Respecting the Limits of Place

Limitations of any sort are most often considered to be something to be avoided. From the time that we enter elementary school, the majority of us are taught that we can be whatever we want to be, do whatever we want to do, and go wherever we want to go. In essence, we are lead to believe that any sort of limitation to the vast desires and possibilities of the human spirit is restrictive and restraining of our full potential.

The consequences of that worldview, which is in many ways the quintessence of the anthropocentric worldview which has dominated our society since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, are plainly visible through the number of serious crises that are affecting our world today.

From global warming to massive loss of species of flora and fauna, to the psychological effects that come with reducing our purpose into life to nothing more than mindless consumers, the lack of acceptance of healthy and necessary limitations is one of the main causes of the global catastrophes that are upon us.

The Ecological Necessity of Limitations

As a species, we have ultimately forgotten our creatureliness. By that, we mean that we have forgotten that we are animals that belong to certain ecosystems that provide us with what we need for life. Our industrial, consumer-driven society has been structured so as to mistakenly believe that we are above and beyond any sort of natural boundary or constraint.

Nowhere is this seen any better than in the global, neoliberal economy, where economic growth is the most important and necessary indicator of economic, and thus systemic, health, vigor, and well-being. As long as the economy is continually growing (and the faster the better) the better our overall wellbeing.

Almost no economist (or politician, or businessman, or blue collar worker) stops to think, however, how continuous and sustained growth can occur within a closed, limited system. We have found a way to deceive ourselves into believing that the natural world doesn’t exist or that it must be subservient to the economy. This basically translates into the fact that the natural world is seen as an unlimited mine to provide the economy with the raw materials it needs to keep its wheels turning and the growth indicator pointing upwards, and a bottomless sink to accept the infinite amount of waste that comes through the other side of the economy.

The problem, of course, is that this view of the natural world simply isn´t truthful. More than consumers, or professional, or workers, we are creatures that belong to a specific ecosystem that makes life possible. Our deepest and most meaningful identity is that of a species of animal that belongs to a certain and place and shares that place with other creatures and forms of life.

The potency of our technology, the scope of our ambition, and the relative abundance of cheap fossil fuel energy have allowed us to “escape” from the limitations that should bind us to our places. However, the natural world will have the final word, and we would do good to learn to discover the necessary, and indeed obligatory, limitations and constraints that the natural world demands of us in regard to how our economy is to be structured and how our consumption and waste are to be assimilated into our surrounding ecosystem.

The Advantages of Limitations

One of the most significant and important changes in values that our society needs to make is related to the idea of limitations. Rather than seeing limitations as detrimental to human progress and advancement, we need to learn to consider the necessary ecological constraints that are required of us as an opportunity reimagine our proper place in the grand scheme of things.

On a practical level, willingly accepting the limitations of place positions us firmly within a local community. Our semi-nomadic, modern-day lives are characterized by mobility, movement, and an ever-increasing distancing between producer and consumer. Among the other consequences mentioned above, these livelihoods lead us away from any sense of deeper purpose that stems from connection to a locality.

By accepting the limitations and constraints of the places we inhabit, we also are accepting the challenge to find ways to adapt our livelihoods to what the local ecosystem can accept. We necessarily are taking more direct responsibility for our lives and livelihoods; cultivating food for our own bodies, preserving the soil that gives fertility for the nutrients we need, finding ways to deal with our waste that goes beyond the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.

By living in place, we also open our own lives to a greater sense of community. Our neighbors, instead of simply being people we see as we drive out our driveways on the way to work, become partners in the process of creating right livelihoods.

Accepting the limitations of place, then, is not a dreadful acceptance of a somber and melancholic life. Rather, it can allow us to find a deeper sense of meaning and humanity for our creatureliness as members of a larger community.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. As humans with awareness of the reality we can choose to set our own ‘limits’. F.e. if you decide to eat only whole natural foods (nothing made in industry) and meanwhile set a limited budget (amount of money to spend on food) you’ll have to use your creativity and imagination to create healthy and satisfying meals!

  2. Great article! This is clear logic and simple. I have the same vision of natural restriction. It is a frame to existence

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