Power and Dominion Beach

PowerShift 2012 will be held from October 26-29th in Ottawa/Gatineau.

My blogs leading up to the event (where I am a panellist and workshop leader) will reflect on different elements of “power” and what it means in the context of a sustainable world.

Dominion Beach, Cape Breton (2012)

Dominion Beach. The picture captured it all.

On the headland in the distance, there was the largest coal-fired generating plant in Cape Breton, spewing steam and smoke into the Atlantic air as it powered the island.

Around it were positioned a series of wind turbines, towering into the sea air and spinning in the fierce winds that whipped our hair.

That was power, to be sure, in abundance, necessary for the lights and energy demands of a modern society, triumphs of human ingenuity and engineering. But there was also power of another sort.

The waves crashed on the beach, surging reminders of a difference in scale between what Nature provides and what humans create. Cormorants nested in the rock face, black spots on the rock through the telescope and overhead an eagle flew by us, a fish in its talons.

In the wind, the spray and the rain, it was hard to feel that this was the Earth over which – according to fairly recent and often Western perceptions — God had given humans dominion.

On the beach there was evidence of more human structure and attempted control of Mother Nature. As a popular and picturesque spot where locals would come for leisurely walks with their pets, it needed some amenities – washrooms, and a nice boardwalk with periodic wooden shelters where people could enjoy the view and rest on benches provided.

Right in the centre of the boardwalk, however, the North Atlantic waves had rolled in tons of rock, burying the shelter and its bench under three feet of stones fist-sized or smaller, edges worn smooth and round over the eons.

Humans wield power, to be sure, but it is only one kind of power in a world where there are many. To consider our power sufficient to give us dominion over anything, including ourselves, is a dangerous delusion.

Over the sweep of history, it was the development of other forms of power than human or animal that shaped civilizations and eventually underpinned what our forebears called “the Power Age” when the steam engine became King. From water and wind, to steam generated by wood, coal, oil and nuclear energy, access to power has driven the engines of culture and society as much as it has driven industry.

More power meant more fuel for the fires. Everything — from where the fuel came from, to how it was used, to the after-effects of combustion — was irrelevant in comparison to the need for power or for speed. As we consider the effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate, nothing much has changed.

We need to change our language, if we want to change how we think. We need to change how we think, if we want to change how we behave. Words like power and dominion are dangerous, because we misinterpret them in terms of force and control.

Five minutes in a gale on Dominion Beach would convince anyone where the real power lies — and it’s not with us.

Peter Denton’s latest book, Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World, will be released in October 2012.