Homo sapiens is Earth’s unequivocal champion at gaining and wielding power. We shoot probes to other planets and plumb the depths of the seas. Each year our species extracts and processes 100 billion tons of natural resources that end up as consumer products and building materials. In order to obtain these resources, we move more soil and rock than are displaced by all of nature’s forces combined—including wind, rivers, rain, volcanoes, and earthquakes. We do so much mining, transporting, manufacturing, and waste dumping that, purely as a side effect, we’re also significantly and perilously altering the chemistry of our planet’s atmosphere and oceans. That’s power.
Moreover, we have found a multitude of ways to use our outsized human power to subjugate and control one another. We’ve generated so much economic inequality that a mere seven individuals now enjoy as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity—roughly four billion people. At the same time, we’ve developed weapons so lethal that the survival of our species depends on our never using them. We influence one another’s behavior with debt, laws, prisons, taxes, regulations, borders, facial recognition technology, property rights, advertising, hiring and firing, propaganda, internet and social media algorithms, and a thousand other means.
Power is good; we can’t do anything without it. But it’s clear that we are creating some serious environmental and social dilemmas for ourselves. Is it possible that we humans, or at least some of us, now enjoy too much of a good thing? Or is our problem merely that we don’t understand power very well, and therefore tend to misuse it?
These questions have bugged me my entire adult life. A few years ago, I decided to undertake a systematic search for answers. I started by focusing on the seemingly simple query: what is power?
I spent months doing a literature search (it took so long because a lot has been written), but came away frustrated. Ask a physicist and she’ll tell you that power is “the rate of energy transfer,” measurable in watts. But that’s not how most of us use the word. When we speak of the power of a dictator or a billionaire, we’re not concerned about their ability to convey a lot of energy quickly. The kind of power that people wield over one another is usually defined as “the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” How are these two meanings related—or are they? Are we merely using one word to refer to two or more completely different things?
Gradually, through research and thought, I have come to see the many and varied meanings of power as inextricably linked. The link is evolution.
Humanity’s amazing powers have roots in the plant and animal kingdoms. All sorts of organisms communicate, move, sense, process information intelligently, and exclude others of their kind from access to resources; some even build complex societies with division of labor. We humans have amplified these powers using an increasing array of dazzling technologies—as well as language, a key facilitator of nearly everything we do. For example, over millions of years, insects, birds, and bats independently evolved the power of flight. However, in just the last century, using airplanes, we humans developed the ability to fly faster than a diving peregrine, and higher than an Asian goose soaring above the Himalayas. Using technology guided with numbers and words, we can detect trace chemicals that even a bear’s nose can’t sniff out, and lift burdens that would crush an elephant.
The ability to do anything whatsoever starts with energy. Controlling the transfer of energy is basic to life; it’s the essential business of every cell. In fact, gram-for-gram, the average organism is 10,000 times as powerful as the Sun. That seems unbelievable until you do the math. The Sun is very massive; dividing luminosity by mass yields 0.0002 milliwatts of power per gram. A human, eating an average diet and converting food energy into heat and work, averages 2 milliwatts per gram—and some nonhuman cells can do better than that. Of course, life’s power is derivative, mostly originating with sunlight. But living things have unquestionably gotten very good at gathering and managing energy.
Energy is the currency of power, and controlling its transfer enables organisms to do things. Indeed, one key definition of power is, “the ability to do something.” We speak of the power of movement, the power of perception, the power of thought, and the power of imagination. While these abilities are very different from one another, they all ultimately depend on energy. Social power could be defined as “the ability to get other people to do something”—whether by incentive, threat, or inspiration. It’s this kind of power that we humans tend to fret over much of the time, and, while it sometimes seems disconnected from physical demonstrations of power, it’s really just another ability made possible by clever energy management. Social power is the ability to influence how others manage their energy.
Ways of expressing power have evolved—first through the relatively slow process of biological evolution, and more recently in humans via speedier cultural evolution using language and technology. As a result, we appear (to ourselves, at least) to be the tip of evolution’s arrow. But, to mention just the two most extreme options, is that arrow aimed toward godhood—in which science and technology develop to the point where we attain immortality and virtual omnipotence? Or toward extinction—in which we deplete Earth’s resources and fight one another to the death over what’s left?
Today, as the planet warms and our oceans are being emptied of life, the latter outcome looks disturbingly likely. Whether we extinguish ourselves and most other higher organisms on this planet, or live to enjoy the benefits of power for many millennia to come will likely depend on whether we find appropriate ways to limit our power in the present so as to exert it over a longer period of time. If we are to survive, we must reduce our carbon emissions and other forms of pollution, leave more living space for other species, eliminate nuclear weapons, and greatly reduce economic inequality. Conventional thinking typically proposes to exert even more power through technology to fix the problems caused by our overuse of power in the past, but this merely clouds the issue, delaying a genuine response while problems continue to accumulate and worsen.
Self-limitation of power is, again, a strategy of energy management rooted in evolution. In nature, failure to control or limit power can result in disaster. Each organism maintains homeostasis—a moment-by-moment power balancing act. Ecosystems are shaped by power balances among predators and prey. And some species specialize on rare habitats or food sources, thereby limiting their own numbers. Sometimes individuals sacrifice themselves for the good of the whole—like exploding ants (Colobopsis saundersi, found in Malaysia and Brunei), which produce a toxic fluid in their abdomens, so that, when the colony is attacked, some of the workers can blow themselves up, releasing the toxin and killing the invaders.
Power self-limits have also played a role in human evolution. Some Native American societies threw annual feasts in which they gave away all surplus food and other possessions, thereby keeping inequality from gaining a foothold. In the modern world, many nations have instituted democracy as a way to thwart the emergence of tyrants. A few societies have even refused to adopt certain technologies (as the Amish have with television and cars) or energy sources (as the Chinese largely did with coal in the 12th century) because they thought these would be too disruptive to their existing values.
Since we’re facing so many existential challenges related to the over-use of power, why aren’t we successfully limiting ourselves now? We try, using climate treaties, environmental regulations, wealth redistribution programs, and weapons-restricting negotiations. But there are a host of reasons our power-limiting efforts are failing to avert crisis upon crisis. The foremost reason is the fact that we have recently increased our collective power dramatically and quickly, via fossil fuels—which represent millions of years’ worth of ancient sunlight gathered, transformed, and stored by natural processes. The amazing advantages these fuels have given us tend to delude us into thinking that we can exceed every limit, and can overpower nature and one another without serious negative consequences.
During the last 200 years, per capita energy usage grew eight-fold, while human population expanded at about the same rate. As a result of energy growth, all the things we do with energy became more doable. Transportation, manufacturing, agriculture, and mining exploded in scale. Energy became so abundant that it seemed we could solve any human problem, now or in the future, just by throwing more energy at it. We even reconfigured our economic system so that it assumes and requires perpetual growth.
But growth in fossil-fuel energy can’t continue much longer: depletion and climate change will see to that. And even if we make a wholehearted effort to switch to low-carbon energy sources, we face limits to nature’s supplies of materials with which to make solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, and batteries.
The ways we’re currently trying to share and manage power are insufficient also because we have failed to understand power itself. Rather than accepting that power limits exist, then surveying them and adapting ourselves to them, we try to finesse or deny them. We respond to climate change by hoping for a renewable energy transition—without questioning the amounts of energy we use or what we do with it. We deal with economic inequality by establishing minimal safeguards for the poor—without examining the structural means by which some people enrich themselves to absurd degrees.
It’s high time we discussed power more honestly, compassionately, and intelligently. But first we have to understand what we’re talking about.
The Evolution of Social Power
We are all enmeshed in fascinating and often daunting webs of social power. From laws to police and prisons, to armies and weaponry, to fame and high political office, to paychecks and taxes, to debt and credit, to advertising and public relations, to propaganda, to household and workplace gender dynamics, to organizational chains of command, to extremes of wealth and poverty, people have found endless ways of modifying one another’s behavior to suit their wants and needs.
These proliferating abilities to influence others are rooted in nature. All social animals have hierarchies (like the pecking order in my backyard flock of hens), and some animals are territorial, excluding others of their kind from access to mating opportunities or food. Some creatures (like ants) have even evolved a clearly defined division of labor. But we humans have managed to take social organization to extremes, empowering some and disempowering others in ways that are sometimes brutal beyond comprehension. How and why have we done this?
As a result of decades of work by anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, and biologists, answers are falling into place. It turns out that the chief initial players in the drama of evolving social power were language, food, fighting, and reproduction.
When we speak of social power, we’re usually referring to vertical power—in which one person, or a group, influences the behavior of others through incentives and disincentives (i.e., bribes and threats). This kind of power evolved in discrete stages starting about 11,000 years ago. More on that in a moment.
Prior to that, however, and for the vast majority of our existence as a species, we lived as hunter-gatherers, among whom power was typically distributed more horizontally. That is, nearly everyone took part in decisions, and authority was situational, based on demonstrated skill or knowledge. Women and men had somewhat different spheres of activity, but they respected each other’s contributions to the group. No doubt, groups differed significantly in terms of how people treated one another, largely depending on how they adapted themselves to obtaining local food. But, as far as we can tell, vertical social power was minimal.
Nevertheless, this wasn’t a peaceful Eden. The latest archaeological evidence suggests that life in pre-agricultural societies was fairly violent. Within groups, disagreements over sex or food could occasionally result in a beating or worse (there’s abundant proof that, throughout history, the great majority of violent acts have been committed by men rather than women). However, most casualties came not from family squabbles, but from raids and counter-raids between groups competing for access to the best foraging space. Over time, competition between societies resulted in more cooperation within societies. Increased cooperation was facilitated by the ongoing development of language, which enabled people to coordinate their behavior, ask questions, and teach complicated sequences of tasks. Increased cooperation provided the means for societies to grow in size and complexity—thereby, again, enabling them to compete more successfully with their neighbors.
Population growth, crowding, and fighting ultimately drove two key, related developments: the adoption of field agriculture based on grain crops, and the formation of the first states (which in turn led to more population growth, crowding, and fighting). Grains permitted more intensive food production; they also could be stored, and could therefore be taxed. Taxation enabled leaders to put surplus aside in case of poor harvests in years to come—while also allowing them to enrich themselves, to pay for palaces and temples, and to hire teams of full-time specialists in violence (i.e., soldiers) to raid other, neighboring societies or to defend against raids. As urban centers grew, some people began to specialize as blacksmiths, accountants, priests, and merchants; but the great bulk of the populace remained tied to the land as farmer-peasants.
The long, slow development of grain agriculture entailed the domestication both of crop varieties and of animals bred for food, traction, and pest control. Gradually, some people began to apply the techniques of animal domestication to other people. Women and children started to be treated essentially as household domesticates, while war captives were pressed into slavery (which was universally practiced in early state societies). As rigid social castes emerged, humanity—a single species—divided itself into groups that acted more predator-like or more prey-like with respect to other groups. This was vertical social power in its rawest form.
Because farmers tended to stay in one place, rather than following the seasonal movements of game animals like many of their hunter-gatherer forebears, they started to divide and fence land. As the notion of land ownership emerged, exclusionary power (also seen in the territorial behavior of animals like badgers, spiders, and hummingbirds) took strange new forms, with some people claiming ownership of other people, and kings claiming ownership of the entire state.
With people living closer together, it became easier to share new ideas and teach new skills. Key inventions included improved weapons (e.g., swords and armor), farming tools (notably, the plow), money, and writing. Money served as a storable, transferrable token of social power; while communication technologies (starting with writing) enabled a few to influence the minds of many.
Cities offered opportunities for invention and wealth creation, but they were places of disease and high mortality rates. Therefore, they had to be continually supplied with more human beings from the countryside or from military conquest. Women in early state societies were tasked with birthing and raising as many children as possible.
Money, debt, and taxes created a new social phenomenon: the wealth pump, which continually funneled wealth originating with nature to farmers, miners, and craftspeople, and hence to soldiers, merchants, priests, and kings. Society became a pyramid of economic and political power, a self-regulating system of wealth and poverty. But there was a cost to this sorting process: the ongoing degradation of nature (damage to soil or overharvesting of trees) destabilized the system, as did the continual impoverishment of people at the bottom of the social structure—who could be taxed no further once they were starving. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people wanted to be at the top of the pyramid; so, in moments of crisis, factions of elite aspirants sought to sway the masses in different directions, leading to coups and revolutions.
In sum, vertical social power evolved together with population growth, war, communication technology, and food production. It came with obvious drawbacks (who would want to be a slave or even a peasant, and who would want to live through a period of grave societal instability or collapse?), but such societies survived and proliferated because they were collectively powerful in relation to other societies.
But that’s not the end of the story of social power’s evolution. Two big turning points came later, when everything changed.
The first occurred about 3,000 years ago, when animal-herding tribes of the great Eurasian Steppe, stretching from modern Ukraine to Manchuria, began using the horse (domesticated around 5,500 years ago) in warfare. Using horse-drawn chariots and saddle-seated cavalry, the Steppe dwellers swooped down on early kingdoms, toppling one after another. The latter needed to do something to respond and survive, and their solution involved even greater social complexity. Empires emerged, with larger land areas and populations. Having more citizens gave them a bigger tax base, so they could afford to build long, high walls and hire bigger armies, with chariots and cavalry of their own. But empires faced an internal problem: their citizenry was drawn from peoples with differing customs, religions, and languages. How to keep everyone on the same page?
Social evolution provided a solution: Big God moralizing religions. Previously, religion had little to do with morality; it served a range of other social and psychological functions. Big God religions implanted a moral watcher in each person’s head, which proved to be an effective and economical means of social control. Knowing that others worshipped the same moralizing deity increased trust and cooperation, thereby facilitating trade and public order. The idea of heaven made these religions attractive to non-believers, while the idea of hell discouraged backsliders. You could easily identify whom you could count on, because all adherents to the religion were required to perform personally costly public demonstrations of loyalty, such as church attendance, tithing, and pilgrimages. Unfortunately, dispensing torture and death to nonbelievers was another way of showing commitment to the Big God. These religions also reinforced women’s burden of producing as many offspring as possible: population growth was seen as a source of social power to be wielded by each religion’s adherents against all competing religious groups.
The second turning point came much later, just a couple of centuries ago, with the advent of fossil fuels. Energy is what empowers us to do anything whatsoever; with more energy, we can do more things. Fossil fuels represented millions of years of stored ancient sunlight, available cheaply and in seemingly endless quantities. Over the last 200 years, humanity’s annual energy usage has grown by a staggering 4,000 percent, with some societies and individuals using far more than others. Suddenly it became possible to do everything faster and on a bigger scale—including farming, mining, manufacturing, transporting, and fighting. Applied to agriculture, fossil fuels plus technology reduced the number of full-time farm laborers to a tiny fraction of the populace. People left the countryside and moved to cities, creating a new middle class of employees jostling for jobs in manufacturing, sales, advertising, and dozens of industries that had barely existed a century or two earlier. With more available food, and fossil-fuel-based medicines and sanitation chemicals, cities became safer, and the human population exploded from 1 billion in 1820 to nearly 8 billion in 2021. Whereas agricultural life favored a division of labor between women and men, the overwhelming majority of urban factory and office work could be done equally well by people of any gender. Hence came organizing efforts to obtain voting rights and equal pay for women.
The initial phase of the fossil-fuel energy transition centered on coal. For the first time in history, coal “energy slaves” could supplant the forced labor of millions of human beings. This development (plus the multi-racial, morally-based abolitionist movement and a Civil War) led to the end of state-sanctioned slavery. Unlike the previous agricultural economy, the new coal-powered industrial system employed specialized workers at key nodes along society’s energy supply routes, and these workers were frequently abused, underpaid, and subjected to dangerous and unhealthy conditions. The coal economy thus became the perfect breeding ground for a new kind of political power characterized by trade unions, strikes, and the spread of both democracy and progressive economic reforms. At the same time, however, in international relations coal led to steamboat colonialism and more deadly wars for control of sources of raw materials.
The next phase of the fossil energy transition flowed from oil, which was more energy-dense and portable than coal. Petroleum introduced transportation via automobiles and trucks; as a consequence, cities were redesigned around highway systems. Meanwhile, petroleum-fueled aviation, which started as a dangerous hobby, quickly became a routine mode of long-distance mass travel.
Because oil was easily moved via pipeline and tanker, petroleum revenue streams were often global in nature. Further, while the United States was the world’s superpower of oil production during the first half of the 20th century, pumping over half the world’s petroleum in most years, even larger amounts of oil and gas happened to be located in poor nations in the Middle East. Thus, the unfolding story of oil would hinge on US geopolitics, which itself depended largely on the maintenance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and as the currency of account for the international oil trade.
Oil-age weapons led to industrial-scale killing. World War II—which was fought with oil, and, to a large extent, for access to oil—took roughly 60 million lives and incentivized the development of weapons capable of destroying entire cities in an instant.
Fossil fuels enabled so much resource extraction and manufacturing as to provoke a new kind of economic problem—the overproduction of goods, which was one of the causes of the Great Depression. Industrial and government managers came up with a solution that combined advertising, planned obsolescence, and consumer credit. It amounted to a new kind of economy—the consumer economy—which is managed via interest rates and measured by GDP. Its primary goal is growth, on which jobs, government revenues, and investor profits all depend.
By the late 20th century, global trade and communications had created a kind, and a level, of species-wide economic integration never before seen. Humanity had become a Superorganism with a global metabolism: minerals extracted on one continent are now processed on another, integrated into a manufactured product on another, sold to an end user on still another, then eventually shipped across an ocean to be recycled or dumped in a waste heap.
By 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived within cities rather than outside them. Among other things, the trend toward urbanization resulted in a subtle disconnection of people’s lives and thoughts from land and nature. People’s immediate welfare now depends more on paychecks, investment returns, and government programs; their deeper dependency on natural systems and cycles is simply taken for granted and unexamined. We are obsessed with economic gyrations and political intrigues, as well as proliferating entertainment options; thus, few people notice as other species disappear, the climate changes, and the oceans die.
Fossil fuels gave the wealth pump the capacity to transfer value from nature to industrialists, bankers, and investors in unprecedented amounts, producing unimaginable fortunes. Without brakes on that process, inequality quickly grew to dangerous extremes. During the 20th century, policy makers instituted graduated taxation (which partially reversed the action of the wealth pump by taxing the rich at higher rates) and redistributive government programs (education, health care, food coupons) in order to keep inequality from generating social and political crises. In some countries, the consequence was a Big Government that replaced key functions of Big God religions, thereby contributing to the secularization of society.
Domestically, economic growth served as a social pacifier: business-friendly policy makers argued that, as long as the whole economic pie is growing, it doesn’t really matter if some people are taking disproportionate slices—as long as those people are seen to be responsible for growth. Internationally, “development” was sold as a process whereby poor nations would increasingly become industrialized and richer. In most cases, however, it amounted to an empty promise. In reality, international bankers convinced leaders of low-GDP nations to borrow immense sums to pay for bloated infrastructure projects; then bankers and policy makers in wealthy nations used that debt to force those nations to “develop” (i.e., privatize, extract, and cheaply sell) their natural resources. As Jason Hickel points out, low-GDP nations contribute about 80 percent of the global economy’s labor and resources, but receive about five percent of the income generated.
Throughout the evolution of social power, human values have changed to fit the eco-social energy context. Hunter-gatherers had politically and economically egalitarian values, gender inequality was variable but generally low, and levels of interpersonal violence were high. People in agrarian state societies ardently believed that political and economic hierarchies were justified, gender inequality was extreme, and (outside of warfare) levels of interpersonal violence were lower. Fossil-fueled societies have politically and economically egalitarian values, gender inequality is low, and interpersonal violence is lower still.
Thus, in terms of human values, history traces an arc that nearly completes a full circle: the values of hunter-gatherers and fossil fuelers have some surprising things in common. Agrarian societies were the outlier, because their processes of energy capture favored rigid political hierarchies and division of labor by gender. History teaches us that human values are mutable, but it also suggests they are closely tied to energy and food systems.
Vertical power is certainly alive and well today. Despite all efforts in recent decades at economic “leveling” (via unions, progressive taxation, and government redistribution programs), inequality has grown to extremes. One example is emblematic in this regard. In the 1960s, military competition prompted the development of early computer networks, the antecedents of the internet; when the latter emerged full-blown as the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, fast electronic communication created a blizzard of business opportunities, which eventually led to more effective manipulation of opinion and the accumulation of unprecedented fortunes by digital entrepreneurs. While the web is often thought of as empowering everyone who uses it, in fact it has contributed to widening inequity. And, once again, war, communication technologies, and increasing economic inequality were bound up together in a social evolutionary process.
During the past century, specialists have begun studying the social and psychological impacts of vertical power. Their findings are unsurprising but disturbing. Power makes us literally crazy, and can turn perfectly normal people into monsters. People with a little power want more. People with low self-esteem often abuse what little power they have. And people whose power is threatened often lash out. Those who crave power often prop themselves up by putting others down. Those with more power rationalize reprehensible behavior toward those with less by assuming or asserting that the powerless are lazy, corrupt, incapable, unintelligent, or otherwise undeserving. Experiments organized by Solomon Asch in the 1950s showed that ordinary people will agree to ridiculously incorrect assertions by authority figures in order to conform. And Stanley Milgram’s famous and troubling studies on obedience to perceived authority, carried out in the 1960s, showed that ordinary people look to those with power for direction, even when asked to do things that are morally questionable.
We also know now that inequality hurts us all. Anthropologists and historians have developed a new field informally known as “collapse studies,” in which they’ve probed data from hundreds of societies for patterns, revealing “secular cycles” of wealth accumulation and societal instability. However, we can also see inequality’s perils all around us in the present: in the coronavirus pandemic, the rush by wealthy nations to secure as many vaccines as possible has the unintended effect of minimizing vaccination rates in poor nations, thereby greatly reducing the likelihood of eliminating the disease from any country any time soon. Similarly, the failure by wealthy nations to pay for climate change adaptation in poor nations will likely lead to massive waves of refugees overwhelming the borders of the rich.
Vertical power worked well for us humans in some ways, increasing our collective power and enabling some of us to enjoy great conveniences. But the costs have been incalculable. Moreover, the inadvertent environmental damage caused by the recent evolution of human physical and social power may be unsurvivable.
In recent years, social inequality has been contested by Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring revolutions, and Black Lives Matter protests, to name just three prominent instances. But insufficient informed public attention has been directed toward the structural causes of power inequality in the modern world: the wealth pump, food and energy systems, weapons, communication technologies, and debt.
As we’ve seen, the evolution of social power was primarily tied to growth in usable energy—first as a result of the development of farming, and then through the introduction of fossil fuels. In measurable terms (growth of population, per capita energy usage, and per capita wealth), fossil fuels were actually a bigger deal in human social evolution than the invention of agriculture or the advent of empire. But fossil fuels are finite and depleting, and burning them causes climate change. For reasons I have explored at length in other publications, the proposed replacements (solar, wind, and nuclear power) probably won’t be able to supply as much energy as we currently use, much less permit further growth. As our collective physical power is poised to wane, here are just a few of the big, interrelated questions about social power that we probably should be thinking about:
- Will the human Superorganism be able to maintain itself as a collective entity? What are the implications if it doesn’t? If it survives, could it “mature” by somehow becoming aware of natural and social limits and adapting itself to them?
- Can we recover the horizontal power enjoyed by our hunter-gatherer forebears? Or would doing so ultimately require giving up farming and all that goes with it?
- Is universal gardening a realistic alternative to centralized food systems based on grain agriculture?
- Will urbanization reverse itself, so that re-ruralization becomes a dominant demographic trend later this century?
- How can women maintain and expand their hard-won equality in a post-fossil-fuel world?
- How can we prevent slavery from making a comeback, while continuing to address that terrible historical institution’s reverberating impacts?
- Can we reduce inequality without reining in communication technologies?
- If the rapid population growth of the past two centuries depended on the benefits of cheap, abundant energy, what are the population implications of energy decline?
- How can we manage energy decline without war?
- Do we need a new religion to reconnect us to nature?
- Can we get along without debt?
- How can we more effectively limit the proliferation of weapons?
That’s a lot to contemplate. We shouldn’t expect to have all the answers right away, given the fact that most people, including most world leaders, haven’t even arrived at the questions yet. But we’ll need some answers soon. Finding ones that we can live with, and weaving them into the fabric of our social relationships, will require more than careful thought; work and sacrifice will be needed, too.
Too Much Power
Do some people have too much power over others? Do we humans have too much power over the natural world? These questions get to the heart of our biggest global problems. They also force us to think critically about the way society is organized, and about our own behavior. We often tend to give knee-jerk answers, but too much is at stake for that. We need to think critically and contextually.
First, what do we mean by power? While the word is used many ways, there are primarily just two kinds of power: physical power and social power. Physical power can be defined as the rate of energy transfer, or as the use of energy to do something; social power is the ability of one person or a group to influence the thoughts and behavior of others.
Nature provides examples of excessive physical power. The wildfires in Sonoma County, California, where I live, can burn with many gigawatts of power. A gigawatt of electrical power that’s controlled via power lines, transformers, and circuits can supply light, heat, and internet connections to a small-to-medium-sized city. A gigawatt of radiative power unleashed in a firestorm can torch that same community in just a few hours. We humans can likewise physically overpower our surroundings by using the concentrated energy of fossil fuels to over-harvest natural resources, or by dumping wastes in quantities that nature can’t harmlessly absorb.
Too much social power leads to different problems. Cooperation, the ultimate basis of social power, gives us the means to accomplish wonders; but, when it’s channeled through elaborate economic systems featuring various forms of debt and investment, social power can also manifest itself through the pooling of immense amounts of wealth in just a few hands, resulting in needless widespread poverty and eventual civil unrest. That same social power, released in a sudden burst, can lead to the deaths of millions of people through war or genocide.
We intuitively understand that power—whether it’s physical or social power—is good only when it remains within certain bounds, restricted by checks and balances. But we’re often not so good at applying that simple insight to our immediate circumstances. For example, many of us complain that corporations, billionaires, or politicians have too much power. Yet, when it comes to our own power, very few of us ever question whether it’s excessive. The power that gives us comforts and conveniences nearly always gets a pass—we consistently assume that we need more of it, not less.
My power is fine, but that other person has too much: it’s an attitude that seems to define human nature. Yet the hesitancy to critically assess one’s own power seems to characterize some people more than others, and some societies more than others. Even within a single society, circumstances may change, encouraging people to become more (or less) modest in their demands for power and unthinking their excuses for over-empowerment.
Psychologists know that some individuals desperately seek material riches, homage, and feelings of superiority. Other people don’t; they may lead modest but happy lives oriented toward service to others. What makes some people more power hungry? Often, low self-esteem appears to be a key. Perhaps starting in infancy or childhood, power addicts experienced a vacuum of love and validation, and never learned to enjoy a simple sense of inner stillness. Their lives have become an endless chase for external sources of affirmation and deference. Then, once they’ve gained disproportionate power in some form, their tendency is to guard that power and to lash out at anyone who threatens it.
Some circumstances seem to promote the emergence of power-seeking behavior. Societies that use money to mediate human needs, as opposed to relying on informal networks of sharing and mutual aid, are more likely to breed power seekers. The same is true of societies with formal institutions characterized by rank and exclusivity (think armies, priesthoods, governments, corporations, and gated communities). Generally speaking, the more complex and wealthier the society, the more likely it is to foster power-seeking attitudes and behaviors. An empire featuring a rigid class structure domestically, and colonies and trade networks abroad, is far more likely to encourage pathological power hunger among at least some of its members than a small foraging or gardening society whose technologies and customs haven’t changed much in thousands of years.
Even in a single society, some kinds of developing circumstances are more likely to trigger power abuse. Times of societal decay can produce warlords and profiteers (think Syria today, or the remnants of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s). On the other hand, periods of rapid societal growth offer opportunity for social climbers to scramble over other people’s backs. The clearest example in the latter case is the US in the early-to-mid twentieth century: as the world’s top oil producer and exporter, America generated great fortunes (notably, that of John D. Rockefeller), and rose to become the world’s economic and military superpower, elevating investors, generals, bureaucrats, and corporate CEOs far above the hoi polloi.
Fossil fuels have done more than create enormous amounts of wealth. As unprecedented sources of physical power, they’ve also facilitated unsustainable growth in population and consumption, and caused untold environmental destruction. Further, with so much new wealth flowing through society, it was nearly inevitable that some people would capture more of it than others, leading to increasing economic inequality.
One of the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels is climate change, the most colossal environmental crisis humans have ever created, which can be viewed as being a result of too much power. Here’s the argument in a nutshell: nearly everything we use represents a little fire somewhere—usually several of them. Your smart phone? Little fires drove the machines that extracted the raw minerals. Bigger fires smelted the metals. Little fires fueled the vehicles that transported all the parts, sometimes for thousands of miles. More little fires heated, cooled, and powered the various warehouses and assembly plants involved. Pick any object: unless it’s a tree or other feature of the natural environment, a fire is implicated. The same is typically true for services—keeping us warm, cool, and provisioned with food, health care, and education. We even need fires to make solar panels and wind turbines (for example: 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit furnace fires that run 24/7 are used to make pure silicon wafers for photovoltaic panels). Granted, over its lifetime a PV panel will entail less fire than a coal or natural gas power plant producing the same amount of electricity. But if we wanted to make a hell of a lot of PV panels right away in order to replace all our coal and gas power plants, enormous short-term fires would have to be stoked.
Hardly anyone wants to give up the benefits—the power—that all those fires provide. But each of those fires, no matter how carefully controlled and efficient, is contributing CO2 to the atmosphere, speeding up the destabilization of the climate and undermining the viability of civilization.
One seductive (but ultimately baseless) way to avoid this contradiction between the desire for more physical power and the unacceptable consequences of having and using that power is to hope that renewable energy will solve the climate problem painlessly: all we have to do is wait until solar panels become super-cheap. Then, we can use even more energy than we do now, it will just be clean energy. We don’t need to give up power; we just need to switch energy technologies. But the actual switch (i.e., the rate at which society is installing renewables and retiring fossil fuel infrastructure) is going far too slowly to avert catastrophic climate change. The core reason is simply that fossil fuels deliver more power than renewables—not just in terms of profits and political donations, but also in terms of energy that’s available on demand to do the things an industrial society wants to do, including powering airplanes and ships, mining minerals, and manufacturing products.
If climate change is a problem of power, then there may be no purely technical fix. While technology can help at the margins, averting catastrophic global warming will be mostly a process of reducing total energy usage in a way that doesn’t result in societal collapse. Clearly, the people who would need to sacrifice the most are today’s biggest energy users. But these happen to be people with a lot of social power, who are well placed to cloud the public discussion and delay substantive action.
Climate change is only one of the symptoms of the large-scale power imbalances and over-concentrations plaguing our society. Other symptoms include deepening economic inequality, loss of wild nature due to increasing human land use, increasingly pervasive hormone-mimicking petrochemical pollution in air and water, and worsening resource depletion that’s tied to overpopulation and overconsumption. Fossil fuels, by supplying so much physical power so quickly, have greatly exacerbated all of these problems.
Humans in past societies were well acquainted with the problem of too much power, and devised ways to restrain it. Anthropological research suggests that, in early foraging societies, bullies were routinely executed or banished. Other methods of collective self-restraint included taboos against over-use of natural resources. Here’s just one example: the Bayaka of the Congo placed markers (cones made of big leaves) on paths that led into parts of the forest where hunting had been unsuccessful, thus warning others to avoid it, and giving game populations time to recover. Such practices were widespread and varied. Tribal taboos regulating the harvest of vulnerable species took at least six forms, including “segment taboos,” which forbade individuals of a certain age, sex, or social class from harvesting a resource; “temporal taboos,” which banned the use of a subsistence resource during certain days, weeks, or seasons; “method taboos,” which restricted overly efficient harvesting techniques that might deplete the stock of a resource; “life-history taboos,” that forbade the harvesting of a species during vulnerable periods of its life history such as spawning or nesting; “specific-species taboos,” which protected a species at all times; and “habitat taboos,” which forbade human exploitation of species within particular reefs or forests that served as biological reserves or sanctuaries. Given the evidence that ancient peoples, as they migrated into new territories, often hunted abundant prey species to the point of extinction, it seems probable that indigenous conservation practices were learned over a long time through trial and error.
In modern societies, methods of collectively restraining the overaccumulation of power have become complex and formalized. We adopt environmental regulations to protect endangered species, prohibit or regulate certain chemicals, and discourage harmful waste dumping. We try to keep economic inequality from worsening by taxing the rich at higher rates, and by implementing redistributive programs for education, housing, and health care. We try to discourage the emergence of despots through constitutions and elections.
However, all such efforts are uphill battles, because modern society is fundamentally structured to require economic growth (which nearly always comes at the expense of nature), and because newly created wealth tends to flow primarily toward those with existing social power. Once again, fossil fuels are largely responsible: as our society’s primary energy sources, they are also our ultimate sources of wealth. We have derived so much power from these fuels, and in such a brief period of time, that our institutional pathways of restraint are increasingly overwhelmed. Further, traditional values of self-restraint, modesty, mutual aid, and thrift have fallen by the wayside with the rise of consumerism, and we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we deserve all the physical power we can possibly command.
If we modern humans are, in effect, addicted to power, perhaps we need something like a collective twelve-step program. The first step would be simply to admit that we have a power problem. Then we would systematically go about assessing where power imbalances exist, and reducing the physical and social power of the most powerful. Such reductions could be achieved through, for example, wealth taxes and energy rations for people in rich countries, and for the wealthiest people in poor countries.
But all of us aren’t going to want to get on board with such a program. Once again, those with the most physical and social power will be in position to discourage such efforts, and will have plenty of incentive to preserve their advantages. How could humanity overcome powerful people’s disinclination to cut back, before we’re all overwhelmed by ecological destruction and societal collapse?
The only sensible strategy I’ve come across is the one advocated by my friend Craig Collins, who suggests that what’s needed is a power-sharing coalition (he calls it a Green Resistance Movement) with four broad segments:
- Groups and individuals working to save the planet by halting climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Most of these groups and individuals work to confront the depredations of corporations and governments; some work to promote environment-friendly governmental policies or commercial practices, while others seek to stabilize and reduce human population.
- Social justice advocates. This category would include advocates for the poor, and for oppressed minorities of all kinds, including Indigenous peoples (who make up the majority of the population in some countries).
- Groups opposing violence, especially state violence. These would include anti-war groups, as well as organizations seeking to reduce the domestic proliferation of guns, international arms sales, and the militarization of police, as well as groups promoting peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
- Builders of the new culture. This final category is currently less internally organized than the previous three; it consists of individuals and organizations seeking to model and promote a sustainable, post-fossil-fuel way of living. Some members would be experts in the attitudes and habits of horizontal power. Others would be permaculturists, ecovillage pioneers, and renewable energy advocates. Still others would be creative artists of all kinds who are seeking to enlist the human imagination in building a green future.
Each of these by itself is at a power disadvantage when compared to the forces still pushing society toward power overload via capital accumulation and profit, resource extraction, waste dumping, and militarism. However, added together, these groups comprise a huge constituency. Hence the vital importance of coalition and cooperation among them—rather than competition and conflict, with litmus tests of ideological purity as a requirement for inclusion.
Is it likely that such a power-sharing coalition will succeed? That probably depends upon how well the leaders and constituents of the coalition understand the nuances of power I’ve briefly summarized above. Right off the bat, the coalition will have to accept a distressing irony: it will have to build an immense amount of social power to compete against entrenched power mongers. It will have to become powerful enough to change hearts and minds, win elections, put people in the streets, and succeed at negotiations. In many instances, it will have to gain control of institutions—and redesign them so that they can work in a post-fossil-fuel, post-growth era of reduced physical and social power.
If the coalition makes it that far, then it and all the powerful people in it will have to contend with sharing and giving up their super-addictive access to power. But if they succeed in doing so, all may participate in something far more satisfying than the process of amassing power: the development of wisdom that can last through the ages.