Citizen Action Monitor

In this advanced technological age, when anything is possible, limits are seen as inconvenient or illusory

Tim Jackson’s title of this section, “Confronting limits” is initially puzzling because his opening paragraphs are about this age without limits.

No 2018 Posted by fw, July 29, 2017

Tim Jackson

“Former US President Ronald Reagan … once proclaimed that there are ‘no great limits to growth because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination and wonder.’ It’s worth examining this assertion a bit more closely, precisely because it conveys a partial truth. There are some unlimited aspects to human existence. Ingenuity, creativity, wonder may well be amongst these; and it certainly makes sense to recognize abundance wherever we may find it. But there’s also a fallacy in the claim. The US author Wendell Berry once suggested that our ‘human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather inducements… to fullness of relationship and meaning.’ But that doesn’t mean, he insisted, that we can pass simply from this abundance of meaning to the assumption that we can overcome all material limits, without risking hubris*“ [*arrogance]. —Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth

In the second section of Chapter 1 of his book, Prosperity without Growth, Jackson notes that some economists “reject entirely any notion of limits.”

Jackson picks up on this rejection of limits in today’s post, a synopsis of the third section of his Chapter 1. The section’s title is “Confronting limits”.

I must admit that I find Jackson’s academic writing style abstruse in places.

Initially, Jackson’s title of this section, “Confronting limits”, puzzled me, because his opening paragraphs talk about this modern age – in former president Reagan’s words – as one with “no great limits to growth.”

Not until towards the end of the section, does Jackson attempt to explain the sense in which we are now “confronting limits”. He quotes this excerpt from a Wendel Berry essay:

“[our] human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather inducements… to fullness of relationship and meaning.”

I found the quote puzzling. And I was equally confounded by Jackson’s phrase “this abundance of meaning” in his follow-up sentence to Berry’s quote:

But that doesn’t mean, he [Berry] insisted, that we can pass simply from this abundance of meaning to the assumption that we can overcome all material limits, without risking hubris.”

In checking the source of Berry’s excerpt, Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits, (May 2008), and reading Berry’s two-paragraph context, Berry’s meaning, as well as the meaning of Jackson’s follow-up, became clear. Here is the passage from Berry’s wondrous essay:

“Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.”

These are the words that bring clarity to Jackson’s title, “Confronting limits”, and to Jackson’s reference to Reagan’s “no great limits to growth.” “No great limits” are the words of a man of limited intelligence, an arrogant man, a man who has lost, in Berry’s words, “the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible”inexhaustible as in “an ecosystem … so long as it remains ecologically intact.”

So long as it remains ecologically intact.” Those words bear repeating, for therein rests the meaning of “Confronting limits.”

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Confronting limits: a synopsis, excerpted from Chapter 1 of Tim Jackson’s book, Prosperity Without GrowthRoutledge, 2nd edition, 2016-17

“Concern for limits is as old as the hills,” he says. But the meaning of “limits” has changed over time along with our attitude to imposed limits. Before this era of plastic money, living within one’s economic limits was considered a virtue; putting something aside in good times, allowed one to ride out the tough times.

In this advanced technological age, we have become so accustomed to assuming “anything is possible,” that limits have come to be seen as “inconvenient or even illusory.” Jackson tells of an encounter with a UK government economist who “insisted that the entire concept of limits was ‘economically illiterate.’”

Former US president Reagan rejected the notion of “limits to growth” because there are no limits to human ingenuity.

Towards the end of this short section, in an attempt to clarify the sense in which we are “confronting limits” in this advanced technological age, Jackson quotes American activist Wendel Berry:

“[our] human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather inducements… to fullness of relationship and meaning.”

A reading of Berry’s paragraphs from which the quote was taken helps the reader to arrive at this meaning of the quote:

“Some things, though limited, are inexhaustible”, inexhaustible as in “an ecosystem … so long as it remains ecologically intact.”

Therein rests the meaning of Jackson’s title for this section: “Confronting limits.”

Jackson ends this short section of Chapter 1 with this message to readers: “An appropriate relationship between the limited and the limitless turns out to be another central question for the inquiry in this book…”

Appropriate relationship between the limited and the limitless”? Looks like we may be in for more communication challenges. Or perhaps not; we will have to read on to discover the context in which Jackson and others use the terms ‘limited’ and ‘limitless.’

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