The Price of Limitlessness


Aaron Falbel


Why do we have wars?  Why can’t we live in peace?  Like many in the peace movement, I once thought the answer to these questions had to do with Bad People in High Places.  We elect Bad People to the highest offices in our government.  Bad People rise to the tops of big, powerful corporations.  Bad People run the military.  All these Bad People start wars and profit from them.  If only we could replace all those Bad People with Good People, there would be no more wars and we could go on living our lives in peace and harmony.

It now seems to me that the “Bad People” theory of war is naďve and simplistic.  While I do concur with Lord Acton that power corrupts, that’s only a small part of the story.  As I now see it, war is the inevitable consequence of a society committed to limitless growth, consumption, progress, and development. In a finite world, the human species can’t keep on growing and expanding forever without bumping up against limits of one sort or another: ecological, social, political, economic limits.  To sustain growth in our numbers and in our standard of living, we must continually transgress these limits, so we resort to war.[1]  Thus we have wars over resources, wars over territory, wars over economic dominance, and perhaps soon wars over the “right” to use the Earth as a dumping ground for nuclear waste, greenhouse gases, and other forms of pollution.  These wars allow us, for the time being, to continue to live our way of life.

The first and foremost responsibility of any political leader is to keep the economy running smoothly.  Here in the U.S., this is no benign task, seeing as our huge, bloated economy has turned into a voracious behemoth. Though the U.S. represents less than 5% of the world’s population, we consume more than 25% of the world’s resources.  That fundamental injustice is maintained by economic force in the short run but is in the end backed up by military force (or threat thereof), i.e. war.  We are told that we go to war to fight fascism or communism or terrorism or some other evil, or, alternatively, to promote freedom, democracy, liberty, etc.  (These ultra-elastic concepts have proved convenient for rallying the troops and whipping up war fever among the public at large.) At times we are told that we go to war to “defend American interests around the globe” or to “protect our way of life.”  These latter reasons come a bit closer to the truth.  We go to war, or threaten military action, to make sure that a disproportionate amount of the world’s goodies keeps flowing our way, and at the right price.  “American interests” simply mean the interests of our economy.[2]  And just who is responsible for the gargantuan size of our economy and its “interests,” which are now global in their dimensions?  Why, we are: the consumers.

In short, we have wars not because of Bad People in High Places but because we—especially those of us in the overdeveloped nations—do not live within our means, within the limits of nature.  We do not know what enough is.  The notions of progress and development cannot accommodate enoughness.  By definition, things have to keep getting bigger, faster, and better all the time.  Progress inevitably means more energy, more resources, more technology, more stuff, and therefore more things to fight over.  Moreover, we have seemingly infected the rest of the world with the growth/progress/development virus.  Nearly everybody wishes to be just like us and make the same colossal mistakes we have made—a physical impossibility, as it turns out.  We would need as many as ten Earth-like planets to act as mines and dumps if the world’s population were to adopt the high-consumption lifestyle of the average American.[3]  (And where would we find enough Martians or other extra-terrestrials whose labor we’d need to exploit to support that way of life?)

Let me be concrete.  If we wish to keep driving around in cars, keep flying around in planes, keep plugging endless appliances and gadgets into the wall, keep eating food grown anywhere on the globe, keep having as many babies as we want, keep buying stuff made anywhere under who-knows-what conditions, then we have to accept war as part of the price.[4]  Only war can secure the level of inputs needed to keep everything running—temporarily.  As scarcity becomes more severe—as it must—so will war.  Like it or not, we live off the spoils of war.  We all profit from it.  We are all part of the Empire, no matter what slogans we chant or write on our protest banners.

As I see it, it does no good to march at an anti-war protest in Washington, DC, shake our fists at the White House, and then spend a week’s vacation in the Bahamas or Paris or Rio.  It does no good to stand shivering at a peace vigil in the dead of winter, proclaiming “No blood for oil,” and then to go home to eat a crisp California salad whose every ingredient is practically dripping with petroleum.  It does no good to rail against nuclear, coal, or gas-fired electrical plants and then to go home and plug in our cell phone, our laptop, our ipod, our palm pilot, our BlackBerry to recharge all those batteries for tomorrow’s workday.  Our actions speak far louder than our words.  Friends, we have to take a good, long look in the mirror.  If we are serious about avoiding war, we have to find another way to live.

To put it another way, if, by some miracle, we were suddenly to achieve genuine peace and justice worldwide, our entire economy as we know it would collapse overnight.

If limitlessness in its various manifestations is a root cause of war, then self-imposed limits, with an eye toward justice and the welfare of all, is an essential ingredient of peace. This entails living within our means, taking only our share, living within the limits of nature’s cycles, and cultivating the virtue of enoughness.  When Mohandas Gandhi, who arguably knew something about peace, was asked to sum up his life’s message in 25 words or less, he replied: “I can do it in three: Renounce and enjoy.”[5]  Renunciation means giving up something or some privilege that one could have but, for whatever reason, chooses not to have.  Okay, but enjoy?  Where does enjoyment come into this picture of willful self-limitation?

For too long we have lived under the assumption that our myriad possessions—all our stuff—and our push-button lifestyle will make us happy.  Perhaps, for a while at least, they bring us pleasure, comfort, and convenience, but this soon wears off, as the advertisers know all too well.  True joy, as Gandhi knew, is with people, not with things.  Joy is in being, not in having.  A life lived within limits, a life with less stuff, can be more joyful because it frees us from the tyranny of our possessions.  (We have to work long hours to pay for and maintain all that stuff.)  Proving to yourself that you can get along fine without something, especially something you thought you really needed, is one way of experiencing freedom, liberation, and joy.  I know this from my own experience.  In our materialistic society, the list of things we can potentially give up, if we set our minds to it, is long and varied.

It seems to me that the renunciation of which Gandhi spoke is best practiced in community, among our friends and neighbors.  It is certainly less isolating that way.  More to the point, a life lived within limits may be more labor intensive (at least for those of us in affluent societies).  Instead of pushing a button or turning a key, we have to rely on human metabolic energy: i.e. work.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to do all of this work alone.  The less stuff we have, the more we have to rely on other people.  The Amish are famous for renouncing certain labor-saving devices precisely because such devices tend to reduce their reliance on their neighbors, which they cherish.  They ask themselves, “What will this device do to our community, to our relationships with each other?”  Their labor-intensive way of life is much less of a burden, not to speak of joyful, when the work is shared among many hands.  Think of their barn raisings, their quilting bees, their haying and harvest festivals, their canning parties, etc.  Among the Amish, these activities are among the high points of the year, and they keep the community bound together.

But what of our communities?  They have largely been destroyed by our quest for economic independence, by our tremendous increase in mobility, and by “tele-” technologies of all sorts (telephones, televisions, telecommunications), which direct our attention away from where we are and toward the remote.  One possible boon of self-imposed limits is the regeneration of community and rejuvenation of local culture.  We may yet rediscover that we actually need our neighbors and need to stay on good terms with them.  If we restrict our mobility (say, by renouncing or drastically reducing automotive transport), we will have to learn how to live well within a circumscribed, limited area.  And we may yet replace our virtual communities with real, placed ones.  The way to get the ball rolling, it seems to me, is to start small, with our individual friendships.  We might start by asking our friends, “Is there something that the two of us can renounce together?”

That’s all well and good, one might say, for an agrarian village society such as those Gandhi dealt with.  But what does this discussion of self-imposed limits and renunciation have to do with our large urban centers, and especially with the urban poor who are barely scraping by as it is and who are utterly dependent on the larger economy for all their needs?  They may feel, perhaps rightly, that there is nothing left for them to renounce.  Some do not have enough food or water or heat as it is. This is an important and serious question, but it is one to which I don’t really have a satisfactory answer.  There is no getting around the fact that our urban centers are far too big.  Their size is way out of proportion to their surrounding countryside, most of which has been swallowed up by urban and suburban sprawl.  As such, I don’t see how such places are sustainable.  They have been artificially sustained up to now by an industrial economy that has systematically undermined its own future: an economy dependent on non-renewable resources.  Modern urban dwellers may soon find themselves in a trap from which relatively few can escape.  How this will pan out is almost too scary to contemplate.  But that, I’m afraid, is the price of limitlessness: we have borrowed recklessly from the future, and now the bills are coming due.

In an ironic reversal of history, those who still have the ability to grow their own food, make their own clothes, build and maintain their own homes, gather their own fuel for heating and cooking, occupy a position of privilege today.  We may have to face the fact that the world has become too crowded for more than a privileged few, who have not lost the arts of subsistence, to live within the limits of nature. 

Indeed, we may have long overshot these limits already.  Is there enough land to feed the 6 billion or so people alive today without the yield-boosting “wonder” chemicals and hybrid seeds of the Green Revolution?  Will we be able to heat our homes without massive deforestation once the oil/gas/coal runs out?  Can renewable energy supply more than a small fraction of modern society’s voracious energy appetite, even if we factor in enormous strides in energy conservation?  (And what new damages to nature will these technologies bring?)  Have we already passed the tipping point after which the catastrophic consequences of global warming can no longer be avoided?  Experts do not necessarily agree on the answers to these questions, but more than a few suggest that the road ahead looks rather bleak.[6]  It seems we have painted ourselves into a corner (using oil-based paints, as it were), though many today, perhaps most, are in denial about this.  They look to Science for some magical cure.  Even if some unforeseen technological fix is discovered that would allow us to keep on going as we’ve been going, to keep on growing and transgressing those limits for a while longer, the important questions for me are: Should we take that route?  Should we go there? Have we learned the lessons of limitlessness?


In this essay, I’ve argued two things:  1) limitlessness, in the short run, leads to increased competition, scarcity, conflict, and war; and 2) limitlessness ultimately threatens our survival as a species, as we use up and destroy the ecological niche that sustains us.  In a nutshell, limitlessness leads to violence and is ultimately suicidal.

If it is true, as some have claimed, that we have already overshot (and thus reduced) the carrying capacity of our habitat, then a reduction of our numbers is inevitable.  How this might happen depends on our choices.  We can choose to keep consuming at our current rate until there is nothing left to consume, fighting with our military might over the last remaining scraps.  Or we can choose the path of self-limitation and drastically reduce both our numbers and our ecological footprint.  (How much limitation and reduction is necessary will vary from place to place.)  In the first scenario, our civilization will come crashing down like a ton of bricks: catastrophic collapse.  In the second, we may flutter down like a load of feathers: willful renunciation.  I can’t say I am optimistic.  The first choice is the path of least resistance, the one we are currently taking, despite decades of warnings.  The second requires a massive change in consciousness and behavior.  In truth, it is hard to imagine this happening.  Plus, we are running out of time.  I cannot predict the future, but it doesn’t look good. 

What does one do?  Again Gandhi gives me guidance: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  So I renounce and enjoy, whether the rest of society follows suit or not.  I try to remain ready for humanity to surprise me.




Acknowledgments:  This essay began as a meditation after reading Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton, Jr. (University of Illinois Press, 1980).  I am indebted to the following people who provided commentary on an earlier draft of this essay:  Edith Ackermann, Eugene Burkart, Frances Crowe, Lee Hoinacki, Randy Kehler, Eveline MacDougall, Tom MacLean, and Juanita Nelson.  I am also grateful to the late Ivan Illich, who first revealed to me that the American Dream is actually a nightmare. This essay is primarily directed at an American audience.  What I say here may or may not hold true for other countries.

[1] Even wars that, on the surface, seem to be about religious or ethnic conflicts often have an economic/ecological basis.  They are about scarcity.  People don’t suddenly wake up one day and decide to kill their neighbors because they look or act or worship differently.  Under conditions of growth-induced scarcity, each group tries to secure an advantage for its own members, which inevitably leads to conflict.  It seems almost always to be some version of we want something they have.

[2] Even Jimmy Carter, who, at least by contrast, is starting to look more and more like one of the Good People, stated in 1980, in what has become known as the Carter Doctrine, that the U.S. will use military force if necessary to protect its “vital interests” in the Persian Gulf region.

[3] See, for example, Catton, Overshoot, p.52.

[4] Other inconveniences attached to that price tag are global warming and other forms of environmental degradation, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity—just to name a few.

[5] Similarly, the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, when asked by American audiences how they can foster peace and well-being, offers a two-word answer: “Consume less.”

[6] See, for example, Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over; James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency; William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot; James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia; Donella Meadows, et al, The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.