Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 12, December 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Thinking from the Limits: Potentials and Pitfalls of an Eschatological Perspective

Jörg Friedrichs

November 2017

This paper goes back to a talk delivered at the Conference
‘Potentials and Pitfalls of Predicting Politics,’ Zurich, ETH, 26-27 August 2016

Abstract: Predictions can emanate from an immanentist and from an eschatological perspective. An eschatological perspective can be apocalyptic (revelatory) or axiomatic (‘thinking from the limits’), and it can be optimistic or pessimistic. While the categories are not mutually exclusive, my work from 2009 to 2013 was characterized by an axiomatic and pessimistic eschatological perspective. Despite the liberating nature of such thinking, it is destined to remain a fringe phenomenon. Most people, the author included, embrace immanentist perspectives to get on with their lives. While mandated by the human condition, this does not invalidate eschatological thinking as such.


The following notes have a somewhat confessional character. Starting in 2009 and culminating in a 2013 book (Friedrichs 2013), I worked on the social and political implications of climate change and energy scarcity. Five years after the conclusion of that research, I seize the opportunity for self-reflection on the potentials and pitfalls of my approach. This should help to clarify some of my ideas, and potentially turn out useful for others who may want to embark on similar work.


Let me start by situating my approach within the broader practice of making predictions. In my view and experience, predictions can emanate from an immanentist and from an eschatological perspective. The classical case of an immanentist prediction is the extrapolation of a trend. A weather forecast would be a more complex case of an immanentist prediction. An eschatological prediction is one rooted in a claim of destiny that is ineluctably going to unfold.

The eponymous case of eschatological prediction hails from the realm of religious revelation. At some time the deeper transcendent reality will irrupt into temporal affairs and the world as we know it will come to an end, with doom as one and redemption as another possibility. Apart from such apocalyptic prediction, there is another type of eschatological prediction that is axiomatic rather than religious. ‘Thinking from the limits’ in a situation where society is hopelessly in overshoot (has already exceeded its limits by far) is eschatological in this alternate sense.

The kind of thinking from the limits that is of interest to me starts with the recognition that we live on a finite planet. While already enshrined in earlier cosmologies, this became axiomatic only in the 20th Century. As US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson famously put it in 1965 before the United Nations:

‘We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserve of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say, the love we give our fragil [sic] craft’ (Stevenson 1979, 828). [1]

Depending on the author, such a vision can lead to either pessimism or optimism, confidence or despondence. Initially, confidence prevailed. Kenneth Boulding, in his essay about the ‘spaceman economy’ (1966), was largely confident that a steady state could be attained. Buckminster Fuller was outright optimistic in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969).

In the 1970s, however, the era of optimism gave way to more pessimistic perspectives. In 1972, Donnella Meadows and co-authors published their landmark study on the Limits of Growth (Meadows et al. 1972).[2] Since then, thinking from the limits is associated with a pessimistic vision. In my proposed taxonomy, we may call it an axiomatic and pessimistic eschatological perspective.


In my book The Future Is Not What It Used to Be (2013), I developed such a perspective with emphasis on fuel inputs and CO2 outputs as the decisive bottlenecks for industrial society. I tried to popularize the view of industrial society as a metabolic system that requires energy as its key input and relies on the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere as the key sink on the output side. I can claim originality not so much for the ideas as such but rather for the way I have connected the dots into a big-picture view of what may be ahead for humanity when we think from the limits.

With hindsight, my predictions about energy scarcity (‘peak oil’) were wrong—at least in the short term. Far more new production than anticipated has recently come onstream. In the longer term, however, the finiteness of liquid fuel reserves may still come to roost unless several technological and social revolutions happen at once. The impact of energy scarcity for industrial civilization, which utterly depends on liquid fuel, will be significantly worse if the problem of limited reserves is further ignored until the signs of scarcity appear again on the market via the price mechanism.

In any case, I was not the only one to predict energy scarcity at the time. The International Energy Aggency in Paris had made similar predictions in its 2008 World Energy Outlook (IEA 2008). My views about climate change have been vindicated by the IPCC in its latest assessment report (2013). Unless fossil fuel emissions cease rather quickly, it will become necessary to curtail fuel use regardless of depletion lest climate change become catastrophic. This would then leave us between the Scylla of runaway climate change and the Charybdis of climate-change induced energy scarcity.


My book is transdisciplinary in that I started from my understanding of real-world problems and then pursued whatever avenue, and consulted literature from whatever discipline, would advance that understanding both for myself and for my audience. After a preface outlinining my approach to studying the future, Chapter 1 contains philosophical considerations and high-level thinking about the human predicament in general and the transitory nature of industrial society in particular. Chapter 2, then, surveys the state of knowledge about climate change and energy scarcity, combining insights from data-gathering exercises with critical thought in an ecological vein.

Chapters 3 and 4 are dedicated to the social and political implications of climate change and energy scarcity. Both chapters leverage historical case studies for an understanding of what the implications of climate change and energy scarcity might be in different contexts and under different circumstances, from ancient Mesopotamia to Medieval Greenland and from Japan in the inter-war years and during the Pacific War to Cuba and North Korea in the aftermath of the Cold War. [3]

The next two chapters rely on literature from science studies to discuss the political struggle over knowledge about climate change and energy scarcity (Chapter 5), as well as seminal contributions from economics, social science, and philosophy to capture the ‘moral economy of inaction’ (Chapter 6). Chapter 7 ends the book on the most ‘positive’ note possible, discussing where to go from here. All of this is geared towards grasping real-world problems and coming to terms with them.


On the face of it, my research was a success. I was able to place my manuscript with the best publisher available for this kind of book, MIT Press. It was priced as a trade book at only 20 US Dollars, and thus accessible to a wide audience. It received ten book reviews, and in 2017 it came out as a paperback, making it potentially available to an even greater public. A version in Mandarin is forthcoming in the summer of 2018 with Beijing Normal University Press. For the Chinese edition, I got the opportunity to add a new preface referencing recent literature (IEA 2017; Hall 2017).

In reality, however, the book sold just a few thousand copies. This would be good for a research monograph, but it is far from satisfactory for a trade book targeting a wide audience. The 2017 paperback edition was actually a strip-and-bind conversion rather than a reprinting, indicating hat the publisher was at a loss to sell excess copies on stock in the warehouse. It is all the more remarkable, then, that there is going to be a Chinese edition, presumably with official support.

There is nothing surprising about this mixed record if we consider that unpleasant messages are unpopular. There are only rare exceptions to this pattern. Malthus (1798, 1826) had a major editorial success with a book thinking from the limits, and Ehrlich (1968) landed a similar success many generations later. I have also mentioned the landmark study by Meadows et al. (1972). After such shockers, immunization kicks in and people become impermeable to ‘negative’ thinking.

Case Study

German domestic politics has seen this empirically confirmed. I am not referring to the Green Party, which very quickly moved from environmentalism to various ‘progressive’ causes like feminism and multiculturalism to expand its electoral base. Instead, I refer to the Ecological-Democratic Party (ÖDP) founded by a dissident from the Christian Democratic Union, Herbert Gruhl. When he was still acting as MP for the CDU, Gruhl (1975) had published a remarkable book thinking from the limits.

Marginalized in his own party, Gruhl left the CDU in 1978 and became a co-founder of the Green Party in the subsequent couple of years. After the abovementioned turn of the Green Party to ‘progressive’ causes, he left the party in 1981 and founded the Ecological-Democratic Party instead, bringing along a third of the members of the Green Party. Despite this promising start, the ÖDP was unable to leave the political ghetto except for a handful of localities in southern Germany. But the ‘inspirational’ the Green Party went from success to success with its pseudo-ecological agenda.

Partly due to infighting within the ÖDP and partly due to the ‘negative’ streak in his personality, Gruhl left the ÖDP in 1990. Befitting a pessimistic-axiomatic eschatological perspective, his final book carried the title Ascension into Nothingness: The Plundered Planet before its End (1992). In Gruhl’s view, he stood vindicated with what he had written in his first book (1975, 232):

‘In our fragmented world with its fragmented worldview in people’s minds, nothing has such a hard time as the truth. And here comes a completely new truth for which there is as yet no evidence might feel in one’s own body. [This truth has the] formidable disadvantage that there has never been such an inconvenient truth for everyone. It meets us as a demand without promising anything.’ [Author’s translation]


When I started my work in the environmental field I knew all this and anticipated nothing else. The only difference was that my motivation was that of an intellectual rather than a politician. I even dedicated a chapter of my book to what I call ‘The moral economy of inaction’ (Chapter 6). The chapter deals with social phenomena such as ethical discounting, collective action problems, and denial. On denial in particular, I published a more theoretical treatment the following year (2014a).

My expectations were largely borne out. For the privilege of expressing something important I paid the price of limited resonance. It was a price I paid as an intellectual, not as an academic. The book came out with an excellent publisher and had numerous reviews, making it rather prestigious. It also engendered one of my most-cited journal articles as a byproduct (Friedrichs 2010).

Thinking from the limits has a Malthusian pedigree, which makes it inherently unpopular despite its intellectual merits and political relevance (Friedrichs 2014b, 2018). As in the case of Cassandra of Trojan memory, there is no question about policy relevance when the fate of the city, or indeed the fate of humanity, is at stake. Yet prophets of doom have always been and will always be unpopular, except for rare situations when the newness or imminence of what they have to say disrupts the political and intellectual laziness of their audience. And this is understandably so.

People and policy makers alike call for relevance, but the kind of relevance that is inconvenient to people’s lives and political routines remains unwelcome. Consider the pragmatic maxim:

‘In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the concept’ (Peirce 1905, No. 9).

If this is true of intellectual concepts, how much more will it apply to policy relevant claims.

Painful Truth

Ultimately, the criterion is not so much a matter of true or false, or right or wrong, but of welcome or unwelcome. Obviously, there is no need for an intellectually honest academic, nor for a politically honest decision maker, nor for an ethically honest human being, to surrender. Life can be tragic, and the struggle against social ‘live lies’ is indeed the matter of tragedy (Ibsen 2006 [1884]). None of this is surprising, except for those indulging in rationalist fantasies remote from experience.

Yet there are important implications from this insight for the question of who gets a hearing and who has the authority to make predictions, as well as how these predictions are used and by whom. I have dealt with these implications in Chapter 5 of my book. Under normal conditions, as in the case of energy science, except for rare exceptions establishment experts make immanentist predictions whereas eschatological predictions are the domain of those considered ‘cranks.’ Climate science is a remarkable deviation from this pattern: an entire establishment making eschatological claims.

Yet common people and political decision makers struggle to catch up with alarmist climate science. The backlash is fierce, and there is no indication that public recognition of runaway climate change and the need for international action are going to disrupt the routines of industrial society. Explicit scepticism about climate change is a fringe phenomenon and hence not the main problem. The main problem is climate change denial, the displacement of the topic from our actual life worlds. The social and political implications of climate change are so devastating, and the costs of adequate action so prohibitive, that even talking the talk is very painful—let alone walking the walk.


Seizing a slogan from the 1970s, I operated under the assumption that we need to ‘think from the limits,’ regardless of whether those limits are located on the side of inputs (fuel) or outputs (emissions), or both. I discussed and considered the possibility of alternative technologies and social models, yet my assessment led me to a negative eschatological view à-la Michael Greer (2009) rather than a positive one à -la Ray Kurzweil (2006). My approach was axiomatic rather than religious, although I do take Christian eschatology seriously. There is nothing intellectually or politically wrong with my approach if we accept that life is tragic on the planet of the apes.

That said, my analysis of denial as a psychological coping mechanism and my own inclination towards accepting the pragmatic maxim, cited above, has led me to move on. Given that it is not in my power to change humanity’s fate, I have served my due by devoting four or five years of my academic career to these topics. It has had a liberating effect on me. With Nikos Kazantzakis, I can say: ‘I fear nothing. I hope nothing. I am free.’ This is what I have carried over into my current research, and this is the main reason why I recommend this kind of work to honest people.


[1] Compare Scott Sagan, cited in

[2] See also the updates: Meadows, Meadows, and Randers (1992); Meadows, Randers, and Meadows (2004).

[3] My approach in these chapters is resonant of Jared Diamond’s famous book on Collapse (2005).


Boulding, Kenneth E. 1966. The economics of the coming Spaceship Earth. In Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy: Essays from the Sixth RFF Forum, edited by H. Jarrett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 3-14.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. London: Allen Lane.

Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.

Friedrichs, Jörg. 2010. Global energy crunch: how different parts of the world would react to a peak oil scenario. Energy Policy 38 (8):4562-4569.

-----. 2013. The Future Is Not What It Used to Be: Climate Change and Energy Scarcity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

-----. 2014a. Useful lies: the twisted rationality of denial. Philosophical Psychology 27 (2):212-234.

-----. 2014b. Who's afraid of Thomas Malthus? In Understanding Society and Natural Resources: Forging New Strands of Integration Across the Social Sciences, edited by M. J. Manfredo, J. J. Vaske, A. Rechkemmer and E. A. Duke. New York: Springer, 67-92.

-----. 2018. Escapology, or How to escape Malthusian traps. In Scales of Scarcity in the Modern World: History, Politics, Society and Sustainability, 1800-2075, edited by J. Brewer, N. Fromer and F. Trentman. London: Bloomsbury (forthcoming).

Fuller, R. Buckminster. 1969. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Greer, John Michael. 2009. The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Gruhl, Herbert. 1975. Ein Planet wird geplündert: Die Schreckensbilanz unserer Politik. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

-----. 1992. Himmelfahrt ins Nichts: Der geplünderte Planet vor dem Ende. München: Langen-Müller.

Hall, Charles A.S. 2017. Energy Return on Investment: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics, and Sustainability. New York: Springer.

Ibsen, Henrik. 2006 [1884]. The Wild Duck. Translated by S. Mulrine. London: Nick Hern.

IEA. 2008. World Energy Outlook 2008. Paris: International Energy Agency.

-----. 2017. Energy Technology Perspectives: Catalyzing Energy Technology Transformations. Paris: International Energy Agency.

IPCC. 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kurzweil, Ray. 2006. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. London: Duckworth.

Malthus, Thomas. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of society. London: J. Johnson.

-----. 1826. An Essay on the Principle of Population; or, A view of its past and present effects on human happiness. London: John Murray.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, and Jørgen Randers. 1992. Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Post Mills, VT: Chelsea Green.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Meadows, Donella H., Jørgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows. 2004. Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1905. Pragmatism and Pragmaticism Vol. 5, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, Adlai E. 1979. The Papers of Adlai E. Stevenson. Vol. 8. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.


Jörg Friedrichs is Associate Professor of Politics at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and an Official Fellow of St Cross College. Taking a broad transdisciplinary approach to academic research, his main interests are in the fields of international relations and political sociology. In a recent article, Jörg has proposed a new intercultural theory of international relations.

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