March 23, 2021
This article, the first in a series of five, is based on the author’s forthcoming book, POWER: LIMITS AND PROSPECTS FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL. For information about the book and how to join exclusive pre-release webinars, please go to postcarbon.org/power.
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.