The Future of Power: Learning to Live Happily Within Limits
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This final chapter shows why all the possible futures we face are bounded by two extremes: on one end, mutual annihilation, and on the other, mutual self-restraint.
Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.― Lao-Tzu
If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Forecasting the future is a fool’s game. The world, after all, is a chaotic, nonlinear system. We cannot know how global events will play out because there are just too many variables—including too many sources of power, and too many actors seeking to use, abuse, increase, or limit that power. But it is sometimes possible to map constraints and opportunities, as well as likely routes of branching cause-and-effect chains. In this book so far, we have surveyed enough of the biological and cultural factors at play leading up to the present to attempt to do just that.
The range of realistic possible outcomes that could unfold by the end of this century is likely bounded by the two solutions to the Fermi Paradox discussed at the beginning of Chapter 6. At one end of the spectrum of outcomes lies collapse and possible human extinction; at the other end, systematic self-restraint regarding per-capita consumption levels and human numbers, with collapse largely averted. I’ll not waste time describing a scenario in which consumption growth and population growth continue to the end of the century, because such a scenario is of vanishingly low probability, in my view.1 There just aren’t enough natural resources and waste sinks to allow it to happen.
There’s a lot of territory between the extremes of human self-annihilation and sufficient self-restraint, and this final chapter explores that territory. We will begin by considering the future trajectory that leads to the dismal first solution to the Fermi Paradox, in which intelligent life simply destroys itself. But we’ll not dwell there too long. Instead, we’ll spend most of the chapter looking at what will be required to achieve the second solution (in which intelligent beings learn to live happily and beautifully within limits), examining the tradeoffs between population, consumption, and efficiency necessary to achieve that outcome, as well as adaptations needed both in society at large and in our own daily existence.
We will finish with an exploration of life goals in a future society of self-restraint. If humans are competing less with one another for wealth and social power, to what might they aspire, and what might give them satisfaction? As we’ll see, the answer may lie with the development of internal forms of self-control via the arts and spirituality.
All Against All
Let’s first assume that humanity attempts to continue its unbridled pursuit of increasing rates of energy usage, increasing power over nature, increasing social power, increasing military power, and denial of the likely consequences. How might that scenario play out? Again, my goal is not to offer a specific forecast of the future, just to propose a general scenario by extrapolating the current trends surveyed in Chapter 5.
If we follow the path of denial, the results will not be pretty. By the end of the century, the planet’s carrying capacity for humans could shrink significantly. Due to climate change, soil depletion, water shortages, and consequent loss of agricultural productivity, it’s possible that, in the latter half of the century, significantly more people will be dying by starvation, pestilence, natural disasters, or violence, rather than from old age. It’s also possible that deaths will far outnumber births, leading to uncontrolled population decline. There is no point in trying to imagine the specific circumstances leading to such high mortality rates; there are many possible routes. In any case, the psychological terrors unleashed would be profound and intergenerational.
One might think that, as dire events began to unfold, everyone would finally awaken to the reality of climate change, species extinctions, resource depletion, and overpopulation, and do whatever was necessary to keep society from further descending the chute of collapse. However, once the impacts of these problems really started showing up unmistakably, nearly everyone’s attention would likely be fixated on effects rather than causes, or on imagined causes rather than real ones. And some problems, like climate change, are slow to develop and hard to reverse once they’ve reached certain thresholds. Over time, an increasing proportion of the population would be forced to spend most of its effort directly scrounging for living space and food, with little means left over for the maintenance of larger social systems. The descent would then become a series of self-reinforcing feedbacks that would be difficult to halt.
One of the most crucial of these feedbacks has to do with trust. At the end of Chapter 6, I described trust as social capital. It’s trust, after all, that enables humans to cooperate in large groups. These days pundits tell us that worsening political polarization in many countries (such as the US) is making democratic governance less and less workable.2 Polarization is both a symptom and driver of diminishing trust. Once trust is gone, time and effort are required to rebuild it. And without increasing (rather than diminishing) levels of trust, we cannot address global problems like climate change, overconsumption, overpopulation, and the spread of nuclear weapons. As we saw in Chapter 6, these problems are prisoner’s dilemmas. They can only be solved with concerted, global effort based on a deliberate process of trust building.
As trust erodes, so does cooperation. Large groups splinter into smaller ones. Ironically, within their smaller subgroups, people might feel more trust and cooperativeness than they did within the larger group as its bonds weakened. So, social breakdown might actually yield a giddy temporary satisfaction for some people. Further, within smaller groups, people might tend to blame rival groups for worsening conditions. And if conditions continue to worsen because nothing is being done to improve them (since small groups acting alone won’t be able to solve global problems), then unraveling may simply fuel more unraveling. Under such circumstances, when violence appears it can turn into an endless round of seemingly justified reprisals serving largely to vent and intensify emotion.
The breakdown of trust will cleave existing fault lines between nations, regions, and communities, and between economic classes (for example, between investors versus corporate managers versus salaried professionals versus hourly wage laborers versus the unemployed), as well as between age strata, ethnicities, and religions. As economic pressures mount, each group will seek to insulate itself from suffering as much as possible, while blaming other groups for the worsening crisis.
A particularly nasty set of self-reinforcing feedbacks may arise from the inherent dynamics of our capitalist economic system. Recall our discussion of the adaptive cycle in Chapter 6, in which we saw that complex human societies, like ecosystems, tend to pass through phases of growth/exploitation, conservation, collapse/release, and reorganization. In the current two-century, fossil-fueled running of the cycle, enormous fortunes were made during the growth/exploitation phase via resource extraction and manufacturing. As energy quality began to decline (during the last half-century) due to depletion of the easiest-to-get fossil fuels, capitalists in wealthy countries began to make less of their profit from conventional manufacturing and more from high tech and finance. Debt began to grow much faster than GDP. This likely marked the commencement of the conservation phase of the cycle.
During the collapse/release phase of the cycle, capitalism will be transformed once again. The impetus will be irresistible: profits must still be made; but, with energy supplies declining rather than growing, and debt in all forms being defaulted upon, new sources of profit will have to be found. Capitalists will, out of necessity, seek to profit from the collapse of society and from conflict between regions. The making and selling of weapons, kidnapping for ransom, the organization of political and religious cults for the fleecing of the faithful, the manipulation of opinion, and the theft of warehoused supplies and hoarding of necessities in order to raise prices—these have always existed as perverse paths of profit-seeking at the fringes of capitalist society, but they could become significant new growth industries. Needless to say, such efforts to benefit from others’ misery would only further rupture whatever social trust remained.3
As ecosystems break down, as agriculture becomes problematic due to climate change, as wildfires and droughts rage, and as water and food become scarce, more people may be forced to flee their homelands. Trickles of refugees and migrants may turn to rivers, rivers to swirling floods. Anti-migrant fervor, which has already taken hold in many European nations and the United States, might spread and deepen.
Governments may be overwhelmed. As governments’ ability to provide services, guarantee rights, and punish cheaters breaks down, many people could move away from faith in Big Government and return to faith in Big Gods, perhaps grasping at new forms of those religions that claim to represent “true” or “original” teachings.4 In addition, entirely new religions may quickly emerge and flourish. Meanwhile, as trust continues to fail, conflict between religions and sects is likely to increase, as well as conflict between believers and nonbelievers (most likely in the form of persecution of nonbelievers by believers).
Global trade depends on flows of fuel and credit, along with general adherence to anti-piracy laws (which prevent goods in shipment from being hijacked, branded products from being cheaply imitated, and proprietary technologies from being stolen). All of these, again, depend on trust. If and when global trust erodes, trade will become more problematic. But we have never been more dependent on global trade. Today it is nearly impossible to manufacture a computer or smartphone in just one country, using local raw materials (this is likewise true for many life-saving pharmaceuticals). Increasingly, as more of our machines and infrastructure become computerized, this means no country can maintain business as usual on its own. If global trade were cut off, then over time people in many nations would find workarounds. In many cases they would simply do without certain products; in others, they would come up with locally produced alternatives, which would likely be more expensive or less functional. Alternatively, they might find ways to keep various machines functioning for years or even decades by cannibalizing other similar equipment (as the Cubans already do with their pre-Castro-era cars). The United States has a great variety of raw-material resources available domestically; even if it could not access rare earths from China or copper from South America, it could in theory manage to maintain a relatively high level of technology and infrastructure (think 1960s, but with a few residual high-tech bells and whistles). Nevertheless, even in the best case, severe ongoing adjustments would be required.
If economic inequality continues to worsen, a backlash may eventually come. Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, and the Arab Spring were merely faint, early indicators of the sorts of uprisings that are possible. Many of those earlier protests fizzled, were co-opted, or were violently put down (that doesn’t seem to have been the case with BLM), and future rebellions may meet similar ends—but not before overturning governments in some cases, and provoking even more political polarization in others. Eventually the fury of those left behind during the Great Acceleration may be unquenchable—especially when the dispossessed realize that their moment in the sun is never coming, because the resources that enabled history’s grandest banquet are mostly gone.
The explosion of resentment of the poor against the rich may incite a corresponding rage among the young against the old (look out, Boomer and Gen Xer). Climate activism may take a violent turn as young people realize they have been consigned to a future of crisis and deprivation.
In 20th century geopolitics, Anglo-American economic and military power dominated most of the world. The main European challenger to this hegemony, Germany, was twice defeated in war. Another power center emerged in Eurasia in the form of the Soviet Union, but was ultimately undermined economically; a tipping point came when the United States, acting with Saudi allies to lower the price of oil (the USSR’s main source of revenue), pushed the Soviet empire toward collapse.5 In the latter years of the 20th century, some international observers were already forecasting an end to Anglo-American dominance. In the early 21st century, the tide has turned somewhat: a former KGB intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, appears to have successfully contributed to the political destabilization of the United States, Britain, the European Union, and NATO using information warfare (though it’s worth remembering that the US has a long history of interfering in other nations’ politics). Some geopolitical commentators are of the opinion that, while the US won the Cold War, Russia is seeking to win a Long Cold War, or at least to get even with the US for its past meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.6
Meanwhile, China is on track to become the world’s largest economy in just a few years as a result of its low-cost manufacturing capability. Several historians have noted the parallels with the circumstances leading up to World War I: a global hegemonic power (then Britain, now the US) is facing a rapidly industrializing challenger (then Germany, now China) that is seeking to expand its sphere of influence (both then and now: Africa and the Middle East).7 Hence strategists in Washington and Beijing are preparing for war.8
Old alliances are increasingly in ruins. But it would be premature to declare the dawn of a China-centric era of global supremacy. That’s because current geopolitical shifts are occurring at the precise moment that climate change and other global crises are beginning to bite. There may be many geopolitical losers in the decades ahead, but there may be no real winner.
During the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020, some nations acted quickly and competently to reduce infection rates. Other nations, notably the US, dithered and denied for months, leading to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. It seems highly likely that, as the economic and social consequences of the pandemic continue to reverberate, nations that responded competently (including small nations such as New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Taiwan) will enjoy more social cohesion and better economic prospects, while those that mounted a poor pandemic response may be hit by continuing economic hardship. Meanwhile, public health experts warn more new pandemics could arise in the years and decades ahead, possibly ones with far higher fatality rates than COVID-19. (See sidebar, “Rising Risk of Pandemics,” in Chapter 5.)
In this topsy-turvy world, established assumptions are being stood on their heads. In older democracies like the US and UK, political parties’ constituencies are being scrambled, with those that formerly represented working-class interests now supporting views espoused by globalist elites (favoring free trade, open doors to immigration, and religious and cultural pluralism), while those that have long represented the wealthy now also focus on populist cultural issues (opposing both immigration and women’s rights, favoring specific ethnic groups and religions). The confusion is likely only to grow.
Geography and climate will largely determine how the future unfolds for any given human population. These factors were pivotal throughout millennia of human history, but during the last couple of centuries we have become accustomed to an unusual situation in which climate zones and geographic boundaries such as mountain ranges and rivers could be largely ignored; after all, we could easily fly above such natural obstacles, creating new political boundaries merely by drawing lines on maps. As we lose easy fossil-fueled mobility, waterways and mountain passes will again become key routes for trade, and nature will reassert itself as a limiting factor for habitation.
The Middle East, the area of the world that exports the largest amounts of oil and gas, is increasingly volatile—the consequence of decades of meddling by world powers eager to control the planetary fuel spigot. The region is also highly susceptible to climate impacts, primarily intense and long-lasting droughts leading to declining food production (a factor in the Syrian civil war).9 Global warming may make much of the Middle East simply uninhabitable. Geopolitical theorists have long held that if global conflict erupts, the point of ignition will likely be somewhere in this culturally ancient and religiously pivotal part of the world.
The very worst scenario for the remainder of this century is one in which ecological and social trends provoke a nuclear war. In that case, human extinction becomes a possible consequence; if there were survivors, they would (as Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said) envy the dead.
Even without nuclear Armageddon, the picture is grim indeed—though not necessarily without the prospect for some relief. In past instances of civilizational collapse, the process took up to three centuries and there were periods of partial recovery.10 After the Black Death in 14th century Europe, a time of economic leveling and relative political calm followed, simply because so many people had died that there were now more goods to go around on a per capita basis. Labor shortages ensued, and peasants demanded better terms from their lords. We may see analogous moments of reversal and partial recovery late in this century or in the next.
However, that is a faint hope in the face of all that stands to be lost if we continue down the path of denial. If we’re to avoid such a dark road, or if we hope to minimize the casualties along the way, then we will have to engage in some forms of collective self-limitation. What might those look like?
In the six sections that follow, I will use the pronoun “we” to mean “we humans,” as I explore what must be done to restrain our powers of consumption and reproduction in order to prevent the scenarios described above. However, in many respects “we” as individuals are not all in the same boat: various groups of us benefit differently from the status quo based on our gender, ethnicity, nation of residence, and so on. And if even some of the social fragmentation I have just described ensues, then dissimilarities of privilege and impact may worsen. Power struggles are inevitable over the short run, and, if humanity is to avert an all-against-all future, groups adhering more to communitarian and ecological principles must prevail over the forces of continued capital accumulation and vertical power. How such an outcome can be furthered constitutes a vital strategic discussion—one that, in some respects, might seem best placed at this point in the narrative arc of the chapter. However, it’s essential first to describe the general direction in which human cultures will necessarily be mutating. I’ll discuss the coming power struggle near the end of the chapter, in a section titled “Fighting Power with Power.”
Trade-Offs Along the Path of Self-Restraint
How far will we humans have to pull back the reins of population and consumption in order to halt the process of social and ecological unraveling? How many people can Earth sustainably support? What levels of technology and consumption can be maintained over the long haul?
There are no simple answers to these questions. Probably the most straightforward rule of thumb would be to keep pulling back on the reins of population and consumption until the problems resulting from too many people using too much stuff are resolved. One researcher figures we will ultimately return to hunting and gathering, with a global human population numbering in the millions rather than billions.11 Others say we might be able to sustain a global population of up to three billion at a comfy industrial scale of production and consumption.12 But those are really just guesses. Any surer grasp of the way ahead depends on coming to grips with trade-offs implicit in the project of restraining aspects of human power that are currently running amok. Those trade-offs mainly involve factors not only of population and per-capita consumption levels, but efficiency as well.
The trade-off between population and consumption is fairly obvious. If we don’t somehow humanely reduce population, then overall consumption cuts would have to be drastic in order for us to live once again within sustainable planetary resource budgets (of course, consumption cuts would at first have to be borne primarily by the wealthy, but the global middle class would also have to pare back significantly—a prospect that is politically fraught). On the other hand, if we do gradually and humanely reduce our population size through fewer births, then per-capita consumption levels wouldn’t have to drop quite so much in order for us to achieve a sustainable society.
Efficiency, the third variable, is a bit of a catch-all term, in that it can be used to refer to a wide array of strategies such as making longer-lasting products, managing wastes better, substituting renewable materials for non-renewables in manufacturing and building, replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon energy sources, adopting more ecologically sound agricultural practices, and decoupling economic growth from resource consumption and energy use. So far, policy makers have used hopes for efficiency as an excuse for nearly complete inaction on overconsumption and inadequate action with regard to overpopulation. That’s entirely understandable. Efficiency gains are brought about through research and the development of new technologies—and most policy makers love the notion of research leading to technological advances; after all, that has been a significant source of increased economic power and growth during the past couple of centuries. Further, leaning heavily on efficiency means we don’t have to pay as much attention to population and consumption, and attempts to rein in either of these is nearly always met with social, political, and even religious pushback.
But we have to be realistic about how much we can do with efficiency alone. We’d all probably be happy with more durable products—though doing away with planned obsolescence might soon cut into sales of new products and thereby inhibit economic growth and profit. Better waste management and more recycling would make for a cleaner environment, something we’d all appreciate, but it would cost more money and has its own limits. Substituting renewable raw materials for nonrenewable ones is easy in some cases (bioplastic compostable forks and spoons work just as well as petroplastic disposable ones), but in other instances there are trade-offs in terms of performance, cost, and profitability.13 That’s why nobody is proposing to make cars or airliners entirely from renewable materials. In addition, there is the very likely prospect of using renewable materials like wood or agricultural waste faster than they can regrow: indeed, global ecological footprint analysis tells us we’re already significantly overusing Earth’s biocapacity.14 We’ve already discussed (in Chapter 4) some of the challenges of substituting renewable or nuclear energy for energy from fossil fuels: it can be done, but it would be foolish of us to expect to continue using as much energy as we currently do, during and after the transition away from coal, oil, and natural gas. Agroecologists have for decades proposed improvements to standard agricultural practices that would build topsoil, conserve water, protect biodiversity, and yield healthier food. Agricultural reform sounds like a no-brainer, but the large majority of farmers, agribusinesses, and government ag bureaus have stuck with methods that are cheaper and more profitable over the short run, even if they result in system-crushing long-term costs.
The decoupling of economic growth from increased consumption of raw materials and energy is really the holy grail of efficiency. Decoupling comes in two strengths: mild-strength (or relative) decoupling, which implies using relatively less energy and stuff for each unit of economic growth; and high-strength (or absolute) decoupling, which implies reducing the total use of resources even as the economy continues to grow. Almost all economists believe that relative and absolute decoupling will be inevitable features of further technological innovation, and that the benefits will be ongoing and cumulative. Indeed, decoupling is (for these folks) the real key to banishing the contradiction inherent in trying to avert snowballing environmental impacts while failing to deal with population and consumption issues.
Unfortunately, it turns out that decoupling has been oversold. A 2015 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that even the relative decoupling that most economists believe industrial nations have already achieved is largely the result of false accounting.15 And two recent metastudies by a team of scientists in Finland have confirmed and elaborated on that conclusion.16 When Americans buy Chinese-made products, that usually results in usage of less domestic energy and materials than if the products were manufactured in the US. But the energy and materials still need to be accounted for, even if they have been used elsewhere. Some efficiency investments (such as a switch to renewable energy sources, which would do away with the inefficiency of converting energy from fossil fuels into electrical power) would achieve a measure of decoupling, but that would be a one-off accounting benefit. Once those measures were in place, we’d be back to a nearly exact correlation between economic growth and increased energy and materials usage. Further, renewable energy sources would introduce a different set of inefficiencies: due to the intermittency of wind and sunlight, society will have to invest heavily in redundancies in energy production capacity (i.e., building far more solar panels and wind turbines than are needed at optimal times of sunlight and wind availability) and energy storage.
In reality, averting collapse would require all three strategies—managed population decline through fewer births, reduction in per-capita consumption of energy and materials, and a thorough efficiency overhaul of just about everything we do. I’ve already suggested that these efforts would likely provoke resistance. Since citizens of wealthy industrial nations have the highest per-capita consumption rates, it would be up to them to shoulder the bulk of the consumption cuts, so some of the resistance would come from those quarters. The wealthiest people in all nations, including wealthy people who live in relatively poor countries, would have to make the steepest cuts of all—and these are powerful people who are used to having their way. The well-off would bristle at having to tamp down their consumption levels, while also having to make hefty efficiency investments. The world’s poorer nations, many of which have high rates of population growth, would likely resent having to direct significant effort toward changing cultural and economic narratives that currently favor large families. Religious conservatives would be altogether suspicious of the goal of managing population levels. Neoliberal economists (not to mention the entire profit-driven system of corporate capitalism and all of its institutional actors—media, banks, transnational corporations, governments, military establishments, etc.) would howl at the very thought of limiting consumption—the engine of the consumer economy. There are ways around these pitfalls, but all those pathways would require trust, persuasion, and sustained, shared work, along with a dramatic increase in the political power of those doing the persuading relative to those needing to be persuaded.
Another major war would squander societies’ cooperative powers in a spasm of violence just when those powers are needed for the project of collective self-restraint. Avoiding war altogether might require reducing and eventually eliminating not just nuclear weapons, but most other military hardware as well. Game theory (discussed in Chapter 6) shows that disarmament can be most successfully achieved through planned stages, with verification at each juncture. The point is to build trust cumulatively, stage by stage. One approach might be for nations to agree to reduce military spending as a percentage of GDP in verifiable increments—though it is difficult to imagine such an initiative taking hold without widespread and persistent demand from the public in many nations.
Trust-building across all scales of organization—from neighborhoods to communities to nations to regions—that enables us to reduce population, taper off unnecessary consumption, and improve economic efficiency is needed to avert collapse. And much of this effort needs to come to fruition not in a century or two, but in a couple of decades if we are to halt the process of ecological collapse. Will we succeed? Recent history suggests the path that world leaders will most likely take is something like the following: modest efforts toward efficiency, zero effort at proactively reducing consumption, only limited efforts at reducing population growth rates in a few nations, and half-hearted efforts (at best) at weapons reduction. Unfortunately, merely muddling through on these terms is likely to lead to crisis after crisis. Again, there is a range of possible outcomes. The more we cooperatively reel in our out-of-control powers, the better our prospects.
Sidebar: Viktor Frankl and the Will to Meaning
The Fate of the Superorganism
There’s a paradox hidden in the project of global human self-restraint. As we’ve just seen, global cooperation is needed to address global problems. Yet, as we restrain certain of our powers, societies will need to become more localized (i.e., deglobalized), and may do so by default even if that is not the intention.
Globalization and urbanization are trends with a shelf life. Both depend on high rates of energy usage—especially for transportation, communication, and data processing. Current petroleum-based transport fuels are depleting and polluting. The project of substituting electric transport for liquid-fueled transport has begun, but is going much too slowly to avert crisis, and will be limited in scope by energy transition trade-offs and barriers already discussed.18 As a result, we probably face a future of less and more costly transportation. That means less global trade. It also translates to a less mechanized, more labor-intensive, and more localized food system, which entails more people growing food in the countryside and fewer living in cities.19
A more locally-organized and more rural society may serve its members’ psychological health better than one that is globalized and highly urbanized: we evolved living in small groups and function best in contexts where we know one another face-to-face. And living in more direct contact with nature encourages us to maintain a healthy relationship with it. Crucially: when political and social entities grow in size, social power increases, leading to the possibility of inequality in power and the abuse of power on a larger scale. One way to keep power abuses and inequalities manageable is to keep the scale of social organization small. (On the other hand, a reversion to a form of social organization characterized by competing agrarian states would likely bring with it a rigid class structure and sharper distinctions in gender power. This is the main reason I see the general adoption of a decentralized horticultural way of life as a more desirable path, at least in theory.)
Ecologists have been telling us that “small is beautiful” since the 1960s, but trends have gone in just the opposite direction, resulting in the flourishing of the Superorganism.20 Nobody designed this vast, intricate web of global interconnectedness, and no one can control it. It is an emergent phenomenon—something that could not have been predicted on the basis of a thorough knowledge of its constituent parts. We may be able partially to control various subsystems of the Superorganism, but the entity itself has its own inherent priorities and imperatives. It favors anything that leads to its growth; it discourages anything that impedes expansion.21
Sidebar: Dethroning GDP: Key to Limiting the Power of the Superorganism
For example, millions of individuals, as well as thousands of nonprofit environmental organizations and even many for-profit corporations are deeply concerned about climate change. Yet, as we have seen, humanity as a whole is still increasing its greenhouse gas emissions, cutting forests, and doing all the other things that undermine climate stability. Why are sustainability efforts failing? It’s easy enough to blame greedy oil executives, but doing so merely shifts attention away from our own collective insistence on maintaining overall economic growth. This growth imperative—which at its core is a drive toward power and capital accumulation—washes up and down, left and right throughout the institutions (political parties, governments, and businesses) and levels of organization within society. Even if, individually, we can see that human society is exceeding natural limits, we collectively elect leaders who promise more resource extraction, manufacturing, and trade. The Superorganism has its way.
In a sense, the Superorganism is just a large-scale expression of certain innate human traits. But it is also something genuinely new. It is all of humanity acting together, largely unwittingly, to form the most powerful living entity in Earth history. While humans have been cooperating in groups for a very long time, the global Superorganism is only decades old.
Reversing the trends leading toward global crisis and collapse might seem to require the breakup or disempowerment of the Superorganism. Yet, since we need global communication and cooperation to address global problems, it might be preferable for the Superorganism to survive and mature—to become aware of itself and of natural limits. Humanity became ultrasocial through its development of language, cooperation, technology, and hypersociality. Our survival may depend not on repudiating these, but on developing them to a higher level.
The Superorganism is still an infant, and it has not had much opportunity to test its limits. Individual humans can recognize limits and learn how to live within them by trial and error. Even groups of humans are capable of understanding when their collective behavior threatens long-term sustainability. Unfortunately, the global Superorganism currently has the intelligence of an amoeba. It adheres strictly to the maximum power principle, so it knows only how to grow and amass ever more power. This puts it entirely at odds with an environment characterized by natural limits and hidden feedbacks.
A mature global Superorganism governed by the optimum power principle is for now a purely theoretical entity. Perhaps it could emerge through a bottom-up process of building trust and understanding, and through the crafting of cooperative institutions and formal agreements for human self-limitation at ever-higher governmental levels (local, regional, national, and global). Arguably, the annual United Nations climate conferences, along with other government-led international environmental and arms-control gatherings, constitute efforts to raise the Superorganism’s level of self-awareness. We can only speculate whether, under conditions of declining global trade, worldwide communications could be maintained in such a way as to facilitate the expansion of such efforts so as to promote not just the survival, but the moral flourishing (in terms of declining violence and inequality) of our human hive.
If we can’t do those things, then the Superorganism may be short-lived. That doesn’t necessarily mean that humanity will go extinct, simply that the global economy and global communications as we know them will cease to function. And we will have to address global ecological problems without the benefit of international coordination, through bottom-up efforts in many places simultaneously. Such efforts are already sprouting up in towns and villages around the world, but they tend to get much less attention than international climate treaties, largely because climate change is a global problem presumably requiring global solutions.
Frankly, when looking at the factors arrayed before us, it appears to me that the gradual or piecemeal breakdown of global integration is highly likely. This isn’t a conclusion I particularly welcome, as it contradicts some values I have long held. We may be facing a less cosmopolitan, more tribal future, like it or not.
Sidebar: Energy and Human Values
For most of human history, technological innovation was slow. Each new generation expected to do things (grow food, build houses, make clothing, fight, and communicate) essentially the same ways their parents did. Even in the relatively fast-paced Italian Renaissance, the appearance of a disruptive new communication medium, weapon, or farming tool was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
In contrast, we’ve gotten used to living in a world where the pace of technological change exceeds our ability to adapt to it, much less to assess and control it. Grandparents and parents have difficulty communicating with children because the latter live in a different technological universe. Worldwide, people are systematically empowered or disempowered based on their access to, and mastery of, new technologies.
Every technology has unintended consequences, some better or worse than others. By the time the drawbacks of a new pesticide or social media app have become apparent, it’s often too late to put the genie back in its bottle. The market has adjusted to this shiny new thing and livelihoods depend on it.
The pace of technological change is driven by at least five factors:
- Energy growth: with more energy available, we are likely to find more tools for applying that energy to solving our problems and expanding our options.
- Population growth: with more people working at solving problems, there is greater likelihood of producing innovations.
- A culture of investment: with investors on the lookout for the “next big thing,” and a system of ownership (via patent rights) in place, inventors are more likely to find backing for their efforts.
- A culture of research and development: with universities turning out large numbers of skilled scientists and engineers, there will be more technical wherewithal to imagine and realize new inventions.
- Inventions available to be discovered: the number of possible inventions may be infinite, but within any given sphere of human interest there is a hierarchy of importance in inventions. The most important inventions, the proverbial low-hanging fruit, are likely to appear, at least in rudimentary form, in the early phases of a complex society’s take-off; later, each new invention is likely to be an extension or refinement of an earlier one, with each successive improvement having a higher incremental cost.
Each of these factors introduces potential technological limits, for reasons we have in some cases already discussed. Available energy and human population cannot continue growing at recent rates for much longer. In addition, investments in research and development have been reaping diminishing returns for the past couple of decades: while new technologies continue to appear, our basic technologies of transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture have been in place for some time, and at this point are largely subject merely to refinement.26 In a possible future of declining energy, declining population, debt deflation, and social turmoil, it’s likely that the pace of technological change will slow to a crawl and many existing technologies may no longer be supportable.
In contrast, most futurists foresee technological change continuing to accelerate along two paths: either toward increasing computerization and automation, or toward redesign of systems to minimize carbon dioxide output and incorporate captured atmospheric carbon into products and materials. While advances in the latter direction would be welcome, low-carbon innovation will have to show significant profit potential to attract much investment in research and development. In reality, meanwhile, most R&D funding is going toward computerization—i.e., a mere extension of current profit-seeking technological innovation.
The momentum of technological change is leading us into worrisome new (artificial?) realities. Existing technologies—the automobile, ammonia-based fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, plastics, and social media—have unintended consequences that continue to snowball. And new technologies in development, such as artificial intelligence (AI, which could make hundreds of millions of people “redundant”), “deepfake” video (which could generate innumerable conspiracy theories and further exacerbate political polarization), CRISP-R gene editing (which could have unforeseen biological consequences throughout the ecosphere), and 5G wireless technology (which requires ever more energy and broadcasts intense electromagnetic fields with possibly significant biological impacts) now threaten to take us further into dangerous, uncharted territory.27
While technological change may eventually decelerate for the inadvertent reasons mentioned above, technology theorists say it would be better to deliberately and controllably slow the pace of change, so that we can pick and choose which technologies to save and which to let go. In order to gain control of the speed of the conveyor belt bringing us new tools and techniques, society should investigate the possible unintended consequences of technologies before permitting widespread adoption. This notion, known as the Precautionary Principle, has been endorsed in the 1982 World Charter for Nature and other international agreements.28 However, its adoption and application by national governments has been sporadic, inconsistent, and weak.
Management of technological change for the benefit of nature and culture would be one of the critical signs of a maturing Superorganism. If we’re going to move in that direction, economic gain on the part of manufacturers cannot continue to be sufficient reason for the adoption of any significantly new process or tool. We will need new democratic deliberative bodies tasked with assessing proposed technologies, and we will need to provide them with mandate and authority sufficient for them to actually do their job.29
You needn’t wait for such bodies to emerge. Examine the technologies you use and depend on. Which ones truly serve your needs, and which ones are imposed by society at large but make you less autonomous and happy? Formulate a plan to free yourself from the latter.30
Learning to Live with Less Energy and Stuff
Changing our relationship with technology isn’t simply a matter of getting rid of harmful gadgets. We must alter the direction of technological research and development so that it is relevant to a society whose rate of energy usage is declining, not growing.
As the fossil-fuel era winds down (whether as a result of government climate action or oil, coal, and gas depletion), we will almost certainly have less energy available for human activities. How will we adjust? What are the implications for food, transport, manufacturing, and the economy? Our future lies with renewable sources of energy—whether firewood (again), or water, solar, and wind. But just as important as the source of our energy is the quantity of it that we use. Theoretically, we could still overpower natural systems using electricity from solar panels and wind turbines—though that’s unlikely, because at the current rate of investment we simply won’t build enough of them to be able to maintain present levels of energy usage as coal, oil, and natural gas deplete. There’s been considerable research regarding alternative energy sources in recent years, but not nearly as much on how to get by with less. One way or another, we will have to adapt to energy decline, and technology will necessarily play a significant role in how we do that.
We should start by asking: How much energy does it actually take to enable us to lead happy lives filled with opportunities for aesthetic enjoyment? Fortunately, global happiness surveys show that, once basic human needs for food and shelter are met, higher levels of energy usage don’t translate to higher levels of self-reported happiness.31 Those surveys suggest that reducing energy usage need not make us miserable; if we do it well, it could actually do the opposite.
The general direction of the research that’s required is clear: we need fewer tools classifiable as high tech (ones that use more energy and that have globalized processes embedded in their manufacture and distribution) and more tools that we might consider low tech (ones that use less energy and that depend on local skills and supply chains). The technology of the future need not necessarily entail a recapitulation of technologies from the agrarian era—though many of those were ingenious and deserve to be preserved or revived. In many cases, we should be able to find even more elegant solutions than those, using scientific knowledge developed during the past century. For example, people have been using wind and water power for a range of purposes for a very long time (as we saw in Chapter 4), but tools for energy capture were typically inefficient; today we have the benefit of decades of research into optimal designs for sails, paddles, and blades, enabling the production of sailboats, windmills, and watermills that can outperform traditional designs.32
In general, the technological strategies we should be investigating are ones that tend to substitute human labor for machine power; ones that de-mechanize services of all sorts (which translates to more face-to-face interactions among people in daily life, less pushing of buttons); and ones that balance performance with conviviality. Fortunately, a few smart people are already thinking along these lines, and they have produced a small but growing literature. Typically, these pathfinders are not people who hate technology, but engineers who understand the current human ecological predicament and who happen to love finding beautiful ways to solve problems.
Susan Krumdieck taught for many years at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, where she was the director of the Advanced Energy and Material Systems Lab (she’s recently moved to the Orkney Islands of Scotland, where she runs an energy transition project). No stranger to high technology, Susan authored a Ph.D. thesis titled “Experimental characterization and modeling for the growth rate of oxide coatings from liquid solutions of metalorganic precursors by ultrasonic pulsed injection in a cold wall low pressure reactor.” However, since learning about the global sustainability crisis, she has focused her research and teaching on what she calls Transition Engineering—the title of her recent book, which explores engineering strategies in response to the mega-issues of global climate change, decline in world energy, scarcity of key industrial minerals, and local environmental constraints.33 Through her years of teaching, Susan has developed a global network of engineers working on a wide range of technical problems entailed in society’s shift away from unsustainable activities.
Low-Tech Magazine is an online publication written and edited by Kris de Decker, who lives in Barcelona, Spain.34 De Decker began his career as a freelance tech and science journalist. “After ten years or so,” he told me in an email exchange,
… it became clear to me that the focus on technological solutions is doing more harm than good. In a nutshell, that’s how Low-Tech Magazine was born. As a consequence, I also started looking more critically at my own lifestyle, and so I stopped flying (which I never did often anyway), stopped driving cars, tried to power my apartment with solar energy, refused to switch to a smartphone, and so on. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite and I discovered that “practice what you preach” is a very interesting research position. Another ten years later this approach has radically changed my life, and for the better. Lowering your ecological footprint also saves a lot of money, and this has given me the freedom to do the work that I like.
De Decker questions our society’s blind belief in technological progress, and writes about the potential of past and often forgotten knowledge and technologies to aid in our transition to a sustainable society. Many of his experiments involve combining old technology with new knowledge and new materials, or applying old concepts and traditional knowledge to modern technology. Recent article titles include “How to Run the Economy on the Weather,” “Reinventing the Greenhouse,” and “Ditch the Batteries—Off-Grid Compressed Air Energy Storage.”
In Australia, the Simplicity Institute, an education and research center, seeks to “envision and defend a ‘simpler way’ of life at a time when the old myths of progress, techno-optimism, and affluence are failing us.” Samuel Alexander, co-director of the Institute, is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne; he and fellow Aussie Ted Trainer have pioneered a path they call “The Simpler Way,” aimed at improving human life as we descend the scale of energy usage and societal complexity.35
Frenchman Philippe Bihouix worked as a construction engineer in the building industry and as an engineering analyst in various industrial sectors (energy, chemicals, transport, telecommunications, and aeronautics) before learning about climate change and other sustainability crises. His recent book, The Age of Low Tech, is more than a manifesto; he explores the principles of simple technologies, and imagines daily life in a world where simple technologies supply our needs.36 With his far-ranging technical background, Bihouix is able to drill down into details about simpler communications systems, banks and finance, transportation, and food systems.
Speaking of food systems: nearly everyone who works and writes in the field of low tech agrees that the best place to start society’s simplicity overhaul is with the ways we feed ourselves. The skills needed to get started retrofitting food growing are neatly bundled in permaculture—a set of design tools for living created back in the 1970s by ecologists David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, who understood then that industrial civilization would eventually reach its limits. A portmanteau of the words “permanent” and “agriculture,” permaculture has sustainability baked into its very name. Usually applied in gardening and small-scale farming, permaculture promotes biodiversity, low energy usage, and water conservation.37
Recently, ecological agronomists have been experimenting with ways to sequester more atmospheric carbon into soil, as well as the roots, wood, and leaves of plants. These efforts go by the name carbon farming; it has the potential to increase biological activity in soil, aiding plant growth and increasing agricultural yield while improving soil water retention capacity and reducing fertilizer use (and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions). As of 2019, hundreds of millions of hectares worldwide were being carbon farmed in some fashion. Eric Toensmeier’s book The Carbon Farming Solution is the best overview and how-to manual available.38
While I’ve just mentioned a few power-down experts, the low-tech efforts currently under way are in most cases being taken up by people whose names we’ll never hear or read. You can get in on the fun. Spend more of your time working at energy-harvesting activities such as gardening. Wean yourself from high tech. Mend your clothes instead of buying new ones. Using simpler tools usually requires more skill and attention, and therefore also tends to yield more satisfaction. Therefore, choose some simpler tools you want to get good at using, learn from a master, and, as they say at music school, practice, practice, practice. Meanwhile, take an occasional holiday from the use of electricity and fossil fuels. For many years, my wife Janet and I have done this as a way of marking the summer and winter solstices; it’s an excellent way to get back in sync with deeper cosmic, terrestrial, and biological rhythms.
Sidebar: Advice to Young People in the 21st Century
The era of climate change presents a troubling new context for the millennia-old social contest over inequality. Some environmental activists, at least privately, say that dealing with social justice issues must take a back seat to saving the planet. After all, governments, trade unions, and advocacy groups have been fighting poverty for decades; and activists have long been fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression—but all of these ills are still with us to degrees varying by country. Climate change is something new, global, and existentially threatening: if we don’t minimize the damage, civilization might not survive and human mortality might be (as we have already discussed) unprecedented. Equality would be nice, but survival is paramount. As some put it, “there is no justice on a dead planet.”
Some social justice advocates, for their part, say that climate change can never be successfully addressed until inequality is curbed, or perhaps until capitalism is overturned. Without buy-in from the world’s masses of poor and underprivileged, and without political defeat of the powerful fossil fuel industry, climate change mitigation efforts will never gain traction.
My own view is a hybrid of those just stated. Adapting to the twilight of the fossil fuel era and the end of growth will entail sacrifice and change. If the sacrifice is highly unequal, the result will be social chaos, and the transition will likely fail. I do not believe that society must utterly defeat inequality before it can address climate change; but we can and must address climate change and other overshoot crises in ways that reduce existing inequities and that avoid imposing new ones.
As I’ve already suggested, having less available energy is likely to mean that society will need more manual labor. In the worst scenario, the end of the fossil fuel era could imply the return of low-paid drudgery for people in currently industrialized nations, or possibly even debt peonage or slavery. Recall from our discussion in Chapter 3 of “The Pathologies of Power” that advantaged people whose power is being challenged often don’t respond with equanimity; instead, they tend to become defensive and may lash out. As the physical power that enables modern consumer culture dissipates, people who have spent their lives accustomed to high levels of amenity are likely to be surprised and indignant; they may respond with anger and look for scapegoats—and hence for less-powerful people to abuse. Groups that are historic victims of the powerful will likely be the first to be targeted. In short, humanity could be setting itself up for unimaginable abuses of power if we don’t set processes in motion now to prevent such an outcome.
We may have a narrow window of time still available for acknowledging and overcoming historic power abuses, and for avoiding new ones. As we have seen, economic inequality arose through the destruction of the gift economy and the commons; it stands to reason, therefore, that greater equity could be achieved by reviving these features of prestate societies. Doing so would require economic structural changes that may seem impossible for sclerotic industrial democracies that are largely captured and controlled by corporate interests. But when growth ends, banks fail, and governments are scrambling for ways to keep crisis at bay, political leaders may be in a receptive mood for radical ideas. Or it may be that current global and national power holders lose legitimacy and there are the opportunities to implement radical ideas locally. Either way, it would be essential for equity activists to seize the moment, as it could be a fleeting one, considering the disintegrative trends discussed earlier in this chapter.
Ultimately, promoting economic equality will require expanding the commons once more. The ethical basis for doing so is clear: no human being made land, rivers, or deposits of iron ore, gold, or fossil fuels through their own ingenuity or labor. Why, then, should a person or corporation be entitled to extract wealth from natural resources for purely private benefit? An obvious alternative to private ownership is for natural resources to be declared public goods to be owned and protected in common—a commonwealth. A widely respected American economist in the late 19th century named Henry George proposed we do just this, and his ideas have been put into practice successfully, for example, in publicly owned utilities and public transit systems.39 George was, in effect, arguing for the validity and necessity of the commons, and his work brought that ancient customary institution into a more modern context. Modern agricultural and conservation land trusts are examples of “Georgism” at work—though on a scale limited by society’s overall commitment to exclusionary private ownership of natural resources. If that commitment were to be even partly overturned, the trend toward economic inequality could be reversed.
Creating more economic equality will also mean simplifying and regulating financial markets. Many proposals along these lines were put forward immediately after the 2008 global financial crisis—including, for example, proposals for a financial transactions tax. However, policy makers quickly lost their enthusiasm for financial regulation once the recovery began.
In his 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders raised the question: Should billionaires exist?—and proposed a wealth tax to relieve the super-wealthy of their excess monetary baggage. Naturally, some billionaires think they should continue to have the opportunity to expand their income and wealth with no limit.40 However, Sanders touched a nerve among a swath of the public that is raw with resentment over the lavish lifestyles of the rich in the face of hard times for the working poor.
In the United States, inequality has persistent racial overtones that cannot be expunged solely by implementing a new economic paradigm. The nation must fully acknowledge the implications of the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans who were the sources of intergenerational wealth for European immigrants and their descendants. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission or some similar effort toward moral redress, reparations, and a reversal of lingering legal inequities would be significant steps toward healing. Fully equal rights and wages for women are also overdue. At the same time, all of humanity must come to terms with the inequalities of power between ourselves and other species; legal establishment of the rights of nature and of species is already being debated. In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation to enshrine the rights of nature in its Constitution.41
It is possible that the general crisis we are approaching will present a forbiddingly challenging context in which to try to overcome historical power imbalances and abuses. If that is the case, our overall prospects are dim. But it is also possible that crisis will offer new opportunities to effect fundamental change in social and cultural systems. I’m encouraged, in this regard, by the example of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Inspired in part by the writings of American ecosocialist Murray Bookchin, the Party made significant efforts to address ecological and social problems in tandem. As combatants in a deadly conflict (the Syrian civil war), the PKK are surely no saints; American President Donald Trump, with typical pugnacious hyperbole, went so far as to call them “worse than ISIS.” Nevertheless, every member of the community has an equal say in popular assemblies that address the issues of their neighborhoods and towns, and the region operates as a federated system of self-determining municipalities. All ethnic groups within the region are guaranteed the right to teach and be taught in their own languages, and public institutions are required to work toward the elimination of gender discrimination. The PKK Social Contract also promotes a philosophy of ecological stewardship that is supposed to guide all decisions about town planning and agriculture.42 The fact that the PKK has been able to do so much along these lines in the horrific context of the Syrian civil war suggests that crisis can indeed bring opportunity.
If you’re concerned about inequality, begin to explore how you can rebuild the commons in your region. Consider taking a diversity and inclusion training. Who are the least advantaged within your community? What are the structures that keep them that way? How could you make a difference? What activist groups, non-profit corporations, and cooperatives could you join and support?43
Population: Lowering It and Keeping It Steady
As we have seen, while any serious collective effort to rein in our human power of population growth is bound to be contentious, such an effort is necessary if we wish to minimize the overshoot crisis. So far, our instinct to avoid contention has had the upper hand. At the 1994 population summit in Cairo, rich and poor nations reached a quiet accommodation: if poor nations refrained from forcing a conversation on consumption (which would be uncomfortable for rich nations), rich nations wouldn’t force a conversation on population (which would discomfort many poorer countries).44 The ensuing code of silence has held for three decades, limiting any substantive intergovernmental discussion on either overconsumption or overpopulation. That refusal to deal with reality has constrained humanity’s current options; and the longer we wait to engage with population and consumption issues, the worse our prospects become.
The arithmetic is daunting—not in its complexity, but its implications. Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University, in his aptly titled and exhaustively researched book, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, concludes that there is no widely agreed answer to the question; there are simply too many variables to consider. However, the number may well be considerably smaller than our current global population.45 Some of the scenarios Cohen cites for future energy production and agricultural output are almost certainly overly optimistic. Energy and available material resources are what enabled population expansion, and less energy and a degraded environment will almost inevitably translate to a smaller global carrying capacity. Another variable is, how much space shall we leave for the rest of nature? Putting a number on global human carrying capacity post-fossil fuels necessarily involves choices and guesswork, but analysts who’ve used realistic scenarios for energy, food, raw materials, and biodiversity have come up with numbers in the range of a few hundred million up to three billion—a huge range that reflects a wide variety of assumptions concerning the amount of climate warming that’s likely and the methods of food production that might be possible under those circumstances.46
Even the high end of that range presents a formidable challenge. How could we realistically transition from our current eight billion to three billion without massive human rights violations?
China’s one-child policy was effective but coercive. Successful noncoercive efforts to end population growth have typically involved raising the education levels and social status of women, so that they can choose their desired family size. Often, such efforts are hindered by fundamentalist religious social norms that promote fertility and subjugate women. However, even some highly religious nations, such as Iran, have had success in dramatically reducing population growth this way.
Some of the most promising results have been achieved by Population Media Center (PMC), which enlists creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. The biggest barriers to population reduction are cultural, so the PMC team decided early on that merely distributing condoms wouldn’t help much if the people they were trying to reach believed that women were inferior beings whose main purpose in life is to birth babies, and that men can attain higher status by having many children. In comparative studies, the PMC strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means available of reducing high birth rates.
Unfortunately, PMC’s efforts are (at present) too slow to get us to, say, three billion by the end of the century. A recent book by Christopher Tucker, A Planet of 3 Billion, advises ramping up such efforts. Tucker, Chairman of the American Geographical Society, advises empowering women across the world and giving them access to family planning information and contraceptives. The book is tied to an advocacy campaign called P3B.47 Could such programs, even if turbocharged by more money and publicity, be sufficient to avert human die-off later this century? The math is not encouraging. A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences modelled various population policies and found that “even a rapid transition to a worldwide one-child policy leads to a population similar to today’s by 2100.”48
Meanwhile some demographers worry about a very different population trend—declining fertility rates in many countries, leading to falling population.49 The three causes of declining fertility are families choosing to have fewer children, women deferring pregnancy to later in life, and environmental toxins causing rapidly falling sperm counts and sperm quality in men. The numbers for 2019 are shocking: In Japan, only 864,000 births were recorded—fewer than any year since records began in 1899. In the United States, the number of births was the lowest for 32 years and the fertility rate set an all-time record low of 1.73 children per woman. In China, the baby cohort dropped to 14.6 million, the lowest in 70 years (excluding the 1961 famine); the fertility rate is below 1.6 children per woman. In South Korea the fertility rate fell below 1.0. Israel, at 3.1 children per woman, is now the only industrialized country with a fertility rate above the 2.1 replacement level.50 As if all of this isn’t worrisome enough, the evidence suggests that declining fertility is affecting other species as well—including (but probably not limited to) mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects. In these cases, it is impossible to attribute the trend to deliberate choice or to contraception; it appears entirely the result of human-made, hormone-mimicking environmental chemicals. The word omnicide is starting to creep into discussions among biologists studying the problem.
For nations concerned about slowing economic growth and aging populations, declining fertility is perceived as a challenge that must be met with birth incentives. Of course, in the context of the strong likelihood that planetary human carrying capacity is set to shrink in the decades ahead, the “problem” of declining fertility sounds like news to be welcomed. Still, the economic challenge of an aging demographic is real. It is an unintended consequence of decades of rapid population expansion that must eventually end. The best way to deal with that challenge may be not to encourage immigration and increased births, but simply to adapt by taking care of the aging population in ways that don’t overly burden the young, as Japan is attempting to do, such as by providing affordable housing that offers the elderly opportunities to mingle with people of other ages so as to reduce feelings of isolation.51
However, the possibility that birth rates are collapsing largely due to the accumulation of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment adds a worrisome new wrinkle to the population discussion, since it raises the possibility of rapid, uncontrolled, involuntary population decline. If we don’t do something to reduce chemical loading, humanity could be on the downward ramp to extinction even without “help” from nuclear war or climate change.
Over the long run, if humanity were to take control of population growth and decline through humane means such as education and a dramatic reduction in chemical pollution, this could be seen as another way to promote the maturing and awakening of the Superorganism. At some point, the corrections required would be subtle. Unfortunately, in the current situation we have allowed such enormous imbalances to accumulate that humane corrective measures of adequate strength are hard even to identify, much less to implement.
Don’t leave it entirely to others to deal with the human population dilemma. Have the conversation with those you love: what size family makes sense? Child-free marriages should not be stigmatized (my wife and I made that choice 30 years ago, and we’d decide the same today). From an ecological standpoint, family size is likely the most important decision of your lifetime.52 If you do decide to have children, minimize chemical exposure by eating only organic foods for six months prior to pregnancy and avoid environmental petrochemicals to the extent that you can.
Fighting Power with Power
In the last six sections we’ve discussed what humanity would need to do collectively in order to limit its powers so as to avert or mitigate societal collapse. In reality, the likelihood of all humanity agreeing on sufficient self-limits is exceedingly remote, at least in the next few decades. What’s far more likely is a power struggle among groups, as outlined in the section “All Against All”—that is, among nations, among economic and social classes, among age strata, and among ethnicities and interest groups. Some of these divisions of society will be seeking to maintain outsized social power; others will be seeking to cut the powerful down to size, or to seize more power for themselves. Meanwhile, many people, including some who don’t fit neatly into any of these classifications, will be seeking to preserve ecosystems and nonhuman species in the face of climate change, pollution, resource depletion, and habitat destruction.
The key to minimizing suffering and environmental damage, and to improving the prospects of succeeding generations, will be for groups and individuals interested in long-term power (via the optimum power principle) and power sharing (i.e., horizontal power) to overcome groups committed to maximizing vertical social power and power over nature. The latter can be said to comprise the forces of catabolic capitalism (a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can be fed only by devouring the society that sustains it), and will also include all the people who can be convinced to ally themselves with those forces.
If those interested in long-term and horizontal power are to have any possibility of success, it is essential that they band together in a strong coalition, as Craig Collins suggests in his forthcoming book Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance.53 The four main branches of such an alliance would be:
- Groups and individuals working to save the planet by halting climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Most of these groups and individuals work to confront the depredations of corporations and governments; some work to promote environment-friendly governmental policies or commercial practices.
- Social justice advocates. This category would include advocates for the poor, and for oppressed minorities of all kinds, including Indigenous peoples (who make up the majority of the population in some countries).
- Groups opposing violence, especially state violence. These would include anti-war groups, as well as organizations seeking to reduce the domestic proliferation of guns, international arms sales, and the militarization of police, as well as groups promoting peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
- Builders of the new culture. This final category is currently less internally organized than the previous three; it consists of individuals and organizations seeking to model and promote a sustainable, post-fossil-fuel way of living. Some members would be experts in the attitudes and habits of horizontal power. Others would be permaculturists, ecovillage pioneers, and renewable energy advocates. Still others would be creative artists of all kinds who are seeking to enlist the human imagination in building a green future.
Each of these by itself is at a power disadvantage when compared to the forces still pushing society toward capital accumulation and profit. However, added together, these groups and individuals comprise a huge constituency. Hence the vital importance of coalition and cooperation among them—rather than competition and conflict, with litmus tests of ideological purity as a requirement for inclusion.
In the coming struggle, success for the coalition depends on building social power. That means changing hearts and minds, winning elections, putting people in the streets, and succeeding at negotiations. In many instances, it means gaining control of institutions—and redesigning them so that they can work in a post-fossil-fuel, post-growth era of reduced vertical social power.
Sidebar: Power Analysis and Organizing for Activists
As I have stressed often in this book, money is a key technology of vertical power. One of the key goals of the anti-collapse coalition must be the re-organization of the global economy away from its current orientation toward profit, and instead toward human and environmental well-being. Money must become a less important feature of people’s daily existence. Nevertheless, mounting a challenge to the current structures of power—i.e., fighting vertical power with horizontal power—will require funding. Fortunately, it won’t need as much money as will efforts on the part of the powerful to suppress resistance. In many cases, people will contribute what they can afford toward their own immediate efforts. However, mounting large or sustained projects will require capturing and diverting some of the billions currently controlled by the 1%. Currently, philanthropy—Peter Buffett calls it the “charitable-industrial complex”—is the primary pathway by which some of the wealth of the rich is distributed to causes benefiting nature and the rest of society; however, the philanthropic model is deeply flawed, as it relies on economic growth (foundations typically disperse only interest and investment income) and reflects the whims and preferences of the wealthy. 55 At the very least, philanthropists must be persuaded to spend down their charitable funds much more quickly.
If money is necessary to the success of social movements, money nevertheless opens the door to corruption. That’s just one of the contradictions likely to hinder the process of forming and maintaining an anti-collapse coalition, especially in times of increasing social and economic stress. Whose priorities are most important? What strategies shall be pursued? How to keep agents provocateurs from derailing meetings and actions? Such questions have plagued horizontal power movements for decades. It’s impossible to forecast whether the coalition I am describing will emerge and prevail; I am merely pointing out that, from a theoretical perspective, such an alliance is our best hope of averting the worst outcomes.
As we’ve seen, power is at the heart of the problems confronting humanity. But those who wish to address those problems can’t be effective without exercising power in some form, and without reducing the power of other people or organizations that now wield enormous amounts of it. Is it the inevitable fate of those who wrest power from the powerful to themselves succumb to the lures of power?
That question is implied in the perennial vexation of the prepandemic era: should climate activists fly in airplanes to go to climate conferences? If they do, they’re hypocrites. If they don’t, there’ll be fewer climate conferences, and activists will have surrendered a possibly useful organizing tool.
Here’s one more paradox: activism is a contest for public opinion and public policy. In that contest, some people’s interests and opinions inevitably become marginalized. And, as we have seen, partisanship and disunity are hurdles to addressing our converging crises. Should we engage in activism, knowing that our efforts could be polarizing?
There’s no way to avoid these sorts of contradictions if one wishes to make a difference in the fate of the Earth and of humanity. Perhaps the great classic of ancient Hindu literature, the Bhagavad Gita, has wisdom to offer in this regard. The Gita is a dialogue between prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna, which occurs beside a battlefield during a war between Arjuna’s kinsmen and another tribe. Arjuna is overwhelmed with moral dread about the violence and death his actions may contribute to, even though he believes his kinsmen are in the right, and wonders if he should renounce his title and duty. Krishna counsels Arjuna to fulfill his warrior obligation, but to act without thought of self or attachment to outcome.56
Similarly, those of us with awareness of the crises ahead must have the courage to act, knowing that action will inevitably have unintended as well as intended consequences. Like Arjuna, we find ourselves playing a role assigned in part by fate; it’s up to us to play it as cleanly and selflessly—and as effectively—as possible. At the end of Chapter 5, I noted that many people who care about climate change feel powerless. Their (and our) only hope now is to build social power around the project of doing things that will make a difference—winning elections; staging demonstrations, walkouts, and strikes; formulating sound policies and campaigning for them.57
Of course, the sad and alarming fact is that, just at the historical moment when we are called to confront the overaccumulation of power in various forms and to do so as fairly as possible, the mechanisms of horizontal social power tied to the ideals and institutions of democracy, which have for decades enabled citizens peacefully to confront power abuses, are being contested. The current rise of illiberalism, tribalism, and nationalism echoes trends of the 1930s, when the world was hurtling toward the chasm of World War II. Thus, we are saddled with a double duty—to fight against the forces driving the world toward ecological catastrophe, while at the same time doing everything we can to build trust and buttress the existing institutions of horizontal power including democracy itself, as well as cooperatives, unions, the nonprofit sector, and anything that might be lumped into what’s being called the sharing economy.
History has shown that horizontal social power is the only force (outside of war, pandemic, or collapse) capable of overcoming concentrated vertical social power. From union organizing in the 19th century to anti-colonialist struggles in India in the early 20th century, to the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few years, people have collaborated, often in ingenious and courageous ways, to confront the juggernaut of control of the many by the few and for the few. It’s heartening to see more and more people from various backgrounds devoting their lives to the development of horizontal power. Here are just a few examples.
Margaret Klein Salamon was a young clinical psychologist in New York City when Hurricane Sandy hit. She started to educate herself on climate change, and soon left the field of psychotherapy to found The Climate Mobilization—an organization that advocates a WWII-scale transformation of our economy and society to protect humanity and the natural world.58
Cooperation Jackson is a network of worker cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi, that aims to develop a series of independent but connected democratic institutions to empower workers and residents of Jackson—particularly to address the needs of poor, unemployed, black or Latino residents. The development of Cooperation Jackson was largely inspired by the Mondragon federation of cooperatives in Spain, and by historical cooperative movements described in the works of W. E. B. Du Bois. Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, says he was seeking to bring cooperative economics to the urban context, complementing existing rural agricultural and utility co-ops.59 The organizers of Cooperation Jackson have had to struggle with working in an economically depressed city in the poorest state in the US, and with a politically hostile governor and state legislature.
A group of activists and scientists who met in a café in Bristol, England, in April 2018 founded Extinction Rebellion—an organization that aims to use widespread nonviolent civil disobedience to force governments to act on climate change and biodiversity loss.60 “XR,” as it is colloquially know, has a decentralized structure and has organized numerous prominent demonstrations, primarily in the UK, though activists in cities across the world have participated.
A permaculture teacher named Rob Hopkins realized in 2006 that shifting away from fossil fuels would require a near-complete redesign of society around smaller and more cooperative communities; he went on to co-found the Transition Initiatives.61 There are now hundreds of Transition Towns all across the globe.
Still other climate organizations—including 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, and World War Zero (WWZ)—have sprung up in recent months and years, some more mainstream, some more radical in their means and objectives, but all pushing in generally the same direction.
What strategies and tactics make most sense? There’s no general agreement on that question; you can take your pick. Extinction Rebellion aims to create horizontal power through citizens’ assemblies. The Sunrise Movement lobbies elected officials for a Green New Deal.62 WWZ is looking to gain bipartisan support for climate action, and therefore doesn’t endorse any particular policy.63
In my conversations with climate activists, there’s a perennial commonality: just about everyone sees the need for a new cultural vision that can help society through the post-carbon transition. Currently our cultural visions are oriented either toward continued growth and consumerism, or apocalypse and doom. We have few shared realistic but attractive images of what life after fossil fuels could look like. Without those, our only motive for action is fear. Rob Hopkins has probably done the best job of anyone at trying to fashion such a vision.64
Help is also needed in figuring out how society can work optimally as we make our way back down from the pinnacle of societal complexity and high levels of energy usage. We need more local experimentation with rationing, cooperatives, and sharing institutions (such as tool libraries) in order to determine what works and what doesn’t.
Strategies must adapt to changing circumstances. We all would like to avert climate change and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity. But it’s already too late to do that fully. And at this point the things we will have to do to minimize environmental collapse will themselves likely have severe economic and social impacts. In the last few years, a consistent theme has emerged in my private conversations with scientists and activists: a Great Unraveling looms, though there is still a range of possible outcomes depending on how much we do over the next couple of decades to lower carbon emissions, reduce the load of environmental toxins, plant trees, build soil, and protect habitat. Some of us, at least, should be turning our attention to the problem of managing that Unraveling (if it can, indeed, be managed), so as to minimize the human and nonhuman casualties. Humanity is approaching a moment when the unimaginable becomes inescapable. Who will preserve our cultural achievements (math, science, art, and music) from loss? Who will protect ecosystems from wildfires when there is no funding for fire departments and no fuel for firetrucks? Somehow, we must keep the bad from devolving to the worst. It’s actually not difficult to identify “no-regrets” strategies—i.e., things that could be done that would be useful whether collapse is inevitable, or large-scale societies are able to bend and adapt. Building community, localizing economies, and developing low-tech ways of meeting human needs all make sense regardless of the severity of the impacts that are now locked in.
Have a conversation with those closest to you: How will you all adapt? Where should you live, if you wish to be of most service or if you wish to avoid the worst environmental impacts? How shall you live in order to minimize your own negative impacts and make the biggest positive difference? What are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of future generations? For example, are you willing to be arrested at a demonstration?65
Long-Term Power Through Beauty, Spirituality, and Happiness
Let’s now explore the alternative solution to the Fermi Paradox—a society that voluntarily limits its power by developing its aesthetic creativity and spirituality, striving for happiness rather than dominance over nature. This would necessarily be a society different in both broad strokes and details from industrial nations of the early 21st century. I have no desire merely to propose a fanciful utopia. Rather, I’m interested in what societies have already shown themselves capable of achieving by channeling familiar human foibles, drives, and appetites toward sustainable, prosocial habits and institutions. Our ability to deliberately design and shape our own culture may be limited, since the evolution of culture is largely a response to circumstances. Nevertheless, what follows may be within the realm of possibility—if not in this century, then perhaps in centuries to come.
In imagining a possible future culture (ideally, a global network of locally-adapted cultures with some similar characteristics—including robust methods for sharing power and amicably resolving disputes), I propose two overarching goals: the most happiness for the most people (including future generations), and the integration of society with nature in such a way that human habitation and biological diversity are integrated, and persist for as long as possible.
Social inequality breeds unhappiness, and alienation from nature leads people to abuse ecosystems in ways that eventually produce ruin, so inequality and nature estrangement are to be avoided if possible. 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. In such a society, everyone who is physically able is involved part-time in food production. In short, I think the permaculturists have got it right. The closer we can come to being a society of gardeners, the happier and more durable our way of life is likely to be.
Still, it may be utopian to think that we can entirely do away with inequality while subsisting in any way other than by hunting and gathering. Even in a gardening society, some individuals will work harder than others, while also convincing their friends and relatives to work more, in order to build up surpluses. However, seasonal surpluses need not be a serious impediment to happiness or sustainability. Even in many agricultural societies, traditions eventually arose that bound those with social power to duties on behalf of society as a whole. Wealthy and influential members of the community were tasked with defending it from outside attackers, with funding the arts, and with supporting specialists in matters of the sacred. The chivalric tradition in medieval Europe and the samurai tradition in pre-industrial Japan are only the most familiar of many examples of class systems that sought to uphold justice, honor, and duty (though abuses of power in these contexts, needless to recount, occurred nevertheless). Typically, such systems attached shame to conspicuous consumption or the exercise of power purely for personal benefit. If specialization or inequality exists in future societies, the people who benefit the most must be bound by tradition to contribute the most.
Aesthetics and spirituality play key roles in all human societies; in the best instance, these can be engines of happiness and motivators of prosocial, ecologically sustainable behavior. In the possible societies I am describing, they would be key elements.66
In earlier chapters we saw that beauty is a powerful attractor—and not just for humans, but for most higher organisms. In some societies, aesthetic products seem largely designed to impress the common people with the power and wealth of the elite classes. However, the arts can also serve community solidarity, and can help bind people to nature. Arts—whether painting, architecture, music, poetry, literature, drama, or movement—offer intrinsic rewards, but they needn’t deplete resources or diminish the status of non-artists; indeed, they often spiritually enrich the entire community.67
Gardening itself can be an art, in which nature is both the model and the canvas. The Zen gardens of Edo-period Japan offer serene examples, as do some English and Persian gardens.
Becoming a good artist requires learning to control one’s senses, body, mind, and emotions. In a highly aesthetic culture, everything is an art—conversation, the preparation of food, the planting of seeds and shoots, and the harvest later on. Art and spirituality are interwoven throughout daily life.
As we have seen, spirituality is invariably present in every society, though it can be expressed very differently depending on the cultural context. It serves human needs that are universal and innate. For one thing, spirituality can take us beyond language and the mental categories that we habitually impose on the world. Language has given us the ability to do wondrous things; but, as we have seen, it often misleads as much as it empowers. Nearly every spiritual tradition teaches a form of meditation or contemplation that enables the quieting of what Buddhists call the “monkey mind”—i.e., our restless, uncontrollable internal linking of thoughts. The goal of such exercises is a direct perception of reality as it is, not as we conceptualize it with words. Meditation is also a pathway for confronting our own mortality without denial or dread, and for overcoming the lingering mental and emotional impacts of trauma. Through meditation, awareness of death can become a motive for maximizing beauty and happiness within our finite period of existence.68
Some quasi-spiritual traditions seek to develop control of the body and mind to supernormal degrees. Examples include martial arts such as Tai Chi and Qigong, and meditation systems such as yoga (which comprises several schools and goals, and a wide range of practices). Many such traditions teach control of the autonomic nervous system via the breath, and some proponents claim the ability to extend self-control even to cellular level.69 Pursuits along these lines could occupy ambitious members of society.
Whether or not we will need Big Gods seems to depend on whether we continue to associate in large multicultural groups and in big cities, and whether we are able to (or wish to) maintain big governments that take care of the disadvantaged and punish cheaters. If we return to a village-based gardening society, it could come about that Big Gods were merely a passing phase in human history.
The arts and spirituality are mutually supportive: some of the greatest art, from the Aboriginal cave drawings in Australia to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, has been created in service to the spirit, while beatific states of consciousness seem predictably to be engendered by great art. Both the arts and spirituality nurture self-control: the artist or musician trains her brain, senses, and muscles, while the spiritual seeker trains attention, emotions, and cravings. Both point us toward something greater than ourselves and encourage an attitude of humility.
We are striving and competitive animals. Having spent tens of thousands of years developing extraordinary powers of communication and invention, we are driven to find ways to use these abilities to our advantage. However, as we have seen, building empires and fortunes tends to get us into trouble. How shall we harmlessly occupy our big brains and our extraordinary abilities? Innumerable cultures have come up with essentially the same answer: strive for beauty, serenity, and wisdom. The need for benign ways to channel outsized human capabilities is one of the reasons societies have devoted large portions of their hard-won material and labor surpluses toward building beautiful temples; it’s also one of the reasons prominent families in traditional societies encouraged some of their sons and daughters to become monks and nuns.
Spirituality and the arts also fill basic human needs for community. Seasonal festivals, rife with concentrated aesthetic and spiritual experiences, make life fun for everyone by celebrating the cycles of time. David Fleming, author of Surviving the Future, was one of the few futurists who could see humans in three dimensions as complex beings with needs and drives. He wrote:
Celebrations of music, dance, torchlight, mime, games, feast and folly have been central to the life of community for all times other than those when the pretensions of large-scale civilization descended like a frost on public joy. Carnival is a big word: it spans the buffoonery of the Feasts of Fools, the erotic Saturnalia of Rome, the holy holidays of the Church’s calendar and the agricultural year, and local days of festival in which communities, for most of history, have put down their work and concentrated on enjoying themselves.70
Fleming believed that carnival must play a key role in any future culture that’s worth our effort in building it. Play is essential to brain development and happiness, so it’s important that we value it and make room for it.
Happiness and beauty are best shared with others—whether humans or non-humans. We all take spiritual and aesthetic pleasure from interaction with other kinds of animals, and with nature in general. In today’s urban environment, human spiritual and aesthetic needs are fulfilled to a certain extent by dog and cat ownership. But this is thin gruel compared with the simmering interspecies gumbo in which our ancestors stewed, strove, and played. Our arts and spirituality will be immeasurably enriched if they flow from a sense of community that extends to all living beings.
Influence based on bribes and threats, no matter how nicely it is dressed up, is a pathway only to vertical power. And, whether it is deployed in the context of a family or in global geopolitics, vertical power creates servility and resentment on one hand, and a sense of entitlement on the other. The only influences that can reliably build horizontal power are those of inspiration and moral example. Many priests and gurus have learned to feign moral example in order to build and exercise subtle forms of vertical power, but this eventually just immunizes genuine spiritual seekers against priests and gurus. Religious zealots likewise claim moral example, but do so by defining morality in sectarian terms and decrying those who do not adhere to those terms (and often also by hiding their own corruption). Real moral example does not call attention to itself or insist on comparisons. A healthy culture encourages moral example, but not false piety.
Through spirituality and the arts, it might eventually be possible for humanity to develop horizontal power to a far higher degree than has been the case at any time since the start of the agrarian revolution several millennia ago. This power could even take the form of a matured collective intelligence that is finely attuned to the ecosphere from which it emerged. However, in saying this I may be veering dangerously close to utopianism.
Can we get there from here? Obviously, I’m not just advocating increased funding for the arts or more church attendance. I’m envisioning a complete reorientation of society’s structures and aspirations away from profit and toward the goals of happiness and sustainability. Doing so would require us to change our relationship with power, from focusing on control of the environment and other people to control of ourselves. This would, of course have ramifications for just about everything we do—no more luxury vacations, no more digital devices, no more retail therapy. Life would be lived far more simply and closer to the ground. But general satisfaction and the enjoyment of life’s simple gifts would be maximized.
Again, this is not utopia (in many people’s minds, a world without 24-hour sports networks and social media would hardly be utopia in any case!). We don’t have to assume the existence of perfect humans with no conflicting drives in order to hope for such a future. Competition and violence will likely always play roles in human experience, and, even if we all return to gardening, there may still be some kinds and degrees of inequality among us. Societies will always experience cycles of growth and retreat. But it’s clear that some societies do better than others at keeping their members happy without stealing from future generations. We can learn from them, and perhaps exceed their achievements. It’s also undeniable that societies, and the humans that inhabit them, are still evolving, so that what was true of Paleolithic humans or early state societies is not necessarily true of us today: over time, it seems that we are becoming more sociable and peaceful. If we set our considerable powers to the task, we could create something beautiful and durable together.
* * *
As we’ve seen, power has a long history, originating with the universe itself. On our planet, it has worked its way up through bacteria, larger eukaryote cells with mitochondria, and multicelled life. Guided by the maximum power principle and by fascination with beauty, species proliferated, competed, and gained remarkable abilities of movement, cognition, and cooperation. Finally, one species was able to outdo even the fastest and strongest of its competitors by specializing in communication and tool-making. Most recently, fossil fuels made that species the undisputed master of the planet. It’s been a long road to the top. But we humans, the winners and beneficiaries, find ourselves on a precarious pinnacle.
If, as William H. Calvin has argued, human intelligence evolved partly in response to dozens of instances of rapid climate change during the past 2.5 million years, then the current instance of human-caused extreme climate change may have equally profound evolutionary consequences for the survivors. It may be foolish for us now, in current conditions, and with our current mindset, to try to predict the results. But we would be equally foolish to assume that existing institutions will persist in anything like their familiar forms.
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.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), cultural evolution is now happening faster than ever. There’s certainly no guarantee that it will work to our advantage: the internet and social media could easily create opportunities for extraordinary levels of cooperation, but along competing lines, thereby defeating any effort to build a unified coalition of humanity willing to check its power now so that it can sustain itself and the biosphere over a much longer period.
Nevertheless, the possibility now exists for rapid shifts in human understanding and behavior—and such shifts are essential if we are to create future societies that live happily within natural limits. As I have argued repeatedly in these pages, our only way out of our current predicament is to tamp down various forms of power, often to significant degrees. We humans are well acquainted with the problem of overaccumulation of power, and cultural evolution has supplied plenty of ways of solving it—from the ancient Australian Aboriginal tradition of avoiding hunting the red kangaroo in its mating season, to trade unions and democracy, environmental regulations, and modern billionaires like Tom Steyer who say, “Please tax me.”71 As I am writing, today’s local newspaper here in Santa Rosa, California, features a story about crab fishermen on the Sonoma coast who are voluntarily delaying their crabbing season (thereby incurring a substantial financial loss) in order to protect migrating whales.
For rhetorical purposes, it is difficult to altogether avoid an either/or framing of the choices and outcomes before us. But, of course, reality will be complicated. It is pointless to imagine a future in which power self-limitation is entirely absent from human society, because such a condition has never before existed. It is just as unrealistic to paint an imaginary picture of a world in which all human power excesses have been quickly, sufficiently, and amicably checked.
However, we can be fairly confident that, one way or another, human power will be reined in through some combination of collective moral struggle on one hand, and, on the other, social/ecological unraveling triggered by climate change, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, economic collapse, political polarization, famine, population decline, pandemic, social fragmentation, and war. The actual trajectory of future events will be determined by how much collective self-limitation humanity can muster—what quantity of carbon emissions we are able to forgo, and how many nuclear weapons we dismantle. It may also be shaped by a power struggle between the persistent forces of capital accumulation and an anti-collapse coalition. Can campaigners forge durable alliances? Can they communicate effectively with the public and take strategic advantage of opportunities? Or will self-consuming capitalism win the day? In the best instance, we humans will learn collectively and rapidly to live equitably and peacefully within limits to a much greater degree than we do now; in the worst, society will uncontrollably descend the ladder of cultural evolution back to a condition that can be sustained with whatever resources are left.
There would be obvious differences in the two routes and outcomes—cooperation and self-limitation on a significantly increased scale in one case, mayhem and ecological devastation in the other. But, in the long run, there might also be some similarities. In the aftermath of a Great Unraveling, our few surviving descendants—learning from hard experience—might eventually adopt cultural narratives similar to ones that Indigenous peoples used in order to protect biodiversity and to keep human population levels within the carrying capacity of the environment. These narratives might also be similar at least in some ways to those we would need quickly and intentionally to develop if we are to stave off utter collapse.
Those narratives would likely encode a deep cultural skepticism of power in all its forms, and a profound reinforcement for habits of self-restraint and self-control. We cannot do away with power, nor should we; it is necessitated by the fact that we are organisms—and especially since we are big-bodied, linguistic, tool-making mammals. But if we wish to avoid outcomes that are awful to contemplate and far worse to experience, we can and must rein in the extreme powers that currently threaten our success and even our survival. If we’re truly smart, we can do so in ways that are beautiful, and that make our descendants happy for a long time to come.