“A man’s got to know his limitations.” This is one of the all-time great concluding lines for a movie…Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force (1973). It summed up the movie quite well…but it also seems to be appropriate in every life-situation where we believe no limits apply. Now…in the 21st century…we need more than ever to listen to Clint.
We Americans know very little about limits…in our estimation, limits are for European nations, or for Third World counties, or for Communist regimes. We are pioneers…explorers…builders! The concepts of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ are etched in every American’s DNA…and they are seen as our birthright. But…as we start to bump up against more and more natural and economic limits, it’s apparent that these philosophically pure concepts…ones that have defined us as a nation…are now working against us. It’s sad to contemplate…but they’ve even contributed significantly to several tragic bubbles where reality doesn’t seem to apply…like the Savings & Loan bubble, and the dot-com bubble, and the recent housing and credit bubbles. Yes, friends…limits exist in the natural world and even in the world of finance. It’s time to talk with each other about how we both honor and respect ‘freedom’ as a lasting pillar of our American identity.
‘Carrying capacity’ is a concept that needs to be in every citizen’s vocabulary. ‘Carrying capacity’ basically refers to the number of life-forms…plant and animal, large and small…that can be supported in a given area within the existing natural resource limits…without degrading the ecological, social or economic environment for present or future generations. Of course, carrying capacity is not a fixed number. It can be altered in a positive way through improved technology, lifestyle change and wise management…and in a negative way through over-population, environmental stress or over-use. For most people, this concept makes sense…a specific parcel of land can’t be expected to support an unlimited biological population. But unfortunately…these same people don’t generally extend this concept to their own geographical environment…or state…or country…or the world for that matter.
Our pioneer spirit tells us our only limits are within our imaginations. But…there’s only a finite amount of fresh water…and fertile land…and clean, available energy. Our oceans are over-fished…forests around the world are disappearing…climate change is accelerating while we dither about what percentage of the cause is our responsibility. This is a huge gap in logic! One part of our psyche tells us we have no limits…but another part brings us back into reality. This is one of our most challenging public trade-offs…balancing our desire to continue to experience total ‘freedom’ from any limits with the reality that limits do actually exist in every aspect of our public life. Our pioneering days are over, friends. It’s time for a post-pioneer understanding of our world.
So much was learned in the 70s about our planet as a complex and finite living system…voices like those of Garrett Hardin, E. F. Schumacher, and Paul Ehrlich eloquently shared a way forward that respected our limited resources for long-term ecological and economic sustainability. But, unfortunately, we chose to take action on this learning in a highly selective and minimal way…as long as environmental concerns don’t get in the way of our consumer lifestyle or corporate profits, they’re okay. Now…after almost 40 years of serious denial, we’re bumping into new levels of scarcity in a post-pioneer world…and the urgency is far greater for public decisions. We chose freedom over responsibility.
But…what are we supposed to do then with our desire to continue in our current style of ‘freedom’…now that our debts are crushing and our resources are stressed? This may sound simplistic, but we’ll figure out how to express our freedom in different ways. There’s no way we’ll give up this primal desire…but at the same time we literally cannot continue with a primitive definition of freedom. Together…we’ll need to let freedom morph into creativity…and innovation…and partnerships…and wise public decision-making. We’ll need to respect our natural and situational limitations rather than thinking we’re invincible. In short…we need to listen to Clint Eastwood at the end of Magnum Force…and then act deliberately, responsibly and decisively.