Here it is: Power. Now, quick, before reading further, close your eyes. What associations come to mind? If your list is full words like coercion, force, guns, oppression, domination, money, you could be in big trouble.
Turns out, our very idea of power can rob us of it. In its Latin root, posse, means simply the capacity to act. If to turn our planet toward life we need more and more of us to exert power, even more energetically and thoughtfully, but our associations with the very concept of power are all negative...then that's a problem. A big one.
So let's rethink. What is power?
Power is creating. It is making things happen. And it is perhaps the most under-appreciated human need. Most experts on what we need to be happy, beyond physical needs, stress the importance of satisfying personal relationships, security, and meaning. But Erich Fromm gets it right in my view. Of humanity he writes, "[Man] is driven to make his imprint on the world, to transform and to change, and not only to be transformed and changed..."
And if we can't make our imprint positively, says Fromm, we try something else:
"If... man is not able to act [he attempts] to restore his capacity. . . . One way is to submit to and identify with a person or group having power. . . . The other way... [is] to destroy."
And in today's world, proof of his wisdom feels ever more evident.
So the pressing question for our species: Can we consciously reframe this deep need for agency in ways that align with life? Can we shift from control as the primary expression of power to experience power as co-creating with nature?
Co-creating power takes discipline. And I don't mean just getting oneself to the voting booth or installing a solar panel. I mean mental discipline--continually examining our own assumptions and refusing to go on repeating messages that aren't working: Messages that simply blame corporations, for example, without also offering practical pathways to remove them from their controlling political role. "Anti-bad-guys-messages" can help us feel virtuous and release justifiable anger, but alone they can't work.
Co-creating power means staying open and keeping in touch with our inner two-year-old's "Why, why, why?"
Such co-creating power is expanding in part through largely unseen but growing citizen organizations, including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), whose 5,000 plus members take on challenges from toxic dumping to making government more open; in 2010, they were key to halting a new coal plant in their state. Jean True, a KFTC leader in the 1990s, told me, "I was home raising kids for ten years. I didn't know anything about politics. I thought my only job was to vote."
When I asked Jean to tell me why she joined KFTC, she responded, "It's just the fun! That you can get together some regular people, go to the capitol, and make changes in state policy...We have a great time going toe to toe and head to head with state legislators. We sometimes know more than they do! It's the fun of power -- the ant knocking over the buffalo."
On the other side of the world in the year 2000, I danced with women in a Kenyan village, feeling the exuberant happiness in their new found power as village tree planters -- part of the Greenbelt Movement that has planted over 50 million trees.
So, accomplishing humanity's biggest-ever feat -- tackling both poverty and climate chaos via real democracy -- may just depend on our shedding the myths now stripping us of power and, with the exuberance of dancing Kenyan tree planters, joining in Jean True's kind of power.
We can do it.
We can do it if we do the work -- the good work of checking our failing frames at the door and walking into a new space: There, in our ecological home, we're all connected. So, guess what?
We're all implicated. That might not sound good, but it is.
For the notion of power as a divisible pie -- "If he has it, I don't" -- dissolves and we see that no one is every utterly powerless. Even entities as vast as the U.S. Pentagon or as wealthy as Exxon, with its $30,000-a-minute profit, are being shaped moment to moment through our own assumptions about what's possible and by our daily roles in this magnificent life-and-death drama.
"Thinking like an ecosystem," what I love to call "eco-mind"--and realizing our interconnectedness, suddenly, we see the sources of power available to almost all of us at any moment. Here are ten to mull:
In other words, with an eco-mind, the only choice we don't have is whether to change the world. We are changing it every day. Recognizing our power, we can be tough. We can challenge any message telling us we can't have real democracy so just give up on government, or scolding us for being greedy or apathetic, when most of us want to be part of the solution.
Claiming our power as co-creators, we can together speed an evolving and immensely liberating ecology of hope.
Adapted from EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (New in paperback from Nation Books)
Frances Moore Lappé is the author of EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (Nation Books) and 17 other books including the acclaimed Diet for a Small Planet.