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Why Power Is Not a Dirty Word

Frances Moore Lappé looks at redefining power and taking it back.

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Why are we as societies creating a world that we as individuals abhor? It’s a mind-bending question.

Who, after all, gets up in the morning pledging to starve children? Yet, each day over 24,000 young children die of hunger and poverty. Who, anywhere, sets out to heat the planet and rid the world of its species? Yet, every day roughly 100 more species are lost forever.

Do we simply lack the know-how to reverse these horrors? No. We humans already have proven solutions to everything from climate chaos to poverty.

Or is it human nature—underneath are we all just selfish little shoppers, so of course we’re doomed?

Every choice we make sends out ripples. This is not the rugged “loner” type of power glorified by our culture. It is power flowing from our interdependence.

No, again. In recent decades, a revolution in our understanding of human nature has produced evidence from neuroscience to anthropology that we have all the social “wiring” needed to make the turn toward life. It turns out we’ve evolved to take pleasure in and to need cooperation, empathy, fairness, and efficacy.

Then what is preventing us from moving toward the world that almost all of us want? My short answer is that we feel powerless. We feel powerless to act on what we know.

And what robs us of power?

For some, it’s the false idea that we have to change human nature itself; that we have to overcome our Stone Age emotions, as esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson tells us.

Others cling to the notion that most of us are OK, but there’s an evil minority—be it people raking in the dough on Wall Street or hiding in caves in Pakistan. The solution is to get rid of “them” so we can have the world we want.

To me, both seem daunting, truly impossible tasks.

What if there were a wholly different way of seeing the challenge that gets at the very root of our powerlessness, and is grounded in the latest science?

In Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want, I suggest that we humans find our power only as we embrace the totality of our complex nature: accepting that, yes, we are hard-wired (or at least, “soft-wired”) to be caring and cooperative problem-solvers. And at the same time, lab experiments, as well as current and past genocides, prove that under the right (wrong) conditions, most of us will brutalize others.

It’s tough to truly accept that both attributes exist within virtually all of us, but the payoff for taking this mental leap is huge.

We Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect
Inuit elders, photo by John Hasyn
New science shows we evolved to cooperate.

From this frame, we know what to do. We don’t have to change human nature or get rid of the evil ones. We have to first identify the social rules and norms that both bring out the best in us and keep the worst in check; and then work to manifest precisely those conditions.

I believe the evidence shows that three conditions, in particular, lead humans to no good. They are concentration of power, anonymity, and scapegoating.

If that is the case, progress toward the world we want comes as we dissolve these conditions and move toward communities and societies with widely dispersed power, transparent public decision making, and shared responsibility for creating solutions instead of looking for someone to blame.

The great news is that millions of people worldwide are fostering the conditions that bring out the best in us. But if despair is still a danger for many who feel powerless to act on what we know now, maybe it’s time we rethink power itself.

The Power of Interdependence

It helps to remember ecology’s core teaching: We all exist in densely woven networks. From the cellular to the societal level, our context shapes each of us moment to moment. As physicist Hans-Peter Duerr reminds us, “There are not parts, only participants.”

From this view, our power is evident. The only choice we don’t have is whether to change the world: Every choice we make sends out ripples. This is not the rugged “loner” type of power glorified by our culture. It is power flowing from our interdependence, which recent neuroscience reveals to be vastly greater than we’d ever imagined.

In the early 1990s, neuroscientists were studying the brain activity of monkeys, particularly in the part of the brain’s frontal lobe associated with distinct actions, such as reaching or eating. They saw specific neurons firing for specific activities. But then they noticed something they didn’t expect at all: The very same neurons fired when a monkey was simply watching another monkey perform that action.

“Monkey see, monkey do” suddenly took on a whole new meaning for me. We humans are wired like our close relatives, and when we observe someone else, our own brains are simultaneously experiencing at least something of what that person is experiencing. The significance of these copycats, called “mirror neurons,” is huge. We do walk in one another’s shoes, whether we want to or not. “[Our] intimate brain-to-brain link-up ... lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us,” writes Daniel Goleman, in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.

We therefore co-create one another, moment to moment. For me, our “imprintability” is itself a source of hope. Our actions, and perhaps our mental states, register in others, so that we change anyone observing us. That’s power.

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