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The Catastrophe That Comes From “Limitlessness”

10 November, 2008

Oasis came out with the song that exclaimed, “I’m free to be whatever I choose…to say whatever I want”.  Such has been the mantra for so long that it no longer puzzles us.  I say “puzzle” because — truth is — to quote another song, “It ain’t necessarily so…”.  We don’t have this limitless liberty.  In fact, assuming complete unfettered liberty to be whatever we choose and to say whatever we want explains in large part our current ecological and economic crises. Buying into the fallacy of ‘limitlessness’ results in catastrophe.

The American writer, Wendell Berry, wrote an astonishingly insightful and seminal article entitled, “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits” which appears in the May 2008 edition of Harper’s Magazine.  In this Berry writes,

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

Berry’s point is, as he goes on to say,

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.

This article is brilliant and timely! See it in its’ entirety Wendell Berry, \”Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits\”

Berry’s point underscores the fundamental belief that threatens our very continued existence.  This sounds like hyperbole on steroids I know.  Yet the more one listen’s to western politicians’ promises of a way out of our economic and ecological crises the more one detects this very same commitment to ‘limitlessness’.  Frugality, reasonableness, moderation, modesty and humility — gone are these virtues only to be replaced by Marlowe’s Faustian exchange…wanting it all now, we lose what really counts forever.

In fact, freedom is not found in limitlessness but in the safety and dignity of life within bounds.  In other words, freedom has a specific form.  To cite Berry once again,

In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define “freedom,” for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, “free” is etymologically related to “friend.” These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of “dear” or “beloved.” We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our “identity” is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

One Comment
  1. Consumerism seeks to provide what we should find in Christ – hope, security, fulfilment, identity, beauty. Berry nails it (as he often does). Thanks for the post.

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