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Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

Richard Heinberg

September 14, 2021

This is the story of power—humanity’s power over nature and the power of some people over others.

How has Homo sapiens—one species among millions—become powerful enough to threaten a mass extinction and disrupt the Earth’s climate? Why have we developed so many ways of oppressing one another? Can we change our relationship with power to avert ecological catastrophe, reduce social inequality, and stave off collapse?

These questions—and their answers—will determine our fate.

Read the Introduction and get supporting resources at power.postcarbon.org.

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Weaving together findings from a vast range of disciplines, Power traces how four key elements developed to give humans extraordinary power: tool-making ability, language, social complexity, and the ability to harness energy sources—most significantly, fossil fuels. It asks whether we have, at this point, overpowered natural and social systems, and if we have, what we can do about it.

Most crucially, the book explores how self-limitation of power is rooted in evolution and human history, but our memory of it has been buried under a century of fossil-fuel driven economic growth. Now, at this vital moment, we must rapidly re-learn the lessons of power if humanity is to have a thriving future.

Essential reading for everyone who calls planet Earth home.


Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival by Richard Heinberg. Published 2021 by New Society Publishers. Paperback. 416 pages. ISBN 9780865719675.

Praise for Power

“In this book Richard Heinberg offers a powerful new way of understanding the historic rise and probable fall of our species. It is an impressive, sweeping, and thought-provoking narrative.”
—Dennis Meadows, coauthor, The Limits to Growth

“Richard Heinberg is a writer of unfailing interest and this book sums up much of his life’s thinking. Understanding our dilemma in terms of power is, well, a powerful way for getting at the predicaments and possibilities of this fraught moment in our evolving history as a species.”
—Bill McKibben, author of Falter and co-founder of 350.org

“A profound, rigorous, convincing, and actionable lesson on how to understand power less as the control one has over others than as the collective capacity we have to share with one another. A rich, moving, and necessary treatise from our most accomplished, coherent, and compassionate thinker on sustainable futures. This can still be accomplished.”
—Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human

“Heinberg goes to the very heart of the issue. Using his immense knowledge of biology, science, history, psychology. and the politics of energy, he shows that the environmental and social crises we face today have in their origin the insatiable human pursuit (and often abuse) of power, in all its forms.
“In showing us the path forward, Heinberg guides us to achieve power-limiting behavior so that we can not only survive but thrive on a healthy planet and in healthy balance with one another.”
—Maude Barlow, cofounder, The Blue Planet Project

Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival is sweeping in scope and a powerful presentation. Richard Heinberg is willing to face the harsh reality of multiple, cascading social and ecological crises without flinching, and he has written a comprehensive book offering readers a framework moving forward that isn’t based on wishful thinking. Drawing on his decades of activism and research, Heinberg explains why power and energy are central concepts for understanding the human predicament and shaping our future.
“Equal parts science and philosophy, history and contemporary analysis, Power is more engaging than a scholarly tome and more thoughtful than journalism. Heinberg’s book is a model of public scholarship about life-or-death challenges to human societies.“
—Robert Jensen, Emeritus Professor, University of Texas at Austin

“Richard Heinberg’s panoramic review of known forms of power is both sobering and inspiring. Given our species’ habitual methods for getting its way, be these methods physical, mental, or social, the outlook for our future is bleak indeed. Yet, Heinberg allows for the slim but real possibility of exercising restraint. If we are so persuaded, by wisdom or love for beauty, the future even now remains open. Indeed, such restraint returns us to ancient, almost forgotten appetites and capacities.”
—Joanna Macy, author, World As Lover, World As Self

Power is an extraordinary tour de force. It is a comprehensive compendium of how it has emerged, despite our self-proclamation to be sentient beings, that we now find ourselves scrambling on the edge of a cliff. Ironically this perilous rock-face is one that we ourselves have created. As a species, spurred on by the power of our migrant curiosity, we have exploited the immediate opportunities of the natural world while blindly discounting the future. But our planet keeps score — and fortunately so does Richard Heinberg.
Power is a must-read. It is a call to action for those seeking a sustainable, balanced, human future in harmony with the Earth. No guarantees, of course, but harnessing the power of sentient action certainly beats the alternative: of continuing our blind stumble only soon to be swept aside, as have many creatures before us.”
—Peter C. Whybrow, author, The Well-Tuned Brain: Neuroscience and the Life Well-Lived

“For three decades, Richard Heinberg has been foretelling of a day when humanity will be compelled to make a fateful choice: either turn away from our path of headlong growth or follow that path into a dark, dystopian future. Now, in 2021, that day has come. We are entering, in Heinberg’s words, ‘a narrow window of time’ in which we must make that choice and act decisively on it.
“His book Power takes us through the 4-billion-year history of power (defined as the rate of energy transfer, in both physical and social systems) from our pre-agricultural ancestors’ taboos on excessive power to the past two hundred fossil-powered years and what he calls the Great Acceleration. History and science are now telling us, loudly, that Heinberg has been right all along, that a great deceleration is coming. As with previous reversals of growth in societies throughout history, Heinberg concludes, humanity’s ability to successfully navigate the coming worldwide decline will depend on how we handle power. We must, he says, finally reject vertical social power (“the ability to get others to do something”) and embrace our collective horizontal power (“the ability of a group to self-organize to accomplish something”).
Power is Heinberg’s masterwork. And it could not be more timely, arriving just as that window of time for action threatens to slam shut. Ignore this book at your peril.”
—Stan Cox, author, The Green New Deal and Beyond

Power serves as a Rosetta Stone to decipher how our species went from one of many to apex predator in a very short time. A necessary book to fully understand the imperative that our species return to “right relation” in this critical time.”
—Peter Buffett, composer and philanthropist

“Heinberg’s Power is a searing, unflinching revelation of what has driven us to our current existential crisis: humanity’s quest for power. Impeccably researched and masterfully written, this book explains how and why humanity is driving itself off the cliff. If there is any hope for us to continue, Heinberg shows why it must come from efforts to limit our own power.”
—Dahr Jamail, author of The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption

Power is Richard Heinberg at his synthesizing best. In this sweeping volume, he deftly links raw energy – essential for anything to happen in the physical world – to the exercise of political power in the cultural domain.
“If the productive use of energy to expand is the ultimate key to evolutionary success, then humanity has no equal on Earth. But energy is also the ultimate source of material success, society’s addiction to economic growth and the international power politics that are destroying the planet. In Power , Richard Heinberg asks whether we can avoid catastrophe. Will competing nations’ primal lust for power give way to high intelligence, mutual trust, and unreserved cooperation in the quest to salvage civilization? Not a trivial question – failure would deny humanity the chance to advance another rung up the evolutionary ladder.”
—William E Rees, FRSC, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia; co-originator of the ecological footprint concept

Power reminds us that Richard Heinberg is one of the most important public intellectuals in the conversation about society’s future. Eminently readable and engaging, Power is breathtaking in its scope and insight. Heinberg persuasively argues that we have reached evolutionary limits to concentrated social power and that empathy and beauty are key to averting ecological and social catastrophe.”
—Chuck Collins, Institute for Policy Studies, author, The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.

“I turn to Richard Heinberg whenever I need to understand something about energy; he’s the ‘go-to’ source. And now this! Power, with seamless fluency in paleo-history, economics, psychology, and politics, is the ‘must-read’ for anyone wondering how we can make it through the 21st century. This book is more than informative. It is enlightening. It is essential. It is powerful!”
—Suzanne Moser, climate researcher and consultant

“A delight to read, it has a number of sobering messages for policy makers and politicians alike… Setting this book apart from virtually all others covering the topic of energy transition and climate change is that Heinberg covers power in all its manifestations… A sobering and timely book just as many governments appear to acknowledge – after decades of inaction – the dangers of climate change.”
—EEnergy Informer

“It may be a moral idea that hard work pays off but if we need proof that it counts, this latest of Richard Heinberg carries all the evidence we need. His encyclopedic treatment of power is brilliant. It is sure to pop up in courses and living rooms like toast.”
Wes Jackson, Founder, The Land Institute