Episode #107 Power to change the world – for good or really, really bad. With Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute
What is Power? How do we use it: both power over each other, and the power that fuels the world? How could we use it better? This week, we speak to Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, author of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival about what’s going wrong and how we could get it right.
In this, our ninth season (and third year), we are aiming to look more deeply into the ways we might create a flourishing future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that follow us.
With that in mind, our first guest of this new season is Richard Heinberg, author of the magesterial, Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival which came out in September 2021.
Richard is Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books in all, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis:
His books include:
• Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (September 2021) power.postcarbon.org
• Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for One Hundred Percent Clean Energy, co-authored with David Fridley (Island Press, 2016) ourrenewablefuture.org
Manda: I wanted to start after our second birthday, which was on the solstice, and we’re heading down into a new year. So for this, the first of our ninth season, I’m talking to Richard Heinberg, senior fellow in residence of the Post Carbon Institute, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Richard is one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He’s written 14 highly scholarly books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental and sustainability crisis. I’m talking to him because I read a book called Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival, which you can find at powerpostcarbon.org (I will put a link in the show notes). And as with all of the books that we explore in this podcast this rang some new bells for me and opened some new doors, and in many ways made me look at the interchange between the power that our society exerts between people and the power of the fossil fuels that we burn. And Richard looked at power in all its forms, looking at mitochondrial power and moving up through the power of trees, through the power of other different species and how they move until he gets to us as Homo sapiens, exerting the power that we do over each other and increasingly over a fragile world. He also, of course, looks forward to the ways where we could change the nature of our power structure. And that’s what I wanted to unpick in our conversation.
Manda: So people of the podcast, please welcome Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute. Sir Richard Heinberg, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. It is really wonderful to meet you after having read your book when it first came out and then again, read it recently, and I’ve been so impressed with the scholarship and also the fluidity and the flow and the way that you joined so many big dots. So before we start, you’re in California. First of all, thank you for getting up whatever time in the morning it is in California, and I’m guessing December in California is not quite the extreme cold and wet that we’ve got here. But how are you over there?
Richard: Oh, it’s not so bad. I mean, we’re still in drought, but we had a big rain a few weeks ago. So that was hopeful. But we have a lot of catching up to do.
Manda: We could ship you some water! We’re flooding as we speak, but maybe not. All righty. So thank you. So as is traditional in the podcast, I would like to start with a little bit of your biography of how you came to be part of the Post Carbon Institute to begin with and then how you came to write this book. So give us an overview of of Richard and how you got there.
Richard: Oh dear, well. I guess it all started back in 1972 when I read a book called The Limits to Growth and realised for the first time in my life, my young life, because I was 21 years old at the time, that the world was on an unsustainable path. And so I really spent my entire adult life trying to figure out why that is the case and what we should do about it. For a number of years, I taught environmental studies at a small, private college and then when economic circumstances forced the college to close its doors, I was fortunate enough to be invited by Post Carbon Institute to come on as staff, as a senior fellow. And meanwhile, I had written a raft of books. I think it’s 14 now on environmental topics, some having to do with resource depletion and energy as well as climate change.
Manda: And can you tell us a little bit about what the Post Carbon Institute is and what it does and and how it perhaps has evolved since you joined it? If it has.
Richard: Right. Well, it’s a small, non-profit think tank. It started in two thousand three and the idea was to think through the transition away from our current dependence on fossil fuels. That all of us who started Post Carbon Institute were aware of how dependent society is on these depleting resources and polluting resources. And so we thought, well, you know, somebody should be giving some thought to how we get out of this and to whatever is next. So that’s been our remit from the start, and we’ve published reports and studies as well as, you know, a lot of essays and other material articles for the general reader. Our public website is resilience.org, which is updated on a daily basis with really cool articles and podcasts and all kinds of stuff.
Manda: Yes, and we will put a link in the show notes to that because the podcast is one of my favourite all time listening, must Listen Podcasts. Which was on my Christmas list, which you will have listened to already. So I’m just astonished that you started back in 2003. I hadn’t realised that. I hadn’t probably delved back in as deeply as I should have. So that’s 20 years of writing, actually genuinely, really cool stuff that’s really clear about why we can’t keep going as we’re going. And before we get into looking at your book on power, why has that not gained traction, Richard? Why is it that people like you, really thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed people who actually understand how things work have been saying this is unsustainable for 20 years, and I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that in the last eight months, people have begun to listen. But up to that, it was crickets. Yeah. Have you got a thought as to why?
Richard: Well, you know, when things are going along reasonably well, people have jobs, they have income, they have money to spend and profits to make and so on, it’s so much easier to just keep doing that than to sit down and think, Well, hey, wait a minute, is this based on the wrong premise? Everything that we’re doing. I mean, literally everything we’re doing, our food system, our power system, our consumerism, everything. Should we rethink the whole thing? I mean, that’s asking a lot of people. Unfortunately, that’s what’s actually required. If we don’t do that, if we don’t rethink the whole thing, then we’re going off a cliff. But it’s hard to persuade people of that if they’re having a good time and have good television to watch and so on.
Manda: And jobs and mortgages to pay. And I guess politicians are telling them everything is just fine on both sides of the aisle, which doesn’t help. So. We got to the point where we feel like Wile E. Coyote and we’re way out over the canyon and we’re just about at the looking down and realising that there is a great drop underneath and that we need to turn around and run back. And you wrote Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival, which I guess has a nod to that first book that you mentioned about limits to growth.
Manda: Tell us then, what was it drew you to write something on such a huge topic? Because it is. This book spans all the potential aspects of power. It’s vast and detailed and beautiful in many ways that we’ll get into. But what was it that made you after 14 books, and writing a book is not an easy process, sit down and decide I’m going to tackle this?
Richard: Well, you know, for my whole adult life, there have been three questions that have been rambling around in my head, and it was only in the last few years that I’ve been able to formulate them in, you know, simple English sentences. And those questions are as follows: Number one, how has just one species (ours) become so powerful as to basically take over the whole planet? And I can give you the statistics on that where, you know, there’s no question now that we have taken over the planet. Second, how and why have we come to dominate and exploit one another in so many ways and such, you know, horrendous ways? And again, you know, the statistics and examples go into much detail, but it’s very clear there are a lot of social animals with hierarchies, but there’s no other social animal that has so much inequality, so much, you know, really brutal interspecies behaviour. So why is that? And third, you know, can we change our relationship with power in some way so as to reduce these two sets of vulnerability? Because that’s what they really are. You know, if the fact that we’ve come to dominate the planet, well, that may be success in one sense, biological success. But it’s also extreme vulnerability, because we are dominating it in such a way as to lead to the very strong likelihood of our own extinction. Same thing with our overpowering one another. You know, we have many ways of overpowering one another, but it puts us all at risk in the end. So those are the questions. And that’s what I set out to do in the book.
Manda: Yeah. And particularly with this last question of how can we change our relationship with power or can we change our relationship with power? I realised as I was reading through, the extent to which it’s not all humans, even. It’s, you know, not all species have risen to take over the planet, but also not all of our different ways of organising ourselves have done that. There are other ways that people have managed to create for themselves, flourishing and beautiful lives that weren’t contravening your three questions. That weren’t taking over the planet and weren’t necessarily dominating each other. And that in many ways we, those of us in the white, western educated, industrial rich, democratic, whatever we call it, Westernalia have a particular very narrow avenue that we took. Where we allowed people to create hierarchies of social power and thereby to co-opt the thermal power that has powered our technological growth. Have you ever done the thought experiment of whether it would have been possible to get to the technological growth without the social destruction that preceded it?
Richard: Mm hmm. Frankly, I think it’s unlikely. Most of our technological growth has occurred in the last 200 years as a result of fossil fuels. Now, obviously, we had technology before that, stretching back for tens of thousands of years. Stone tools and wooden tools and even some very simple metal tools, right? But what’s happened in the last two hundred years is just off the charts. And that’s all down to fossil fuels. And fossil fuels have been around for a long time, too, but we didn’t use them until we adopted certain social arrangements. Like private property. You know, if if you could own the mineral rights for a given area of land, then you could extract the fossil fuels from that land and you could own them and sell them and make a profit. And thereby it made sense to do it. But if you didn’t have those social arrangements in place, it wouldn’t have made much sense to do it, at least on the scale that we’ve done it in the last couple of hundred years. And we know this because we can do the sort of historical, again thought experiment, if you like, of going back to China about a thousand years ago and they had the same social arrangements in place as we’ve had in the last couple of hundred years.
Richard: Privatisation was going on. Lots of experimentation with new technology, and they had a lot of coal lying around pretty close to the surface of the ground. And so China was experiencing an incipient industrial revolution.
Richard: They were extracting more and more coal every year and using it to smelt iron and make more and more different kinds of implements. But it got shut down by the government, which saw it as a threat. Now, the same thing happens again a few hundred years later in Britain. And the government doesn’t shut it down. And the result is again, what we’ve seen in the last couple of hundred years; the industrial revolution and everything that’s brought with it. So those social arrangements of private property and all the rest and technological expansion are pretty closely related. I don’t think we would have high level of technology without that.
Manda: Without Neoliberal capitalism?
Richard: Or something like it, yeah
Manda: Being essential or at least a capitalist mindset. Because I occasionally do the thought experiment of suppose North America had not been invaded, and the tribes there had found the intensity of power that is oil and coal. And you’re right, I can’t get to the point where they need to develop the entire industrial revolution. So starting off with the steam engine that was just an originally a pump to make the coal mines better and people able to go down deeper and not get flooded out. Yeah, I hadn’t gone as far as to look at China. Hmm. Ok, so we get to a point where the technological revolution is what it is, and we needed the power to get there. And the whole of your book is looking at thermal power and human power and social power. And I loved you had a quote in the middle from Oscar Wilde saying ‘Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power’. You had a horrible life, man, it was really sad. I would really like to just go back and talk to Oscar Wilde and maybe make his life be just that little bit less constrained by the power.
Richard: I know
Manda: But I’m really interested in taking us beyond where the book went, and I am thinking now in terms of the concept of the technological singularity, which is exactly as you said: we started off with stone tools millions of years ago and then hundreds of thousands of years ago, we decided that bronze was useful and then we got to realising that iron was that little bit better and you could actually cut people with it. And then very, very gradually we built ourselves through wheels and fire, and until the last couple of hundred years where the curve has essentially gone vertical.
Manda: And one of the definitions of the technological singularity is that the point when we design and build the silicon chip that can design and build its own successor, it has to be able to do both. Then we are redundant in the evolution of intelligence. We may not be redundant in the evolution of consciousness, but that’s a separate conversation we could have another time. And so in our desperately destructive ways I think there is a window where we might get there, before we render ourselves extinct. And I wonder if that’s the thought experiment that you’ve gone through; was it necessary for the planet to go through this desperate, horrendous, destructive cycle to get the Evolution of intelligence to the point where it’s silicon based, not carbon based? Is that a concept that’s floated past the Post Carbon Institute at all, or am I just there on a limb?
Richard: Well, I mean, it presupposes that silicon intelligence is useful or it’s somehow an evolutionary necessity. You know, Evolution doesn’t start out with a goal in mind. It doesn’t say, Oh, we want to get to, you know, highly intelligent beings with extremely elaborate technologies and and artificial intelligence and so on. That’s not part of somebody’s programme, you know, it just the way things have gone. It’s a set of of evolutionary accidents that have combined to get us to where we are now. There is nothing in the code of DNA that says that people are better off living in cities than in tiny villages or as hunter-gatherers. It’s all, you know, it just depends on how things go. And things have gone the way they have, partly because our planet just happened to have these huge stores of fossil fuels. And we got to a point in social evolution where it was possible for us to extract and use them. And, you know, all hell has broken loose as a result. And we find ourselves, therefore, in this predicament where we’ve adopted a completely unsustainable way of living on the planet. And we’ve got to get ourselves out of it and quick.
Richard: This is not something theoretical that you know, our descendants might have to figure it out, you know, five hundred years from now. We’ve got to do it this century or else.
Manda: Yeah. And I certainly have friends who would argue we have to do it this decade.
Manda: So partway through the book, you discuss and I’m not sure I’m going to pronounce it right, but you can correct me if I’m wrong. Is it Fermi’s paradox? So explain to us what the paradox is, and then let’s have a look..Let’s see if we can unpick that.
Richard: Well, Fermi, a famous physicists back, you know, seventy five years ago, was having lunch with some of his colleagues and said, well, you know, if evolution is happening on other planets and evolution eventually results in higher levels of intelligence and technology. Then there must be billions of planets out there…the universe is a very, very big place… So where is everybody? You know, why haven’t why haven’t we gotten messages yet saying, Hey, welcome to the neighbourhood? This is how you act as an intelligent civilisation. Here’s your membership card and so on.
Manda: Yeah. Here’s how you clean up your planet. We’re going to help you do it. Show you how? Be nice, wouldn’t it?
Richard: Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, I mean, people were talking about flying saucers and so on, and still do, and it still remains a totally open question. There’s, you know, after all these seventy five years, there’s still no welcome mat, there’s still no welcoming committee that’s that’s showed up at the U.N.. So what’s what’s going on? What are the possible explanations for the Fermi paradox? Well, you know, you can go to Wikipedia and look at the series of explanations that’s been offered. And there are, you know, I think twenty four-twenty five possible solutions to the Fermi paradox. The one that is most often discussed is the likelihood that it is in the nature of intelligent species to destroy themselves if very high intelligence appears in any species on any planet, it’s going to be used first and foremost to increase the rate of resource extraction, reproduction and so on, and that species before it attains sufficient intelligence to understand limits and the need to limit its own behaviour. Before that happens, it’s going to extract all the resources and go extinct.
Manda: It’s just such a distressing view, isn’t it? And also just before we go into kind of the other end of the polarity, it also completely denies hundreds of millions of years of evolution and certainly tens of thousands of years of, you know, let’s say, the indigenous peoples of Australia that, you know, we didn’t get to and start massacring until quite late. Who are highly intelligent and managed not to destroy the entirety of their continent. So let’s assume that that is a possibility. And I think I think it was Khrushchev, but it might have been one of the other Russian leaders, who very early on said, ‘of course, there’s no intelligent life out there because they all go and discover Element 86 and blow themselves to tiny pieces. But we don’t, you know, I would like to think better of humanity than that. So. So there was another end of the spectrum that I think was the one that you began to unpick in the book. Let’s go there.
Richard: Right, right. Yeah, there’s another solution to the Fermi paradox, which isn’t often discussed. It’s certainly not discussed in the Wikipedia article if you look for Fermi paradox. And that is that species routinely, if not always, reach a state of intelligence in their Evolution where they understand limits before they destroy themselves. And so yes, there are lots of other planets out there with intelligent life, but they have those those intelligent beings have chosen to express their intelligence by simply taking care of their little beautiful worlds and enjoying and enhancing the beauty of those worlds rather than, you know, subjugating them, taking them over and jetting off to to other planets.
Manda: Yeah, yeah. They don’t have the Mars instinct of, ‘Oh look, there’s a burning planet that’s completely uninhabitable. Let’s go and live there instead of the one that’s still partially inhabitable!’
Richard: They’re not entirely inhabited by Elon Musk.
Manda: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Or even Jeff Bezos, it’s hard to know which would be worse. Ok, so quite a lot of the kind of end part of your book is using that as a springboard of ‘There is still time we’re not extinct yet’. We’re heading towards tipping points that are not great, but some of us have the intelligence to work out that there are limits and we need to stay within them. And particularly looking, I got it here now; Sidebar 29; of how to get to the point where the overwhelming majority of this culture first of all, understands the problem. Second, accepts that we all need to pull together, and third has a vision of how we might pull through. And so I’m wondering, we probably have got time to go through all of it. But for the key points, let’s assume that people listening are on board with number one. They get that there’s a problem. What we’re looking for is strategies that ordinary individuals can lift from this moment now and carry forward with a coherent plan to bring other people with them and to do whatever it is that individuals can do. Can we unspool some of the ideas that you have?
Richard: Right. Well, you know, the premise of the book or the I should say the argument of the book, is that we have overpowered nature largely as a result of using fossil fuels, and we’re overpowering one another with economic inequality and vertical social power in various forms. Vertical social power is some people being able to tell other people what to do on the basis of bribes and threats. And some of those bribes and threats are, you know, very nicely framed in the form of laws or salaries or things that, you know, we think are perfectly normal and natural and good. But nevertheless, they they constrain and force our behaviour in all sorts of ways. So the question is, can we reshape our relationship with power, so that we avert the kinds of not just trade-offs but but hard limits that could in fact result in human extinction or something very close to it. As close as we’d ever want to get. So how do we do that? Well, we have to look at how we are overpowering the natural world and overpowering one another and then find alternatives to those kinds of behaviours. How we’re overpowering the natural world has to do with the amount of energy we’re using, the amount of stuff that we’re using, not just carbon emissions. That’s certainly part of the story. We could be using solar panels and wind turbines and water power, but if we’re still extracting resources at the scale we are today, a hundred billion tons flowing through our economy every year, that can’t go on for very long.
Richard: If we’re taking space away from other species the way we are today, with wildlife declining in all categories, you know, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, all of them over the last 50 years have declined by about 70 percent in their numbers. You know, we’ve got to start leaving more space for other creatures, and that means probably we need fewer humans on the planet. We need to realise that there’s limited space for everybody on this Earth. And if we want it to be a diverse earth, then humans have to occupy just, you know, a reasonable part of it, but not the whole damn thing. And there are folks who have suggested leaving half of Earth for nature to to recover. But that’s the essential idea. We need to start applying everywhere. You know, leaving space for others. In the human world, with economic inequality, we try to solve economic inequality with more economic growth. We say, you know, if the economy is growing, well, at least, you know, even if the billionaires are raking in the vast share, well, at least the little tiny pieces of pie that everybody else gets, those are growing, too. Well, you can’t grow the economy forever on a finite planet, so we have to find some other way of dealing with economic inequality.
Richard: And that ultimately is going to have to include, you know, just taxing the billionaires way, way more until we don’t have any billionaires.
Manda: Yeah, yeah.
Richard: And so there are lots of ways of getting around our power paradoxes. And there are people who are pursuing all of those strategies, whether it has to do with wildlife or a reduction in energy or economic inequality; all of those folks have to start working together.
Manda: Hmm. Yes.
Richard: Because right now they’re in their little silos. There’s the social inequality warriors who are working in their little silo and the climate change people who are working in their silo and the biodiversity people over here and the population people over there. And they often don’t even talk to each other. If you put them all together, I’m not sure that it’s a majority. I don’t know if it’s enough to to really make a difference and send us on a different trajectory. But I think that’s the only hope we have because otherwise it’s not enough. You know, any one of these silos not only doesn’t not have enough political power on its own, it’s not even seeing the whole problem because the problem is not just climate change, it’s the whole way we’re living.
Manda: Yeah. So we have a total systemic crisis and exactly we’re not going to solve it by trying to play Whac-A-Mole with individual small parts. It seems to me within the activist circles that I move in, which are broadly in the UK and broadly based around Extinction Rebellion, that what you just said is beginning to sink in. That first of all, people are realising that there’s no climate justice without social justice, which is an important big step. Everybody has pretty much got it that the economy is the problem. Nobody that I’ve heard yet has come up with a solution that I think actually works. Kim Stanley Robinson was close, but we need to find a solution for that, particularly. Because the economy is both the pressure driving the power imbalances and the lubricant that keeps the entire system going. Within the Post Carbon Institute, I think, reading some of your stuff, there’s quite a lot of focus on economic change. Have you guys got a way that we could create a new system that doesn’t leave everybody destitute for 50 years while we make the transition? It’s a big ask, I realise.
Richard: Well, the main thing we’ve got to do and there are lots of people who are who are saying this and it needs to be amplified even more. The main thing is to change the goals of our economy, and that has also to do with changing the way we measure our economy. Right now we measure our economy with GDP. And GDP is just the amount of money flowing through the system on an annual basis, and it really correlates very, very closely with the amount of energy and raw materials flowing through the system. The claim of economists is that we can continually improve efficiency so that we decouple GDP from resource and energy usage. But experience has shown that’s, well, a polite, polite term for it would be rubbish.
Manda: That’s very good! We’ll keep our rating on that. Well done. Yeah, yeah. And there’s Jevons paradox as well, which is as soon as you make something slightly more efficient, you use more of it because it’s a little bit cheaper.
Richard: Efforts toward increasing efficiency are subject to the law of diminishing returns. There’s the low hanging fruit. You can improve the efficiency of almost any process a little bit here and there, and it’s pretty easy and cheap. But as you continue that process, each new increment becomes that much harder. So the reality is we can’t continue to grow the economy forever and still have a habitable planet. It’s just not possible. They got that right back in nineteen seventy two with Limits to Growth. And economists still haven’t gotten it through their thick skulls. Yeah, it’s a simple, obvious truth, and we’ve got to get that. Now, once you get it, what do you do? You change from measuring GDP to change it to measuring quality of life and the health of our environment? So those have to be our measures and our goals: quality of human life and the integrity of the environment. So you measure those and you prioritise those. That’s your goal, is to maximise those two things. Now, can you maximise those two things while you live the way we do now? No. You’ve got to shift, because right now we’re, you know, we’re prioritising for the flow through of money, basically and profit. It’s just an entirely different way of looking at the world. So once we make that shift, it’s entirely possible we could have very satisfactory quality of life and a healthy environment with much lower levels of energy usage and material flow through. But it would be a process getting there. You know, it’s not like you change your indicators and suddenly next year, everybody is happy and and we’re living sustainably. Because we’re very, very far from that ideal condition right now.
Manda: And we’re living in a society that is addicted to consumption. And the thing about addictions, or habits of any sort, is that they’re really hard to break. And the interesting thing, if we look back at the way that our consumption was promoted, it didn’t take long to get people addicted. But I’m thinking it’s going to be quite hard. When people measure their quality of life by the amount of stuff that they have, which is what people seem to do currently. And you have to have a new car every year or you have to have a new kitchen or you have to have the latest fast fashion or whatever it is. In terms of shifting the emotional reality of the broad range of people, how would you if somebody appointed you something high up in the government tomorrow went ‘OK, we realise we need to do this’; A miracle has happened and the politicians have actually got their heads around the fact that GDP is really not useful, and we want to begin to measure people’s quality of life, and we want people to have a better quality of life as a goal instead of just amassing more money and more stuff. Have you a sense of on a wide scale, how we could begin to get to that.
Richard: Well, you start promoting things that actually do make people happy about their lives. People are happy with their lives when they feel secure, when they don’t feel that the wolf is at the door, that the bottom could fall out from them at any moment. So you make sure people understand that you’ve got their back, you know, and that they they will be taken care of, at least in in a most basic level. They’ll have a place to live, food to eat. And then once you’ve got that, what what makes people happy? Well, sound relationships with the people around them, a sense of community and a sense of beauty and contributing to the beauty of their culture. So cultural activities of all kinds. Music and art and dance and celebrations and seasonal festivals and stuff. Those don’t require a heck of a lot of, you know, iron ore or electrical power or anything, maybe a minimum of it here and there. But you know, it’s not high industry, but it makes people really happy. So you you put a lot more effort into into promoting cultural experiences and make sure those experiences are ones where people are involved with one another and not just sitting at home with headphones, staring into a computer, but where they’re actually engaging with the people around them. And once people do that, then they have a common fellow feeling with their community that they’re all in it together, and then they’re more willing to take a look at the difficult stuff.
Richard: You know, if we’re going to get through this climate change and resource depletion and all the rest, ultimately we’re going to need something like rationing. Right now, we ration stuff by price. It’s not as though we don’t have rationing now, but we’re going to need rationing by quantity, where you know, everybody gets their minimal amount. But if you if you want more than that, you know, you’ve really got to pay for it. So and that discourages the people who want more than they actually need, and it prioritises everybody else having the bare minimum, right. Well, you know, you in Britain had this after World War Two, well during and after World War Two, with food and other things and people were actually better nourished with food rationing than they were after rationing stopped. And the country got wealthier.
Richard: Well, rationing experiments have generally tended to go that way wherever they’ve been adopted. We need to ration carbon emissions, fossil fuels, material goods of many kinds. And if people are bought in, if they feel that it’s fair; if they feel that it’s for a common purpose; if they feel that it’s for the good of their children and grandchildren and the rest of nature, they’ll do it willingly. And just as people did in World War Two, and they’ll feel pride in contributing. So that’s what we need to do.
Manda: And then we end up with the endless paradox. Because I absolutely agree with you. And I was very struck with the part of the book where you pointed out that rationing exactly worked for those reasons: people could see a common enemy; particularly in the UK. If you read people’s diaries at the point they were genuinely afraid of what happened if Hitler and the Nazi Army came across the channel. So there was a very obvious and immediate threat. Everyone could see that there wasn’t any food and were getting reports of the convoys coming in from America being sunk every day. So you could see that there’s only what we grow here and the little bit that comes in and we have to spread it around and therefore everybody did their bit. They dug up their back gardens, they kept their chickens, they did whatever it was to help. And I gather, talking to people who live in the now very rural area that I live in, that actually, the rural areas did OK because we had hedgerows and it wasn’t the case that, you know, you had to go to the butcher and they gave you a little bit of meat the size of a matchbox. It was that you might have a pig and you could actually just kill it and eat it and be all right. It was different in the country than in the towns, I think. But when I listen to the not very many people I know, but the kind of branches of extended family and things who are immersed in what in the states would be Trumpism or Qanon or that kind of, that level of still basically denying that climate change is happening or that it’s a thing or it’s made up by the Chinese to take us over. Let’s not go down any of those rabbit holes.
Manda: I still haven’t found a way to connect to them, to the point where they would willingly do this. And then we end up with the point that the guy who tells the biggest lies gets into power because people want to believe them. We’re dealing with that in the UK as we speak. And much as I would like Boris Johnson no longer to be prime minister, my great fear is that the next most likely is Rishi Sunak, who is basically the political wing of Goldman Sachs, and they’re not that keen on on facilitating a change in the structural system, either. So in the book, there is an individual who has got four ways that a society collapses. And one is pandemic, which we’re looking at. But it’s not bad enough now to collapse our society, for which I am immensely grateful. One of the others was war, which as people are becoming more afraid, seems quite possible. The third one was, the word wasn’t benign revolution, but benign revolution seemed to be a possibility. And as I’m writing a book trying to get us from here to there, benign revolution is striking me as as pretty much the only way to go. I don’t want a violent revolution, I think it were an extremely bad idea. Also, I think we’d lose. Have you any concept of how we could change the political system in a way that would work that doesn’t involve people with bigger guns than the other guys?
Richard: Well, yeah, it’s getting difficult, more difficult, I would say, to to imagine solutions along those lines. Certainly, if it were 20, 30 years ago, it would be easier to suggest remedies, because what we’re talking about right now is a loss of social cohesion. And we see the evidence all around this of political polarisation and people just starting to believe that the system is inherently corrupt and therefore there’s no reason to follow the rules and you might as well just sort of secede from the whole thing and you know, decide for yourself, what are what are the real facts. Everything is a conspiracy theory anyway. So why not just make up your own reality and follow your own rules? We’ve seen this in history countless times in civilisations and societies and movements and so on, and it never ends well. This is how societies fail.
Manda: Let’s unpick that a little bit. Where have we seen it in ways that people would recall? I mean, I’m guessing part of Germany during the 30s was the people at the top inventing quite a lot of their own reality. But leaving that one aside, what other examples where we got to that position?
Richard: Ancient ancient Rome, Greece. You know, the list of failed civilisations is pretty, pretty long. And some really good historical work has been done in recent years by Peter Turchin, who started out as an insect ecologist and then was so successful in using statistical methods to study insect Evolution in solving basic problems in that field, that he decided to use the same methodology in studying human societies. So he started collecting quantifiable data about human societies and he has a whole team of researchers working with them. They built a huge database of hundreds of societies over the last several thousand years. And so he’s he’s looking for patterns and periodicity. And what he finds is that there’s there’s a kind of reliable process that you can see working out in agrarian complex societies over and over again. Where things start out great, everybody’s working together and they’re producing more wealth. The wealth tends to get sucked up to the top of the social pyramid, increasingly because the people at the top of the social pyramid are creating the rules by which the whole society works. So of course, they’re going to make rules that ultimately benefit themselves, and then everybody wants to be at the top of the social pyramid. So, more and more elite aspirants are generated over time. More and more people wanting to be at the top. But there are only so many jobs at the top of the pyramid for elite aspirants. And so over time, people at the bottom of the social pyramid are getting emiserated. Their their lives are becoming more and more miserable because their, you know, their wealth is being sucked up to the top. And meanwhile, at the top things are getting dicey because too many people want to be up there and they’re arguing with each other and some people are realising that they’re not going to get to the top of the pyramid just by playing nice and applying for a job, they’re actually going to have to challenge the power structure.
Richard: And so you get a revolution or a war or something like that. And so societies go through this periodicity of expansion and collapse, and it happens again and again and again, and we’re playing out the same. The same story. Turchin, you know, applies the same statistical methods. Looking at modern industrial societies and particularly the United States is following exactly this path, where the number of elite aspirants, the number of lawyers, number of aspiring politicians is just exploding, you know? And meanwhile, the economic inequality is increasing dramatically, so the people at the bottom of the pyramid are doing less and less well, and the number of billionaires is growing. So, you know, it’s we’re doing it. It’s happening right in front of our eyes and we can see what it would take to change the situation, make the people at the bottom of the social pyramid better off, you know, get rid of the billionaires and make sure everybody is doing OK. And then the incentive for all the conspiracy theories for the competition amongst elites goes away. Again, it would have been a lot easier to do that 20 years ago than it is to do it right now, because everybody has already divided into the warring camps. And so if somebody in one camp says, Well, look, we’ve got to equalise the social pyramid a little bit here, people in the other camp are going to say, Oh, you’re communists.
Manda: Yeah. Ok, and we’ve got the problem of social media and the race to the bottom of the brain stem and limbic hijack and all of those things accentuating, because this is what hasn’t happened before. If it was simply the case that we were facing a century or two of totalitarianism and it was going to be hell on Earth, I would just hang myself from a beam in the barn and let everyone get on with it. But we’re not. We’re facing not just the extinction of humanity, but the potential wiping out of 97 percent of life on Earth, which is what’s happened at all the previous mass extinctions. You know, we basically leave the amoeba and the spirochaetes and a few others to get on with it. And I will keep going to the last breath of my body to stop that. So,have you or Peter or anybody else…I’m just waiting for the person that I interview in this podcast to go ‘yeah we’ve got it. We’ve got the answer’. Because Extinction Rebellion wanted I think they figured that three percent of the population is enough to create a momentum in one direction. And it might be, I think, if all you’re wanting to do is increase the franchise of votes so that women get votes too, but you’re not actually trying to change the system. We’re suggesting, what I’m hearing from you, is that we need universal basic services. We need taxation such that there is a hard limit to how much you can earn and above that basically you give it all back.
Manda: So we decide that, you know, maybe $100 million is the limit. And after that, you just don’t get to keep anymore. Sorry, mate, you don’t get to fire your giant penile expression into space at the cost of $100 billion, when that money could actually have been used for something else. Or we change the entirety of our economic systems so that a dollar isn’t worth anything anymore and the people who’ve amassed lots of them. Sorry, mate, we don’t deal in dollars anymore. We deal in something else. In any of these cases, and I’m going to go and explore Peter Turchin and maybe invite him onto the podcast, we need a critical mass of the people at the bottom to all be at least facing in the same direction and not have the people at the top turning the people with the pitchforks against the people with the flaming torches and getting them to fight each other. Which is what they’re very, very good at doing at the moment. Are you seeing any chink in the armour, any light at the end of the tunnel, anything like that? In Cop 26, in anything that’s happening, where the sum of enough of the people at the top are getting the message, such that they might join with the people at the bottom to create the change that needs to happen?
Richard: Well, I think if if Cop Twenty Six taught us anything, it was that the people at the top cannot be relied on to solve the problems. And it really is going to take the rest of us to make the changes. In the book on power I have a pretty long section on social psychology of power, and there’s been a lot of research in just the last ten years on what having a lot of social power actually does to you as a human being. And it turns out that it reduces your ability to feel empathy for other people. It reduces your perception of risk. It makes it harder for you to see things from other people’s point of view. So people with a lot of social power are actually impaired in various ways. Very, very predictable ways. And yet those are the very people we’re relying on to solve our problems for us. You know, we’ve chosen exactly the wrong people
Manda: Or simply by the act of them getting the power. They’ve become the wrong people. Maybe they weren’t in the first place. I think some of them might have been really decent human being.
Richard: Exactly, exactly. That’s perfectly good observation. Yeah. So that means that we can’t just depend on these, these big United Nations meetings to solve the world’s problems as long as the only people in the room are people are billionaires and political leaders; because they’ve self-selected themselves as being, you know, the wrong people.
Manda: So we need a global revolution, Richard. It’s where we’re heading. It’s the only answer.
Richard: Yeah, I’m afraid we kind of do. You know, somehow the people have got to force the leaders to adopt positions that will allow for the continuance of human life on Earth.
Manda: Ok, we’re not going to end on that note because partly because the UK government is changing the rules and I don’t really want to be arrested yet. I got too much else still to do. So. Right at the end, you say, if we wish to avoid outcomes that are too awful to contemplate, we can and must rein in the extreme powers, which is what you just been saying. And leading up to that, you do give a flavour of how you think the world could be. A permaculture world, a world where we’re all much more self-sufficient, but I’m guessing there is some kind of a universal basic services, health care, that kind of thing, because home-grown health care, much as I love homeopathy, is not necessarily going to fix everything. If I were to transport you forward to 2050 and I realise both of us are probably not going to be around then, but let’s pretend, and we make it. How do you think the world looks?
Richard: Well, by 2050; 2050 is very, very soon in terms of the kind of social evolutionary events we’re discussing here. By 2050 the overwhelming likelihood is that the world is going to be in some level of turmoil. Hopefully, part of that turmoil will be generated by the process of moving toward the kinds of goals that we’ve been talking about. More communitarianism and rationing of materials and energy and so on. Ok, fine. At least we’ll be on the right track. I’m more interested in what the world looks like in twenty two hundred or twenty five hundred.
Manda: Okay, go for that.
Richard: You know, if we do it right, I think we could have a beautiful civilisation ahead of us. And I use the term beautiful very deliberately because I think the production and protection of beauty could be essentially the central human goal. And I say that because it’s part of our Evolution. One of the books that I refer to in Power is this wonderful book published a couple of years ago, called The Evolution of Beauty, by a Yale University ornithologist named Richard Prum. And he talks about Darwin’s second book, which was on sexual selection and the real implications of that, which haven’t really been unpacked by biologists in the last 150 years so much. It turns out that nature spends a lot of effort in the production of beauty, and it starts out as usually males producing beauty in terms of singing and dancing and colourful feathers and so on in order to attract female mates. Ok, that’s how it starts, but then it takes on a priority of its own.
Richard: You know, birds are singing, whether it’s mating season or not. And and it’s happening with flowering plants. And so nature is intentionally beautiful. It’s not just a subjective impression on our part. We look out and we see it’s a beautiful day and there’s, you know, a colourful bird there and we think, Oh, it’s beautiful. But it’s just my, you know, it’s just my preference. No It really is beautiful! Because nature is trying as hard as it can to be as beautiful as it possibly can. Well, we are part of nature, and human beings are really good at producing beauty too. You know, look at our culture, our history of culture and art, music and all those others, you know? But it’s all been commercialised. Our production of beauty has been made subservient to the goal of producing profit and power over nature and power over other human beings. And it’s become decadent and it’s become a part of a machine that is destroying nature and destroying us. Our instinct for the production of beauty needs to be freed once again to the service of the community of humanity and the community of life. And if it is, we could have a beautiful future in which not only we spend our lives producing beauty, but also spend our lives enjoying beauty and preserving and protecting it. And what a what a life that would be. That’s the alternative, and that’s what we could have. It’s not going to happen by 2050. But that’s what we have to aim for.
Manda: That. That’s glorious and wonderful and a really, really good, uplifting note to end on. So thank you because this is the start of a new season. I forgot to say that at the beginning. That’s great. Richard thank you so much for taking time out of your California December to come and talk to us.
Richard: It’s been a pleasure, Manda. Thank you so much.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Richard for the depth and breadth of his book and for sharing with us the takeaway points. What I have taken away from this is twofold. First, it’s really important this year that we begin to gather together the different, fragmented silos of the people who care. Because so many people have got ideas of how we could change the system. What we seem to be lacking and perhaps I’m not looking in the right places, is the bringing together of that into something where we can begin to develop coherent policy. And with that, obviously, we also have to start creating coherent narratives. That’s become really clear to me since I started writing in August, and so for us, a lot of the coming year will be invested in making the Thrutopia masterclass as good as we can get it. And beyond that, what is increasingly clear is that we have to spread the scope of what we’re doing and what we’re saying, because if we keep speaking to people who already get it, then we’re not going to get the greater mass of people with us in time. I genuinely don’t know how to talk across the divide. We’ve spoken to Braver Angels, we’ve spoken to a number of people who are trying this. I think that too has to become something that we really focus on in the very near future. And beyond that, we all need to find what it is that makes our own hearts sing. What we’re really good at. What will make an absolute difference and then get out there and do it.
Manda: And if you’re not sure, then we are holding another of our start of the year gatherings, Dreaming Your Year Awake, where you can come and spend six hours with us. It’s on Sunday, the 2nd of January. It’ll be from 3pm to 9pm UK time. That’s six hours. There will be breaks in the middle, I swear. And we spend the time really diving deep, doing guided visualisations and meditations and small group work in breakout groups in the Zoom groups. This is all on Zoom. So that we can step into the new year with an idea of what fires us, what we can do to make a difference. Because the final take away from the work with Richard is we are right on the edge now. Nothing matters more than this. And that’s very hard in a world where we’re all still locked into the old systems. But the more of us that try to break out, the less hold the systems have on the rest. So that, finally, will also be part of what we’re trying to do in the coming year. But if you want to join us for dreaming your year awake, go to accidentalgods.life, go to the Gatherings tab and book up. We hope to see there. And in the meantime. We will be back next week with another conversation.
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