‘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
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.