‘We can’t master all that is around us’

There are limits to human innovativeness, though we like to think otherwise

Retreating glacier: Arctic icecaps melting, glaciers receding and sea levels rising are not nature’s warning signals, signs that we need to change. They are the start of a transformation that we will have to witness

Retreating glacier: Arctic icecaps melting, glaciers receding and sea levels rising are not nature’s warning signals, signs that we need to change. They are the start of a transformation that we will have to witness

Mon, Oct 28, 2013, 01:00

We like to think that we live in a world without limits. Like long distance runners and Formula 1 racing drivers, humankind is always trying to overcome limits, to achieve ever more. As we make ever more technological breakthroughs, it is easy to think that we already live in such a world.

This is an illusion, however, certainly when it comes to nature. There really is a maximum speed that we can run, even drug enhanced. There is also a top speed that cars can drive, before they begin to fly. We don’t understand where these limits lie, simply because we haven’t reached them yet. One day we will though, and we will understand then that they cannot be overcome.

When we talk about boundless oceans, endless horizons and infinite possibilities this is merely poetic. The oceans and the horizon are not limitless at all. They are bound by the planet. While possibilities may be many, they are never infinite. Even our universe has limits. What is in our head has limits too. Our imagination is limited by everything we currently understand. It’s impossible to conceive anything more.

When we reach natural limits, even the cleverest technology cannot overcome them. We only think that they can be overcome because we have not encountered many of them so far, and because the limits we have breached until now were man-made or were not really limits at all.

Some of nature’s limits are known. Light cannot travel faster than 300,000km per second in space. Ice cannot be heated above 0°C under normal pressure. That is the limit of its existence as ice.

Practically, as well as philosophically, everything is defined by limits – even things that are man-made. A house is bound by walls and a roof, the limits of its physical presence. Bottles, fuel tanks and the hulls of ships are designed to limit the influence of whatever lies outside. The size of our society, from prehistoric times until now, is limited by the rules we impose.

These are not natural limits however, but artificial ones.

The difference between man-made limits and natural ones is that they are changeable. They can be overcome. We can knock down walls and smash the bottles we have made. We can change the laws.

Our innovativeness supports the idea that we can master all that is around us, that we can push the limits of nature too. We can take energy from the wind, modify the contents of cells and split atoms into their tiniest components. But this understanding of the world and our ability to manipulate it has also made us foolish.

Foolish, because our discoveries are really rather modest. When we capture energy from the wind, we simply change what was already there. When we modify the contents of cells, we are only copying nature. And when we split atoms, we are really just looking inside.

Natural world
When it comes to the natural world, there is so much that we do not understand. We do not know the limits of consciousness, or even what it is. We have not properly explored the oceans, the largest part of our planet. We do not even know what substance or force makes up more than 80 per cent of the universe – and only discovered this very recently.

We also keep changing our ideas. Our theories about the origins of life and the birth of the universe have changed completely in the last 150 years. Despite this, we now think we have all the answers, or at least most of the important ones.

That may be natural, of course. We are ambitious and already understand the limits of most of the structures we use every day, because we made them. We know when things are likely to go wrong.

In nature however, signals often appear only when change is unavoidable. When a hurricane forms, there is nothing that anyone can do to stop the process, or change its path. We can only wait, and see what damage it unleashes. Similarly, Arctic icecaps melting, glaciers receding and sea levels rising are not nature’s warning signals, signs that we need to change. They are the start of a transformation that we will have to witness.

The changes humankind has unleashed on our planet are already unstoppable, certainly within any time frame that we really understand. The effects of our pumping large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere have become clear within a century, a flash of earthly time. It will take many hundreds of years before the effects have passed.

Nature is easily the most complicated system we know. We cannot survive without it, because we are part of it. There is no other place in the universe, as far as we know, where the acidity of the oceans and the gases in the atmosphere are exactly as creatures like us require. We know too, that an average temperature rise of even a few degrees will change all this.

We have set a process in motion. Now we must do everything we can to stop that process, and quickly.

Graeme Maxton is a member of the Club of Rome, a global think tank that deals with a variety of international political issues