Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

By Richard Heinberg. New Society Publishers, 2021. 416 pages. $24.99/paperback or eBook.

Looking back on cultural history, it’s clear that the development of agriculture represented a fateful turn toward both destructive power over nature and vertical social power. Horticultural societies (based on gardening rather than field cropping) entailed far less inequality, and kept the entire populace in closer contact with nature’s lessons and limits.

As a senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg’s prior books primarily focused on fossil fuels, energy, and unlimited growth. He doesn’t stray far from those themes, but this book is very different. In the first four chapters, he develops a vocabulary for the readers by looking at power from the beginning of the universe to our current times. He declares that life is all about power. He explores power in nature from microbes to humans. He also shows how human pursuit, overuse, and abuse of power is heading us into a planetary crisis. Heinberg’s concept of power, rather than being limited to just simply human-created systems, bridges all of the processes that have made up life on this planet since its beginning, and gives us a deeper understanding of them all.

The book is searching for the answers to three questions:

  1. How has Homo sapiens, just one species out of millions, become so powerful as to bring the planet to the brink of climate chaos and a mass extinction event?
  2. Why have we developed so many ways of oppressing and exploiting one another?
  3. Is it possible to change our relationship with power so as to avert ecological catastrophe, while also dramatically reducing social inequality and the likelihood of political-economic collapse?

I was so impressed with the depth of his research. In the first chapter, we learn about mitochondrial power; gene power; the power from photosynthesis, eating, reproduction, and self-limitation; and so much more. He goes from that beginning into how power developed in the epochs of the Pleistocene (hunter-gatherers), Holocene (agriculture allowing a rise in social inequality), and Anthropocene (the discovery of fossil fuels).

Once humans begin to use language, make tools, and learn to cooperate, their power has grown. These changes have facilitated vertical power versus horizontal power, and that is really the theme of the book: what kind of power do we want in our world? The vertical power, power over another and nature, has created a world of huge inequalities among humans as well as other species. Horizontal power, where people cooperate and share the commons and the food, avoids those inequalities.

We are not left in despair. Heinberg explores ways that we can channel down our use of fossil fuels, which are the major cause of climate instability. He claims that society can limit its powers to avoid the disaster of climate chaos and fight the vertical power managers with the power of social justice and climate justice advocates, and those who oppose violence. Instead of just fighting, we can create a new culture.

He then goes on to encourage power from beauty, spirituality, and happiness. This may seem Pollyannaish, but the way that the author lays out the steps toward such an outcome makes sense. He recognizes the depth of human longing for love and how that longing can encourage cooperation toward the goal of a saner culture.

There is too much in this book to do it justice in a review. I am so moved by it and encouraged that there may be a better future than the one we are now headed toward.

Ruah Swennerfelt is a member of Middlebury (Vt.) Meeting, where she serves as co-clerk and on the Earthcare Committee. Before retiring, she served as general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness. She and her husband are homesteaders, using regenerative practices, and receive all their electric energy from the sun.

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