It isn’t the burgeoning global human population that is the main threat to planetary sustainability, but rather the escalating expectations of a global human population rapidly committing itself in ever-increasing waves to the current Western “mindset.” This mindset, crystallized by modern economics, generates a world in which economic actors operate as if each individual were an infinitely desiring self, driven by a dynamic of constant progress, and thereby requiring an infinite bounty of resources to meet their infinite desires.
It isn’t the burgeoning global human population that is the main threat to planetary sustainability, but rather the escalating expectations of a global human population rapidly committing itself in ever-increasing waves to the current Western “mindset.” This mindset, crystallized by modern economics, generates a world in which economic actors operate as if each individual were an infinitely desiring self, driven by a dynamic of constant progress, and thereby requiring an infinite bounty of resources to meet their infinite desires. These exploding, fantastic infinities – now playing out in a globalizing economy – need, reflect and reinforce each other.
However, we now find ourselves confronted by a new “frame” that presents us with a fundamental challenge – an interdependent, bounded and finite world. The unexpected arrival of the first powerful symbol of the finite in modern times – the Earth from space as a bounded sphere – and the grimness of subsequent ecological warnings are proving to be catastrophic to the continued proliferation of endless infinities.
This boundedness is the fundamental theme underscoring, expressing and exemplifying such cultural shifts as the rise of ecological understanding, the deepening of environmental consciousness, the potentially transformative insights of ecological economics and the arrival of pre-emptive mourning for a deteriorating future. The tightening of boundaries around the Earth is causing what I call an “implosion of sensibility” – a slow replacement of the images, metaphors and ideals of the infinite modern self, with a new (and also very old) ethos based on a finite, Earth-bound person, whose growth is intensive rather than extensive
In the 1970s, Marshall McLuhan argued that with the arrival of the image of Earth from space, and the growth of the “satellite surround,” there was no longer any wilderness left on Earth. More profoundly, and by making reference to the familiar image from the psychology textbooks of the figure/ground reversal (enshrined in the duck/rabbit or the kissers/flower vase), McLuhan stated that the Earth, which was once the ground on which the human “figured”, had now flipped into a figure within the ground of the human enterprise. We can focus our attention on the world as a whole. We have attained the God’s eye view.
Ironically enough, this revelation of the Earth’s extraordinary living boundedness was the unexpected result of a long dynamic of replacing God with ourselves. The aspirational agenda of modernity – freedom from constraint, movement, dependence on others and immortality – derived from our original model, the omnipotent, omniscient, God.
This agenda was fuelled by the well-known sagas of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Those astonishing breakthroughs and breakaways from previous natural and technical constraints on population, agriculture and energy use; as well as the toppling of the ancient fossilized regimes of king and priest in the related sequence of political revolutions. This explosive dynamic of revolt from constraint was reinforced by a complementary dynamic, articulated most powerfully in the poetic stirrings of late 18th and early 19th century Romanticism.
While Romanticism represents a resistance to the bleaker aspects of the emerging modern world, it ironically contributed to the heroic glorification of the “strivings” of humankind to “break all the chains.” Romantic individualism is both an internalization of the new powers of emerging modern heroes (cf. Napoleon), and a reaction against the mobilization of mass numbers of people in industrial, military and sociopolitical contexts. The Romantic, individualist hope is under construction. Human beings are not yet free of all constraints, but perhaps in time and with enough resources they will become as God.
This soaring desire was captured by the arrival of modern standard economics, which began as a description of a quickening movement of goods, services and people. From the middle of the 18th to the end of the 19th century, it evolved into a strange quasi-physicalist model (dubbed neo-classicism), sketching out an abstract market of utilitarian individuals rationally maximizing the fulfillment of their infinite desires under conditions of scarcity.
The appeal of this model is its explanatory power, simplicity, purity and its formulaic predictability. It blends aspirations of the Romantic individual, with the emerging toolbox of 19th century physics and statistics. Individuals have desires deemed essential to self-fulfillment; these desires can be managed and adjudicated through market prices; everyone involved has perfect information; supply curves beautifully intersect demand curves; all markets instantly respond; everything tends towards equilibrium.
A further appeal of this model was that it captured – and has subsequently fostered – a modern phenomenon dubbed “disembedding.” The basic idea of disembedding, as originally described in the work of Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1944) and adopted by later influential sociologists like Anthony Giddens, focuses on how the arrival of capitalism uprooted labour, land and capital from their original contexts and dissolved them into marketable commodities. Ripping people and things out of the web of their original relationships enables them to be priced according to “exchange value” as opposed to “use value,” and thus makes them inter-comparable with everything else. Their specific character is replaced by whatever they are now worth in the universal market.
What has made this particularly poisonous in the modern era is the combining of this dynamic of capitalist disembedding and theoretical purity, with the arrival of cheap fossil fuels. This provides a seemingly frictionless landscape over which people, goods and services can move effortlessly and infinitely. For example, California strawberries arrive at our tables year round practically for free. This frictionless landscape extends throughout the world, corrupting and unmooring everything from place, time and even language, making it harder to pin down what’s going wrong, particularly with ourselves.
Climate change is the return of heat, that is, friction to our lives. The work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre headed by Johan Rockström on Earth boundaries suggests that four of their nine boundaries, such as nitrogen loading, have now been crossed by humanity. These are among the many converging facts and concepts that have begun to generate the opposite of the exploding, centrifugal infinite. Like the mechanism and casing around an atomic bomb – a timed series of conventional explosions that are driven inward to spark a critical mass – the detonations of the ecological crisis are driving us inward, towards a re-valuation of our immanent dwelling place. We are witness to a counter-force: the centripetal implosion of sensibility.
This suggests we have moved into a period where people are looking for the infinite as embodied in the finite, the globe as locally focused. What is striking about our time is the way in which this kind of feeling has become increasingly widespread as a necessary element of environmental consciousness – perhaps captured best in the high-grained photographs of Ansel Adams and others. It is in many ways a resurgent homage to the call of the material world, given that we currently live in the least materialistic culture in history. If we actually cared about material objects, we wouldn’t treat them as nothing more than temporary carriers of dreams, to be tossed away when new dreams swim into view.
The “one world” syndrome poses a problem. As economist Kenneth Boulding said, “The most worrying thing about [today’s] Earth is that there seems to be no way of preventing it from becoming one world. If there is only one world, then if anything goes wrong, everything goes wrong” (from “Spaceship Earth Revisited”). In environmental terms, this sensitivity began with the arrival of the nuclear age, with the prospect of immediate destruction, and was joined by the revelations of the movement of pesticides and other chemicals through the intricate web of global ecosystems, as most famously sketched out by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. We are plugged in, whether we like it or not, to the ultimate ecological interconnectedness of our bounded world. The web is the wiring diagram of the implosion, the internal expression of our boundedness.
As this cultural implosion proceeds, we begin to rediscover the old ways of life of peoples who lived within boundaries out of necessity, often limits not of their own choosing. Peoples who lived according to the disciplines of nature now speak to us with increasing resonance. They speak of what it means to cope and thrive in a bounded world, in a world of deep embeddedness. Their hard-earned wisdoms leap over modernity and post-modernity to re-emerge as urgently relevant. There are multiple expressions of this re-emergence, from these Indigenous teachings to the developing insights of ecological economics, from “slow” living to a resurrection of the sacredness embodied in the natural world by religious traditions.
Most importantly, we are drawn to a spirituality of immanence, rather than transcendence. The Western tradition still struggles with the legacy of a widespread belief, however crude theologically, in an external creator separate from creation. The so-called “death of God” may have finished off that deity, but it left the structure intact, like a haunted house emptied of its resident ghosts. In a finite world we are abandoning the projects of our elders. In other traditions, such as Hinduism or Taoism, the universe is an internal, self-organizing phenomenon. The externalist metaphors, such as the artist standing back from his or her creation and seeing that it was good, are replaced by metaphors such as the spider spinning its web from its own innards, or, more pointedly female, birth from a universal womb. In learning to live in a finite world, we look to self-organization: place rather than space; intensive rather than extensive growth; inscape not escape.
Among the many aspects of this rich implosion, I want to focus on three finitudes.
1. Conditions, not Constraints
First, we need to consider the notion of limits. I once read of a madman who asphyxiated himself because he was trying to find a substitute for breathing. As part of his madness, he was convinced that having to breathe every few seconds was a conspiracy to trap him in some complex web of deceit. This is a fair analogy to those destroying the planet in the name of economic freedom.
A finite model would propose that true freedom involves a recognition of our dependence on planetary processes – that we are not victims of natural constraints, but beneficiaries of natural conditions. Coming face-to-face with those conditions challenges us personally and socially in profound ways. For example, we are witnessing a current obsession with one-way travel to Mars. This smells like despair, a culture grasping at the end of the infinite and turning away in fear from the prospect of being trapped on a shrinking and degraded planet. It is a flight (literally) from self-understanding as creatures of the Earth.
2. Abundance, not Scarcity
Contrary to obvious and real concerns over growing scarcities, resource constraints and burgeoning population growth, learning to live in our situation requires the reintroduction of a counter-intuitive belief in a fundamentally abundant world.
In some ancient and Indigenous traditions there is a sense of gifted abundance. Let us call this an ontology of primary abundance. We did not create the world, we do not keep it running, we do not provide the air, sun, water, fire, animals, plants and the rest of the things around us, including us. These are essentially given to us. The prevalence of “gift relationships,” however complicated, is grounded in homage or replication of the foundational gift of things. When scarcities arise, they do so because the gods (or God) are (is) angry, usually because human beings have sinned, made ritualistic mistakes, or otherwise strayed. Perhaps the best known examples come from hunting rituals among many traditional peoples, including, in Canada, the Mistassini Cree of the James Bay region where the animals are the orchestrators of the hunt, and require obedience to strict rules about how an animal is to be hunted and killed. If this obedience is ignored or transgressed, the animals withdraw their abundance. This is an ontology of abundance based on mutual trust, and assures an endless flow of sustainable life, if the wellsprings of that life are treated with respect and consideration.
Beginning in the early modern period society began to shift towards an ontology of primary scarcity and secondary abundance. It is ironic that with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the first taste of general wealth, there began to develop a dynamic of false, temporary scarcities associated with the emerging spending power of middle classes, including the deliberate creation of fashion and the arrival of untethered commodity fetishism. It is at this point that early economic theoreticians (beginning with Bernard de Mandeville, David Hume, and Adam Smith) articulated arguments that these false scarcities were in fact the primary condition of humanity. In a world in which needs and desires were potentially infinite, scarcity was inevitable. This led to the reversal enshrined on page one of economics textbooks: we are in a world of primary scarcity that needs to be “developed.” In such a world nature will not and cannot supply us on its own, so our task is to create a secondary abundance to fill up the hole where the original abundance once was.
The problem of course is that this artificial abundance can only mask the loss of the original abundance, leading to a berserk desperation for “development.” Each new product holds out the hope that it will assuage our loss, but in fact it merely reminds us of something beckoning to us, just out of reach. We require economic growth in order to repair the ecological damage caused by economic growth.
In contrast, a world of abundance knows nothing of limits. It knows about flourishing according to generous rules to be acknowledged and respected as the source of all the original gifts, emerging out of the primary, immanent abundance of things. It is a world of joy, of radiating being, of generosity, of learning to rejoice in a finite world.
3. Cycles, not lines
Essential to a worldview committed to breaking limits is the image of the straight road ahead – we drive to the border and then smash through the frontier into the infinite beyond. Modernity is all about abandoning the past in the name of progress. Moving inward seems like a failure of nerve. But with the resurgence of the finite, this linearity has reached the end of the line.
Yet, what is progress if not a civilizational attempt to move forward in a world that has lost a transcendent purpose? What are our lives if not a line that begins at birth and stops at death? Is there anything more finite than that?
Inscape, not escape
Our desire to escape the “limits” of the Earth is like our desire to escape the limits of language. Just as the philosopher Wittgenstein pointed out that language is not a cage preventing us from direct unmediated connection to the real world, so the physical and biological webs that make us who we are, are not constraints on us, but the conditions of our existence. In order to break out of the false cage of our boundedness, we threaten to enter onto a barren landscape without markers, where we and language go astray together. If there is one overriding danger from uncontrolled infinitism, it may be that it is the degradation of language, that we can no longer speak to ourselves convincingly in meaningful terms about the urgency of the dangers we face. We find ourselves in agony trying to find the right words to argue, persuade, compel a world that outwardly proclaims its conversion to all things environmental, but continues to utter mantras of unending economic growth and prosperity.
The best example of where this leads comes from Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment), a young man who becomes a murderer and outcast because he believes that murder is a gesture of total freedom by “extraordinary men.” By committing such an act Raskolnikov becomes a lost soul, drifting aimlessly through an opaque world, and increasingly incoherent to himself and others. Only by admitting his guilt can he recover ordinary life and meaning, and find peace.
If Dostoyevsky is right, then learning to face up to, and truly live on the Earth again, is potentially the great outcome of this pivotal moment in human history. In our struggle to cope with our situation, we may become clearer about what it is to be truly creatures of Earth, and learn finally, again, what it is to live in a finite world.