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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The Power of Action

Getting a Grip 2, book cvr

Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want

By Frances Moore Lappé
Small Planet Media, 2010, 215 pages, $14.95

Support YES! when you buy here from an independent bookstore.

And we never know who’s watching. Just think: It may be when we feel most marginalized and unheard, but still act with resolve, that someone is listening or watching, and their life is forever changed.

As I form this thought, the face of Wangari Maathai comes to mind. Maathai planted seven trees in Nairobi on Earth Day 1977 to honor seven women environmental leaders in Kenya. Over the next two decades, she was jailed, humiliated, and beaten for her environmental activism, but her simple act sparked a movement in which those seven trees became 45 million, all planted by village women across Kenya.

In fall 2004, when Maathai got the call telling her she had won the Nobel Peace Prize, her first words were: “I didn’t know anyone was listening.” But, evidently, a lot of people were, from tens of thousands of self-taught tree planters in Kenya to the Nobel committee in Oslo.

From there I flash back to a conversation with João Pedro Stédile, a founder of the largest and perhaps most effective social movement in this hemisphere—Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, which has enabled some of the world’s poorest people to gain nearly 20 million acres of unused land.

Who helped motivate Stédile who did work in the 1980s under Brazil’s military regime when gatherings of any kind were risky? It was Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ struggle, he told me.

I’ll bet Chavez never knew, or even imagined, his example was powerful enough to jump continents.

Just as important, the findings of neuroscience suggest a great way to empower ourselves. We can place ourselves in the company of those more courageous than we are. For sure, we’ll become more like them.

Thus, our most important choices may be deciding whom we spend time with as friends, colleagues, and partners. And “spending time” means more than face-to-face contact. What we see on TV, in films, and on the Internet, what we read and therefore imagine—all are firing mirror neurons in our brains and forming us. Knowing this, we can choose courage—and power.

Changing the Rules

Rethinking Power

Our every act shapes the field of power relationships, and the rules we create determine whether they will be life-serving.

Today’s rules, for example, allow private-money’s influence over public decisions to create one of the three conditions proven to lead to no good: highly concentrated power. Lobbyists spent $3.5 billion last year to influence Congress, funding more than two dozen lobbyists for every single legislator citizens have elected to represent them.

Once we fully embrace the notion that dispersion and accountability of power is key to our thriving, then we will no longer be surprised when a new president fails to turn the ship of state. Instead, we’ll realize the need and see our power to change the rules.

Right now, we have a prime opportunity. Both houses of Congress are considering the Fair Elections Now Act, which would establish voluntary public financing of congressional elections. It would enable everyday citizens—the waitress, teacher, or truck driver—to run for office without being tethered to corporate money. It’s built on a system that is already working in Maine, Arizona, and Connecticut.

No matter what else we are doing to promote democracy we can each press our representatives to get on board. We can make campaign finance reform a sexy, compelling issue, knowing it’s needed to move on everything from serious climate-change legislation to remaking our banking system.

Rethinking Power

To inhabit this world of possibility, where we see our power everywhere, we can start by rethinking power itself.

Power is an idea, and in our culture it’s a stifling idea—almost a dirty word—equated with manipulation, coercion, and destruction. We see it in abuses by unaccountable corporations and corrupt governments.

Defined this way, no wonder it looks negative and we feel powerless. But, if we understand that power is simply our capacity to act, we’re free to be its co-creators. I’ve found many Americans returning power to its original meaning—“to be able.” From there, power becomes something we human beings develop together—relational power. And that’s a lot more fun.

Once we step up and face the uncomfortable truth about our nature—embracing the good, the bad, and the very ugly—we can focus on what really matters: together creating the social rules and norms that bring out the best, while dissolving the conditions that elicit the worst.

From there, we can rethink power itself, so that we fully realize our own and inhabit a world of possibility.