Many people are searching for a magic formula to save the world from the converging crises of the 21st century. Climate change, economic inequality, air and water pollution, resource depletion, and the catastrophic disappearance of wildlife threaten to upend society while destabilizing our planet to such a degree that it may be impossible for future generations of humans to persist. What if we could solve all these problems with one simple trick?

Don’t hold your breath. A single solution doesn’t exist: it’s not socialism or capitalism, it’s not renewable energy or nuclear power, it’s not religion or atheism, and it’s not hemp. However, I believe there is a single causative agent in back of most of our troubles, the understanding of which could indeed help us emerge from the hole we’re rapidly digging for ourselves.

That causative agent is power—our pursuit of it, our overuse of it, and our abuse of it. In this book, I argue that all the problems mentioned above, and others as well, are problems of power. We humans are nature’s supreme power addicts. Power—the ability to do something, the ability to get someone else to do something, or the ability to prevent someone else from doing something—is everywhere in the human world. We obsess over power in its various forms, from wealth to governmental authority to weaponry to the concentrated energy sources that make modern industrial societies run. We seek power in many ways. But doing so often gets us into trouble. And it may be our downfall as a species.

Seeing the converging crises of this century as problems of power doesn’t change much, in that we’re still left fighting a host of individual battles. After all, recognizing that climate change is a problem of power, as I argue in Chapter 5, doesn’t make it easier for nations to reduce their carbon emissions. Yet it also changes everything. It reveals how our current existential crises are related, and suggests a common meta-strategy for dealing with them.

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One might think that everything that could possibly be written on the subject of power already has been. At least, that’s what I thought when I began the journey that led to this book. There are thousands of tomes that discuss subjects related to power in one or another of its many manifestations, and hundreds with the word power in their titles. But no book that I’m aware of has systematically examined the sundry forms of power, and investigated how they are related, how they arose, and what they mean for us today.

Perhaps the reason no author has addressed power so broadly is that it is a topic that’s both huge and apparently nebulous. How to make sense of something so incomprehensibly vast and varied? Why even try?

When I started the research that would culminate in this book, I wasn’t compelled by a burning interest in power per se; rather, I was driven to better understand the problems that imbalances and abuses of power have caused. I was determined to find answers to three survival-level questions:

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

In their essence, these questions had dogged me my entire adult life, though it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to distil them down to these few words. As I pondered these questions, it became increasingly clear that reliable answers required a clearer understanding of power in and of itself, since it’s the thread tying together our critical human problems and their potential solutions.

What is power? I decided to do a literature search. Not only was I dismayed to find no existing comprehensive investigation of the nature and workings of power, but I began to notice that, in books that discuss it, power is often poorly defined, if it’s defined at all. I wondered if that was because no one had thought to trace the story of power back to its beginnings.

Physicists define power as the rate of energy transfer. That, at least, is a precise definition, and one that enables power to be measured quantitatively. Does it provide a good place to start in better understanding the power of, say, great wealth or high political office? That seemed doubtful at first.

Nevertheless, I already knew the importance of energy in recent history, having written several books about fossil fuels and renewable energy alternatives. Further, one of the most important lessons I had learned during my years of examining these subjects was that, if you want to understand any ecosystem or human society, a good rule of thumb is to follow the energy. I wondered if, by starting with the process of energy transfer and tracing its development through biological evolution and human history up to the present, it might be possible to better grasp what power is and how it works—and, in the bargain, to get a better idea of how to deal with our converging power problems. My goal would not be to reduce the complex world of social power to energy (so that political influence, for example, could be measured in watts), but simply to better grasp how our many forms of power arose and how they relate to one another, and thereby discover if there are indeed solutions to our impending survival dilemmas.

This focus on energy turned out to be a way not just of making power more comprehensible, but also of tying together a wide range of disparate phenomena in fields from cell biology to ecology to psychology to geopolitics. Most importantly, it threw new light on my three questions, leading me to surprising ideas for changing power dynamics, changing our personal behavior, changing our communities, and changing the world.

The third of my motivating questions, the most crucial one, is of course still open. But in the pages that follow I test the widespread belief that the pursuit of power is irrepressible, that bullies will forever be bullies, that the high and mighty will ultimately triumph, and that people in wealthy countries will never willingly give up comforts and conveniences in order to forestall global environmental catastrophe.

Boiled down to its basics, this belief holds that the will to power overwhelms all other human motives. There is evidence to support that belief. As I discuss in Chapter 1, biologists tend to agree that evolution has been driven by the maximum power principle—according to which, among directly competing systems, the one that harnesses available energy most effectively will prevail. Human beings’ pursuit of power is rooted in nature: evolutionary precursors of it can be seen in competition between species for territory and food, and between members of the same species for mating opportunities. Nature is a power struggle.

However, it’s also clear there is more going on, both in nature and in human societies. Evolution has found ways of preventing species from attaining so much power that they overrun environmental limits, and human societies have evolved ways of reining in tyrants, sharing and conserving resources, and limiting inequality. In Chapter 6, I propose a new bio-social principle in evolution—the optimum power principle—to describe these pathways.

Strategies to avert the concentration of too much power, whether in nature or human affairs, are partial and imperfect. They can’t prevent occasional excesses. A case in point: evolution has no precedent for the immense power that humanity has recently derived from fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and natural gas have enabled humans to increase their total energy usage forty-fold in the span of just three human lifetimes—a rate of increase that’s likely far greater than any previous power shift since the dawn of life on Earth. But fossil fuels are finite and depleting resources, and burning them destabilizes the global climate. So, we are left in a precarious spot: we will have to adapt at an unprecedented pace to limit this excess power, or risk societal and ecosystem collapse.

Help may come from an unexpected source. Beauty, compassion, and inspiration can influence or motivate human behavior. In a sense, then, these are powers too—though of a kind fundamentally different from the political, military, and economic powers that run our world. Yet, as we will see, beauty has helped drive biological evolution, and transcendent qualities of human character have shaped history. If we are to survive this century, we may need to rely on and develop these powers as never before.

Again, there is no silver bullet here. Even though I suggest specific ways of limiting power that could address the main crises of our time, I can’t promise that these suggestions are politically realistic or likely to be implemented. What’s the point, then? By better understanding power, I believe we can gain a clearer view of the human condition, reaping not just knowledge, but perspective and perhaps even wisdom. Practical applications may follow.

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The story of humanity’s fascination with power begins with four key advantages that we have exploited to a far greater degree than any other species on Earth: the ability to make and manipulate tools, which we were able to develop because of our opposable thumbs and big brains; language, which enabled us to coordinate our behavior over time and space; social complexity, which makes human societies more cooperative and formidable, though usually at the expense of increased inequality; and our ability to harness energy beyond that which is supplied by food and exerted through muscle. Power chronicles how these advantages have propelled us on a trajectory from hunter-gatherer life in small, wandering bands to modern existence in huge cities, surrounded by machines and able to summon highly desirable foods and manufactured goods with a keystroke.

At the same time, power inequality (including the power differential between women and men) has tended to grow in human societies—though in fits and starts, and with occasional reversals. In the story of social power, starring roles have been played by three kinds of tools: money, which can best be thought of as quantifiable, storable, and transferrable social power, and as a token for the ability to command energy; weapons, which have enabled ever more sophisticated and deadly forms of warfare, while also helping drive cultural evolution; and communication technologies (from writing to social media), which have given some people the ability to influence the minds of many others.

Money, weapons, and communication technologies—the key tools of social power—have enabled relatively few human beings to wield extraordinary influence. Today just a few extremely rich individuals claim as much wealth as the poorer half of humanity, and we find ourselves asking whether such extreme levels of inequality are sustainable. New cross-disciplinary analysis of hundreds of societies from the past 5,000 years offers unprecedented insight into how and why social and economic inequality arises, and the trajectory on which it tends to propel societies. As we’ll see, worsening inequality tends to lead to cycles of societal expansion followed by “ages of discord.”

Military power is perhaps the rawest form of social power. We’ll trace how it has evolved from hand-to-hand combat to the point where a single soldier can obliterate hundreds, even millions of combatants and non-combatants without ever seeing their faces or hearing their anguished cries. In the past century, some of our weapons have become so awesome that our only prospect for collective survival lies in never using them. We’ll also see how warfare contributed to the origin of early city-states with full-time division of labor, the creation of empires, and the modern trend toward economic globalization.

The powers to communicate quickly over great distances, to heal injuries and cure diseases, to travel safely and quickly halfway around the world in a day, and to explore other planets seem benign by comparison. Yet all these powers—whether used to dominate or enable—are connected and follow some of the same basic principles.

We’ll explore in Chapter 1 how living creatures evolved fascinating and ingenious ways of deriving and exerting power. Power enables not just individual survival, but the production of breathtaking variety and beauty throughout nature. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing; and that, I argue, is the essence of the human predicament in the 21st century. It is also possible, of course, to abuse power; and, as we will see, the problem of the abuse of power is often closely related to that of the over-accumulation of power (as historians who study the careers of dictators continually remind us). Indeed, the over-accumulation of power makes the abuse of power increasingly likely.

Altogether, in response to the three questions I posed earlier, this book will leave the reader with six takeaways:

  1. Power is everywhere. We can’t understand nature or human society without investigating the workings of power.
  1. Our human ability to overwhelm nature and our tendency toward extreme inequality have both evolved in discrete stages. That is, in neither case was evolution a steady process. It’s possible to pinpoint key moments in biological evolution and social evolution when everything changed due to a dramatic power shift.
  1. There is a fundamental correlation between physical power and social power. Social scientists sometimes tend to downplay this point. But throughout history, dramatic increases in physical power, derived from new technologies and from harnessing new energy sources, have often tended to lead to more vertical social power (that’s a phrase we’ll unpack as we go along; it basically means a few people having more wealth than everybody else, or being able to tell lots of other people what to do).
  1. Our problems with power result not just from abuse. We’re rightly outraged by abuses of power in the forms of slavery, despotism, corruption, racism, sexism, and so on. But sometimes the accumulation of too much power within a system is problematic regardless of the benign or sinister intent of system managers.
  1. The “will to power,” about which German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, is real—but it isn’t everything. We humans have other instincts that counteract our relentless pursuit of power. Efforts to limit power are deeply rooted in nature’s cycles and balancing mechanisms, and have been expressed in countless social movements over many centuries, including movements to curb the power of rulers, to abolish slavery, and to grant women political rights equal to those enjoyed by men.
  1. The power of beauty has driven biological evolution as surely as has the pursuit of dominance, and the power of inspiring example has shaped human social evolution as much as the quests for wealth and superior weaponry. These aren’t just feel-good sentiments; they’re research-based observations.

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Finally, an overview of the book’s structure.

Chapter 1 explores power in nature. When discussing power, it’s tempting to jump directly into an examination of social power in human groups; however, social power is based in biology, and it’s necessary to investigate power’s evolutionary roots if we’re to understand its manifestations in the modern world. This chapter is a whirlwind tour of the biology of power. It addresses the ways power moves through the living world—starting with the cell’s ability to capture, store, and controllably dissipate energy. We’ll explore the manifold powers of living things, including motion, perception, communication, reproduction, emotion, and deception. As we’ll see, power comes in many forms, and specializing in any one kind of power tends to result in a trade-off with others.

Chapter 2 focuses on how humans developed extraordinary and unique powers during the Pleistocene epoch, starting roughly 2.5 million years ago. Using recent findings in archaeology and anthropology, we will trace the earliest human uses of stone tools, fire, and clothing, revealing how they enabled our ancestors to expand their range and their competitive advantages over other large-bodied mammals and other human species. As we’ll see, tools and fire changed us as much as we changed the world by using them. We’ll explore how language supercharged our other powers by enabling us to explain processes (like the manufacturing of ever-more complicated tools), tell stories, and ask questions. Finally, we’ll trace the trajectory of power relations between women and men in prehistory, and explore Homo sapiens’ long-standing fascination with the power of beauty.

Chapter 3 outlines the evolution of vertical social power—how some people gained influence over others. Most of the key milestones in this process occurred in the Holocene epoch—that is, during the past 11,000 years. As our early ancestors began domesticating animals and plants and growing crops, they also created a “wealth pump” that continually generated economic inequality. We’ll see how the adoption of a symbolic medium of exchange and basis for the creation and payment of debt (i.e., money) led to a near-universal, self-regulating system of wealth and poverty. We’ll see how early agriculturalists applied the skills they developed in domesticating animals to the project of controlling other people. We’ll also investigate the power conferred by communication tools—from writing to the printing press to social media. Finally, in a section titled “The Pathologies of Power,” we’ll examine the ways in which vertical social power often makes us literally crazy.

Chapter 4 focuses on the period of time I’ll be calling the Great Acceleration. It’s during this brief historical moment—roughly the past two hundred years—that trends like climate change and rapid population growth have really taken off. This chapter reveals how the fossil fuel revolution enabled us dramatically to increase resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption in a historic eye-blink—causing the middle class to balloon and consumerism to blossom. We’ll also see how the worst human impacts on our environment—and the most lethal wars ever—have occurred due to the powers that coal, oil, and natural gas have conferred on us.

Chapter 5 explores the consequences of unleashing the energy of millions of years’ worth of ancient sunlight, stored as fossil fuels, into a world of finely-tuned natural checks and balances. This chapter is an unflinching look at what’s going wrong in the 21st century. Climate change, resource depletion, and species extinctions all result from humans exercising enormous and growing power over our environment. Meanwhile, our expanding energetic powers have sent the wealth pump common to all complex societies into overdrive, so that economic inequality is growing to absurd extremes. People in past societies amassed power in similar ways, but on a smaller scale, and it never ended well.

Fortunately, it is possible to rein in excessive power. In Chapter 6 we’ll see how evolution has provided for the limitation of power in other species, and how, throughout history, we humans have found ways to check our own powers, both over nature and over one another. We’ll see how our inner powers of empathy and self-control have led to moderation and peace in previous historical moments, and could do so again. In the course of pursuing power over nature and one another, we have also created art, music, literature, spirituality, and science—our most sublime achievements. And we are capable of remarkable acts of creativity, compassion, mercy, and self-sacrifice.

Chapter 7 is about the future of power. It examines the specific ways we must alter our relationship with power in order to prevent a premature end to the human experiment. We’ll look at the worst- and best-case scenarios for our deep future, and the power tradeoffs that will determine our actual trajectory. As we will see, limiting our dominance of nature and of other people while maximizing self-control could make life not only more secure, but also far more beautiful for ourselves and our descendants.

This book argues that in principle we can indeed overcome our current crises of over-empowerment and power imbalance. That doesn’t mean we will; as I point out in the last section of Chapter 6, humanity is in a unique situation now, wherein (because of fossil fuels) we’ve succeeded in overcoming certain limits—on energy, food, population, debt, and scale of social organization—that kept previous societies within critical bounds. Our very success is blinding us to the fact that limits nevertheless still exist, and are in fact looming. So, the odds are that we won’t escape some form of societal collapse (fast or slow; complete or partial) during the current century.

My reason for writing this book is that I believe it is vital that as many people as possible understand the following point: Whatever degree of resilience or sustainability we can achieve prior to, during, or after collapse must come from a return to self-limiting behaviors. The call for power-limiting behavior is implicit in a great deal of existing environmental, social justice, and spiritual literature. This book makes that call explicit; grounds it in physics, biology, anthropology, and history; brings it up to date; and underscores what is at stake.

In the years ahead, human survival will depend on our ability to reckon with power in all its forms. If this book can help even marginally in that process, it will have done its job.

Sidebar 1: Defining Power

Power is a familiar word, but it has several distinct meanings. I explore its meanings throughout this book, and specify which meaning I am using in any given context. To avoid confusion, let’s consider these definitions at the outset.

In physics, power is defined as the rate of transfer of energy. Using a unit of measurement such as the watt, it is possible to precisely specify the power of an engine, the power of an asteroid crashing into a planet, or the power of human arm and leg muscles used in digging a ditch or carrying a heavy weight. (See sidebar “How Much Power?” in Chapter 1.)

Physical power can be used to accomplish goals. We often think of physical power simply as the ability to do something. We speak of “the power of speech” or “the power of flight,” but these are just two of an astonishing number of things that can be done by harnessing energy in particular ways. Chapter 1 explores how living organisms gradually evolved to use energy to gain an ever-expanding repertoire of abilities. Chapter 2 zeroes in on the evolution of key human abilities—especially language, toolmaking, and control of fire—that have given us dramatic advantages over other creatures.

In normal conversation, most of us tend to use the word power to refer to social power, which can be defined as the ability to get other people to do something. A political leader or a billionaire has this kind of power. Chapter 3 explores the evolution of social power since the emergence of kings and money roughly 4,000 years ago.

Not all social power is the same. Horizontal social power is the ability of a group to self-organize to accomplish something. The implicit message is, “We can do this together.” This is the power at work in a self-organizing social movement or a mob. Societies characterized by horizontal power include hunter-gatherer bands and, to a degree, successful modern democracies.

Vertical social power is the ability to get others to do something through a threat or incentive. The implicit message is, “You must do this or else,” or “If you do this, I will give you that.” This is the power wielded, for example, by a judge or an employer. Societies highly characterized by vertical power include early agrarian kingdoms and modern totalitarian dictatorships. The line separating vertical from horizontal power can be somewhat blurry: social movements have leaders, dictators often appeal to mob instincts, and modern democracies have police and prisons.

Still another form of social power is the ability to exclude others from having access to something. The implicit message is, “This is mine, and I will prevent you from having it.” Like many other forms of power, exclusionary power developed in nature long before the appearance of humans (as we will see in Chapter 1). However, modern humans have developed exclusionary power to a high degree through laws defining property rights, and through wars over land and other resources.

Some forms of social power are hard to define or measure. We say that ideas have power, but ideas must have human hosts to continually give them life. Creative artists have the power to move their audiences emotionally and aesthetically. Many spiritual and political leaders gain followers through the power of inspiration and example, or force of personality. Finally, sexual attraction exerts an undeniable power that shapes nature and human affairs.

These definitions and types of power may seem disparate and unrelated. However, as we will see, one kind of power tends to lead to another. By tracing the relationships between varied manifestations of power, starting with energy transfer, we begin to see patterns and connections that would otherwise be invisible. History and current events emerge with greater clarity when viewed through the lens of power.