The best books for understanding power

Who am I?

I’m a systems thinker (Senior Fellow at an environmental think tank, author of 14 books and hundreds of essays) who’s addicted to trying to understand the world. After a few decades, the following is my state of understanding. Power is everywhere and determines everything in our lives. Whether due to the physical power of energy channeled through technology, or the social power of organizations and money, we’re enabled or disabled daily. During the last century, fossil-fueled humanity has overpowered planetary systems, as evidenced by climate change, species extinctions, and resource depletion. Few think critically about power. Unless we start doing so, we may be inviting the ultimate disempowerment—extinction.

I wrote...

Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

By Richard Heinberg,

Book cover of Power: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

What is my book about?

Our human obsession with power has roots in nature and evolution. The same goes for our efforts to limit power--whether through climate negotiations, nuclear arms treaties, or government programs to reduce economic inequality. But lately, we have gotten ourselves into a fix: fossil fuels have increased our power over nature (and one another) so much and so fast that we are putting future generations in peril. Meanwhile, economic inequality is growing throughout the world, destabilizing governments and making it harder to manage our vexing social problems. If we're going to survive this turbulent century we need to understand power much better--and this book aims to help readers do just that. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life

Why did I love this book?

When I was younger, biology was mostly about chemistry. The central role of energy in metabolism and life was mostly taken for granted. That’s changed, and this book on recent advances in the field of bioenergetics was an eye-opener for me. Life is all about power, and, gram for gram, the average cell is far more powerful than the sun! This book informed the first chapter in my own book Power.

By Nick Lane,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Power, Sex, Suicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mitochondria are tiny structures located inside our cells that carry out the essential task of producing energy for the cell. They are found in all complex living things, and in that sense, they are fundamental for driving complex life on the planet. But there is much more to them than that.

Mitochondria have their own DNA, with their own small collection of genes, separate from those in the cell nucleus. It is thought that they were once bacteria living independent lives. Their enslavement within the larger cell was a turning point in the evolution of life, enabling the development of…

Book cover of Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

Why did I love this book?

Turchin’s book is one of the best sources I found for understanding the development of human social power during the past 11,000 years. As he succinctly puts it, “competition within groups destroys cooperation; cooperation between groups creates cooperation.” Societies grew bigger to compete more successfully for resources, but doing so required that they become more internally cooperative. Necessity was the mother of social innovation, and the result was kingdoms, then empires. Turchin is one of the foremost proponents of group (or multi-level) selection, still a controversial idea in biology, but, in my view, an essential frame for understanding human evolution.

By Peter Turchin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ultrasociety as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cooperation is powerful. There aren’t many highly cooperative species—but they nearly cover the planet. Ants alone account for a quarter of all animal matter. Yet the human capacity to work together leaves every other species standing. We organize ourselves into communities of hundreds of millions of individuals, inhabit every continent, and send people into space. Human beings are nature’s greatest team players. And the truly astounding thing is, we only started our steep climb to the top of the rankings—overtaking wasps, bees, termites and ants—in the last 10,000 years. Genetic evolution can’t explain this anomaly. Something else is going on.…

Book cover of Energy and Civilization: A History

Why did I love this book?

Over the last two centuries, human per capita energy usage has grown 800 percent, while the population has also grown to the same degree. Life has changed profoundly due to our adoption of fossil fuels—but puzzlingly few people are curious to understand energy’s role in society and history. Smil fills the void to overflowing with this detailed account of how people have harvested energy from their environments, and how doing so has changed the ways they live.

By Vaclav Smil,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Energy and Civilization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel–driven civilization.

"I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next 'Star Wars' movie. In his latest book, Energy and Civilization: A History, he goes deep and broad to explain how innovations in humans' ability to turn energy into heat, light, and motion have been a driving force behind our cultural and economic progress over the past 10,000 years.
—Bill Gates, Gates Notes, Best Books of the Year

Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary…

The Energy of Slaves

By Andrew Nikiforuk,

Book cover of The Energy of Slaves

Why did I love this book?

If the goods and services that we enjoy in America today all had to be provided by human muscle power, we would each, on average, need roughly 150 people working full-time for us. Instead, fossil fuels do the work. The good news: coal helped end the horrors of slavery. The bad news: we’re all now utterly dependent on an energy system that’s destroying the world and the survival prospects of future generations. In many ways, we have become slaves to the fossil fuel regime, and Nikiforuk explains how. This book deserved far more attention than it received when published in 2012.

By Andrew Nikiforuk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Energy of Slaves as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ancient civilizations routinely relied on shackled human muscle. It took the energy of slaves to plant crops, clothe emperors, and build cities. In the early 19th century, the slave trade became one of the most profitable enterprises on the planet. Economists described the system as necessary for progress. Slaveholders viewed religious critics as hostilely as oil companies now regard environmentalists. Yet the abolition movement that triumphed in the 1850s had an invisible ally: coal and oil. As the world's most portable and versatile workers, fossil fuels replenished slavery's ranks with combustion engines and other labor-saving tools. Since then, oil has…

The Social Psychology of Power

By Ann Guinote (editor), Theresa K. Vescio (editor),

Book cover of The Social Psychology of Power

Why did I love this book?

Social power is the ability to change the thoughts and behavior of other people. Power affects many people like a drug: they become addicted to wielding power or serving the powerful. We’re all embedded in webs of hierarchy and rank that often make us literally crazy. This rather obscure book does a good job of summarizing an enormous trove of research by clinical psychologists on the pathologies of power.

By Ann Guinote (editor), Theresa K. Vescio (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Social Psychology of Power as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Addressing an issue of central concern in social life, this authoritative book examines how having or lacking power influences the way individuals and groups think, feel, and act. Leading international experts comprehensively review classic and contemporary research with an eye toward bridging gaps across theories and levels of analysis. Compelling topics include the evolutionary bases of power; its effects on physiological processes, cognitive abilities, and health; what sorts of people are given power; when, how, and whom power corrupts; and power dynamics in gender, social class, and ethnic relations. The integrative concluding chapter presents a cogent agenda for future research.

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