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 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.

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.

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.

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.

In the between

My slow revision of Turning Signs has now reached the beginning of Chapter 6. Chapter 5 took longer than expected, but the good news is that it’s not only better but a bit shorter than it was before. The downloadable version of the complete book has been updated as of yesterday.

This revision has been sparked by the continuing dialogue between some ancient scriptures and recent reflections on the transition. I’ve been studying Robert Thurman’s book on the Bardo Thödol (known in the West as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”) – and hearing Laurie Anderson’s beautiful rendition of Songs from the Bardo as well. Thurman explains that the root meaning of bardo in Tibetan is “the between,” and the vast bardo literature reflects a conceptual scheme which ‘is used to create in the practitioner a sense that all moments of existence are “between” moments, unstable, fluid, and transformable into liberated enlightenment experience’ (Thurman 1994, 34). So wherever we are in spacetime, we are in the between.

I’ve also been reading a collection of very recent essays called The New Possible, and to give a taste of it, here’s an excerpt from Jeremy Lent’s contribution:

As long as government policies emphasize GDP growth and transnational corporations relentlessly pursue shareholder returns, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe. These practices ransack the Earth without regard to long-term effects. If we are truly to “shift course away from our failing trajectory,” the new era must be defined, at its deepest level, not merely by the political or economic choices we make, but by a transformation in the very way we make sense of the world, and by a concomitant revolution in our predominant values.

The depiction of humans as selfish individuals, the view of nature as a resource to be exploited, and the idea that technology alone can fix our biggest problems are all profound misconceptions that have collectively led our civilization down this madcap path to disaster. We must recognize the destructive nature of the dominant mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming, embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services. We must emphasize core human values of fairness, justice, and compassion as paramount—extending them through local neighborhoods to state and national government, to the global community of humans, and ultimately to the community of all life.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth accumulation to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization. A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have only been two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (p. 5-6). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

It’s all one transformation.

Perennial Turning

It’s pretty clear by now that a transformation of agricultural practices will be a necessary part of any just transition to a healthy Earth community. Several people and organizations engaged in this transformation have recently posted articles on One of them, the Land Institute, has published an open-access book called The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field. (You can download the free e-book from that site.)

The first article (by Wes Jackson, Aubrey Streit Krug, Bill Vitek, and Robert Jensen) takes a look at the global situation in which this ‘Perennial Turn’ is taking place. One paragraph strikes me as especially cogent:

Revolutionary change in theory and practice, not minor course corrections, are needed; we cannot assume that modifying the existing trajectory of the human species is adequate. If there is to be an ongoing large-scale human presence on Earth, the energy/resource consumption that most affluent humans take for granted—and which many non-affluent humans aspire to—cannot continue.

The time we are living makes it increasingly risky to take things for granted – even things like a steady supply of energy, food, water, clean air, health care, mobility, employment and so on. If philosophers are those who don’t take things for granted that people commonly think they know, as Merleau-Ponty says, maybe this is a good time for open-access philosophical essays like Turning Signs. —That’s about as close to self-advertising as this blog ever gets … but we can all use a bit of ‘beginner’s mind,’ whatever the time.


Inkling of the day: The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of the earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin quite humbly to follow the guidance of the larger community on which all life depends.
That was written 32 years ago. Is it too late now?

Outlink of the day: David Bollier has for many years been researching the commons, and the practice of commoning in many places around the world. His recent book with Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair and Alive, presents it as an alternative to the extractive capitalism which has turned out to be ecocidal and pushed global civilization to the brink of self-destruction. The book includes a glossary of terms we will need in order to shift our understanding and think like commoners. One of them is communion, an old word redefined with the help of some other key terms (rendered here in all caps):

Communion is the process through which COMMONERS participate in interdependent relationships with the more-than-human world. COMMUNION shifts a person’s understanding of human/nature relations out of the economistic framework (e.g., “resource management,” or the commodification and financialization of “nature’s services”) into one that respects the intrinsic value of the nonhuman world. This fundamental self-awareness leads to feelings of gratitude, respect, and reverence for the sacred dimensions of life in the ways that human PROVISIONING is organized.

— Bollier and Helfrich (2019, 76)

Collapse and renewal

We’re all wondering how many of us will survive the coronavirus pandemic, but in the longer term, many of us are wondering what remnants of our globalized civilization are likely to survive the collapse that is now under way.

In her 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World, anthropologist Anna Tsing addresses the question in her subtitle: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Those “ruins,” by the way, should be pictured not as crumbling buildings like the “ruins” of ancient civilizations, but as the ecosystems that have been systematically ruined by extractive capitalism.

Jeremy Lent also raised the question last fall on his Patterns of Meaning blog, ‘As Society Unravels, the Future Is Up for Grabs’. Here he applies the concept of “the adaptive cycle” to human society.

Scientists have studied the life cycles of all kinds of complex systems—ranging in size from single cells to vast ecosystems, and back in time all the way to earlier mass extinctions—and have derived a general theory of change called the Adaptive Cycle model. This model works equally well for human systems such as industries, markets, and societies. As a rule, complex systems pass through a life cycle consisting of four phases: a rapid growth phase when those employing innovative strategies can exploit new opportunities; a more stable conservation phase, dominated by long-established relationships that gradually become increasingly brittle and resistant to change; a release phase, which might be a collapse, characterized by chaos and uncertainty; and finally, a reorganization phase during which small, seemingly insignificant forces can drastically change the future of the new cycle.

As many other commentators are saying, the shaping of our “recovery” from the pandemic is an opportunity to change the future of the new cycle of civilization. It is clear that many of the people and subsystems of the now-collapsing global system are not going to survive, but chances are we can have some influence on how it all turns out. For more on this cyclical pattern, including diagrams of it and my own reflections on it, visit rePatch ·11 of Turning Signs.