Show Notes

Richard Heinberg, renowned energy and sustainability expert, explores the development of social power – simply defined as the ability to get other people to do something. Whether through money, violence, writing, or other means, humans have devised interesting ways of exerting influence over one another. One major downside, with implications for the collapse of societies, is widespread inequality. Concentration of social power tends to create social instability. You’ll hear how power acts as a drug, damages people’s brains, and leads to the tragedies of slavery and colonization. Along the way, you might adopt new verbs like “Tom Sawyering” and “Robin Hooding.” Note: Choral music in this episode was licensed from Allen Grey Music, “Lost Voices Soundscape.”

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
This week, we are focusing on social power and how it has evolved over time. And we’re going to talk about one of the most motivating social powers: money. But we’re also going to hit on some other ways people exert influence over one another like violence, the written word and interpersonal dynamics.

Rob Dietz
Hey, Melody, how are you doing today?

Melody Travers
I’m good. Rob, how are you?

Rob Dietz
I’m good. Hey, you know when I heard that we were going to talk about social power and influence, one character immediately came to mind for me. And that was Tom Sawyer, because of course, he used his magical mental powers to get like a dozen boys to take over his chores and whitewash the fence that Aunt Polly had tasked him to do. And, you know, just a classic of American literature.

Melody Travers
I love that you brought that up, because that’s actually used as a verb in my family, to Tom Sawyer. Just a quick story, my Uncle Max -we were getting ready for some holiday and he’s a great cook, and he was making hollandaise sauce as part of it, and everybody has to help. And I had never made hollandaise sauce, and I was tasked with stirring. And, you know, I was about 12, 13 at the time and I was doing kind of the pathetic, limp noodle arm stir which apparently was not good enough. And I kept getting distracted talking to, you know, my aunts and uncles. And Max was just sending laser beams out of his eyes staring at me. And he was like, that’s not it. And so he was showing me how to do it. And then he just kept showing me and showing me and I was like, ‘like this?’ and finally I just end up sitting on the counter chatting with everybody. And the hollandaise sauce is done, and he looks over at me. And he goes, ‘you Tom Sawyered me!’

Rob Dietz
You know, that’s really cute that your family uses Tom Sawyering as a verb and actually uses this mild technique. It in my family, it was a little bit different. See, I have an older sister. And so take you back to when I was in high school. When she wanted to exert power over me or influence, she often would threaten me with this big like 12 inch long butcher knife.

Melody Travers
What?!

Rob Dietz
It sounds way worse than it is. So I don’t want to paint my sister as some Freddy Krueger or something. But she, you know, like, she would want me to do something. I wouldn’t do it. She would kind of pull the knife almost as a joking kind of thing. And I knew she wasn’t gonna stab me. So it wasn’t the most effective. But one time a friend of mine and I, we were finished with our day at high school and we had decided we were going to play tennis. So we had to stop by my house, I had to pick up a tennis racket. And he’s sitting out front and I go in the house and get my racket. My sister says hey, you got to take care of your dirty dishes. And  I guess I’d left them in the morning. And I said, no, I’m gonna go play tennis, I’ll take care of it when I get back. So she pulls out the knife and starts coming after me. And I leave the house running. And when she comes out of the door with this knife, my friend freaks out and starts like, sprinting away. He runs into this woodpile falls up to his waist, almost like he’s in quicksand. And, you know, he’s like panicking. So anyway, that’s the way tha social power was wielded, maybe like a knife wielding maniac from time to time in my house.

Melody Travers
Man, okay, well, yeah, violence is definitely one of the most obvious ways to get people to do what you want. But nowadays, I had brought up in the beginning that we’re going to talk about money and I think that money is really one of the main motivators that people use to get you to do what they want you to do. And I was thinking about my first job where I had to clock in and clock out. I was working in retail, I was not making very much money. It was kind of gruelling work too you know, it’s like physical, because you’re standing up all day, you’re not allowed to sit down and relax, because that doesn’t look good. It’s emotionally exhausting, because you’re on with the customers all the time. And you just have to be nice, even if they’re rude or demanding. But the hardest thing for me was actually the fact that I think I made I don’t know, maybe 10 bucks an hour. And psychologically, what it meant is that I started viewing every thing, every object that I had to buy as being worth 10 bucks an hour. And so if I wanted to buy a shirt, which is trivial, but I was like, this $20 shirt, is that worth two hours of my working time?

Rob Dietz
Yeah.

Melody Travers
Do I want to eat food with my friend for her birthday? Um, is that going to cost me -I was in New York City, so it was like 70 bucks. And as people kept ordering more wine, I’d be like sweating because I was like, oh my God

Rob Dietz
That’s two days of work, you’re costing me.

Melody Travers
Exactly. Exactly. And it had this like, really mental toll on the way that I like, valued myself and my time and my interactions with things. It was like a filter that I couldn’t shake.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I mean, it definitely I think most people can relate. I mean, we’ve all had jobs that you didn’t really want to do. And it does shift your mental view and how you see the world. I totally did that. I was like, wow, that’s gonna be four hours of hard labor if I want to buy that thing.

Melody Travers
Yeah, the other thing was, I actually like, morally became a little corrupt, I guess. Because we were supposed to clock out in the middle of the day for lunch. And I just stopped doing that. And I didn’t really feel bad about it. I rationalized it but I was I’m a rule follower, okay. And this was a rule that I didn’t really respect and I was like, you know, there this corporation it’s making so much money and then I was like standing at the back of the line when there was a long line of people to clock out for like 50 extra cents. I was just gaming everything and what seemed right and fair and ethical also started to shift based on the circumstances and this was a point when it wasn’t just you know, me needing some extra pocket money it was really the first time I had to pay my bills and support myself from this like kind of crappy job.

Rob Dietz
Yeah I see that as Melody thinking like a gangster haha

Melody Travers
Yeah…

Rob Dietz
You kind of saw the situation as unfair. You’re kind of Robin Hooding it, right?

Melody Travers
Yes, yes, that’s a lovely depiction of what I was doing.

Rob Dietz
I think that’s really interesting to think about that. So money as you said, is this motivating factor, it can push us in ways that we wouldn’t really normally go, not just to do work you don’t want to do, but also can challenge your ethics. And I had a situation like that once too, still in high school. Obviously high school was a weird time for me. There were knives and gangster morality choices. So what happened is this student that I knew — he wasn’t doing very well on on his SAT, you know, the college entrance exam, and he wanted me to take it for him because I was pretty good at those tests. And we had agreed that he would pay me $1 a point on the SAT which was a pretty big deal because you know, you could you could easily get an 11 or 1200 and then I’d have 1200 bucks.

Melody Travers
Wait, not the difference from his old score but every single point?

Rob Dietz
Yeah, he was gonna pay me $1 a point and I thought long and hard about taking it for him which, you know, I think if I got caught would have huge consequences. You know, they probably wouldn’t accept my SAT. I probably would have had trouble getting into college. And in the end, I was not as brave as you in denying the clock its power, I ended up not taking it for him, but it was really interesting. Like I said, that idea, that of him using his money to exert, you know, potentially exert power over me to do something that no way would I normally have wanted to do that or even considered doing it.

Melody Travers
Yeah. And part of you not doing it is having some idea of your future, which honestly, as a teenager, the future I mean, it seems vague to me right now. But then I was like, “That’s future Melody’s problem,” you know. So you had some other social conditions basically, that made it less attractive. But if you are a little bit more impulsive, I mean, $1,200 as like a 17 year old, you can do some damage.

Rob Dietz
Oh, that was… yeah, it was huge. I mean those were the days where I could maybe make four or five bucks an hour, right. So then you add, if you’re doing the calculation like you are doing, it’s like, wow, that just saved me…dozens and dozens of hours. Yeah.

Melody Travers
Wow. Yeah. Okay, well, we could share stories about social power all day. But I’m really curious if this has always worked this way. Like, did humans always lord over each other with money? If not, how, and why did we create these systems that make social power really uneven? And so I’m gonna go talk to Richard about it.

Rob Dietz
All right, catch you next time, Melody.

Melody Travers
We’ll see you next time, Rob.

Melody Travers
Hi, Richard

Richard Heinberg
Hi, Melody

Melody Travers
Rob and I were just talking about social power, and the social structures and tools that facilitate some people lording over others. And money stood out as a particularly ingenious social tool, since it creates distance between a person’s work and their ability to satisfy their basic needs. In other words, if you have to do something to earn money, and then trade that otherwise useless currency, for food and shelter and other things, then that can have a deep psychological effect on the way that you view time, your environment, the people who are dependent on you or you are dependent on and even affect the way that we gauge our own intrinsic values. And so as we were talking, it seemed like the pursuit of money can really challenge our morality and even make us feel kind of crazy.

Richard Heinberg
Money can literally make us crazy. After all, money is the primary tool of top down or what I’m calling vertical social power. And remember, if power is the ability to do something, then social power is the ability to get other people to do something. And with enough money, you can get other people to do all sorts of things. Money is probably the main way people in our society get and wield social power. And there’s good research based evidence to show that having a lot of social power can actually change the structure of your brain. Much in the way that language itself creates a kind of a deeper split between the left and right brain hemispheres.

Melody Travers
Oh, yeah.

Richard Heinberg
So in some carefully designed experiments, Dacher Keltner at University of California in Berkeley, found that people with more power than others felt freer to act. They talked and interrupted more, they engaged in more goal directed behavior, and they processed information more selectively. But these advantages have a cost these people’s ability to empathize with others shrivelled. Now, Keltner’s research subjects who were people who enjoyed a lot of social power, acted as though they had suffered a traumatic brain injury. They were more impulsive, they were less aware of risks, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. You know, people who write fiction have understood the foibles of the powerful since the beginnings of fiction writing.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I was just thinking about Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or Daniel Plainview in the movie, There Will Be Blood. At the beginning of the movie, he started out as a sort of normal guy, and then he would just stop at nothing. He murdered people to gain access to oil wells and pipelines and get rich from controlling them. And once he had that taste of power, he seemed to become really addicted to it. And it kind of outcompeted all of his other values.

Richard Heinberg
Right. Power acts as a drug. And it’s an old familiar tale, but it’s one we never tire of telling or hearing or watching.

Melody Travers
So, how did all of this start? Like whose idea was it to create money? And how did societies operate? Before we had it? Was it all just bartering or?

Richard Heinberg
Well, not exactly. This is this is a big story. And it’s a controversial one. But it’s pretty clear that money emerged together with the other basic tools of social power, metal, weapons, private property, writing… the whole process really started with a shift in how people were getting their food. Now, hunter gatherers lived without money, by just sharing whatever they had their economy, it was what anthropologists call a gift economy. Everybody was so reliant on everybody else that nobody ever tried to keep tabs. And that way, you could always count on anyone around you. And the whole group benefited. So humanity’s first innovation in food production was planting small gardens that supplied a seasonal surplus to hedge against unsuccessful hunting. But after soil nutrients would get depleted, the people would just abandon these plots and leave them fallow for decades at a time. And space wasn’t much of an issue yet. So as soon as the garden stopped producing abundantly, people just got up and moved on. What we would think of as agriculture and more specifically, grain agriculture emerged, because groups of people were experiencing crowding. In some of the most productive places like river valleys and deltas, they couldn’t get enough food from hunting and gathering or gardening because there were so many other people living close by, and they couldn’t just move on.

Melody Travers
I had that image of the explorers coming to the US, and it just seeming like this expanse of space for the first time. And people were sticking stakes in the ground and saying, this is mine.

Richard Heinberg
Right.

Melody Travers
And you know, of course, coming from the continent from Europe, where it was so dense already, I can’t even imagine, you know… in my little garden I have to depend on fertilizers and worm castings and all this stuff. But to just go, oh, this spot doesn’t really work for me anymore. I’ll just move to my neighbor’s, I guess that would cause some conflict. But why did they start actually focusing on grain? Because I think before their diet was mostly berries and nuts and roots, and whatever they could hunt, right?

Richard Heinberg
Right. And well, you talked about the Americas. And you have to take into account of course, when the Europeans got there, or got here, they brought all these diseases with them, which killed off, you know, the vast majority of the native peoples before the Europeans even explored new places. So it seemed like the continent was empty, but actually, it had been full of people just before the Europeans arrived. But to get to your question, grain had special qualities, in that you could grow it intensively, so it could feed more people. And then as it turned out, it was also easy to collect, store, weigh and eventually tax. So money was invented to stand symbolically for grain or for farm animals like cattle. And these were the basic forms of wealth in early agricultural societies. So organized food production, with field crops of grain, led to larger and more permanent settlements, and a seasonal food surplus that had to be managed or administered somehow. Now, this didn’t always result in kings and slavery. But a stored food surplus created the opportunity for societies to become more stratified, so that some people had a lot more power than others. And in these societies, the great majority of people farmed, in order to create the surplus that allowed a small minority to be soldiers, kings, priests, traders, and so on. And when some societies took that path, competition and warfare with other societies more or less forced those other societies to take up a similar way of living.

Melody Travers
Wow, yeah, I feel like that’s reflected even now in jobs people move up to managerial positions. And they’re not growing the food anymore as it were doing the substantial tasks, but the administrator that you had that becomes a more or a higher status position for some reason. Did this same pattern happen everywhere? Did it happen all at once? Or was there a particular time in history that was ripe for this type of evolution in social structures?

Richard Heinberg
Well, in terms of time, yeah, roughly 7000 years ago, this is a way of living that emerged first in the ancient Near East. But then, you know, within hundreds or thousands of years, it sprang up more or less independently in other places in China and India, even to a certain extent in Central America. But it wasn’t a simple linear process, so that before agriculture, social power was all horizontal, with everybody being mostly equal in power, and then after agriculture, all societies are hierarchical and urbanized and therefore characterized by vertical top down power. The shift happened in stages. We talked about gardening earlier, that was a stage leading to agriculture. Moreover, there are examples of towns and chiefs and warfare, long before the first large scale cultivation of wheat or rice, barley, millet, or maize. And after agriculture, some societies still found ways to keep features of horizontal power where decisions were made by more or less the whole group and nobody could force everybody else to act in a certain way. David Graeber and David Wengrow talk about this in their recent book, The Dawn of Everything.

Melody Travers
Oh, yeah.

Richard Heinberg
But overall, the evolution of societies after the appearance of grain agriculture functioned like a pump. Last time, we talked about the evolutionary pump of language, control of fire, and toolmaking, and how these all worked together, to propel humans toward having more and more physical power over nature. Well, with social power, a similar self reinforcing feedback process, or pump-like mechanism took hold. So once a person in ancient society was appointed to manage the grain surplus, and lead that society in times of war, well, that person found it relatively easy to get even more power, rising up over everyone else in terms of wealth and prestige. Hence, this idea of vertical social power or society as a kind of pyramid of power.

Melody Travers
Okay, so we’ve got another evolutionary pump going, that increases power. But why does this lead to establishing hierarchy? I mean, you sort of explained it, but why do we let this happen?

Richard Heinberg
Well, you know, we’ve been talking about money and this whole conversation started with money. And in his in his earlier book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber showed how money and debt always go together, and they always have. The first money was often just used to measure the indebtedness of the common people to the king or of a conquered tribe to the victorious tribe. Most people didn’t actually use money in their daily lives. And this has remained true right up to the fairly recent times, like my father’s parents were farmers in Missouri during the Great Depression. And they grew or made just about everything they needed. But they sold some of their produce in town to earn money to buy nails, cloth, shoes, and other stuff they couldn’t make, and also, to pay property taxes. And taxes are a key point in all of this. Because early kings and priests and aristocrats they derived a lot of their social power from taxation. They’d claim the right to part of each year’s harvest from everybody who was growing stuff, and that would be recorded in terms of units of money. And of course, most people ended up as debtors having to work their entire lives to try to pay off their debts. And cattle, goats, sheep, land, even wives and children were often claimed by the king or his representatives as repayment for those debts owed. So today, there are lots more ways of making money you can inherit it, you can win it, earn it by being clever at inventing new technologies or investing money or managing a company or other people’s wealth. And these days, taxes are often used not to enrich kings, but to fund social programs that benefit everybody. Not just the super rich, although the richer, always trying to rig the tax system in their favor. But it’s still the case that once you have a wealth advantage, it’s easier to gain even more, the fifth or 50th million dollars is usually far easier to make than the first million. And once you have wealth, people envy you, they defer to you, and mostly do what you want. By the way, I’m speaking here from an observers perspective, not from firsthand knowledge.

Melody Travers
Oh, I thought academia made people billionaires. Oh, yeah. I’m on the wrong path. Okay, yeah, that makes sense to me. I mean, that also just seems kind of like its own pump, right? If you if you start with $0, and then you know, trying to build up to that first million, like you said, is so hard. But if you start with a million, or you start with 5 million, you put that in an index fund or something, it’s making compound interest and making money for you, without you having to do anything really at all.

Richard Heinberg
Yep, that’s money.

Melody Travers
So what about writing? That was another thing that you brought up earlier. As a social power that developed, you know, kind of concurrently with money.

Richard Heinberg
Right, right, as a tool of social power? Yeah. The evidence we have suggests that writing started out as a way of keeping track of debts. And then gradually, it was used for more and more things -for telling stories about the king and the gods and how the gods favored the king or why the king himself was a god. And very few people in ancient societies were literate, not many people could read and write. So the priesthood and the aristocracy typically used some of their wealth to pay those few literate people as scribes, to record stories that explained why the higher ups deserved to be obeyed or worshipped, and why they deserved all their material advantages, then those stories would be read to the masses by the priests. So knowing how to read and write was a ticket to move up the social ladder. While the ability to control what was written in the sacred books, that was the real power.

Melody Travers
Yeah, that that reminds me of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s idea, which seems so radical at the time to translate the Bible into German, so that individuals could have really a direct relationship with God, rather than one that was always mediated by the priest, or, I mean, really those who were literate, who could actually read the Bible, which, like you said, most people couldn’t. So how did growing literacy change social dynamics after that?

Richard Heinberg
Right, well, growing literacy came about, largely as a result of another technology of communication, which was the printing press, books and pamphlets got much cheaper to make and to buy. And that helped lead to what’s often known as the Enlightenment, the growth of science, democracy, all sorts of social concerns, knowledge or book learning, became available to a lot more people. So many people got empowered in new ways. But at the same time, especially after the advent of newspapers, those who owned the printing presses got a new avenue for shaping public opinion. I’m thinking of newspaper owner, William Randolph Hearst, who almost single handedly propelled the US into the Spanish American War in the 1890s. So what else happened? Advertising started to take off as a way of persuading people to purchase more stuff. And, you know, today you can see with like, Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook and all the rest. These new communication tools often bring opportunities for self expression to the average person, but they also enrich a few company owners and shareholders and they give a huge megaphone to individuals and small groups who have some self interested or partisan message they want to spread.

Melody Travers
Oh, yeah, yeah, and we’re really… I mean, as each new technology comes out, none of us really know the future, and know what it’s going to lead to, and I think especially with social media now, society has been reckoning with the consequences of that technology in the way that it was created, you know, ten, twenty years ago at this point.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, we’re always playing catch up with new technologies and trying to understand the tradeoffs and the unintended consequences and make up for them. But you know, the power comes first and then we deal with all that stuff later.

Melody Travers
Right? So am I thinking that with counting and writing and money, and more social distance between the sort of haves and have nots, people started to have a more distanced or objectifying view of each other and see each other not as unique human beings with whom they were in relation, but as tools for getting more power?

Richard Heinberg
That’s it exactly. And of course, the most blatant and brutal way of objectifying relationships between people was slavery. Now, slavery existed to a certain degree on a small scale, at least among some cultures that didn’t have agriculture. But with ancient agricultural state societies with kings, it became pretty much a universal practice. In ancient Rome, for example, at any given time, between a quarter and a third of the whole population consisted of enslaved persons. And they were ruthlessly exploited to produce wealth by farming or mining, which is an extremely dangerous and dreary activity. And of course, for every other imaginable purpose.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I remember learning about democracy in ancient Greece and Rome. And it wasn’t until much later that I learned, oh, how are all these people having time to go, you know, discuss the issues of the world? And it’s because they weren’t working to support themselves.

Richard Heinberg
Because they had slaves at home who were cultivating crops and washing the dishes and doing everything else.

Melody Travers
Yeah, well, it’s nice to have this idealized version, but then the reality of, you know — we still have to eat and clothe ourselves and what not. So I’m starting to see how societal evolution can become more of a self reinforcing feedback loop. But once a person had monetary or ideological, religious and military power, were there any checks and balances? What was there to keep them from just getting more and more and more and more?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. Well, I mean, that certainly was the tendency. You mentioned military power, which is the most obvious way of forcing some advantage in social relations. And military power was Alexander the Great’s path to fame. And the list of warrior leaders extends, you know, pretty much right up to the present with Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and so on. And it’s important to remember that in most societies, since the agricultural revolution, military power has been used not just against enemy tribes, or nations, but also against domestic rivals or criminals. And who gets to decide who’s a criminal? You guessed it, the king or emperor or a dictator. So soldiers also served as enforcers for the tax collector, and the money you got from tax collecting could buy you an army and the latest weapons. Meanwhile, scribes recorded the military triumphs of the pharaoh, the size of the harvest, who owed whom or who owned whom, right. So again, you can see how these tools -money, writing, weapons -they worked together to pump social power upward to the top of the heap.

Melody Travers
Right. So I get the point about the elites deciding who is a criminal, and having the legal right to exercise deadly force within the boundaries of a state. And really, even now there are stories of non violent protesters who are met with extreme force. I’m reminded of Sofia Wilansky, the 21 year old activist who was protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline a few years ago. She’s one of the Waterkeepers, that group of indigenous people and environmentalists who were trying to gain social power to protect waterways from those building oil pipelines, new oil pipelines. And in this story, they were, you know, using nonviolent protest means with equipment blockades and things like that to support the development. And one night the police came to break up the protesters again, the police are doing their job, right. But they came in and shot Sofia with rubber bullets and a concussion grenade that nearly blew her arm off.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, yeah.

Melody Travers
It’s just crazy to me that that was legal. Right?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. The urge to gain or maintain power can be brutal. And that brings us back to the question you asked a minute ago, and I didn’t answer it. So let’s get back to it. Now, what’s to keep the powerful from just taking it all? Okay, well, it turns out that increasingly unequal societies are also often increasingly unstable.

Melody Travers
So like, poised for a revolution?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, that’s certainly happened time and again, in ancient and even modern societies. And there are many political scientists who argue that the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East just a decade ago, were partly driven by an increase in the price of staples like bread. So hunger can make people angry, if people at the bottom of the social pyramid can’t get by, they’re not going to be very happy. But inequality weakens societies in lots of ways. So over time, people at the bottom of the ladder start to feel like they have nothing to gain by following the rules, they start to cheat in various ways. They throw their support behind rivals of the existing elites. They refuse to fight for the kingdom when the king tells them to or they could drag their heels in work or low rank soldiers could stealthily murder their superior officers, as happened among the American troops in the Vietnam War. There was even a word for it, fragging, which referred to the weapons or fragmentation grenades that were often used in these killings. So societies weaken that way. Also, as power accumulates at the top of the social pyramid, there tends to be more competition among the elites, over who can occupy the positions of greatest influence. So you might see the cousin of a king or a formerly obedient general, putting together his own army, his own network of supporters so he can take power for himself. And this has happened over and over again, throughout history. Just one example, around 600 ad, Emperor Wen, who is the founder of China’s Sui Dynasty, he initially served as an official of the previous emperor. But when that emperor died, and the succession line was unclear, Wen gathered an army, they defeated a prominent general who was trying to seize the throne, and then Wen seized it for himself and reigned for the next 20 years. That’s, I mean, you know, you could tell hundreds of stories like that.

Melody Travers
Yeah, that reminds me of Napoleon saying, he just found the French crown lying in the gutter and picked it up and put it on, you know. That lack of clarity of succession can, yeah, definitely be seen as an opportunity to just come in and seize it.

Richard Heinberg
Or even if the succession is clear, you know, there might be somebody waiting in the wings, who sees that those in power are becoming less and less popular and grabs the moment. Unfortunately, you know, we can see this tendency toward hostile power takeovers at the top of the society at work in America today. You know, we’ve got increasing political polarization, demonization of political opponents. And social evolution theorist, Peter Turchin, has analyzed a lot of data from hundreds of past societies. And he’s pretty well shown that this kind of fragmentation and competition between elites is a real warning sign of societal instability and breakdown. And he figures that this is exactly what’s happening to the United States now.

Melody Travers
In some ways, that’s a scary prospect because change is scary, but change is also constant. But that feeling of disillusionment seems to be heightening. I felt that really during my lifetime and really each election, it just it feels like the temperature’s rising or something.

Richard Heinberg
I know.

Melody Travers
So all together, the whole social structure becomes more and more vulnerable. And then what? Something tips over into decline or collapse?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. And this seems to happen to every civilization or kingdom in history to one degree or another.

Melody Travers
Yeah. But why don’t elites see this coming?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah.

Melody Travers
Or do they?

Richard Heinberg
Usually no. And that gets back to Dacher Keltner’s research. As we talked about, the elites suffer from a kind of brain damage, which is what Keltner calls it, that comes with having a lot of social power, they think, “Well, this couldn’t happen to me, I’m so smart, it’s different this time,” you know? Or they get paralyzed by the very idea of having to give up some of their power, because they know that one of their elite rivals will immediately see this as a moment of weakness, and use it as an opportunity to take them down. So think of the most infamous and ruthless dictators, a lot of them couldn’t hold on to power for very long. And they were delusional about it. When Hitler had just come to power in 1934, he proclaimed the 1000 year Reich, a whole millennium in which the Nazis would rule. He was only off by two orders of magnitude. After just 10 years, everything crumbled, and he was committing suicide in his bunker and leaving his country in smoldering ruins.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I guess the next question is, you know, how do we get out of this trap, or keep from getting deeper into this feedback loop once we’ve entered?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, we’ll talk more about this in a later episode, where we discuss what I call the optimum power principle. But really, it all comes down to finding ways to keep social power from accumulating too much. In government, that means creating checks and balances, not letting them erode over time. It means taxing the rich, it means keeping people at the bottom of the social pyramid from becoming miserable, from losing faith in the system. It means keeping as much of that gift economy alive as we can rather than monetizing all relationships. And it probably means forgiving debt.

Melody Travers
Yeah, in those examples that you just gave the maximizing there, there does seem to be a point, unless we want to be just in these radical cycles of increase, and then revolution or collapse. Yeah. Something that I was surprised by in your book, and you just said forgiving debt. I came across the idea of debt jubilee, where all debts are periodically canceled, and I had never heard of this. And you said, it’s also in the Bible, the Old Testament, so at least, you know, a few 1000 years in human history. But this idea that every once in a while there was this clean slate where people would get their land and their animals and their children and their wives, which I mean, that’s so horrifying to me. But that that would you know, that those people would be taken away. But the fact that there was really a codified time, and I think it was like every 15 years or something.

Richard Heinberg
It was every 50 years actually.

Melody Travers
Oh 50, oh well a lifespan wasn’t that long then so. Okay, I find 15 that seems fair to me.

Richard Heinberg
Maybe that would be better. Yeah.

Melody Travers
But yeah, like that clean slate that society would get to kind of start over.

Richard Heinberg
Right and the word Jubilee, which is in the Bible, it’s related to the word jubilation, because that was people’s experience, you know, when their debts were canceled. And it’s a custom that’s actually found in several ancient cultures. And it probably would never have arisen if the elites hadn’t discovered through trial and error, that if they took too much, it would bite them in the end. So you know, with social power, it’s clear that there are dangers with having too much concentrated in too few hands. Seems pretty obvious sometimes, but the elites just never seem to get it. But the principle is also true with physical power. And I want to emphasize again, that social power is based in physical power, it’s the physical power of food production, of military might, or the ability to organize society with full time division of labor, that enabled vertical social power to emerge and grow, using these other tools, I guess, tools of soft power, like money, debt and communication technologies that we’ve been talking about.

Melody Travers
So we obviously have a lot more social power these days with more money, more forms of debt, like credit cards, mortgages, and obviously, we’ve developed extremely deadly weapons, with assault rifles and nuclear bombs. And like you said, not even just writing, writing seems so quaint now compared to, you know… we had printing and then radio, and then movies, and then television, smartphones and social media. And now, you know, sometimes I’m on two screens at the same time, and I just think, what am I doing? But if more concentration of social power creates more social instability, how have we been able to build up so much more social power in the last couple of 100 years than was available? I mean, for the rest of human history, it seems like it’s gone exponentially up?

Richard Heinberg
That’s exactly right. Yeah. Well, I think it’s because we have recently gotten access to amazing and unprecedented sources of physical power, which we’ll talk about next time. And we’re talking fossil fuels. As we’ll see, they changed the human story in enormous and fantastic and often hideous ways. Ways that we mostly just take for granted because we’re still living within their magical aura.

Melody Travers
What kinds of social power do you possess? Is it vertical or horizontal? Where do you hold sway or influence? And where are you subjugated? What are the mechanisms that empower or disenfranchise you and those around you? What is the source of this power? And how is it connected to physical power? When do you feel powerful? And when do you feel powerless? Are your feelings congruent with objective reality? It is important to lift the veil on these matters because power tends to create its own justification. And the human mind is resourceful. Are you justifying your hold over others? Have you bought into the justifications for your own disenfranchisement? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world, as storms in the physical.” Rebel. Rebel against that which subjugates you, but also rebel against your urge to take too much. We leave you now, with the sound of one voice joined by many.

Melody Travers
Looking to dive deeper into these ideas, talk about them with a friend? We’ve been putting a Power reading guide together 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 free and 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 Allison and Rob Dietz. Richard Heinberg is our resident expert. The music is by Robert Labaree. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Learn more at postcarbon.org.

Teaser photo credit: 1541: Spanish Conquistadors founding Santiago de Chile. By Pedro Lira Rencoret – Museo Historico Nacional, Santiago, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=137062