First wisdom, then action. Richard Heinberg shares insights from his deep dive into the nature of power and power relationships. He addresses the three main “power tools”: money, weapons, and communication technologies with humble and thoughtful advice on how to approach them. You’ll have the chance to contemplate how you might live your most authentic life with moderation, rationality, responsibility, and sometimes sacrifice. And you’ll learn how to evaluate potential solutions to global environmental and social problems by answering a simple question about how power is shared (or how it is not).
How to Use Insights from POWER
Hi, this is Richard Heinberg, author of POWER: LIMITS AND PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL, and welcome to this bonus episode of the POWER podcast.
In both the book POWER, and in the podcast, I say that my purpose in writing is to explore the historical process that got us to our current existential global crisis, and to help us all develop wisdom and perspective in this daunting historical moment. My goal isn’t to come up with new solutions to humanity’s converging crises—because until we have sufficient wisdom, we won’t recognize real solutions, even if they already exist. First wisdom, then action. So, wisdom does have practical implications—but first we have to value it for its own sake. If we insist on skipping straight to solutions, we’ll most likely choose actions that aren’t really solutions at all—like nuclear fusion or carbon capturing machines.
Other authors have addressed the question of how we humans got to where we are; a good example is Yuval Noah Harari, whose book Sapiens is immensely popular. My book tells the human story specifically from the perspective of power. Focusing on power is the essential key that unlocks the motives and processes that drove biological and social evolution. It also helps us understand the world we’re living in now.
Knowing how the world works, how we got here, and where we may be going offers some clear advantages, along with, frankly, some disadvantages. You may already be aware of those disadvantages. Knowing too much can neutralize you, if you allow your awareness of our species’ distressing short-term prospects to feed depression or cynicism. If you stop at despair, you haven’t achieved wisdom, and you’re doing little to guide or assist others. There’s already help available for folks experiencing climate grief, and I’d urge you to seek it out. There are relevant articles, podcasts, and other information resources at Resilience.org. But once you get beyond the initial shock of recognizing that we are approaching a Great Unraveling, there’s work to do.
So, let’s focus on the advantages that awareness might bring, and how those advantages might help us accomplish something meaningful.
In the book and in this podcast, I point out that humanity has developed three large categories of tools for accumulating and exerting vertical social power—weapons, money, and communication tools. Let’s call them Power Tools. If I were a modern Machiavelli, I might be telling you right now how to master those Power Tools so that you can control other people more effectively, using threats and bribes either subtly or blatantly. But there is already plenty of advice available along those lines. My goal is entirely different—to help you recognize and understand the nets of social power in which you’re already enmeshed, so that you can take charge of your own existence to a greater degree, avoid being victimized by others, and help steer your community toward safety.
Let’s start with money. I don’t give investment advice, partly because I have little experience in the financial field. I don’t invest. That means I’ve probably missed out on opportunities to increase my financial wealth, but I’ve also avoided a lot of scams and traps. Maybe you have the smarts to be able to navigate the investment world successfully; but, even if you do, I hope you take to heart my advice to carefully examine your own emotions and motives with regard to money.
Money is a lure. So, if you don’t want to end up on somebody’s hook, learn to slow down whenever you feel a spurt of financial adrenalin. Don’t chase “money for nothing.” I personally think we’d be better off without any money in society at all; but, since we have it, learn to organize your life in such a way that money doesn’t take too much of your attention away from the things that really matter in life—relationships, time in nature, and the development of your physical, mental, and creative capabilities.
If money’s a carrot, it’s also a stick. Like other tools of social power, money provides both incentives and threats. Fear of losing what you have, of impoverishment, can lead you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t.
So, dealing intelligently with money requires an ongoing balancing act. Find ways of obtaining what you need without selling your soul. Frankly, most financial success is really just luck—what family you were born into, where you happen to be living, and the momentary national and global financial conditions over which you have no control. When you have enough money, don’t just assume it’s because you’re so smart that you deserve it. Also, try to avoid raising your standard of living so that you’ll always need so much. Instead, save and share.
My friend Vicki Robin has spent her entire career thinking and writing along these lines; if you haven’t read her classic book Your Money or Your Life, you owe it to yourself to do so.
Keep your money in a local credit union, shop at locally owned businesses, and support local nonprofits. That way you’ll be using your money to benefit the people in your region, instead of national conglomerates that enrich executives and investors by draining money from communities.
Now let’s talk about communication technologies. Here again, there’s a lure—the lure of being in the know, in the loop, part of the group. And in addition to the carrot, there’s also a stick—the threat of being excluded, or of being captured by disinformation into cults of belief and allegiance that can take over your life.
Social media are perhaps the most dangerous communication tools ever invented. At best, they’re a time suck, with expectations attached. At worst, they’re propaganda magnifiers.
Use communication technologies if and when you wish, but don’t be used by them. Choose your information sources by employing critical thinking skills. Always look for evidence to back up claims—but make sure that the evidence hasn’t been cherry-picked. Since it’s impossible to vet every article you read or every video you watch, learn what outlets are trustworthy. What are a given outlet’s biases—whether it’s NPR, BBC, or your favorite commentary website? What kinds of information never seem to get past its gatekeepers? Every outlet and every content producer has biases, but some are more extreme than others, and some outlets filter out exactly the kind of information that would be most useful to you. Here is the key to critical thinking: don’t just look for data to confirm your existing biases; also look for disconfirming data. Be willing to change your mind.
I’ve found computers and the internet extremely useful for my work as a writer. But I’ve also found that I’m better at using these tools to accomplish what I really want to do because I have a background in simpler communication technologies—books, libraries, print journals, and even calligraphy. In fact, I’ve found, as a general principle, that it’s almost always better to have at least some grasp of an entire historical train of technologies in any field of interest—whether it’s music or astronomy—rather than just hopping onto the last car on that train by adopting the very latest tool. That way you’re more likely to have a deeper understanding of the technology you’re using, and of how to it most effectively without becoming a slave to it. Plus, if you ever need to do some technological backtracking due to societal breakdown, you’re better prepared.
That goes for weapons, too. I can understand why someone might want to undertake self-defense training, given the likelihood of greater general violence during the decades ahead. But if it were my choice, I’d start with martial arts. Once you adopt the technology of the gun, you’ve crossed a line that’s more than symbolic. You’re more likely to be a victim of gun violence as a result; the statistics are unambiguous on that point.
Knowing how to defend yourself might well be a good thing in a violent world. But even more valuable is learning how to avoid potentially violent situations. Learn to notice warning signs that certain places or social situations are heading toward physical conflict. Defuse tempers if you can; conflict de-escalation training is available online, and in person in many places. If you don’t have that kind of training, if it looks as though you can’t usefully prevent violence, and if you don’t have some other good reason to be there, bug out.
If you want to put yourself in harm’s way deliberately, for example in a climate demonstration, be sure to plan escape routes if things get dicey. Know first aid, and bring a first aid kit.
Of course, much of the violence in the world is carried out in our name, using our tax dollars. This is particularly so if you happen to be an American. After all, this country is a global empire and has a military budget that’s greater than those of the next nine countries in line combined. If you pay taxes, you’re helping fund an enormous arsenal. So, you’re partly responsible for what how that arsenal is used. Pay attention and take responsible action when you can, and when you think it might make some difference. For me, that has meant attending and on occasion helping organize anti-war rallies in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2000s—which is a reminder to me of how many optional wars my country has pursued just within my adult lifetime.
So far, I’ve been talking about navigating vertical social power. Now I’d like to talk about horizontal power.
If vertical power implies threats and rewards, horizontal power thrives on trust and inspiration. Our lives are a web of both kinds of social power. You already have horizontal power relationships among family, friends, and in extended forms of community like your church, if you go to one, or your job, if you’re fortunate to work in a cooperative business or nonprofit. Learn to nurture and maximize your horizontal power relationships. That means respecting others and lifting them up; it means fostering mutual aid and neighborliness. Transparency and honesty are hallmarks of horizontal power. Threats and bribes just corrode and dissolve horizontal power webs.
If people around you are nasty and competitive, they might seek to take advantage of your neighborliness. Don’t be an easy mark. That’s one way that horizontal power networks get eroded. People give up on them because they get taken advantage of. Horizontal power networks need to be constantly nourished with attention and effort.
Now let’s talk about energy. Power is fundamentally all about energy. We are approaching a time when we will all have to learn to live with less energy. So, start now and beat the rush. Yes, renewable energy is better than fossil fuels, but less is better still.
As I point out in the book, on a gram for gram basis, you are 10,000 times as powerful as the Sun. We are powerful; you are powerful. Learn to manage your energy and your power to accomplish the goals that wisdom advises. We’re disempowered in a lot of ways, politically and economically. But don’t focus on that; focus on the power you do control.
That power obviously includes your money, attention, and work. But it also extends to the most basic form of power that each of us relies on—the metabolic power of breathing and eating. I’m no more qualified to give nutritional advice than financial or weapons advice. Nevertheless, if there’s one principle I learned in my study of power, it is self-moderation. If, as I conclude in the book, moderating power can enable a society to persist longer, then perhaps moderating your own metabolism can enable you as a human organism to live longer. Plenty of scientific evidence affirms that this is indeed the case. Of course, we all need enough food, of sufficient quality and variety, to maintain bodily functions. But beyond that, eating less will tend to make you healthier and enable you to extend your life.
The same principle extends to breathing. As James Nestor documents in his book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, modern research validates ancient traditional practices of breath control. Slower, more controlled breathing can bring not only many health benefits, but also greater mental awareness.
Living with awareness doesn’t mean living without risk, pain, or loss. It means living authentically with moderation, rationality, responsibility, and, sometimes, sacrifice. It means being not just a good person, but a good creature. Engage with the Earth, not just the human hive. See the world from a perspective that’s not just human. Spending time around non-human animals, and especially non-domesticated animals, certainly helps.
Finally, if nothing else, I hope my book, and this series, help enable you to evaluate all the solutions to global problems that you hear about. Consider each of these proposed solutions and ask: Does it lead to moderation and sharing of power? Or does it simply aim to maintain our current power relations (humans versus nature, rich versus poor) but by somewhat different means? Unless it leads to moderation and sharing of power, it’s really no answer at all.
Thanks for taking this journey with me, and thanks also to the co-hosts and producers of this podcast, Melody Travers Allison, Rob Dietz, and Post Carbon Institute. I hope it’s been a meaningful trip for you. Good luck, and may you have just enough power to do what you need to do in life.
Teaser photo credit: Byōdō-in: Jōdo-shiki garden. By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6801923