The Limits of Human Power – Summary

Limits of Human Power is a chapter from ‘New Hopes for Changing World‘. Russell argues that human beings exercise complete authority over nature. Man’s arrogance towards nature can only lead to disaster.


Human beings exercise complete authority over nature. Man’s arrogance towards nature can only lead to disaster. However scientific he may be, the fact remains that man is neither impotent nor omnipotent. Human powers are surprisingly great but they have their own limits. However, by means of his knowledge and technique, he can diminish these limits. But he can never remove them wholly. Even the best astronomers will not be able to anything in case the sun explodes. This reminds us that we are not Gods.

There are two very different elements in science: i. Scientific Knowledge and ii. Scientific Technique. Technocrats (technical experts) are interested only in scientific technique. Some of them even deny scientific knowledge. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are concerned to discover natural laws. They leave to others the discovery of the practical ways in which laws can be useful. In short, the technocrat wishes to change nature, while the theorist wishes to understand it. But the fact is that the point of view of either the theorist or the technocrat is sufficient, rather they are complementary and there are limits to their powers.

Different chemical combinations through various stages in peculiar temperature transformed inorganic dead matter into a mass of living matter. It took geological ages for the elements and life to evolve through long chemical process. That is why the author says that many processes of nature are irreversible and beyond man’s control.

The processes by which the resources and raw materials are formed are processes of synthesis. The processes on modern industry do the reverse. They use complex raw materials and simplify it. This process is not reversible by scientific methods. In all such processes, there is waste. All sources of energy upon which industry depends are wasted when they are employed. Every day, many square miles of forest are turned into newspaper, but there is no process by which newspaper can be turned into forest or a coal used to run a train be turned back into coal. The author says that modern industry is a kind of rape. It depends upon irreversible process. Modern industry greatly depends on energy, which, once used is wasted forever as it is irretrievable. It all uses up the earth’s capital and is a spendthrift.

Russell cautions us against the facile optimism about science and industry. We superficially believe that the scientists will make some clever invention when our resources are all exhausted or that these resources are sure to last our time. Our attitude is like that of the proverbial Irishman who was not willing to do anything for the posterity as it had never done anything for him. The author warns us that due to the exhaustion of raw materials, modern industry’s capacity to supply human needs will surely diminish gradually. This could be prevented by a cautious use of natural resources.

The problem of exhaustion of resources is more serious in food due to dwindling of agricultural land, increase in population and development of industry. When the soil lost its fertility, the primitive cultivator moved on to another piece of land. This was possible then because a great deal of land was available as human population was scarce. But today the problem of the dwindling of agricultural land has grown to a tragic scale. This problem has been treated in detail in Fair Field Osborne’s “Our Plundered Planet” and William Vogt’s “Road to Survival”. They tell us how many fertile hillsides became barren rocks and irrigated planes, deserts and how flourishing civilizations vanished. This process is in full swing at the present day in many parts of the world including the United States. The intense demand for food due to increase in population and replacement of agricultural land by industry. The price of food as a result goes up beyond limit.

Another problem that threatens the present day world is the depletion of the nonrenewable sources of energy. This has led people to develop alternative energy sources such as the solar energy and the hydro-electric power. The author says that when people have discovered how to turn hydrogen into helium, sea-water the raw material for the time will also be depleted soon. Mam has existed on this planet for about million years, but scientific technique, for at most two hundred years. Considering what technology has done, it would be impossible to place any limit upon what it may do in future. ‘Scientific knowledge is an intoxicating drink…’ says Russell. He asks us to think of our destiny when no more source of energy is left leading to a total extinction of human race from the surface of the earth.

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