Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Distribution of Power

There was an opinion piece in my local paper by Daniel Gilbert (that originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 2, 2006) about why we (or, our leaders) are not doing more to address global warming.

Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University, claims that “the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features—features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.” We clue in to (1) what other people are doing, (2) what “violates our moral sensibilities,” (3) immediate threats (rather than long-term concerns), and (4) what changes quickly (instead of slowly). Because global warming does not seem to be maliciously designed by enemy human beings to wipe us out quickly, in a way we immediately recognize as threatening, we pay little attention to it. “Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain’s alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed,” Gilbert writes.

But I know that I’m worried about global warming, and so are many people I know. It seems to me that plenty of people do take this seriously. They just happen to be people who are powerless to effect the kinds of change that would really address the problem.

So, why is it that the people who are in power are not paying attention, and people who are not in power are the ones who care?

Or, put another way: why is society such that power is distributed to people who are primarily concerned with their own self-interest and the short-term gains of an elite few, but withheld from those who would wish to use it for the benefit of all?


  1. Well, my first response is, because they stole it. I don't think that the man who holds the title of president in the US ever legitimately won a presidential election (heck, I'm not even sure about governor, but I don't have any info)

    What's more, if you're willing to behave unethically to obtain money, you'll have more of it, and money is power.

    Wow am I cynical.

    It seems that tyrants rise to power over and over again. I wonder if it's an inherent part of human social structure, or if perhaps it's even usefu (though it doesn't really seem to bel. Also, over and over, they are deposed, but it takes a lot of work, and it doens't last forever.

    Also, it seems that if you have a group of people who are peace loving and focused on education or art rather than warfare, eventually a neighboring people who DO like warfare will come along and kill them all and take their stuff. Evolutionarily the cards are stacked against us.

    I don't drive (much) and try to live a low-impact lifestyle. On my more despairing days I realise that all I am likely acccomplishing is to allow someone else to drive their SUV an extra month before the oil really does run out.



  2. Pam,

    Yes, it's really hard not to be cynical! But I still tend to think that aggressively-held power is fragile and unstable. It must be maintained with fear. While fear is very powerful in the short-term, it takes a lot of energy to sustain it in the long-term.

    I think it is possible to build human societies rooted in justice and maintained by love (at least one of love's more modest forms: respectful regard for each other). When people have experienced this kind of community, they are haunted by it for life, and keep seeking to re-create it.

    Maybe our biggest problem now is that too few have experienced this kind of community, and so there are too few with a clear enough and strong enough vision to convincingly advocate for it.

    My new queries: what can I do in my daily life to give the others around me genuine glimpses of community at its best? To show them what is possible?

    What can I do to help others become aware of the power they do have, and aware of how they tend to express this power within their own lives? Can I influence them to use their power for justice instead of using it to further the kind of narrow self-interest that disenfranchises others?

    Am I using my own power well?