review: Power

Richard Heinberg has been researching the central role of energy in civilization for years, and shown how the human addiction to oil has brought us to an unprecedented crisis. His new book gives us a longer and broader perspective on the deeper addiction to power in its physical and social forms. He draws upon insights from biology and anthropology to tell the story of the evolution of power, from the beginnings of life on earth through the development of social hierarchies up to the present, in a very accessible way.

The book’s subtitle is “Limits and prospects for human survival”, and he does explain the radical changes in human habits and systems which must be made in this decade if we are to salvage our planetary life support system along with the better qualities of our collapsing civilization. But given the history of how this situation has evolved, it’s difficult to be honestly optimistic about our prospects. Heinberg’s view is more realistic, for instance in this excerpt from the final chapter:

“There can be no perfect, stable society. Imbalance and impermanence are baked into biological existence. But we are in a particularly explosive moment now. History shows that overconcentrations of physical, economic, military, and political power create instability, and, in the past few decades, humanity has found ways to build and concentrate these kinds of power as never before. The strong likelihood is that we are headed toward what economists glibly call a ‘correction,’ though not just in stock market values but also in population and consumption levels. If we hope to minimize the shock and casualties, we will need to mobilize cooperation and behavior change, aiming to limit our own collective power at a speed and scale that are unprecedented.” [p. 356-7]

This is not a feel-good book, but it is a live-well book that everyone can learn something from.

Breaking Boundaries

Time is running out. The decade we have just stepped into – the roaring 2020s – will be decisive for humanity. It is the moment to catalyze the most remarkable transition in history to become effective stewards of Earth. The scale of the challenge is immense. In the same way that the 1960s had the moonshot, the 2020s has the Earthshot. The goal of the Earthshot is nothing less than stabilizing our planet’s life-support system. But compared with landing men on the moon, the stakes are far higher.

Johan Rockström and Owen Gaffney (2021, p.13)

This quotation is from Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet (published by DK/Penguin Random House). Netflix is currently featuring two documentary productions based on the work of these authors and their colleagues. One has the same title as the book, and can be viewed at https://www.netflix.com/watch/81336476. The other is an 8-part series. Both are highly recommended and feature narration by David Attenborough. The book, of course, gives much more detailed information about the boundaries we are breaking – global heating is only one of nine – and how we could still stabilize the planet’s life-support systems, if we took the trouble to do so.

Turning points?

Yesterday was Canada Day, but few of us felt like celebrating, after the discovery that hundreds (probably thousands) of Indigenous children lie buried in unmarked graves near the residential schools where they died. We had heard the stories told by survivors of the horrors of those government-sanctioned institutions, but this was even worse. Will this cause Canada as a whole to recognize the systemic racism that has plagued our history right up to the present, and to make an honest effort to eradicate it? Time will tell.

Time is already telling the horror story of global heating. Hundreds have died in the past week under the heat dome in Western Canada, where a town in British Columbia hit the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, just under 50 C. (over 120 Fahrenheit). Now the same town has been almost wiped out by one of the forest fires raging in the region. Will this convince Canadians that climate change is a real emergency? Parliament has just passed Canada’s Net-Zero Climate Accountability Act (Bill C-12), which finally sets some near-term targets for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and even includes provisions for monitoring and enforcement, so that could be seen as a turning point. But that point should have been reached decades ago, here and elsewhere, so it’s hard not to feel that this progress is too little, too late.

Meanwhile on Manitoulin Island we’ve had an unusually cool June; yesterday’s high was about 19 C. Normal weather patterns are being disrupted in all directions. Even closer to home, my blog posting has been interrupted by another writing project (for publication elsewhere). Now I’m back to revision toward a 2nd edition of Turning Signs, and have now finished (or refinished) Chapter 16. Does it contribute anything to the the global transformation I’ve been blogging about for years now? I think it does, but only for readers who can relate it to their experience, and especially to their practice of living this time, which is the subject of the chapter.

I can’t resist copying here a couple of quotes from near the end of the chapter. One is by C.S. Peirce, about the “spiritual reality” of a human:

by action, through thought, he grows an esthetic ideal, not for the behoof of his own poor noddle merely, but as the share which God permits him to have in the work of creation.

Peirce, CP 5.402n

For me at least, this “esthetic ideal” is not some static image that one aims to achieve in the future, but a way of living the time now into the future. Eihei Dogen comes as close to expressing it in words as anything I’ve come across:

A buddha’s practice is to practice in the same manner as the entire earth and all beings. If it is not practice with all beings, it is not a buddha’s practice. This being so, from the moment of arousing the aspiration for enlightenment to the moment of attaining enlightenment, all buddhas realize and practice the way together with the entire earth and all beings.

Dogen, SBGZ ‘Yuibutsu yobutsu’ (Tanahashi 2010, 880-1)

So is this moment a turning point? Yes, but not a discontinuity in what Dogen calls continuous practice. The earth and all beings continue to turn.

Zero Carbon

New resource recommendation: Zero Carbon, an excellent weekly newsletter in which climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the kaleidoscope of news, ideas, politics and culture to figure out what’s working in the race against climate change. You can subscribe at the National Observer link above.

This week’s issue begins with a focus on the new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) which says that on the “narrow path” to net zero, “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply.” Needless to say, the fossil fuel industries are not welcoming the news. The newsletter covers some other responses to it and the data behind it.

Swimming through uncertainty

The principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua.

C. S. Peirce, CP 1.171 (c. 1897)

Chapter 13 of Turning Signs (the netbook), on meaning spaces, has now been revamped for the 2nd edition. Now included is a sketch of Peirce’s Existential Graph system, which illustrates one of the paradoxes of inquiry: in order to learn how a whole system works, we usually have to analyze it and study how its parts are related.

Peirce did this with the continuous thought process, and his graph system was his favorite method of analysis. He did not limit himself to the human thought process, but tried to model the thought process of any being capable of learning by experience – even the “thought” of Nature herself. (What do those quotation marks around “thought” mean? The newly revised chapter delves into that as well.) Anyway, i hope it helps to give some fallible inkling of why we’re all swimming in a continuum of indeterminacy.

Forthcoming works

My ongoing revision of Turning Signs now includes the first 12 chapters. Along the way, it’s persuaded me that the book contains some important ideas relevant to the personal and systemic transformations we are all living through these days. Later on, I’m hoping to make some of those ideas more accessible through this blog. (More visually oriented, for one thing.)

In the meantime I’m looking forward to a couple of forthcoming books that have been recently announced. One of them is by Jeremy Lent, who’s been quoted here before: it’s called The Web of Meaning and will probably explore some of the same territory as Turning Signs. I expect his approach to it will be different from mine, which focusses on core ideas drawn from Charles Peirce’s philosophy of signs. So it will be interesting to see how much the two approaches agree on scientific, cultural and ethical issues.

Another forthcoming book of great interest is Richard Heinberg’s Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. If you follow that link and pre-order it, as i did, you get online access to a pre-release version. Based on my reading of it so far, it’s another wide-ranging interdisciplinary book about the biological and cultural evolution of power among humans. By studying the uses and abuses of power, it will draw some conclusions about how we might deal with the economic/ecological mess we humans have gotten ourselves into.

I’m happy to see that both Lent and Heinberg seem to honor the roles of both scientific and religious (or “spiritual”) experience in shaping human habits. There have always been people who were more science-minded than religious, and religious people who tended to distrust scientific thinking, and dogmatically driven people on both sides, but i’ve always found this mutual animosity lacking in common sense. Turning Signs delves fairly deeply into both scientific and religious experience, and the differences between them (see Chapter 8). My own research leaves me with no doubt that both are vital to human guidance systems, as i call them. That’s one example of an affinity i see between Jeremy Lent’s work and Richard Heinberg’s, and my own. But i trust that i’ll learn something new from them too.

Consensus and community

I’ve finally completed my extensive revision of Chapter 8 of Turning Signs and you’re all invited to have a look at the updated version! Chapter 9 has also been refinished (it didn’t need as much work as Chapter 8). This means that i’m halfway home to a complete second edition of my one contribution to society. I’ve also updated the offline edition which you can download from the front page of the netbook. May you find it useful, maybe even entertaining!

more community resources

Thanks to my friend Hugh Smiley for posting an informative comment on my “Social Transformation” post. I’ve added a couple of links to it, including one to the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO representing the international level of the Bahá’í emphasis on community building. There’s also a Canadian Bahá’í website on building community.

In connection with the point about “tackling the root causes of acceleration and growth — the feedback loops that cause most of today’s ecological and social crises”, i can also recommend the current series of Crazy Town podcasts, which focus on the “hidden drivers” of the rush to consume the planet which is threatening all of us Earthlings.