same question.

Jason Bradford
Yeah, you’re pointing out that transition is pretty fuzzy.

Melody Travers
What’s less fuzzy, is that what occurs in the bubbles shares a lot in common with what occurs in the cell processes like photosynthesis. So there’s a leap from nonliving bubbles to a single celled organism. And you can get further leaps in the complexity of life. And Jason talked about how plant cells use a gradient and the proton pump to convert light energy into chemical energy in the form of ATP. And then more possibilities open up from there.

Jason Bradford
ATP is now a stored fuel for the cell, like wood for a house fireplace or gasoline for a car. And, and then it can be turned into other storage forms, such as sugar, starches, proteins and fats. Now, in multi celled organisms, protons aren’t pumped through a cell wall. Energy pumping takes place in these special structures within the cell called mitochondria. And these, these are the cells’ and the organisms’ way of creating ATP. So if cells in organisms like us hadn’t found a way to delegate energy production, life on Earth would remain bacterial. But now that there’s mitochondria living within other cells, it’s possible for organisms with billions or trillions of cells to not cooperate and specialize. This leads to big organisms like us.

Rob Dietz
Wow. It’s kind of mind blowing to consider how, you knowů some membranes out there with some gradients across them, and you get a few simple processes, maybe a few not-so-simple structures that, taken together, that provides the power that makes life possible.

Melody Travers
Yeah, Jason shared that same sentiment.

Jason Bradford
Yeah. It’s amazing that these processes have been conserved for billions of years. And you can still see them happening all around us.

Melody Travers
With that foray into the power of life itself and how it got started, I’m pretty pumped, like a proton, to go and talk with Richard.

Melody Travers
Hi, Richard.

Richard Heinberg
Hey, Melody.

Melody Travers
How are you doing today?

Richard Heinberg
Oh, I’m feeling pretty good. it’s a nice hot day out there. Thanks to climate change.

Melody Travers
Yep, here too, today I don’t even know, in the over hundreds. So yeah, we’re sweating it out here in Texas.

Richard Heinberg
Oh Boy

Melody Travers
I was just talking with Rob and Jason Bradford about the theory of the origin of life on Earth that you described in your book. And as we were talking about it, I was wondering why you decided to start with an exploration in biology and start with power in nature.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, you know, when we talk about power, we’re usually talking about it in relation to people, which is, naturally, you know, we’re all interested in people, just like dogs are really interested in other dogs and birds are interested in other birds. But we focus a lot on social power in all its forms; money, fame, weapons, political office. And before starting in on those things, I wanted to trace those kinds of power back to their ultimate source. And when you do that, you see that, you know, we’re really just another critter. We’re special in a lot of ways, but our power really boils down to the power of life itself. And that ultimately comes from exchanging energy with our environment, at the cellular and even the subcellular level. And we share that process with everything from bacteria to blue whales. So life is all about power and energy. And if you want to understand that you really have to talk a little about biology.

Melody Travers
Yeah, it was so interesting the way that Jason described it, and this theory of the origins of life, which I had never heard about before. Because it zeroes in on the chemistry of energy storage and transfer. And the fact that, you know, every single cell, you know, even single celled organism, like you said, or bacteria from, you know, 4 billion years ago, are using energy and storing energy in exactly the same way as every single living creature today. And I just, I found that I don’t know just really, really cool.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, what are the sort of gee whiz facts that I came across as I was researching the book was that on a gram for gram basis, or ounce for ounce, or whatever units of weight you want to use, the typical living organism is 10,000 times as powerful as the sun. That seems crazy. Because, you know, obviously, the sun is the most powerful thing in our immediate environment. But the Sun is a heck of a lot bigger than us, you know, puny Earth organisms. So if you parse that out on a, you know, as I said, a gram for gram basis, even though the sun is generating billions of times as much energy, living things are actually doing a pretty damn good job of gathering that energy and using it for their purposes. We have an astonishing ability to gather and use energy. So what do we do with all this power? The answer is just about everything you can imagine. We living things have developed all kinds of strategies for getting power, and applying it for what we want to do, you know, surviving and changing our environment so that it’s more amenable to our needs and desires. Life uses power to move by oozing and slithering and leaping, walking, running, flying. It uses energy to communicate with sounds and smells, gestures and colors. We use energy to process information not just with computers, but also with, you know, brains and nervous systems, to reproduce, fight, all kinds of things. It all traces back to the basic power of life itself.

Melody Travers
Yeah, when you were talking about the power of the sun, and it just being so big versus us who are relatively tiny, but producing a lot of power, I was reminded of this book by Carlo Rovelli, it was seven lessons in physics. It’s this tiny, tiny book, but it’s beautiful. And he talks about how wherever there’s heat, there’s a dynamism. And humans, you know, we’re at 98.6 degrees, we’re burning up energy all the time. And that’s why we have this very dynamic experience in the universe. And places that are very cold because things go from hot to cold, that’s just one of the laws of the universe; the cool places, time literally slows down. And I just thought, Wow, that’s so interesting. It totally makes sense to me now with you talking about the big sun and us having almost like these tiny suns within us, right? There’s really dynamic heat energy that’s pumping all the time. And really every little creature has that on the earth.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, heat is kind of the lowest expression of energy, you know, energy can be translated into different forms. So you know, it can start out as some kind of really concentrated highly storable kind of energy like fossil fuels. But when those fossil fuels get burned, it ends up as heat and even if we didn’t have carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect, burning all these fossil fuels would already be heating up the planet, not as much, it wouldn’t be as perceptible. But it’s, you know, burning stuff releases heat, and we are burning a hell of a lot of stuff.

Melody Travers
Yeah. So going back to what you were talking about life has evolved into all these different ways of capturing energy, right, capturing it, storing it to use it. And part of the story of evolution is about how some organisms really out compete other organisms. And in the book, you you describe this really important scientific principle as a foundation for evolution, called the maximum power principle. I was wondering if you could describe that and how it works.

Richard Heinberg
Oh, sure. Yeah, that’s really important. Ecologist, Howard Odum, who is such an important pioneer in so many areas of sustainability, science, and, well, I could go on about him. Unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. But his contributions were just huge. Anyway, he defined the maximum power principle this way. A species that exploits a given resource most effectively, will tend to crowd out competing species -duh, you know, it sounds like really obvious when you state it like that. But it’s really important sometimes to point out the obvious, so that you can use that as kind of a guiding pathway for understanding how things are actually working. But the implication is that evolution is really all about power, and therefore energy. And what are the limiting factors for organisms is the balance of energy, in terms of energy in -the energy that we’re acquiring from our environment -versus the energy that we expend, right, for all our various activities. It takes energy to get energy, if you want to eat, you have to go out and get your food, it takes energy for the hawk to go out hunting for mice, which are its source of energy. And if the hawk doesn’t find enough mice to eat, it can’t continue expending energy in hunting, and so you know, it dies. So, organisms have found all kinds of strategies for economizing and leveraging their energy output, and maximizing their energy input. And once again, once you understand that, then a lot about evolution and about biology and about human society becomes a lot clearer.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I think about like old cellars, you know, a potato cellar. And you know, from the beginning, we’ve been trying to figure out ways to store those extra potatoes to get us through the winter. And now of course, we’ve got totally processed food and you know, every time there’s a disaster about to happen, we stock up on everything possible. So that yeah, that totally makes sense to me even in the tiny ecosystem of a household, we’re constantly gearing up I guess.

Richard Heinberg
Think about those potatoes for a second, how much energy was expended in growing those potatoes versus how much energy do you get out of them, and potatoes are pretty good at storing food energy actually, you know, compared with other kinds of food. So if you’re trying to be self sufficient in terms of food, potatoes are a pretty good crop to grow. But the way we grow them now, we expend a lot more energy actually in industrial agriculture in growing our food than the food actually gives us. And that just seems crazy when you understand these biological principles we’ve been talking about. So how does that even work? Well, it only works because we’re able to expend this energy from fossil fuels for you know, running tractors and packaging and transporting the food and storing it and refrigerating it and all the other things we do that take energy -it only works because we have this one time input of fossil fuel energy, right? That enables us to grow a heck of a lot more potatoes than we otherwise would.

Melody Travers
Yeah. And the first example you know, if somebody has a little cellar, storing potatoes it’s usually either from their own property right near them or a neighboring farm. And now my favorite form of potatoes, of course, are potato chips, which I don’t think are very nutrient dense and like you said, I mean that’s a really far cry from I have no idea where my potato chips come from. I should really look that up. But yeah, we’ve kind of maximized or we’ve tried to maximize. But somehow it seems like instead of maximizing that input, which, you know, potato chips are not a great maximization principle, really? Because it’s not that healthy. It’s not that. I don’t know, it’s just fun to eat. I guess. So yeah, the math has become kind of skewed, it seems, by us, as humans, myself included, right?

Richard Heinberg
Well, it’s been skewed by fossil fuels. And you know, we will talk about that a lot more, maybe in later episodes, but you know, the energy is still there in the form of carbohydrates and the in the potato chips, they may not have many other nutrients, but you know, they do have the actual raw energy of the carbohydrates in them. And then, but how much energy have we expended to get those tasty, salty carbohydrates, you know, maybe you had to drive to the store to pick them up, and they’re in a plastic bag that actually took more energy to create than the potato chips themselves, when you eat them. Wow, it’s just crazy, the energy math that that we’ve gotten ourselves into in recent years, and it doesn’t happen anywhere else in nature, these kinds of things. And it’s because we humans have developed some strategies, particularly fossil fuels, that enable us to get around some of the energy limits that bind other creatures.

Melody Travers
So evolution then seems to kind of favor power maximization. So far, we’re just starting to understand some of the well, I guess, not just starting, but we’re understanding some of the limits that we’re pushing up against. But why didn’t a single organism emerge, like really early on in Earth’s history and then just dominate for the last millions or billions of years?

Richard Heinberg
Right? Well, of course, finally, one organism has, and that’s us.

Melody Travers
Right!

Richard Heinberg
But if one kind of organism becomes way more powerful than all the others, that can create problems for the sort of underlying biological relationships that keep the whole web of life together. So that brings up the question, what does biological success really look like? Is it complete dominance of the biosphere, to the detriment of these relationships that enable us to exist in the first place? Or is success the ability to thrive for a long time in a set of relatively stable relationships? That’s, I mean, a kind of theoretical question. But it has enormous implications when you look at humanity and its place in the environment today.

Melody Travers
When I think about human beings dominating, I’m actually reminded of other creatures that have benefited from our so called domination. I’ve read that, you know, most of our body other than water is other microorganisms. And you and I both keep chickens, I think they’re the most abundant bird at this point. So are we raising the chickens? Are the chickens raising us?

Richard Heinberg
That’s right

Melody Travers
There’s a lot of things that we’ve co evolved with?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, when you keep chickens, you know that you have to take care of them, right, you have to spend a certain amount of, maybe it’s only a few minutes here and there, but you got to pay attention to their needs, and go out and buy food for them, and so on. And it’s that way, with all of our domesticated species, you know, we’ve created environments for them. And I don’t mean just animal species, but wheat and rice and all of the food plants that we cultivate, we change the environment to suit them, and we provide nutrients for them and so on. So, you know, there’s a very real question, have we domesticated them? Or have they domesticated us? Because we’re doing all we’re doing all this work for them, right all the time. But, you know, in the end, it’s called kind of one system, this human system that’s interlinked with a few other species that we have favored because they can be made to serve our needs, and this system as a whole, ourselves and our domesticated crops and livestock and so on. We are just dominating the whole biosphere now. I mean, it’s less so in the oceans but on land, you know, we’ve definitely taken over.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I was just thinking about the animals that we’ve propped up like cockroaches, rats, pigeons, like some of the ones that are not, quote unquote, domesticated but have definitely flourished right within this kind of urban human environment that we’ve created as well, to our own chagrin, I guess.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah they found ways to fit in, even if we haven’t deliberately created space for them. Crows are doing that too you know, I mean, wild species in general are seeing population declines. But some wild species, including you mentioned, cockroaches, and crows and a number of others are actually doing very well, just because they’re, you know, they’re able to hitch a ride on the human bandwagon.

Melody Travers
Well crows are incredibly intelligent, I heard that crows will put stones in like a glass of water to raise the water level so that they can drink out of it. They’ll put nuts on train tracks to get them cracked. I mean, they’re on the level. It makes sense to me that they’re starting to dominate.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, once we’re gone, I think we’ll have the age of crows.

Melody Travers
For sure. I want to return to the maximum power principle or I guess maybe the inverse of it, which are the limits to growth. Can you give me an example of a species maximizing its power and then smacking into a limit?

Richard Heinberg
Well, one way to think about it has to do with population. Let’s take the humble, algae, or algae as the British say, oh, algae can reproduce very fast, if they have the space and the nutrients. There’s a lake nearby where my wife, Janet, and I go to walk pretty frequently. And for a couple of months, earlier this year, the whole surface of the lake was covered with green algae. Oh, so what was happening there, theoretically, let’s say the algae could grow 10% per hour, I think it was probably less than that. But just they grow really, really fast. So it might even be possible, I don’t know. But for the sake of some simple math, say 10% per hour, that means the population would double in size every seven hours. So even if you started out with just a little bit of algae, if you do that doubling, you know, you’d go from from one to two to four to eight to 16, to 32, and so on, you get this rapid increase in population, even if it started out, just covering 1/10 of the surface, they could theoretically grow to cover the whole lake in about a day. But what happens then, after the algae reached the edges of the lake, there’s no more space to continue expanding, and they’re also limited by the amount of nutrients in the water. So eventually, they’ll probably start to die. But meanwhile, they also rob the fish and other organisms that are in the lake of oxygen and nutrients. And of course that was actually happening in this particular lake. So there are limits to food and space. And rapid growth also tends to imperil other creatures that are depending on the same ecosystem. But food supply and space are only a couple of limits. There’s also predators. I’m trying to think of an example here. Again, my wife Janet and I were out camping in Point Reyes National Seashore which is not far from where we live. And we were seeing these little voles all over the place, little field mice very cute, but it was hard to walk because you’re afraid to step on these little guys. I’ve never seen anything like it. And so the next day, we asked the ranger at the station, what’s going on with the voles. And he explained that there had been a lot of rain a couple of years before and as a result of that there was a huge amount of vegetation growth. And that provided food for the voles. So there was this population explosion of the voles. Okay, what comes next? Now the population of hawks and foxes was also starting to grow because of course, the voles provided hawks and foxes with plenty of juicy food so that the voles were simultaneously limiting their own population bloom by depleting the available food supply, this vegetation, and also by themselves providing a food source for an expanding population of predators. So population growth is an expression of power. It’s a way of getting more power. It’s a sign of biological success. But it’s a kind of success that has natural limits and comes with risks. And it tends to be self-limiting over time.

Melody Travers
Yeah, there was a point in human history, when we thought that we would reach that sort of, we’ve eaten all of the vegetation point that the voles were about to reach. And then we could synthesize nitrogen and put that in fertilizer and make a lot more food. And we’ve killed off most of our predators. So I get that in normal circumstances, life is full of these checks and balances. But these examples are all outside forces that so far human beings have been able to, I don’t know, overcome, at least up until now. I was just wondering if there’s some examples of organisms that restored the balance for themselves, or have some kind of self-limiting way of doing that?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, this is a big part of the book. And I think we’ll be circling back to this later on. But yeah, self-balancing mechanisms are everywhere in nature. And sometimes, I mean, we’ve already talked about predator prey relationships, that’s a kind of self balancing process that takes place within ecosystems. But even within organisms, there are internal balancing mechanisms like, you know, warm blooded animals, like people maintain a certain temperature range or a range of alkalinity. And we have all kinds of biological systems for doing that. And if we get outside that range, of course, it’s bad news. There’s even examples of self-sacrifice in nature. In some social animals, individual members of the species can sometimes rein in their own reproduction, or their nutrition, in order to make sure there’s enough for the group as a whole. And in the most extreme case, they’ll even sacrifice their lives for the whole. I’m thinking of, in Malaysia, there’s an exploding ant. This is an ant that produces a kind of toxin that it stores in its abdomen. And if the colony is attacked, the worker ants will release these toxins very quickly by literally exploding. And this sprays the toxin on the invaders, and they die and the colony is saved. But all of these worker ants have sacrificed themselves, they’re dead, but the colony survives.

Melody Travers
Wow. So an ant detonates itself like a bomb. Crazy. That’s a pretty big display of power and very theatrical, too. I like that. So, okay, so these ants have developed this form of exploding to self-sacrifice. It seems like kind of a heightened ability in terms of power, heightened power. Does that constrict other powers for the ant? So I guess my question is, does specializing in one type of power result in any kind of trade off for other types of power for an organism?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah that’s exactly right. And sometimes the tradeoffs are a little hard to see. I mean, with the exploding ants, I mean, you know, if you’re gonna walk around with toxins in your abdomen, then you got to have walls, you got to wall that off, so that you’re not a victim of the poison that you’re carrying around and so on. So there’s some costs involved with that. But that’s true throughout nature. If one kind of animal could see like a hawk, echolocate like a bat, sense infrared radiation like a pit viper, and see into the ultraviolet part of the light spectrum the way a lot of birds do, this animal’s brain would have to be big and it would probably be overloaded with all kinds of stimuli. So you know, you got to pick and choose what you want to specialize in. Another example is a giraffe, it has a long neck so it can eat tree leaves, but that makes it vulnerable to predators. When it has to take a drink of water it has to bend that long neck down to the surface of a pond or lake to take a drink. Well, that’s exactly the moment. If there’s any lions around, that’s exactly the moment they’re going to spring and pounce. Yeah, so there’s always tradeoffs about power.

Melody Travers
I read an article in Science recently that said these paleontologists found these bones of a Discokeryx, I don’t know, it’s a giraffe ancestor, that apparently had like a helmet-like head, it kind of look like it was wearing a sloppy big bicycle helmet, and had really bulky necks -long, bulky necks. But it was adapted in a way to absorb the pressure of butting its head into its rivals to woo its mates. So we’ve seen this a lot in other animals, but I never associated that with giraffes. Anyway, so it basically formed a battering ram out of its own head and neck, and the vertebrae would lock together in a column. This was just like another theory other than just like reaching super tall trees to eat. Obviously, that didn’t totally work out because they don’t have these helmet-like heads anymore, right. But that’s pretty interesting that there’s all these different paths that the animals took that was working for them for a while, and kind of reified through the their skeletal structure.

Richard Heinberg
Right so maybe giraffes evolved this long neck for one purpose in competition for mates. And then once they got the long neck, they realized they could use it for eating tree leaves. I don’t know, you know, the search for power advantage drives evolution in lots of ways. I guess that’s the takeaway. It could be the drive for a new food source or the drive for a way to compete with other members of your own species for mates. All these drives can get complicated and mixed up. So it’s, you know, it’s hard for biologists to untangle exactly what happened. But again, you know, there are always tradeoffs, you know, you go for one kind of power, and you have to give up power somewhere else. And we humans have gotten around many of those tradeoffs through social specialization that makes us act almost like we’re members of a whole lot of different species, even though we’re all humans. Another way is by making ever more sophisticated tools, technologies of all kinds. We use these things to get around limits. And using them we, I mean, using technology, we actually can see like a hawk, sense infrared in ultraviolet radiation, and so on. And then we process all that information, not just with our brains, but with the sort of external brains that we’ve built that we call computers. But even with all that, there are still limits. And some of our power strategies, like gaining enormous amounts of energy from fossil fuels have downsides that we haven’t fully reckoned with yet.

Melody Travers
I mean we haven’t really had fossil fuels for that long in the scheme of history. I mean, we’ve been talking about evolution over millions and billions of years. And we’ve had this crazy power energy source for what like a couple 100, so of course, we haven’t really reckoned with that yet, although it it is being felt more and more. I wanted to touch one more thing in our discussion before we go, because you write a lot about the power of beauty. And usually I don’t really associate beauty and power that much. Yeah, you think about like power with money, power with weapons, power with energy. But you have this beautiful focus on beauty this, and I was just wondering, what led you to focus on that?

Richard Heinberg
Right? Well, you know, this is when we get to sort of higher animals and plants, multi celled creatures that engage in sexual reproduction. Then how do you attract a mate? Well, you have to use various enticements. And it’s true whether you’re a plant that is trying to entice a pollinator or an animal that’s trying to entice another animal of the same species of the other sex. This was a a notion that really energized Darwin, actually his second great book was on the subject. Of course, the first book was Origin of Species. But his next book was about sexual selection. And once you start to see nature this way, it’s the power of attraction. Really, nature is intentionally beautiful, it’s doing everything it can to attract the animal or the mate it needs in order to accomplish something. It’s kind of like an arms race, only instead of being about weapons, it’s about the production of color and sound, bird sound and fragrance. It’s not about death and destruction, it’s about making as much beauty as possible. And, yeah, we humans have certainly done our share of beauty production. I mean, we’ve gotten very good at it, we have, you know, museums full of paintings and symphony orchestras and fashion design and everything, but in my view, and we can talk about this more, because it’s going to come up again, I think this is an area where we could actually grow and evolve further as a species. You know, giving ourselves and each other a greater experience of meaning and satisfaction without threatening, you know, mass extinction and mass destruction through warfare. You know, we’re power addicts, that’s not going to change. Power is a part and parcel of who and what we are. But the question is, what kind of power and what do we use it for? And so, I think we’ve excluded beauty from that discussion. For too long and focusing on it could give us not just a way out, but a way forward that really could lead to a very different world and a much more beautiful world.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I I can’t remember where I heard it. But somebody said the only way out is through. So again, as you said, we’re not gonna get out of it, but how do we work through it and that suggestion of a shift in our values and towards beauty. That’s, I don’t know, that’s something that’s inspiring to me.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah.

Melody Travers
Power is key to life. It feels miraculous, and we’re only in our infancy when it comes to understanding how life began and how energy flows and power affects the progression of life on Earth. But we can observe that life on this planet is based on the chemical and physical properties that underpin everything. From getting hypoglycemic on a long hike to proton pumps to algae population growth to predator prey relationships, like hawks and voles biological interactions are dependent on the underlying physics. That dependency means there are limits to what living creatures can do, even as humans, the power champions, and we seem to be pressing against some important limits. Go do something physically strenuous. Experience yourself as a biological organism exchanging energy with your environment. Think about how fast your stores are being expended, and the trillions of mitochondria that are working for you. What do you learn about yourself and your physical relationships when you drop into your body? How can experiencing the power of nature change the way you interact with your environment? We are by no means the biggest creatures on this earth. And we are not the only ones who sing. Here’s a song of a humpback whale.

Melody Travers
We’re looking to dive deeper into these ideas, talk about them with a friend. We’ve put together a Power reading guide to help discussion groups, teachers and students and anyone listening or reading the book to facilitate understanding and formulate local responses to the interrelated ecological, economic, energy and equity crises we face today. This guide is available at postcarbon.org/power. Together, we can transition to a more resilient, equitable and regenerative world. Are you ready to confront power? This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Melody Travers and Rob Dietz. Richard Heinberg is our resident expert. The music is by Robert Labaree. A big, special thanks to Jason Bradford. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Learn more at postcarbon.org.

 

Photo by Hanro Bauermeister on Unsplash