The Limits of Nature and the Educational Nature of Limits

I teach in a liberal arts college in a small, attractive Ohio town located in an agricultural county 14 miles south of Lake Erie. The town formerly had train service that connected it easily and comfortably to the wider world. Sometime in the 1950s the trains stopped coming, and the tracks were eventually converted into a bike trail. In the intervening four decades, students arrived on campus in a variety of ways, including bus, plane, car, and a few intrepid souls still come by train to a decaying Amtrak station eight miles distant. Now many, perhaps most, come in cars that they own and that they park anywhere and everywhere in town. So like many campuses, ours is overrun by cars. And like many other colleges, we find ourselves locked in conflict with the local authorities over parking policy. Our policy is roughly to tell students, "Y'all come and bring it with you."

Unless there is a sudden outbreak of intelligence, we are likely to respond to prodding by city officials by building yet another parking lot and thereby reducing to that degree the loveliness and serenity of the town already jeopardized by urban sprawl. That, however, is an aesthetic matter on which people can and will disagree. What they cannot dispute is the cost of parking. The cost of a single parking space is estimated to be $7,000 in a paved lot and double that for a parking deck. Then there is the annual cost of policing, lighting, removing snow, and landscaping parking lots, perhaps another $1,500. From this perspective, one obvious solution is simply not to build extra parking and split the savings with those who do not to bring cars to college or drive them to work. So in return for not adding to the problem, cooperators would get a check for, say, $5,000. Those who continue to drive for whatever reason would pay a fee equal to the real costs imposed on the institution by their driving habits. Reasonable? Not according to many who believe that driving is a sacred right guaranteed somewhere in the Constitution (or was it the Declaration of Independence?) and to those who believe that automobility is now indelibly written into our behavioral genes and cannot be further altered by evolution or reason.

This issue is instructive because it captures in a microcosm larger issues of scarcity and management of common problems. We now confront problems of scarcity in one form or another that can be solved only by some combination of smart incentives and, as Garrett Hardin once put it, "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" (1968, 12). Oberlin's parking problem is instructive, too, because it highlights the ways in which scarcity, for lack of a better phrase, is socially constructed. The town and the college are about the same size that they were 40 years ago. But our values, attitudes, and habits and consequently our perception of our possibilities, have changed. This issue is also instructive for what it says about our ability to solve problems in which technological fixes (parking lots) compete with social solutions (fees/rebates) and value change (walk or bike, don't drive). Finally, the manner in which the problem is resolved will either enhance or diminish our capacity to engage each other in a public dialogue and perhaps our level of civility as well. On a larger and more abstract level, much of the same is true as well.

In a widely influential article, for example, Mark Sagoff asserts that "it is simply wrong to believe that nature sets physical limits to economic growth" (1997, 83). Such opinions, he argues, hinge on the mistaken beliefs that mineral resources are finite, that we are running out of food and timber, that we are running out of energy, and that resource consumption by the wealthy North exploits the poorer nations of the Southern Hemisphere. Sagoff's view, as I understand it, is not necessarily that our present course can be sustained, but rather that better technology will help us surmount natural limits without requiring substantial changes beyond what we are willing to adopt. He, like the late Julian Simon, places a great deal of faith in human ingenuity. Sagoff, however, is no unregenerate hedonist advocating higher levels of consumption. On the contrary, he believes that there are indeed limits to resource use and consumption, but such limits are inherent in our spiritual needs for affiliation with nature, not in nature itself. "An intimacy with nature," he writes, "ends our isolation in the world" (Sagoff 1997, 96). His conclusion is simply that "the question before us is not whether we are going to run out of resources. It is whether economics is the appropriate context for thinking about environmental policy" (ibid., 96). The answer for Sagoff is a resounding no.

Predictably, Sagoff's article aroused vigorous dissent. Within the year, Paul Ehrlich and coauthors responded in the same forum that Sagoff "has done a disservice to the public by promoting once again the dangerous idea that technological fixes will solve the human predicament" (1997, 98). Their argument is roughly the inverse of Sagoff's: resources are indeed finite, nature's services are increasingly threatened by consumption, prices do not provide reliable signals of resource scarcity, technology is no magic solution, and, yes, the wealthy nations do exploit the resources and people of poorer nations.

Both positions are, of course, much more detailed than my brief synopsis suggests. On balance, however, the issues are familiar ones, dating back at least to the controversy over The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). In the intervening years, the stakes have grown higher. Evidence mounts that humans are now impacting the global environment and eroding what has come to be called natural capital. Despite the emergence of a worldwide environmental movement, capitalism and consumerism are virtually everywhere triumphant. The global economy is reshaping the world for more consumption, not less. And not least, mass advertising aims to reshape the minds of young people to believe that consumption is their natural right. Corporate involvement in education at all levels is intended to create a generation of pliable minds incapable of thinking that consumption is anything other than natural or that the corporations that make it possible, fun, and convenient are anything other than friendly. These are minds that will come to regard economics as more basic than politics or ethics and that will view whatever problems we encounter as simply technological problems, not fundamental dilemmas. So before we pass some point of no return and discover that we are like bugs mashed on the windshield of illusions and error, we had better get the issue of limits, both natural and human, right.

Whether allocation of space at Oberlin College or management of the global commons, how are we to think about the limits of nature and those of society? First, there are few technological responses to limits that will not entail one ambiguity or another. Artifacts, as Langdon Winner (1980) once noted, have politics. Whether parking lots or genetically engineered agriculture, technological solutions rearrange our minds and our social, economic, and political institutions as well. Often they do so in ways that create unforeseen, deleterious, and irreversible outcomes, what Eugene Schwartz (1917) once identified as secondary and tertiary problems of technology. Solutions, as someone once put it, cause problems. And having rearranged our minds and politics, technologies create expectations and eventually entire constituencies that come to believe that the resulting unsustainable condition is the normal state. Political and economic power follows (Ludwig et al. 1993). All of this is to say that it is possible to respond to limits in ways that set in motion a chain of responses that, over time, diminish our flexibility and capacities to deal with still other and more strenuous limits.

Once we've paved over a large part of Oberlin, we not only will have promoted the very habits that require still more paving, but we will have diminished the funds and space necessary for, say, bike trails. Once having industrialized and engineered our entire food system, we will have lost much of the cultural information necessary to farm and feed ourselves in less precarious and more desirable ways. Technological solutions are not neutral. They skew power and resources in one way or another, affecting our abilities to deal with future limits in ways consonant with other values that we hold dear.

The belief that there are no limits to nature that cannot be stretched or eliminated by technology masquerades as the realistic view of things. In fact, such views rest on a kind of faith that closely resembles religious belief but without the heart and soul of authentic religion. In David Noble's words, "The religion of technology has be come the common enchantment, not only of the designers of technology, but also of those caught up in, and undone by, their godly designs. The expectation of ultimate salvation through technology, whatever the immediate human and social costs, has become the unspoken orthodoxy, reinforced by a market-induced enthusiasm for novelty as sanctioned by a millenarian yearning for new beginnings" (1998, 207). And like all fundamentalists, adherents to the religion of technology regard "any and all criticism [as] irrelevant and irreverent" (ibid., 207). The result is often a pattern of denial that categorically dismisses the very concept of limits. And having dismissed the concept of limits, we will simply not see them when they present themselves to us, especially if they are the small things in nature or if they involve the slow loss of natural services. We will have lost the ability and patience to pay attention. Technology can extend our sight into the far reaches of space while reducing our ability to see what is before our very eyes.

Sagoff, having faith in our godlike ability to surmount natural constraints, proposes that we nonetheless limit ourselves to promote "affection and reverence for the natural world" (1997, 96). Nothing seems less likely than the idea that people, having perceived themselves to be beyond the limits of nature, would voluntarily limit their appetites for ostensibly spiritual or moral reasons. The opposite seems far more plausible. I think Sagoff has mistaken not only the limits of nature but the role that the awareness of limits plays in human psychology. We need some limits because they free us. It is the awareness of our finiteness that causes us to reckon with what's really important in life. The awareness of limits opens us to the fact of our unlimited dependence on a larger order of things that we will never fully comprehend. Gratitude and wonder, not technological escapism, are the appropriate responses. Real moral growth, I think, is built on the awareness of our limitations and the existence of larger limits that lead us to share and understand that the gift must move.

Finally, problems posed by limits, whether parking lots or the management of global carbon dioxide emissions, represent opportunities for civic education. Discussions about the Kyoto Protocol, for example, should not be confined to legislatures and government halls around the planet. Such agreements ought to be debated in every city, town, and village in the world. Only in this way will we come to regard self-governance as part of the living and common heritage of hu mankind. Similarly, the issue of parking, here and elsewhere, is an opportunity to educate communities about the limits of space, fairness, natural beauty, full-cost economics, the role of the automobile in society, tragedies of common property resources, and quite possibly, creative ways to solve common problems. It is also an opportunity to debate what kinds of communities we want to create and get on with the job of building them. What better educational opportunity could there be?

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