Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Limits to Nature

Guest Post by Graeme Maxton

We cannot manage the limits of nature because they are limits.

We want to live in a world without limits. Like long distance runners and racing car drivers, humankind is always trying to overcome limits, to achieve more. As we make breakthroughs, it is easy to think that we already live in such a world.

Even so, there is a maximum speed that we can run, even drug enhanced. There is a maximum 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 reach them 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 is impossible to conceive anything more.

When we reach natural limits, even the best 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. Nothing can be colder than -273°C. Ice cannot be heated above 0°C under normal pressure. That is the limit of its existence as ice.

If you think about it, everything is defined by its limits - even items 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 technological advances support the idea that we can master what 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. But this understanding of the world and our ability to manipulate it has also made us foolish.

Foolish, because our discoveries are really rather modest. When we take energy from the wind, we simply capture what is already there. When we change the contents of cells, we are only copying nature. And when we split atoms, we are really just looking inside.

When it comes to the natural world, there is so much that we do not understand. We do not know the limits of consciousness, or even what it is. We have not explored most of the oceans, the largest part of our planet. We do not even know what substance or force makes up more than 80% of the universe, and only discovered this recently.

We also keep changing our ideas. Our theories about the origins of life and the birth of the universe have changed completely in the last 150 years. Despite this, we now think we have all the answers, or at least most of the important ones.

That may be natural of course. We are ambitious and already understand the limits of most of the structures we use every day, because we made them. We know when things are likely to go wrong.

In nature however, warning signals often appear only when change is unavoidable. When a typhoon forms, there is nothing that anyone can do to stop the process, or change its path. We can only wait, and see what damage it unleashes. Similarly, melting Arctic icecaps, receding glaciers and rising sea levels are not warning signals, signs that we need to change. They are the start of a transformation that we will witness.

The changes we have unleashed already are unstoppable, certainly within any time frame that we really understand. The effects of our pumping large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere have become visible within a century, a flash of earthly time. It will take many hundreds of years before the effects have passed.

Nature is easily the most complicated system we know. We cannot survive without it. There is no other place, so far as we know, where the acidity of the oceans and the gases in the atmosphere are exactly as creatures like us require. We know too, that an average temperature rise of even a few degrees will change all this.

We have set a process in motion. Now we must do everything we can to stop that process, and quickly.

Graeme Maxton is a Member of the Club of Rome


  1. Graeme, on the one hand you say "Nature is easily the most complicated system we know" and then you say "We have set a process in motion. Now we must do everything we can to stop that process, and quickly."
    Is not Nature so complicated that we DON'T know the relationships between all of it's positive and negative feedback loops? Is Humanity so collectively arrogant to think that we can control all of Nature’s complexity and stop a process?

    Nature is quite capable of managing itself, and is doing so. It is Humanity that is limited, not Nature. We are the problem.

  2. Hmmmm - Dr. Haywood, would you agree that a saltwater aquarium is a somewhat complicated ecosystem with some feedback loops? Would you also agree that hitting said aquarium with a sledgehammer might be damaging to that ecosystem? (After all, one can hardly count on a massive, spontaneous, previously unknown "anti-sledghammer feedback loop" to suddenly appear.)

    You are talking in grand abstractions about complexity and arrogance, but Mr. Maxton's point boils down to "it's not a good idea to hit the earth's climate system with a sledgehammer" - which is exactly what humankind is doing by digging up and burning (as fast as possible) carbon that's been stored away for millins of years, thereby abruptly injecting a huge CO2 pulse at a rate MUCH faster than any known events over the past several million years. If you point is that humans are too stupid to know EXACTLY what's going to happen, I agree; however, IF your point is that this particular planet-wide experiment in climate engineering is acceptable because MAYBE, somehow, a massive, spontaneous, previously unknown "anti-CO2-sledghammer feedback loop" will suddenly appear and save us from our own stupidity, I would think that your logic is quite faulty.

  3. @LCarey

    I apologise for expressing myself so poorly. You have completely misinterpreted my position. I agree that “this particular planet-wide experiment in climate engineering” is totally unacceptable and there is no magic geo-engineering solution that will reverse the process. The system is so complex that the Law of unintended consequences will apply.

  4. At the risk of being flippant in a frightfully important conversation, I think that this picture has a lot to say about the situation.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)