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Literature and limits

Aristotle wrote that the desires of humans are unlimited. This is completely consistent with the modern notion proposed by Howard Odum of the Maximum Power Principle which states that biological systems seek to maximize their power intake. In the context of evolution it makes sense that those human beings who gathered the most energy to themselves in the form of food, heat, and even tools for self-defense, hunting and later farming were most likely to survive and produce offspring.

Before the fossil fuel age nature provided limits on power intake. And, wisdom was in part an understanding of where those limits lay so as to avoid overstepping them and suffering the inevitable punishment for doing so.

In the industrial age fossil fuels have given us the illusion of no limits, and the Enlightenment provided the philosophical basis for such thinking by imagining the perfectibility of humankind in all ways intellectual and material. The application of reason was the liberating force that would make progress eternal.

Rising material wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries moved questions of material progress to the background in literature and philosophy since such progress seemed assured despite its uneven trajectory and the injustice which accompanied the distribution of its fruits. The seemingly intractable problem of scarcity had been overcome.

And so, the focus of literature moved to the themes of social justice and the psychic drama of the family and the individual. It's not that such themes weren't already in use. But a society believing that its material progress is assured will no longer find the themes of limits and scarcity helpful.

What is missing, therefore, from most modern stories is the notion of physical resource limits. Such limits imply a tragic trajectory, the possibility of failure and punishment for overuse of the physical world. In the last half century the scientific literature has been infused with increasingly ominous warnings about such limits. But popular stories accessible to the mass of humanity, at least in rich countries, still most often champion explicitly or implicitly the ideas of a limitless material future.

There are plenty of tales of technology gone wrong. One the earliest at the dawn of the fossil fuel age was Frankenstein. But this story does not embody the theme of technology failing for lack of available resources. For such a theme we must look to stories of castaways cut off from the logistical supply lines of society.

But now we must look toward a literature in which we all become castaways, severed from the wells of plenty not by a freakish storm, but by the dictates of geology and the limits it is about to place on our primary sources of energy: fossil fuels. For that we must come again to understand that nature can provide a backdrop for what William Catton Jr. calls the “tragic story of human success”--that hubris and nemesis are not merely psychosocial terms implying humiliation, but terms that carry the sting of hunger and want embedded within them.

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