Action Through the Lens of Power

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

Action for the environment has been presented so far in Section 4 as largely singular and independent, but, of course, it can only be understood fully within a broader context of power: power structures, power operations, power dynamics. Richard Heinberg is often mentioned in T10 (e.g. see article 1.1.8 or all of Section 8) and although his first interest appears to have been energy,

(The three great ‘poles’ of power in the modern world: the media, business, and politics)


this has developed over the years into a full engagement with how energy shapes societal power, and vice versa. Much of his latest book – ‘Power’1 – is expressly devoted to this and includes discussion as to how to interact with, and affect, power.

Of particular relevance to Section 4 is his final chapter, Chapter 7, ‘The Future of Power’, where he conducts a wide-ranging discussion on possible future scenarios and responses to a world of diminishing energy and increasing greenhouse gas

emissions. It is well worth reading the whole chapter (56 pages) as he touches on political structures, power elites, inequalities, psychology, history, engineering and physics, population growth and consumption, technology and efficiencies, and possible future societies. For our purposes in this section, his comments on various forms of activism and the risks and benefits involved are most pertinent. In sub-section ‘Fighting Power with Power’ (pp. 342) he says: “The key to minimising suffering and environmental damage to improve 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 maximising 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).” Heinberg says that such a movement’s only hope would be to “band together in a strong coalition”, and such an alliance has been envisaged by Collins2 to comprise four main branches:

  • Groups and individuals working to save the planet by halting climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution;
  • Social justice advocates;
  • Groups opposing violence, especially state violence; and
  • Builders of a new culture.”

Heinberg sees Classic Activism (cp. Harich’s criticism of Classic Activism in 4.5), through organising, as part of this struggle, and devotes Sidebar 29 to it; I reproduce it here:

The nine points presented were adapted from the ‘Youth Activist Toolkit’3 and have much in common with the well-known work of Alinsky, ‘Rules for Radicals’.4

Heinberg is not blind to the dangers inherit in handling power. Perhaps human’s oldest-known psychological problem is the seeking of and abuse of power. Those of us who had to go through the coronavirus pandemic in my state, Victoria, would be all too familiar with this: self-appointed corona vigilantes – shopkeepers, journalists, politicians – running amok with their tragic bit of extra power that covid conferred.

He also worries about the increased divisiveness and polarisation that ‘fighting power with power’ may bring about. But, despite these genuine concerns, he can see no other way.

The chapter’s final pages include a run-down on a plethora of groups working to achieve fairer power structures for a better world, and he concludes that one of the major problems they face is the lack of a coherent, attractive vision of the future that is worth struggling for. In the absence of this he feels groups are confined to just two strategies: being against something, and promoting fear. He doubts that this is enough and recommends the few attempts to fill this vital gap, particularly the work of Rob Hopkins5 and Chris Jordan6.

Hopkins founded the Transition Towns movement and as well as his book on imagining the future, he has a subscription podcast of 17 episodes for 3 pounds/month – Podcast – Rob Hopkins.

Chris Jordan’s Tedx talk discusses beauty as a motivator for change and can be seen here – Chris Jordan: Can beauty save our planet? | TED Talk . Tedx Seattle summarises his talk thus:

“Chris Jordan is all in on beauty. After photographing sea birds dying by the dozens from consuming bits of plastic, Chris had a revelation: It was time to refocus in his lens on the awesome beauty of the planet. Now, he searches out natural places that can inspire us to treasure and protect them from the devastating effects of pollution and climate change. Chris is an internationally acclaimed photographer and filmmaker whose works are exhibited and published worldwide. His work walks the fine line between beauty and despair while exploring the dark undercurrents of our consumer culture’s focus on disposable goods and mass consumption. Chris’s first foray into the subject was the project Intolerable Beauty, which demonstrated the enormous amount of waste in various areas throughout Seattle.

(Tedx Seattle. 2019. Chris Jordan).

His next project, Running the Numbers, used innovative perspectives to illustrate the vast magnitude of our mass consumption. Chris’s largest project to date is a series of photographs, Midway: Message from the Gyre, and the companion film, Albatross. The project was inspired by a stunning environmental tragedy that’s taking place on a tiny atoll in the North Pacific Ocean. He and his team photographed and filmed thousands of young albatrosses that lay dead on the ground, their stomachs filled with plastic, underscoring the destructive power of our culture of consumption, and our damaged relationship with the living world.”

1 Heinberg, R. 2021. Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada.

2 Collins, C. 2012. Meet Cannibalistic Capitalism: Globalisation’s Evil Twin. July 30th, Truthout, Sacramento, USA.

3 Advocates for Youth. 2019. Youth Activist Toolkit. April, Washington D.C., USA.

4 Alinsky, S. 1989. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage, New York, USA.

5 Hopkins, R. From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future we Want. Chelsea Green, White River Junction, USA.

6 Jordan, C. 2019. Can Beauty Save our Planet? Tedx Seattle, USA.