Show Notes

Overpopulation, overconsumption, and overexploitation of Earth’s resources go way beyond the realm of simple problems with straightforward solutions. Instead, they are dilemmas that require tradeoffs and difficult decisions. To guide such decisions, energy and sustainability expert Richard Heinberg explores big ideas such as the adaptive cycle, resilience theory, and prudent predator theory. Heavy topics abound, from death to extinction to societal collapse, but Richard proposes the “optimum power principle” to help humanity step back from the edge. And the good news is that we have a long history of deploying self-limiting tools (even ordinary policies like taxation and rationing) to curtail our overzealous quest for power.

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, our 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
Hi, Rob. How you doing?

Rob Dietz
Hey, Melody, I’m doing pretty well. How about you?

Melody Travers
I’m good. I was just distracted by our third friend in the studio, my dog, who is all about self sacrifice, and love. All he does is love all day long.

Rob Dietz
He’s a cute little guy. Glad to have him along.

Melody Travers
Last episode, we talked about how solutions are quote/unquote solutions that are assumed to make problems go away without any sacrifice. But with dilemmas, like the ones we discussed, there are always trade offs. So what? Do we do nothing?

Rob Dietz
Well, probably not. I don’t think that’s the best way forward.

Melody Travers
Great. I’m glad you said that. That was a rhetorical question. Of course, we have to do something. But first, we have to understand whether an issue is a problem to be solved, or a dilemma that requires some tradeoff. So last episode, we began circling around the biggest sacrifice that is really required, which is power, giving up our power over nature, our power over each other, over our consumption of fossil fuels, even our power as a species to drive population growth. So in this episode, we are going to talk about self limitation. Is it natural? Are we even capable of it?

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I’m excited to talk about it. I don’t know if it’s natural. And I think one of the first ideas that pops into my head is: I’d like to point out that we’ll probably tell some stories that show it in a good light. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, or that it always works out, as you might hope. And we understand if you’re making a sacrifice, it can be hard. That’s why it’s called a sacrifice. If you’re giving up power, that can be maybe even a scary thing or a courageous thing to do. So I just want to acknowledge that.

Melody Travers
Yeah, absolutely. I think what we want to talk about though, sometimes those self sacrifices that seem scary or impossible at the time, can possibly lead to maybe something else that leaves a little space for something else to develop and grow. And I was wondering if you have any stories or ideas where something was given up and something was gained?

Rob Dietz
Yeah well, I always have a story. Maybe not a good idea, but a story at least. And this is actually kind of on the lighter side. So a few years back, my daughter was probably about five, six years old, and she was playing in the community rec soccer league. And when you sign up for that, all the parents are… it’s kind of mandatory, you have to take a position, and I wanted to… I was like, “I want to be a coach.” All the coaching spots were filled. So like, okay, I’ll work the concession stand. All those spots were filled. The only thing left was referee.

Melody Travers
Oof!

Rob Dietz
So that is the worst job that anybody can have in the whole world. Nobody likes the referee. And you have all this responsibility. But anyway, it was what was there, and I took it. So the very first game that I refereed in the league was these two teams of six year olds, right? And one of the teams, I actually knew the head coach, and I went over and talked to him ahead of the game, like, “Oh, how’s your season going?” He’s like, “Oh, it’s great. We are crushing all these other teams!” Like I don’t know if crushing other teams is really the goal of this thing. Whatever. I’ll just let that go and ref the game. So the game starts, and it turns out that his son is amazing at soccer for that age. I mean, he was dribbling through all 10 or 11 players on the other team, scoring scoring at will. And when the other team would kick off, he would play defense, take the ball away, get to the other end of the field, and score. And pretty soon it was six-nothing, then seven-nothing, and I started thinking, “Okay, this isn’t quite how things are supposed to be.” So I went over and talked to the coach that I knew. And he was like, “Okay, let me tell my son to dial it back.” So he told his son, he’s no longer allowed to cross midfield. And you know, that team still ended up winning whatever it was — seven-nothing — but gave the other team a chance to actually play the game. And that happens a lot in youth sports, you know, you hear it called the mercy rule, where if this team gets ahead by such and such amount in baseball, you would lower the number of outs that that team gets, or something like that. And the idea, of course, is that you’re limiting the power that one team has, because the point of it isn’t win at all costs and destroy the other team. It’s like engage children in teamwork and sports and learn some things. So I think that’s a case where giving up this one player’s ability to dominate was useful in engagement of everybody else.

Melody Travers
That’s a great story. I was always on the losing team in sports.

Rob Dietz
I hope that doesn’t say something about your abilities.

Melody Travers
No mercy. Yeah, I was not a super athletic child. But you pointed it out in the end. Basically, you have two different paradigms going on, right? You have the paradigm of a game, a sport where the goal is supposedly to win. But then you also have a different paradigm, which is youth sports, which you said is about engaging kids, learning teamwork, building athleticism.

Rob Dietz
And let’s not forget fun, too. It was fun for the one kid, but not for the whole other team. That issue of giving something up, but you get something in return: I really like that idea where if you can figure out how to self limit or how to maybe use less power or less energy, you may actually get something in return. And like I said, that soccer story’s kind of a nice, fun lighthearted one. But I think it applies, though, to way bigger systems, too. My mind often goes to transportation, because it’s a big struggle for a lot of people to get where they’re trying to go. You know, there’s traffic, there’s the expense. And for all of my adult life, I have so much preferred biking to driving. And you know, you can think about that as a giving up right? A bike has a hell of a lot less power than a car, right? So you’re giving up that power. You may even be giving up comfort, right? Because if it’s cold out, or if it’s hot out… You know, in the car, you’ve got the climate control, and it’s certainly easier to step on a gas pedal than to step on a bike pedal. But I got so much, and still get so much, out of cycling, returns that include fun, that include fitness, that includes seeing the world, being able to go on adventures. And you know, there’s often times you can look at a bigger system and say, “Oh, if I operate this way where I’ve powered down, it’s actually of great benefit to me.” And you don’t even have to pretend like you’re doing it for some righteous, societal reason. Right?

Melody Travers
Right. Transportation was the thing that I was most concerned about in moving to Austin, because I didn’t grow up with a car. I’ve always lived in places that were walkable, or there was great public transportation. And I hate driving. It makes me extremely anxious. Just nothing about it. Like, it doesn’t feel free to me at all. What feels free is leaving my house with a backpack and a book and being able to go anywhere and do anything.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I know. You’ve talked about walking and how that’s your jam.

Melody Travers
Yeah, well, there’s a rhythm to it. And I remember in the first episode, you talked about riding your bike around and seeing that wrecking ball fall on a building right?

Rob Dietz
Yeah, I don’t know if I even had talked about it on the bike. But yeah, that’s the only reason I could see it. I love when you’re out on foot or out on two-wheeled… you can just stop and I guess proverbially smell the roses or watch the wrecking ball destroy a building?

Melody Travers
Yeah, the rhythm is different. And what has been interesting living in Austin for the last five years is confronting my own proclivities to walk or bike or take public transit. And then the system that is in place, which… We were going somewhere, and I just looked it up on Google Maps, and it was an 11 minute drive, a 45 minute public transit. It was an hour and 15 minute walk. It was a 20 minute bike ride. So that actually would have been the best way, I think, to go, only double the time. But in the time living here, they’ve passed a transportation bond, and traffic is such a big issue, that the culture is changing. There are actually more and more people walking around. And it’s how I’ve gotten to know the people in my neighborhood. Yeah, there’s a community building aspect, that when you’re in your own two ton universe, that privacy comes at the sacrifice of community, I think.

Rob Dietz
I like where you’re going with us, too, if… We can all do things that are good for ourselves, or, you know, make some individual sacrifice, individual change. But there are often times where that’s not going to be good enough or possible, even depending on where you are. So if it’s too dangerous to bike, or if it’s just not something that time permits. And all the things are set up for cars. Well, that’s when you need a system change. You know, you need to be tackling things like you say, it takes time, but the infrastructure needs to change. And that again, on a whole nother macro level can bring benefits. It’s not just a sacrifice. It’s like, “Oh, now I don’t have to own a car, I don’t have to make those payments. I don’t have to spew fumes into the atmosphere that are destabilizing the climate.” So I think this whole idea of how do we make some sacrifices that power down, but do so in ways that provide benefit as well, I think that’s largely what this idea of optimum power is all about.

Melody Travers
Hi, Richard, how you doing?

Richard Heinberg
Hey, Melody. Well, actually, I’m pretty hot.

Melody Travers
Yeah, me too.

Richard Heinberg
Well, you’re in Texas. It’s always hot there. But here in northern California, we’re not supposed to have triple digit days. And we’ve had several of them in a row. It’s like 115 a couple of days ago. It’s supposed to be 105 today. So hopefully the the grid power won’t go down while recording this. We’ve had some rolling blackouts in the area the last couple of days. But I guess, you know, that’s kind of relevant to what we’re talking about today. Because we’re going to be talking about limits and adapting to limits. And and that’s exactly what’s going on right now, with climate change. We’re having to adapt in a lot of ways.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I didn’t realize until we had rolling blackouts in Texas because of extreme heat or extreme cold, that that was actually a way for the grid to self limit so that the whole thing didn’t go down, right. And I don’t know if this has happened for y’all yet. But we’ve been asked more and more often to use less electricity so that they don’t have to use those rolling blackouts. So either the citizens have to self limit or the system has to self limit.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, we got a message on all our cell phones in California a couple of days ago saying, “Turn off your stuff.” And we did, you know? We turned off a bunch of lights, and it worked. The blackouts were very limited to just a few 1000 households.

Melody Travers
We’ve had really good success here as well, with people turning up their thermostats to 80 degrees. At first, the cries were like, “We’re all in this together, we can do this. This is a freak event.” And then a freak event became another freak event and on and on and on. And now people are getting pretty grumbly about having to self limit. And I’ve seen a lot of articles coming out about people just saying the grid stability is really the responsibility of state leaders and not individual citizens. And I was just wondering what your take is on that critique?

Richard Heinberg
Well, if people at the top are reliable and sober then everybody else is likely to listen to them and say, “Okay, well, we’re willing to change our behavior.” But if the people at the top are calling for some kind of self sacrifice, and they get caught having parties like Boris Johnson and Ted Cruz and Gavin Newsom did during the pandemic, then people are less willing to listen to them. So it’s all human psychology and pretty predictable.

Melody Travers
A lot of the stuff that we talked about did relate to human psychology last time. Last episode was pretty tough. We talked about the power dilemmas and by their very nature, these require sacrifice. And I feel like after that I have a better handle on what’s going on in society, the culture and the environment today, why these problems that we’re facing don’t seem to be presenting easy solutions. But our conversation kind of brewed this more philosophical question which we were just talking about: Are we capable of self limitation? And maybe to what extent are we capable of that?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. Well, one way to approach that is kind of at the most basic philosophical level. There’s a paradox that I think illustrates that. It’s called the Fermi Paradox named after a physicist, Enrico Fermi. And supposedly back in the early 1950s, he was having lunch with some of his physicist colleagues, and they were talking about the overwhelming likelihood given all the billions and billions and billions of stars out there, that there must be other stars with planets like ours. And life must have evolved on some of these, and on at least some of those, life must have evolved to the point of self awareness and technological capability and so on. But we’re not getting signals from those other worlds, you know? I mean, where are the TV shows? They presumably must be broadcasting out into the universe? His question, basically, is, “Where is everyone?” And there are a couple of solutions to the Fermi paradox that I think get to the heart of this question of whether we’re capable of self limitation. One solution is that, yeah, there are other intelligent species in the universe, but once they get to the point of being able to develop complex technology, and so on, they exploit all of their resources, and their societies collapse, and they go extinct. I mean, that’s a perfectly good explanation for why we’re not getting the signals. But there’s another solution. And it’s not as frequently discussed. You know, the solution I just mentioned — you can find it in Wikipedia and all over the place, wherever the Fermi Paradox is talked about. But there’s another solution that isn’t talked about. And that is, what if, when species get to a certain level of intelligence, either they they kill themselves off as just mentioned, or they adapt by reducing their levels of consumption, so that they can persist on their beautiful little planets? And they just spend their time from then on enjoying and taking care of their little planets and pursuing happiness and beauty, rather than, you know, control over their ecosystems and their greater planetary environments.

Melody Travers
That just reminded me of The Little Prince. He traveled far and wide. And there’s this character that owns the stars. And he’s like, “What does that even… what does that even mean?” And you know, at the end of his adventure, he goes back and he goes, “I have to go back to my tiny planet and watch over my rose, my poor little rose. She thinks she’s so grand, and she only has four thorns.” And he goes, and he cleans out his volcanoes, and he loves watching the sunset. And he’s on such a little planet that he can just move his chair over to watch sunset after sunset after sunset. He’s got this little world that he learns to enjoy and love, and it doesn’t have to be big and grand.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, maybe that’s what life is really all about in the end. It’s just tending our own little garden rather than, you know, building empires.

Melody Travers
Yeah, you mentioned specifically maximizing beauty and happiness. And I don’t think that was a mistake in your word choice, because it reminds me of that maximum power principle, but it’s sort of a different version of that than we previously discussed.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, we talked about the maximum power principle and how it’s a fundamental principle in biological evolution. But in in the book, I introduce a new sort of general idea. I don’t think it’s entirely original, but I think it’s important to name it and I don’t think anybody else has. And actually, the name that I came up with was suggested by Rob, Rob Dietz. And he suggested the phrase the “optimum power principle.” And I think that’s really good. It can be defined as the tendency of natural and human systems to sacrifice some measure of power in the present, so as to maximize power over a longer period of time. So the optimum power principle and the maximum power principle, are not mutually exclusive. They’re both necessary in order for evolution and biological systems to work. But, you know, sometimes it appears that one is kind of taking over and sometimes the other, but we see them both at work in human societies and in people’s relationships, just as in nature.

Melody Travers
Do you have any examples of the optimum power principle in your back pocket?

Richard Heinberg
Sure. Actually, here’s an example that is not in the book, because I just came across it after the book was published in a terrific article on the website, The Conversation, written by Axel Rossberg, who’s an evolutionary biologist, and he calls it the prudent predator theory. Because there’s this other paradox, which is, you know, if evolution is operating according to the maximum power principle, and we’ve got predators that are evolving to become more and more fierce, and so on, why don’t predators evolve to just take down all their prey? And then go extinct? And it’s a real question. So he and his colleagues have looked into this over several years. And the answer they’ve come up with is this prudent predator theory where, you know, if you take a predator and put it in a new environment that it’s completely unfamiliar with, what typically happens is they do start eating all the prey they possibly can. And then the predators go through a kind of dieoff phase. But over time, they gradually learn how to not kill all the prey they possibly can. And they come into more of a long-term, stable relationship between predator and prey, which feeds into another sort of general idea that’s really important for understanding what we’re talking about. And that’s called the adaptive cycle. And it’s key to resilience theory, Buzz Holling, another evolutionary biologist, who came up with this. Ecosystems, human communities all inevitably collide with limits in various ways. It could be a wildfire, it could be some kind of natural disaster that causes the system to hit a wall. And then when that happens, there’s a process of rebound, the system goes through pretty predictable phases of recovery. And ecological succession is a whole area of knowledge that describes that process of recovery. Where, you know, for example, if it’s a forest, the forest might burn down, and then you get weedy kinds of plants that immediately take the place of the forest. And over time, you get little trees, and then bigger trees. And 50 years later, or maybe 100 years later, the forest has returned. And it’s regained its characteristics. But at the same time, it’s also become more vulnerable again, to another forest fire. So this adaptive cycle is, as I say, everywhere in nature, and we see it in human societies, too.

Melody Travers
I was just thinking about this book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. I think it was Bill Bryson, and he describes killing off the dodo bird. And there were just some rare birds that human beings hunted into extinction, knowing that they were doing it, but at the same time, going after them because they were becoming more rare.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, the dodo was a perfect example. Because what happened? Well, humans were exploring new islands. And they came to this island that they didn’t have any experience with. They hadn’t evolved culturally to live on this island. And here was this bird that wasn’t afraid of human beings.

Melody Travers
Right, poor dodo!

Richard Heinberg
And they could eat it, use it for various things. So they just killed them all. It’s where human societies have been in one place for a long time, that you get these cultural adaptations of self limitation where people learn to take care of the environment instead of just exploiting it for all it’s worth as quickly as possible.

Melody Travers
Okay, so we’ve seen that animals can avoid overexploiting, but after some time, I was wondering what some of those limits are that human beings confront. And then maybe some examples of self limiting that have emerged.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. Well, in the most general terms, the limits that we face are death, everybody dies, life ends…

Melody Travers
Sure. Uh huh. I know that one, unfortunately.

Richard Heinberg
And you know, especially as you get older, it becomes more and more real. It’s a real limit to what anybody can do in this world. And then there’s extinction. Whole species die, and it happens to every species, and it will happen to human beings at some point. We don’t know when. We hope it doesn’t happen, you know, tomorrow. And then there’s collapse, collapse of ecosystems, collapse of human societies, which doesn’t necessarily mean extinction. But it means things have to be reordered. Things get reordered by natural processes, and then they have to get sorted out again, and the recovery through that process that we were talking about earlier, the adaptive cycle. All of these are necessary to biological systems. Collapse, death, extinction: they’re natural features of living systems, and also complex human societies. You know, historians have long been puzzled over the collapse of Rome and other ancient empires and kingdoms, and so on. But in more recent years, where those studies have become much more systematic, collecting enormous amounts of data about ancient human societies, it’s become clear that this is really universal. There aren’t really any exceptions to the tendency of human societies, especially complex human societies, to collapse. So the understanding of how that happens, and how the adaptive cycle works in that instance, is expanding. But of course, the more and more we learn about this, the more it becomes a cautionary tale. Because the symptoms of impending collapse are symptoms that we see all around us right now in our own society. Naturally, we want to cheat death as long as we possibly can. Naturally we don’t want our species to go extinct. And naturally we want our society to avoid collapse as long as possible. But how do we do that? Is just denying that that’s possible — is that the best way? Or is it to adopt certain self limiting behaviors within these systems, so as to stave off death, extinction, and collapse as long as possible?

Melody Travers
As long as possible, but maybe not entirely?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, it’s never going to be entire. I mean, you know, we gotta be realistic. But if you live a life where you you don’t drink and smoke too much and take absurd risks all the time, you’re likely to live longer. If a society exists on a more modest scale, it’s likely to survive longer. You know, when we talk about Indigenous societies having been around for 1000s, some cases 10s of 1000s of years, you compare that with the average empire, which has a life cycle of maybe 300 years at the most. Well, there’s a clue there.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I was reminded of the story. I can’t remember if it was the Incans or the Mayans. But apparently they just all walked away one day. It was just over, which people had been studying and trying to figure out like, “Why would you just walk away from a city or a whole civilization?”

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. Fortunately, they had someplace to walk to. I mean, if we decided that today, where would we go?

Melody Travers
Mars!

Richard Heinberg
Yeah right, not likely.

Melody Travers
Okay, so those are some external limits. I was wondering about some of those self limitations in natural and human engineered systems.

Richard Heinberg
Well, once you start looking for examples, they’re literally everywhere. I mean, at the core of every organism, is the process of homeostasis. If the internal mechanisms within individual cells or multicellular organisms get taken over by a self reinforcing feedback process, then the organism dies. So it has to constantly have self limiting feedback processes going on all the time. We do that in our technological systems as well. We even have a name for it. It’s called cybernetics. Like cruise control in your car, if the car speeds up too much, it balances itself out. Thermostats on the wall, you know: if the room gets too hot, the air conditioner kicks in. If it gets too cold, the heater goes on. If you’re into technology, automated intelligence systems, AI almost always have self correcting features. And the more sophisticated the system, the more self correcting features it’s going to have. But these technological self limiting features are basically just mimicking what’s going on in nature all the time. Even our mood swings are kind of self correcting, as long as we’re psychologically healthy. And we don’t get into, again, a self reinforcing feedback, where we’re just going down rabbit holes all the time and into depression or mania. But if we’re psychologically healthy, then our mood swings are self correcting.

Melody Travers
I’ve read a book recently, Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke. And the whole thing was about dopamine, of course, how it’s in charge of pleasure and pain responses in the brain. And the way that she describes it is like a seesaw with one side pleasure, and the other is pain. And so as you push down on the pleasure center, for example, the pain will you know, shoot up, and then your body tries to recenter it. And so it’ll push down on the pain part. And so she said that one of the things that we’re dealing with right now is that we’re walking through an amazing smorgasbord of pleasure stuff. Now we have our phones, always there with bright lights and sounds. And we can call somebody or text somebody at any time, like we never have to be alone. But she says that our bodies react to that. And one of the things that helps us keep in balance is actually by limiting some of the pleasure seeking that we do. And even engaging in something that we think of as a little bit painful. So she talks about pushing ourselves on a run or taking a cold shower. Those are ways of pushing down a little bit more on the pain side. And there’s tests that they’ve done, where this actually gives a more sustaining feeling of contentment than a piece of cake or likes on social media or something like that.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, yeah. Indigenous peoples knew about this, and they built it into all kinds of cultural traditions and as part of their daily life. There’s a passage in my book, where I talk about anthropologist Richard Lee, who studied the !Kung people of Southern Africa, hunter gatherers. And he noted that when a hunter brought back a prized animal to share with the band, he always talked about how skinny and worthless it was. If he failed to do so, others would complain about the meat and make fun of him. When Lee asked about this, he was told quote, “When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday, his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” I thought that was just such a beautiful little passage.

Melody Travers
“Cool his heart and make him gentle.” It sounds like a song lyric or something. Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah. But you know, Indigenous peoples engaged in all kinds of natural resource management through taboos like don’t kill the red kangaroo during its mating season. Aboriginal peoples in Australia had lots of of these things. And now modern professional conservationists who are trying to take care of endangered species and habitats and so on, are all studying what Indigenous people did and how they developed these these kinds of practices and taboos.

Melody Travers
In religion there’s a ton of abstention practices that usually, er the ones that I know of, are really centered around food: being vegetarian or vegan or kosher. Or many Muslims abstain from alcohol, and there’s even holidays like Lent where you give things up or Yom Kippur or Ramadan. Those are the religions that I know a lot better. You called them the “big God” religions. It can’t be any coincidence that all of them have this way of abstention, of practicing it.

Richard Heinberg
Right, right. Well, this, you know, it was a part of a shift in societies as they grew from being kingdoms, to empires. So you know, more people had to be coordinated and kept together, and sometimes they were people who didn’t even speak the same language, didn’t have the same traditions in their backgrounds. So these moralizing, universal religions, when they appeared, they took off because they supplied a need that these empires had: the need to get all of these people on the same page. And the universal moralizing religions did that. They introduced the idea of the soul. So you’re not just this physical self or a brain, you have this internal aspect, a nonphysical aspect of yourself that is spiritual, and that can either shrivel or grow. And what makes it shrivel? Well, if you’re selfish, and you do antisocial things, then it shrivels. And if you do prosocial things, and take care of other people, and engage in self sacrifice, then that makes the soul grow. So the pursuit of saintliness or enlightenment is based on these self limiting acts and work on the behalf of others, especially other people’s souls. So what good is that? Well, if other people around you are doing that, then you know who you can trust. Even if you’re a business person and you have to engage in trade, the people who are less likely to to cheat you in trade are the people who are part of this club of self limiting acts and work, you know, if they’re part of the same faith. And how do you know that their faith is sincere? Well, you know that if they’re willing to engage in practices that are costly, like sacrificing your time for prayer and pilgrimages and religious festivals. In extreme instances, maybe even self flagellation or something like that. So there’s a practical advantage for the society as a whole to all of this. You know, self limitation and self sacrifice sorts people out and builds bonds of trust among the people who share that same faith. But as it turned out, living a life of quiet contemplation in service to other people, is intrinsically rewarding. And so millions upon millions of people have found inner peace and fulfillment by following these moralizing commandments. And that helped make these universal religions work over a long time.

Melody Travers
I was just joking with Rob about giving up all worldly money and power to attain higher happiness just like the prophets have preached. And he was like, “Well, I’ve I’ve already done that.”

Richard Heinberg
It’s all over ancient sacred texts. You know, in the book, I list some of these things, but like, you know, Matthew, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor dust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through or steal. And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field and how they grow and toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.” So you know, that’s Christianity. But you can find the same thing in in Buddhism in Confucianism in Taoism. All of these religions have the same message essentially.

Melody Travers
What are some examples of nonreligious or secular power restraints?

Richard Heinberg
Oh, yeah. Well, you know, in the modern world, in particular, as you know, we’d gone from empires like the Roman Empire to now where we have a globalized kind of super empire. And big nations now are really big in historical terms like the United States, China, and other big countries. So we’ve had a period of time in which to evolve new governmental, systematic means of redistributing power, so as to prevent the concentration of power from causing these governmental systems to collapse. Okay, we’re trying to stave off collapse, right? That’s the name of the game. So how do we do that? Well, one of the ways that collapse happens in societies is when things just get so unequal over time that the people at the bottom — we talked about this already — people at the bottom of the of the economic pyramid just don’t want to participate anymore. So in modern societies, we have taxes, right? Taxes have been with us ever since the early state societies, kingdoms of 7000 years ago. But then they were mostly about collecting the surplus from all the farmers who were, you know, 90% of the population, and then using those to enrich the few. Of course, there were other purposes too, you know. By collecting the grain, then it was possible to have some in reserve in case of years when the harvest failed. So the people in charge were providing some genuine services, but they were also enriching themselves. Well, now, taxes get used in a somewhat different way. We use progressive taxation, where people who make more money get taxed more, theoretically anyway, get taxed more than people who make little or nothing. And some people, if they make very little, don’t get taxed at all, right? And then some of the taxes get used in redistributive programs, like Social Security and Medicare and different kinds of welfare programs, and so on, and in building infrastructure that everybody benefits from. So there are lots and lots of examples along those lines, but there’s also rationing. When modern societies get in a real bind, like World War I or World War II, rationing was implemented for just about everything, especially in countries like Great Britain — not only food, but shoes and power and all sorts of consumer products. And it was very successful. As long as people felt that it was fair, it was a transparent process, and that the alternative was for a few people to get that stuff and everybody else to do without completely, then everybody is willing to go along with it. And actually, there was a study done of nutrition. In England in Great Britain around World War II and the years after — actually, rationing continued in Britain for many years after — but during food rationing, people were actually better nourished than they were either before rationing in the 1930s, or after rationing after the early 1950s. So our ways of dealing with scarcity, if they involve self limitation, and cooperation, can be very successful.

Melody Travers
Okay, so I just I keep coming back to this. Self limitation is possible. We do it. It still feels like we’re utterly failing right now. And why are we failing? Or why are we not learning fast enough? What’s going on?

Richard Heinberg
Well, as as we saw in the last episode, there’s a lot of self limitation that’s required right now, if we’re going to avoid collapse, we have to limit our energy usage and our material usage in order to scale down resource depletion. In order for us to avoid collapse from from political and social stresses, we have to reduce economic inequality. And that means richer people have to give up some of their economic power. And if you look at this globally, that means not just Bill Gates and Peter Thiel and those guys, but it means wealthy countries like the United States in comparison with much of the rest of the world where per capita consumption is way, way lower. So the degree of self limitation that’s required now is much higher than in many previous historic moments. And also just the degree to which we’ve exceeded the norms of population size and per capita consumption in history is just off the charts. And that’s down once again, to fossil fuels, which we talked a lot about a couple of episodes ago. We’ve just gotten used to consuming so much, and we’ve gotten used to economic growth — you know, the economy, continually expanding, and so we expect more and more. And now suddenly, in order to avoid collapse, we’re going to have to limit ourselves in various ways. Well, the cognitive dissonance is just deafening. It’s literally deafening. People don’t want to hear it. And it’s a hard thing to hear anyway. It’s like, you know, death is normal and natural, right, as we talked about earlier, and yet we we tend to deny death as much as possible. We don’t like to talk about it. There’s this great little graphic novel. She’s talking about her own life and experience, Roz Chast. It’s a book called Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant. And she’s talking about her relationship with her parents who are on their way out. They’re old, and during the course of this memoir, they actually pass away. But here, they’re at exactly the time of their life when they should be talking about, well, “We need to make out a will, we need to plan for the possibility of losing our cognitive abilities, and so on.” But they don’t want to talk about it. They want to talk about something more pleasant, right? Well, we’re all like that. All around us, we see these warning signs about impending civilizational collapse, but we want to talk as though this can go on forever. We want to talk as if the next generation will have just as many opportunities as we have had. And in fact, we’re going to populate other planets. We’re going to build civilizations on Mars and beyond. As absurd as that is, it’s like, we would rather talk about that, than talk about the reality that’s staring us in the face.

Melody Travers
Yeah, man, you’re getting exactly to what I am grappling with regularly. And the more I grapple with it, it’s honestly really hard and depressing. And I find myself in denial, just it in full on denial. And I did one of those quizzes years ago, where I typed in my consumption. And I feel like I keep my house pretty warm, and I try not to buy too much stuff. I don’t use my car every day, I still was using four planets worth of materials, if every other person on the planet was living like me. Confronting that day after day is really, really tough. And the evidence is out there. But in some ways, I sympathize with people that are total climate deniers, because even just to say, my generation is the first that apparently will not live longer than the previous generation. Wow, okay. How do you deal with that?

Richard Heinberg
It’s tough. And, of course, it’s so much easier just to avoid it. Because optimism has been drilled into us. I mean, there is kind of a general optimism bias just to being human, that we talked about. You know, we tend to deny death and so on. But also the society we’re living in has been shaped by the need for economic growth starting in the 1930s, when consumerism came into being as a way of dealing with overproduction and the Great Depression. And we’ve got to have consumerism in order to create jobs, and how do you have consumerism? Well, it’s driven by advertising and public relations, which are like these advanced scientific opinion-shaping technologies that are continually getting us to expect more and buy stuff. You deserve it. Keep the economy growing. But the thing is, once it becomes clear that we can’t keep it growing, then all of that is likely to tip over into the opposite, into kind of a mass pessimism. And we already see the beginnings of that. An astonishingly high percentage of young people believe that humanity is doomed, with climate change, energy shortages, political instability. Emmanuel Macron, the leader of France, just a few days ago, he said, and this is a direct quote, translated quote, but nevertheless, a direct quote, “The age of abundance is over.” Okay, when that sinks in, how are people going to react? It’s very, very likely that people will react with just the opposite of this kind of mass delusion, delusional optimism that has been driving our consumer economy for the last several decades. We may descend into a kind of pessimism that drives society to come apart faster than it would need to, if all we were talking about was just the pressures of climate change and economic inequality and so on. Society could collapse quite rapidly if we succumb to that kind of irrational pessimism. So we’ve had irrational optimism and now, the possibility of irrational pessimism. That’s why it’s so important to maintain some kind of even keel. And those self correcting processes that we were talking about earlier, both psychological and social, are so essential to maintaining that kind of even keel, where the self correction is constantly going on.

Melody Travers
Well, I think you got to it. And our next episode, our last episode, where we get to talk about the last chapter of your book: learning to live happily within limits. And we’re still left with a lot of questions. Is it even possible for our species to voluntarily and deliberately rein in its own power? How do we make it equitable? How do we nudge the most powerful to give up some of that power? But I think you have some really interesting and surprising recommendations in there, and I’m very excited to explore those in the next conversation.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, I’m looking forward to sharing that too.

Melody Travers
Think about the timeline of your life, starting with your birth and concluding with the present moment. Now, think about what that timeline would look like if you removed all of the minutiae of daily life, leaving only your most important moments. What remains on your timeline? What did those moments of significance tell you about yourself and what you value? What would you be willing to give or give up to maximize these moments? We are inextricably tied to our environment, and the climate is changing. Sacrifices will be made sooner or later, by us or for us. We can still choose our path forward, we can still sacrifice for what we value. But to do so we must recognize the power we possess, build on it in community with others, and acknowledge the ways in which we wield it. The time to act is now. Will you help drive the shift or be pulled along behind? We will leave you with the 1916 recording of Edward Dwyer, a British soldier who was serving in World War I. He and his fellow soldiers would change the lyrics to songs and sing them to cheer themselves up. He sings, “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.” What else can you do when you’ve lost sight of what you’re fighting for?

Edward Dwyer
Because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here.

Melody Travers
For a more in-depth account of the genesis, evolution, and adaptations of power, check out Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival at your local library, or get a personal copy to scribble in the margins. But beware, you can’t unsee humanity knocking hard against our limits to growth on this finite planet. 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: Wolvessocial predators, cooperate to hunt and kill bison. By MacNulty DR, Tallian A, Stahler DR, Smith DW – Influence of Group Size on the Success of Wolves Hunting Bison. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112884. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112884, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56320983