Kinds of Limits

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future:

Below I’ve divided new limits into five broad categories—physical/ environmental limits; economic limits; limits related to leadership and governance; social/psychological limits; and limits inherent to our modern definition of progress. These are crude categories—they overlap and each includes limits of multiple kinds. But they provide a basic order.  Each kind of limit, with further reflection, holds within its seemingly inescapable constraints the seeds of further possibility. But the place we appropriately start is simple acknowledgement—looking unflinchingly.

Physical/environmental limits

Inviolable physical/environmental limits such as limits to resources— energy, clean air and water, raw materials, adequate food supplies—present the most readily recognized dangers. Sixty percent of the world’s resources are at critically low levels or are in the process of being used up. Diminishing resources undermine the health of societies. They also put economies at risk. And increasingly they place nations that otherwise might peacefully coexist dangerously at odds.

Physical/environmental limits are not themselves new, nor are the consequences of exceeding them. Such was the cause, for example, of the end of human habitation on Easter Island and the reason for many past human migrations. But the extent and severity of potential damage is new. Growing world population, combined with the fact that the larger portion of the planet’s population is just now becoming industrialized, dramatically amplifies dangers. And specific limits risk compounding one another to produce truly catastrophic results. We confront the most recognized example in how greenhouse gas-related climate change could result in widespread drought, with frightening shortages of arable land and all manner of social upheaval as consequences. It is clearly time to get our planetary house in order—if there is time.

The consequences relate not just to ourselves, but also to nature more generally. Over the last fifty years, we humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable time in our history. In The Future of Life, biologist Edward O. Wilson proposes that the extinction of species is the tragedy that future generations will be least likely to forgive. Over a quarter of the planet’s species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are currently threatened with extinction. Current trends would result in the loss of one third of the world’s species by the end of the century. Like it or not, our success as a species has made us not just a particularly interesting product of the planet’s evolution, but at least for this brief period in creation, responsible for the continued vitality of that evolution.

We can’t leave this quick look at environmental limits without bringing attention to ideological limits that often confront our advocacies. Limits apply as much to the common beliefs of environmentalists as they do to the ideologies of those who might deny environmental concerns. In his recent book, Whole Earth Discipline, Stewart Brand, one of the early leaders of the environmental movement, argues for a new “ecopragmatism.” He calls environmental leadership to task for too often being anti-science and anti-intellectual. Luddite views toward technology, and the moral righteousness we often see with environmental positions, in the end represent more a flipping of the traditional man/nature polarity than anything truly helpful to good future environmental decision-making. In their own ways, the Left and the Right each deny physical/environmental limits, at least when it comes to what effectively addressing them will require of us.

Economic limits

Economic limits start with limits to what we can afford. Some limits to what we can afford are products of expenditures that themselves have no natural limits—as with the health care example. Others we confront are more the result of our past “there will always be more where that came from” mindset. We should find the need to address basic limits to what we can collectively afford increasingly essential.

Limits to what we can afford intersect inescapably with other kinds of limits. With regard to physical/environmental limits, I think of efforts to preserve native salmon runs in Puget Sound (I live nearby). There are not sufficient funds to do the job, and if we make salmon too much of a priority, we ignore other species that, while less symbolic, are just as important. Globally, the intersection of economic and environmental limits will present wrenchingly hard choices.

We also face limits tied to how economic systems work. Several were made painfully visible by the 2008-2009 financial collapse. First is how perverse incentives lead ultimately to calamitous outcomes—as even the most rudimentary of systemic thinking teaches us. The financial meltdown was commonly attributed to investment bankers taking unwise risks. But for them, often these really weren’t risks. Bankers would profit no matter what transpired. In addition, we had allowed institutions to become “too big to fail.” A basic understanding of systemic risk assessment makes it obvious that too big to fail should mean too big to exist.

Such flaws in past practices and assumptions point toward a particularly provocative limits-related conclusion. It is reasonable to ask, given that we would have needed only the most basic grasp of systemic principles to recognize such risks, how they could have eluded our attention until it was too late.  The reason has as much to do with ideology as ignorance. Here I mean ideology less in the sense of conflicting viewpoints than in the way our times’ defining narrative mythologizes the monetary realm. How else do we explain the inability of the best economic minds to recognize what in hindsight were inescapable house-of-cards realities?

Limits related to leadership and governance

A couple leadership/governance-related limits are key to cultural maturity’s changes. Certainly we confront the end to any benefit from our historical need for “evil others.” Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well, “If we follow an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will all end up blind and toothless.” There is also how the mythologizing of leadership no longer serves us as before. The more powerful authority relationships needed if we are to effectively address future tasks of all sorts must be of a more humble sort.

The global availability of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical, and biological—confronts us with a governance-related limit that few are willing to acknowledge: Such weapons are likely with us to stay. Efforts at disarmament are important and must be pursued. But they are very unlikely to result in some final elimination of weapons. More likely we will, at least short term, see continued proliferation, with deadly weapons increasingly in the hands not just of governments, but also ethnic factions and terrorist groups. We have to accept that the world is often not going to be as safe a place as we might wish. Deny this, and we become vulnerable to actions that in the end make us even less safe.

We face limits, too, with regard to any group’s ability in the future to go it alone. Major human challenges will be with growing frequency planetary challenges. Establishing effective global economic structures, confronting terrorism, addressing habitat loss and environmental destruction more generally, or responding to the threat of pandemic represent only a few examples from a very long list. This limit gains additional significance with the humbling recognition that at this point we have barely a clue as to how effectively carry out decision-making at a global scale.

Social/Psychological limits

We could think of Cultural Maturity as a statement about social/ psychological limits. It describes how cultural absolutes, mythologized beliefs, and the ideologies that in various ways have given them expression limit us fundamentally if we wish to effectively address the tasks ahead. Mature perspective requires that we step beyond them.

Maturity’s threshold also reveals more specific social/psychological limits. For example, it confronts us with limits inherent to what any kind of system can be for another. Such limits are themselves not new, but Whole Person/Whole System relationship requires a level of conscious acceptance of limits that we could not have handled before now. This is true equally for love (as seeing another person as the other half that completes us proves less and less satisfying); for leadership of all types (as we surrender parental images of authority); and for broader social bonds, from communities to nations (as beliefs that mythically elevate one’s own kind suddenly make us less safe instead of more). A primary function of mythologized interpersonal bonds, regardless of whether bonds are elevating or denigrating, has been to protect us from ultimately inescapable limits to what we can be both for ourselves and for one another. They have shielded us from being overwhelmed by the greater responsibility and complexity inherent in real relationships between real people.

Maturity’s threshold also confronts us in new ways with limits to what we can control and predict. Such limits are again not new, but they will have growing significance in a world where small missteps can have increasingly dire effects. At the least we need to better acknowledge basic human fallibility. Like it or not, we human creatures, who pride ourselves on our insightfulness, frequently do very dumb things—very bright people and trusted leaders included. In the end, it is much less likely that the human experiment will come to an end from an act of malevolence than from an act of ignorance or self-deception. Effective risk assessment is impossible without acceptance of fundamental limits to what we can control and predict. Deny such limits and we will fail to ask the basic questions that a safe and healthy future will require.

We also confront more fundamental limits to knowing itself, at least to knowing absolutely. Modern psychology and psychiatry teach us about the impossibility (and undesirability, even if it were possible) of realizing the Enlightenment ideal of bringing experience fully into the light of awareness. I’ve written extensively about how the answer to the health care delivery crisis lies with a newly mature relationship to death. To accept death is to accept also that it lies forever not just beyond our control, but also beyond our comprehension. Many theorists would make knowing’s limits absolute. Physicist Max Plank expressed the extreme interpretation this way: “We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up to now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.” We could debate whether going that far makes sense (Creative Systems Theory suggests it does not), but appreciating limits to what we can know will be more and more important if we are to make good choices, and individuals and as a species.

Limits inherent to our modern definition of progress

A final sort of limit is pertinent to each of the others, and particularly pertinent to our project. We confront limits inherent to modern notions of what going forward entails. We tend to assume the progress as we commonly think of it is an objective, rational notion. In fact, it is specific to our time in culture’s story and just as ultimately ideological as the defining beliefs of any time previous. Today, here, too, we confront limits, and of a particularly consequential sort.

Thomas Friedman wrote these words in his  New York Times column: “Let’s step out of the usual boundaries of analysis of our current economic crisis and ask a radical question—What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it is telling us that the whole growth model created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall—when Mother Nature and the market both said no more.” This more encompassing limit may not have been a major factor in this particular downturn, but if the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct, it should be a factor eventually.

We can come at making sense of this particularly encompassing limit from multiple angles. Modern progress’ onward and upward picture confronts limits most obviously with physical/environmental constraints. With the larger portion of the world’s population just becoming industrialized, somehow our new story must be physically sustainable in a way that past narratives were not.

Economic limits understood broadly provide a further layer to the argument. We’ve come to measure social and individual well-being almost wholly in economic terms—such as individual “net worth,” and rising GNP (a wholly monetary measure). Today we are better recognizing how a solely material yardstick is inadequate for measuring either personal “wealth” or the health of societies—or even the stability of economies. This is not to call for some opposite “small is beautiful” advocacy. It is to call loudly for rethinking wealth and advancement in ways that more fully take into account all that creates human meaning (and, more specifically, all that human meaning asks of us in our time)—an important future topic.

In the end, continuing to cling to the past’s “onward and upward” narrative presents a more fundamental problem—it would sever us from ourselves in ways that could have only disastrous consequences. A further  recognition at once compounds the dilemma and offers hints of a solution: Continuing on as we have would violate how change processes in human systems more generally work.

This last recognition at least suggests that there must be something important missing in how we have thought about the future. Usual thinking restricts us to going forward, collapsing, or going back. But none of these options can get us where we need to go. Cultural Maturity’s evolutionary implications provide a further possibility. We have to think in quite new ways for where it takes us to make full sense. But when we do, a picture becomes visible that reframes not just this limit, but our relationship to ultimate limits more generally.