Show Notes

Learn how humanity can exercise collective self-restraint to navigate the social and environmental crises of the 21st century. The world is in overshoot. There are too many people consuming too much stuff, and we’re facing climate change, biodiversity loss, and immense social inequality. We’re currently on a pathway to collapse, but the future doesn’t have to be bleak. We can develop communities where we take care of one another and the ecosystems we inhabit. By understanding power relationships, overhauling economic institutions, and nurturing our most honorable cultural and spiritual traditions, we can forge a happy and healthy future. Follow along with sustainability expert Richard Heinberg as he explores these topics and offers sound advice for young people who will be living through turbulent times. And don’t miss Melody’s song at the end of this episode.

Transcript

Richard Heinberg
For the rest of this century, the reality of what transpires will take place within two extreme poles. And those extremes are, on one hand, sufficient human self-limitation, and on the other extreme is human self-annihilation. Somewhere between those two poles is where we’ll really come out, and the closer we can come to sufficient self-limitation, the less pain and anguish we’ll actually have to endure.

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 Allison.

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
Last episode, we discussed optimum power and the idea that we need to find balance in how much power we use. It’s a balance between meeting human needs and maintaining healthy living conditions on planet Earth. In this concluding episode, we’re looking at how to do that. That is, how to live the good life while powering down, especially in those places where we’re overconsuming energy and materials.

Rob Dietz
I know, Melody, that you and Richard are going to have a lot to discuss about how to live the good life while powering down. And as we were approaching this episode, I knew that you and I needed to wrap up all these conversations that we’ve been having on big topics on power on energy — the sort of philosophical ideas, the stories that we’ve shared, in trying to figure out something about how people interact with each other and with our environment. And I thought maybe instead of sort of a prelude to what you and Richard are talking about, we could shake things up a little bit. And my idea is that maybe I could play the host and interview you.

Melody Travers
Okay.

Rob Dietz
You know, I thought you might be a little hesitant. Let me just… let me give you the reason.

Melody Travers
Okay.

Rob Dietz
I feel like you’ve been on this journey. And it’s really been a journey to answer a question that you’ve posed to our listeners each time. And that question you’ve been asking is, “Are you ready to confront power?” And I think it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on what that’s meant. So are you game for this? I’ve only got a couple of questions.

Melody Travers
I’m game.

Rob Dietz
Okay, so here’s the first question. Everybody who’s thinking about humanity’s predicament when it comes to overshoot and the limits to growth and all of the symptoms that come along with that, like global warming and biodiversity loss and inequality — everyone starts at a different place with a different foundation of knowledge. And I know that you’re not new to studying sustainability issues. But I also know that prior to this deep dive with Richard and Post Carbon Institute that along the way, and doing that, you’ve you found this examination of power to be… What? Dare I say it? Powerful. So I was wondering if you could talk about how your worldview has changed as you’ve confronted power, and seen it as the hidden driver behind all these crises that we’re facing in the 21st century?

Melody Travers
That’s a big question, Rob. You mentioned the symptoms, and I’ve been seeing the symptoms. They’re hard to miss at this point. But even having engaged in these topics, I I still felt like I lacked a really cohesive framework to work from. And starting from when I was a kid, I had this sense that something is terribly, terribly wrong. I hated highways and strip malls. And I would ask my mom, like, “Why would humans make something so ugly?”

Rob Dietz
Yeah.

Melody Travers
And I think I intuited that a place that doesn’t have trees and is impoverished — that those are connected some way, but I just didn’t know how to connect them all. And so this epiphany that really Richard shared through this book — that it’s power and our overuse of it — is really this throughline that can connect all of these seemingly disparate problems has been really helpful for me as this overarching framework. And I’ve been thinking about power as this magnet that’s just pulling more and more into it, that there’s this cumulative aspect to it. And so whether we’re talking about an invasive species or corporate overreach, it seems like the cycle is the same, that there’s just this extraction of resources, and that these entities multiply and just homogenize everything, and there’s just no room for biodiversity and human diversity in this world where power is just becoming more and more concentrated. So, yeah, every episode I’ve been asking, “Are you ready to confront power?” And, of course, I’ve been really asking myself that as well. And with anything big, you just have to wake up every day and be like, “Okay, how am I going to try to tackle that?” And so, putting my time and energy and creativity into a project like this has been one way that I’ve been able to do that. And that has really spilled into other aspects of my life with making my home more ecologically friendly, and getting out of my private sphere, home, and into my community. And so that’s manifested in ways of getting involved in local community organizations and creek cleanups and campaigning for better pedestrian infrastructure in my area.

Rob Dietz
Wow, that’s really striking actually, to hear this, developing how one step leads to another. I really appreciate that you’re taking this very activist approach and, you know, being a doer in your community. That’s, I think, exactly what’s needed. And a really, again, sorry to use the word again, but a powerful way to confront power. So yeah, I really appreciate that. One of the things that… And this is my second question. One of the things that I notice is that when someone gets a new worldview, or an orientation, it ironically, can often be disorienting, at least for a while. So as I mentioned, you asked that question every time about confronting power, but you also issue a warning in every single episode. And you say, “beware!” You use that very strong word, “Beware, dear listener, you cannot unsee humanity knocking hard against the limits to growth on this finite planet.” So you’re suggesting, you know, once you start thinking about power in the way that you have, and once you start delving into this worldview, you’re in it. You’re going down the rabbit hole. So I’m wondering how you are dealing with the weight of knowledge that you’ve absorbed about power and humanity’s predicament?

Melody Travers
It’s a challenge not to burn out on these issues. Anybody who works in the nonprofit sector especially has to deal with that. And yeah, that is a warning. Sometimes I feel like I put beer goggles on but they’re power goggles, and I’m just like, seeing everything in terms of the energy needed to produce and transport and dispose of all these items. And yeah, it can be totally overwhelming. However, overwhelm is also a tactic by powerful people. I think that’s why the news is so entrenched in our society, it’s a lot easier to control people or disempower people when they’re afraid all the time. And you guys have an episode about that on terror management theory in Crazy Town that’s really good. So in that way, I mean, I really… I try to engage in some practices every day or when I can to write or meditate or exercise and talk with friends and work on not getting overwhelmed by everything, because that is so disempowering. The other thing that I found that really helps me is engaging in these topics intellectually. Having a big picture intellectually, but then looking at really small things that I can do that are possible. You know, I’m one in 8 billion people now. Living within the scale that I’m in, and that means experimenting. That means initiating practices and hoping that they become these reinforcing feedback loops that we’ve talked about. One example: my husband and I started a worm compost about five years ago, because where we lived, there was no city compost. And I had just moved from Germany where that’s part of the culture there. And our roommates let us set up this worm bin, but definitely thought it was super-weird, super-weird. And, you know, we just experimented with it. I don’t know if you’ve had a worm bin, but they can smell really bad. And then they’re weird. And they’re imbalanced. And we had a worm-pocalypse. And so we went through all of these things, you know, experimenting and failing. And I think that’s part of experimenting. And then I was telling people about it. And they were engaged in that. And I was like, “You know, what? Let me do a little workshop.” And so I did ones for my friends and their friends. And so we got to diversify a little bit. And so the next time we had a worm-pocalypse, I could get some worms from somebody that I had given, you know, a generation to. So I found that experimenting, and then sharing what I’ve learned, really helped build out community and really normalize that action, right? Like, it was so quirky and weird. And then it became like, “Oh, I know a lot of people with worm bins now, like, that’s totally normal.” That was just one small thing that then was a habit that we could stack with other habits. And that looked like helping each other plant fruit trees and develop our vegetable gardens and invest in the local economy through getting food through the CSA. And in doing that, I feel like it’s just really important to do things which are within your sphere of influence. But keeping that big picture in mind, keeping that sort of North Star goal, that orientation. And not just patting yourself on the back if you use reusable bags at the grocery store, and you’re like, “Cool, I’m done, I’m saving the planet.” It’s about working on that true shift in orientation, which I think builds on themselves. Choices can cascade into a different way of life, and my way of life has changed a lot. And then of course, the hope is that you start small and and try to build out and help more biodiversity flourish and more human diversity flourish within your community and beyond.

Rob Dietz
Yeah, well thanks, Melody, for sharing that, and really for going on this journey. And in the process leading so many others of us on the journey. I really appreciate it and actually profoundly positive as far as I’m concerned.

Melody Travers
Thank you so much, Rob.

Melody Travers
Hi, Richard.

Richard Heinberg
Hey, Melody.

Melody Travers
How are you doing today?

Richard Heinberg
Cool. Last time we spoke, we in California here, were in an epic heatwave. I’m glad to say it’s more comfortable now. For now anyway.

Melody Travers
Well, I’m glad that you are physically feeling better in your environment. This is our last episode. So I hope you’re ready for our last discussion of this series.

Richard Heinberg
Absolutely. Let’s do it.

Melody Travers
All right. In the last chapter of your book, Power, you say, quote, “Forecasting the future is a fool’s game.” And I don’t think we’re fools. So we are not going to try to do any soothsaying. But I still think we have to do something. We can’t just sit here and watch the world literally burn. So I want to talk to you about ways we can prepare for really any possible future and really focus on what the big picture is here. And what we can say about the future with some assurance.

Richard Heinberg
Well, the one thing we can say with great assurance is the future is where we’ll spend the rest of our lives. But I think we could do a little bit better than that. We can explore some of the likely sorts of cause and effect chains in the feedback loops that are already visible, and that are likely to determine events on on a broad scale. And from what we’ve talked about so far, I think we can conclude that this picture of the future that is broadly talked about where, you know, we continue economic growth forever and ever, we colonize Mars, you know, we live in a Star Trek world. These are daydreams for the rest of this century. The reality of what transpires will take place within two extreme poles, somewhere in the middle. And those extremes are, on one hand, sufficient human self-limitation, and on the other extreme is human self-annihilation. Somewhere between those two poles is where we’ll really come out. And the closer we can come to sufficient self-limitation, the less pain and anguish we’ll actually have to endure. And the better the outcome for, not only for the next generation, but for the generations after that.

Melody Travers
So, what does self sufficient or sufficient collective self limitation look like?

Richard Heinberg
Well, it’s going to be an almost complete rethinking of how society works, because right now, you know, we are living at the height of the period of greatest population numbers and per capita consumption in all of human history, and that’s at an unsustainable level. So somehow, all of society’s structures and aspirations are going to have to be reoriented from continued growth, and increased per capita consumption toward other goals, away from profit and toward happiness and regeneration. And that means changing our relationship with power, from controlling our environment in ever deeper and stronger ways, to controlling ourselves. And from seeking to control other people, whether it’s through social media, or financially in various ways, to finding ways to cooperate with one another. So this is a fundamental shift of how society works. And we can get granular about that. But I think it’s important to start with that broad scale overview.

Melody Travers
Absolutely. I was looking back at one of Hannah Arendt’s books recently, and I came across this passage where she describes power. And she says, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal. Where words are not used to veil intentions, but to disclose realities. And deeds are not used to violate and destroy, but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Richard Heinberg
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you for that.

Melody Travers
She’s a beautiful writer. And I thought that felt really inspiring as a way of thinking about power in a really tangible way. We’ve been speaking about power, and that’s powerful. But we also need to act. And so last episode, we established that we can self-limit, right? Now, what do we need to limit? What do we need to do?

Richard Heinberg
Well, population is one thing. And that’s going to require a shift in cultural attitudes and religious attitudes. We have to take into account the sense of our environment’s carrying capacity for people. And we haven’t done that in recent decades. People in Indigenous societies did. They understood that if population was growing, that might not be a good thing, because it might mean hunger on the horizon, because the environment could only supply so much. With fossil fuels, we got out of that habit. We developed this attitude that, regardless of how much the population grows, we can always just put more fertilizer in the ground and grow more food, and everything will be fine. So we have to take some of those Indigenous attitudes toward the environment and its limits and recover some of those attitudes. Resource extraction, you know… Again, we’ve gotten used to this idea that we can just keep extracting renewable resources at whatever rate and nonrenewable resources — well, they’ll always be there. We’ve been fooling ourselves. And waste dumping: similarly, the environment can only absorb so much. Energy usage, land use, and then the whole question of inequality — economic inequality, social inequality — as we saw in the last couple of discussions we’ve had, you know, when when those grow, then society becomes more and more unstable. So we need ways of not just reducing inequality now, but also making sure that inequality doesn’t just bounce back in the future. Something we haven’t talked about is armaments, you know, that weapons are a form of social power. That’s one of the fundamental tools of social power. And so we’re armed to the teeth these days in the US almost, you know, literally, with with so many guns around. Well, what we’re talking about is not just gun control, but all kinds of armaments, including, of course, nuclear weapons, just reducing those to the point where the weapons we need are completely inconsequential and relatively harmless. We’ve made efforts along all of these lines in the last decades, but nowhere near what’s going to be required if we’re going to get through this century.

Melody Travers
You mentioned population and inequality and energy — all of these things that were contributing factors in the development of humanity as this global superorganism. And I was wondering if this superorganism can survive degrowth?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, that’s a good question. Because, you know, the superorganism has the consciousness of an amoeba. It really just wants to grow. And that’s partly because it’s only been around for a few decades, you know, global trade and global communications, really, just since maybe the 1960s and 70s. I think we could hope that in the future, it matures, but it will have to do that really, really fast. I mean, we have some efforts underway, globally to try to do that, like the United Nations and conferences, where everyone gets together once a year to talk about climate change, and countries make their promises to reduce carbon emissions and so on.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I feel like I’ve heard a lot of promises.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah well, that’s an effort to help the superorganism wake up and mature. But there’s a lot of evidence that that’s, not really happening at sufficient speed and scale. So if it doesn’t, then the superorganism is basically going to disintegrate.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I’m thinking about a previous episode where we talked about women’s rights and human rights in general — the end of slavery — a lot of these really wonderful things that came along the way withthis superorganism, with this explosion of energy. And, yeah, that’s a scary prospect to me to think about…

Richard Heinberg
Some of those good things going away.

Melody Travers
Yeah, yeah, exactly. So with that in mind, don’t we need power to actually make these changes? Do we fight power with power? What do we do, Richard?

Richard Heinberg
Right. Well, the good things that we’ve achieved, having all of this surplus energy available, you know, like women’s liberation, and so on — we need to fight to defend those things as circumstances change. And that will require power. And that’s a paradox, of course, because social power that’s based on hierarchical control of other people always brings with it social problems of various kinds, social inequality. So we need to fight vertical power with horizontal power. This is not a new idea. There are whole social philosophies that have been based on on this kind of thinking. And it’s been going on for some time, organizing movements, from labor unions to Indigenous peoples movements. The thing is: that has to scale up — that kind of horizontal power has to become so pervasive, so organized, that it can successfully challenge the vertical power of extreme wealth, and in some cases, fascistic national governments.

Melody Travers
Yeah. Have you seen that movie Antz where they’re giving all their grains to the grasshoppers? And then the lead guy, a really sweet guy, but he’s always messing things up… And all of the stock that was collected for the grasshoppers falls into the water, and the grasshoppers come and then in the final stage, they land arm in arm together and drive away the grasshoppers.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, that’s that’s the basic idea. It’s got to go from fairy tale to reality somehow.

Melody Travers
Yeah. So some of those ways of lessening inequality, though, I mean, again, you were talking about expanding the commons, right?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, basically, in some ways, what we’re talking about is running recent history in reverse. You know, what we’ve done in recent history is to monetize everything. So that stuff we used to do, just spontaneously together, grandmothers for their grandchildren, and neighbors for neighbors — all that stuff has become: you’re paying somebody else to do it. And that increases the GDP, right? It makes for economic growth. But it means that our relationships become more abstracted and less personal. And it doesn’t make our quality of life better. In fact, it does just the reverse. So, you know, we have to, like you say, expand the commons rather than privatizing everything. And one way we could do that is just stop focusing on GDP, and use different measures of how we’re doing economically, like gross national happiness, which the government of Bhutan has been doing for years. We’ve got to take money away from the billionaires. You know, financial transactions, tax would help with that, but also a hefty wealth tax, and just find ways to make money less of an important feature in people’s daily existence, so that we’re building bonds of trust and mutual aid that don’t depend on dollars.

Melody Travers
Yeah, yeah, this goes back to our money episode: of this really smart way of controlling people, right, because it doesn’t look like a person; it’s just, “I’ve got to make money, you can get me to do things through money.” And sometimes it’s great. You pay a therapist, so that they don’t have to take the side of your mom or your partner or whatever. And then you know, you end the conversation, and that is the end of that transaction. There can be times in life where that is useful, but we’ve started doing that with everything. And another element of that has been protecting ecosystems and things like that have become a monetary thing as well.

Richard Heinberg
So we need to change our incentives or societal incentives, so that they’re not always just monetary incentives, which they all too often are now. And as long as they’re purely monetary incentives, then we get trapped into making decisions that are, in the end, lose/lose decisions instead of win/win decisions. Because when the environment collapses, everybody loses.

Melody Travers
There’s another element that you talked about in in the last chapter, which talks about healing some of the past grievances. And especially living in the US, I think that there is a lack of true acknowledgement of genocide, of enslavement, of the persistent racist policies that have created really unequal generational wealth. So I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, you know, we’re gonna have to say, “I’m sorry.” But the apology has to be backed up with something. And that’s going to mean different things in different cases. Certainly, for Indigenous people, they get left out of the discussion, I think, all too often. And they’ve, in many ways, suffered really the brunt of land grabs and forcing them to live in the worst places and then giving them the worst options economically and socially. Whereas, in fact, the Indigenous people, in their traditions, have the solutions for so many of our difficulties, social as well as environmental. So we need to be listening to these people. And by that, I don’t mean cultural appropriation and, you know, wearing Indian headdresses kinds of things, but putting them in positions where they are actually advising what we do in terms of ecosystem management and so on. The fact that the US now has a leader of the Department of Interior, who’s an Indigenous person is a good first step along those lines. But I think that’s just an example of the kind of thing that needs to happen on a much, much broader basis. Yeah, I could go on. I mean, with African American culture, as a musician, I’m just absolutely floored by the cultural contribution of African Americans in jazz and blues and ragtime and R&B. I mean, basically, if you took away African Americans, we would have no culture worth paying attention to in this country

Melody Travers
Totally.

Richard Heinberg
And yet, you know, what do they get for it? You know, reading the lives of people like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and all these people who are making just immense cultural contributions and just getting stomped on again and again — it makes me ashamed. So that needs to be redressed. There needs to be a big apology, and maybe that means reparations of some kind. But that’s a big subject, and it’s a very uncomfortable subject for most white people to even think about.

Melody Travers
Yeah, I read an amazing book several years ago called Between the World and Me. And it was really the first time that I had read a book where they’re like, “You’re white, you have to claim being white, because people that aren’t white don’t get to choose growing up in the colorblind world of like, ‘Oh, I don’t think of myself in terms of race.'” I didn’t even know what a privileged position that was until I read that book. Just acknowledging what’s happened and happening and the structures that are in place — I think that that can go a long way. And there’s so much more to do. But if we’re going to come together and use our power together, then we have to do some of this healing together as well.

Richard Heinberg
And a big part of it is old versus young. I’m really concerned that over the course of this coming century, young people are going to learn to resent older people really, really deeply, because people of my generation and the generation after, Gen X — we have had the most material advantages of any generation in all of human history. And what did we do with it? We used all the resources, polluted the environment, and we’ve left it all for the next generation to clean up. What a legacy that is! We owe folks in your generation a lot. We owe you opportunities to have a life.

Melody Travers
Okay, I want to stay positive here, because I want, for myself and for all of our listeners — I want to leave feeling really empowered, so that instead of falling into that pessimism or despair, that we push toward that more positive future of collective self restraint. And so how far on that path do we have to go towards self restraint?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, that’s a question that can’t be answered in really specific terms. Like, okay, an obvious one would be how many people can the Earth support over the long term? What’s a sustainable human population? Nobody knows, because there too many variables. Because I mean, the obvious variable is at what level of amenity are we talking about? An industrial way of life where everybody has a refrigerator and a car? Or are we talking about a hunter gatherer way of life? Or what? So, there have been some numbers tossed out like, somewhere between 1 and 3 billion, and then some people even say fewer than that, like 100 million, 500 million. Again, nobody knows. All we can say for sure is we’re way over that number now. So we know the direction we have to go. The same thing with per capita consumption. I mean, right now, per capita consumption in many countries, industrial countries, like the US, is just way over. And we know that from organizations like the Global Footprint Network that calculate how much the Earth can sustainably provide and then how much we’re using and compare the two numbers. And if the whole world lived like people in North America, we’d need four or five Earths. Obviously we don’t have four or five Earths. We do that by some of us consuming a lot more than others. And then by stealing from future generations, using up Earth’s biocapacity that will not be available to children and grandchildren. So we know we have to reduce per capita consumption, but we have to do it fairly. So it’s the people who are consuming the most who are going to have to give up the most. And then we have to keep our eye on the impacts. This is the key, you know, you have to have a dashboard. And you have to be seeing, well, are the impacts diminishing? And are they diminishing quickly enough in order to avert climate catastrophe and the disappearance of wild nature? Or do we have to do a little more? So that’s the only way to answer that question. And not with hard numbers, but with, you know, basic direction. And then what do we pay attention to?

Melody Travers
I think there’s this kind of misleading holy grail out there, too, that we can just decouple economic growth from increased consumption of raw materials — that now we have technology and the internet, and we can all wear haptic suits, and efficiency will take us all the way towards decoupling growth from resource depletion.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, right. Well, economic growth hasn’t been decoupled from increased consumption so far. I mean, there was a lot of talk about the service economy taking over from the industrial economy. But what actually happened was the service economy just hopped on the back of the industrial economy. And they both continued growing, we offshored some of that industrial economy to places like China. But globally, if you look at global materials use and energy usage and economic growth, rather than just looking at it within the borders of a country like the United States, then energy usage is still tightly coupled to economic growth. So we have to get off of economic growth, as we’ve talked about already. There’s a lot of things that we can do that we’ll have to research and think about ways of organizing work and production and livelihoods that entail scaling back cooperatively.

Melody Travers
Which everyone will hate.

Richard Heinberg
I know it’s true. Economists will bristle at the very idea of doing away with GDP, because that’s been their bread and butter for decades. And the idea of cutting back on consumption? Well, you know, that’s how we create jobs. That’s how we make profits. That’s how we make returns on investment for our investors. So that’s why reorienting this whole machine is going to require more than just tweaking the gears a little bit. It’s gonna require redesigning all the embedded incentives for how society operates.

Melody Travers
Yeah. So in your book, you give some great examples of people already leading the way. Some more technical examples, and some maybe more cultural examples. I was wondering if you could share a couple of those.

Richard Heinberg
Sure. Yeah. I mean, there are folks in Europe who researched what level of power could we possibly sustain on a per capita basis? And ok, as we’ve said many times in this podcast, one way to measure physical power is with watts. So it’s like, “How about a 2000 watt society?” It’s a fraction of what people are using in industrial countries like the US, which is using about twice the power of people in European countries. But even European countries are using a lot more than 2000 watts per capita. Okay, so what if we scaled back to 2000 watts? What would that actually look like? Well, it turns out, it would look like 1960. In 1960, we were using a fraction of the energy per capita that we are today. And yet, people actually survived. They enjoyed a pretty high level of amenity and comfort. So if we aspire to a level of amenity that’s actually sustainable, it doesn’t have to be like living in caves or something like that. There are other people who are researching what does this mean in engineering terms? There’s an engineering school run by a woman named Susan Krumdieck in New Zealand, and she’s written a book called Transition Engineering. And she’s training whole cadres of young engineers to figure out how do we do what actually needs to be done, with the minimal energy and material throughput and the least environmental impact. Wow, how many engineers get that kind of training in the world? Once you get into this stuff, there are all kinds of people who are doing amazing things and leaving trails of breadcrumbs behind so that others can follow them do the same thing.

Melody Travers
That’s such an important takeaway is to examine the technologies that we’re using. Is this the only way? Is this the best way? When you were talking about engineering, I was thinking about planned obsolescence. And I used to go to this cobbler, and one time I show up and after like… I don’t know, maybe they were open over 100 years. It was like generations of cobblers and he was like, “Yeah, we’re shutting down. People don’t use this service as much anymore.” And I kind of saw it coming because I brought him boots, and he was like, “These are so broken and not high-quality enough. It’s as much for me to fix them as for you to buy a new pair.” And that’s true with lawn mowers. That’s true with all sorts of items. So I think that’s another engineering shift, but also cultural shift. And I was thinking about — you mentioned Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. And he argues that meaning — the search for meaning — is the primary motivation in life. And the quote that you had is, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” And so that brought me to pick up that book again and flip through it. And I found this really interesting passage about how meaning can also be found in suffering in facing a hopeless situation. And he gives the example of a terminal disease. And he says, “For what matters, then, is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” And in that way, to maintain not just blissful optimism, but to bear witness to the challenges that we are facing. And some of them we can change that situation. And some of them, I don’t think we can. So we are challenged to change ourselves. So I want to look at this kind of personal perspective. And when I say personal, I don’t mean as an individual, I don’t mean like one person, I mean, us more collectively and communally. Again, in love, love is among us. So what can we do in our daily lives to bear witness and to challenge ourselves to change?

Richard Heinberg
Well, the first thing is to get our priorities straight. And that quote you read from Frankl is a signpost in that direction. Self-restraint is a pathway to wisdom. It’s a pathway to contentment. It’s a pathway to meaning. Spiritual teachers of all faiths, all generations, have taught that. And we’ve been advertised into believing otherwise. And that’s really a self-delusion. The fact is that self-restraint is what will guide us toward integrity, toward courage, compassion, and social solidarity. So once we get that priority straight, then there’s all kinds of things we can do. I mean, you know, you could take a diversity-and-inclusion training so that you can be more aware of who are the people who are more advantaged and less advantaged within your own community, and what attitudes will will be helpful in talking and negotiating and making a collective effort toward making things better. You can research the activist groups, the nonprofits in your neck of the woods, and find out which ones are doing really good work and which ones deserve your support and efforts. You could also take a primitive technology or permaculture training to enhance your own practical skills. All of this comes down to your daily life and life decisions, even questions like, “Should I reproduce?” Child-free marriages should not be stigmatized as they often are. And this is a question my wife and I felt that we had to address early on. We ended up not reproducing. And I haven’t regretted that choice. But on the other hand, many of my friends made the other decision. And they’re raising children who are resilient and have their priorities straight, and so on. So wonderful — they will be the leaders of the next generation. That’s great.

Melody Travers
Yeah, that’s been really interesting. You brought that up in the book. And in my very small sample size, among my friends that I’ve talked about this with, over 50% of my friends do not plan to have children. And I think that that is a pretty major shift. My fiancee and I are planning to have kids, and we are the minority, which I guess is good. But yeah, I think that’s really interesting. Perhaps that is something that has changed. So let’s talk a little bit more about community. Because again, we are not individuals in this. We are communal, social beings. So what does the resilient community look like, in this new era that we’re living in and approaching?

Richard Heinberg
Well, it looks more like an Indigenous community, more localized, short supply chains, more direct connection with the natural world, growing more of your own food. Socially, it looks like networks where there’s a lot of trust and solidarity. People cooperate to do all sorts of things together, and not necessarily with rewards that can be counted monetarily as debts or credits, but just like the sharing economy of Indigenous societies. And a resilient community has to have checks and balances, that keeps social power from getting unbalanced again. So in all, that’s a tall order, but some people are researching how to do that within intentional communities, like ecovillages. There are hundreds of these things all over the planet now. And I’ve lived in intentional communities, myself — my wife and I — and we found the experience (it’s sort of a social experiment), the experience was really valuable. Even though we don’t live in an intentional community now, our closest friends in life, that we’ve maintained over decades, are people that we lived with in community, because when you’re living in a community like that, you share a lot, not just meals and sharing resources, but life experience in a way that we can’t do so much when we’re in a formal kind of institution, like a school or a business or something like that. Or even in a family, because the family, in some ways, is like a sharing community. It’s a sharing economy, but it’s also closed in a way that an intentional community isn’t. So I’m not suggesting that we should all be living in intentional communities. But it’s one way of learning about other ways of organizing ourselves, our time, our priorities.

Melody Travers
I guess living in an intentional community would be more of a long-term thing. But I’m wondering what the long-term vision is. How do we keep ourselves from getting into trouble over and over and over again?

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, I know, that’s a good question. Because we’re such a powerful species, just by our very nature, you know, the fact that we have language and the ability to create technologies and so on. I think it has to be by reorienting our priorities around beauty, spirituality, and happiness. I’m not a religious person, myself, but I think living a life that’s focused on essentially spiritual concerns, whether it’s through the arts, or martial arts, or meditation… Or there are all kinds of things that we can do to train our brain, our senses, our muscles, and at the same time to train our attention, our emotions, our cravings. So that we are integrated with the people around us, and with the natural world around us, in a pattern of mutual support and appreciation. That’s the path toward happiness, and it’s a path toward meaning. And it’s also a path toward sustainability over the long run. Because if those are our goals, if that’s our path, we’re much less likely to get ourselves into the trouble of economic inequality and environmental pillage and pollution.

Melody Travers
I wanted to wrap up with some of the advice to young people that you have in the book, I’ve been referring back to that list. And so I just wanted to talk through a couple of those with you.

Richard Heinberg
Sure.

Melody Travers
The first one: learn to read people and be trustworthy. You’ve got to read people, so you know who else is trustworthy. And you want to be trustworthy, because you want other people who are trustworthy to want to hang out with you, you know?

Richard Heinberg
Exactly.

Melody Travers
That seems so basic. But I think that it’s really focused on integrity. And I think that is a value that is really important. And that isn’t talked about too much.

Richard Heinberg
I know, I know. When I was growing up, that was kind of implicit here and there in what I was taught, but nobody ever just came right out and said it. And when you express it is as simply as that, it’s like, “Of course, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I should be a trustworthy person so that I get to hang out with other trustworthy people.” Because the the opposite of that is no fun. Hanging out with people who aren’t trustworthy is… no, you don’t want to do that.

Melody Travers
Right.

Richard Heinberg
So how do you do it? Well…

Melody Travers
Yeah, you become that person. The next one that I thought was interesting, that reminded me of being in school. And in school, this is important, and then nobody talks about it really, again, as an adult: to express yourself clearly and persuasively. The way you describe it is about getting other people on board with your ideas.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, you know, I have a little book, that’s a collection of transcribed speeches by Native American leaders back in the 19th century. I think some of them even go back into the 18th century. And these are just remarkable pieces of oratory. In Indigenous societies, the ability to express yourself really, not just clearly, but also persuasively and honestly and with integrity, is very highly valued. It’s not that we don’t value that at all. But we don’t really teach ourselves and each other that in a systematic way in the modern world. I think that’s a really important thing. Again, it’s part of being trustworthy and doing what’s essential to be able to hang out with other trustworthy people.

Melody Travers
Absolutely. The next one was: learn how energy works. And this book and this podcast has really been a journey of looking at energy as well power — raw power — and being able to recognize energy around you like, “How are things running around here?”

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, well, energy is very abstract, right? You can’t just put it in a bottle. It’s what makes everything work, ultimately. And so paying attention to energy doesn’t mean just what’s coming through the wires to make your computer work. I’m talking about what makes your body work, what makes nature work. So being able to trace the flows of energy, through nature, through your food, and then obviously also through the technological built environment, all of that is really eye opening. It gives you, again, a sense of understanding how all of this works and how you fit into it.

Melody Travers
Yeah, the last one I wanted to talk about was: learn to emotionally process trauma and grief, and to help others do so. Can you tell me a little bit about why you put that on the list?

Richard Heinberg
Well, first of all, because I think as a society, we’ve become very bad at that. And second, because I think we’re going to have the need for that skill and that ability as time goes on through this century, not just human trauma, but also the the trauma of the natural world around us: loss of so much that we take for granted. And as you said earlier, we don’t want to end on a totally down note, we want this podcast to be inspiring too. But the reality is, you know, we’re going to be living through some difficult times and knowing how to process grief, knowing how to grieve together in community is going to be a lifesaver. You know, a lot of PTSD symptoms really disappear when grief is processed communally. That’s why, again, Indigenous societies learned how to do this. And they spent time when somebody died. Sometimes it would be days of everybody just wailing and crying together, because that’s what it took. But then they move on.

Melody Travers
Yeah, we are in a time of trying to emotionally process the pandemic. And I know a lot of people personally who are struggling with what they’ve been through the last few years and don’t have the tools to get to the other side. You know, I said, it was the last piece of advice. But I do think the really last piece that you put on there was: no one can do it all, but do your best. And I think that is really important too.

Richard Heinberg
Yeah, have realistic expectations, and then put your shoulder to the wheel. That’s all we can do. I wish I could have heard and taken some of this advice myself when I was younger. That’s why I put this list together. These are the kinds of things where I could have saved myself a lot of wasted time and effort if somebody had just sat me down and told me a few simple things about life skills. You know, my generation had basically all the information it needed. We had books like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small Is Beautiful. We could have tamped down consumption and population growth. But instead, we threw the biggest party in all of human history, and we’re leaving your generation, and the ones after, to clean up after and to hunt for the crumbs of what’s left. It’s incredibly unfair. The least we can do is offer whatever bits of wisdom we may have accumulated, and try to help any way we can. So that was the motivation behind this book. And I hope it’s received and in the same spirit,

Melody Travers
I want to thank you so much, Richard, for this journey that you’ve taken me on and that we’ve shared together, and are now sharing with our community.

Richard Heinberg
And thank you, thank you, Melody. It’s been a real pleasure working with you on this. And it’s a conversation that I hope will continue in lots of ways in lots of households. People listening to this, don’t just bottle it up, talk about it.

Melody Travers
Power is essential. And I mean that in the philosophical sense. It is an essential quality of all living beings, of the chemistry and physics of the stars, and of all social dynamics. Take stock of your power. How are you wielding it? We’ve made it to the end. But I urge you to make this the beginning. My graduate advisor told me the way to really understand a text is to read it forward, and then backward, paragraph by paragraph, and then forward again. You’ve listened. Now read and reread and listen again until it becomes a part of your vernacular, until the words become your own. Activate what you’ve learned by integrating it into your everyday life, a sliver at a time. Stack the habits that work, and share what you’ve learned with others. Every movement begins with a handful of people deciding to do things differently if we can change our relationship with power, we can change everything. Thank you so much for listening.

Melody Travers
Looking for a deeper dive 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 free reading 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 Allison, and Rob Dietz. Richard Heinberg is our resident expert. The music is by Robert Labaree. The coda song was “Play Me to Sleep” by me, and you can find more of my music at melodychebrellan.com This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Learn more at postcarbon.org.

 

Photo by Nong V on Unsplash