Boundaries and Frontiers

Boundaries and limits are necessary conditions for a system to have any meaning and identity. They give a system its structure and stability; as E.F. Schumacher writes, boundaries . . .

. . . produce ‘structure’. . . . Now, a great deal of structure has collapsed, and a country is like a big cargo ship in which the load is in no way secured. It tilts, and all the load slips over, and the ship founders.B17

Boundaries have three crucial functions. First, they control access to the system, to the commons and the community, empowering the people who live within them with the expectation that what they decide on has a reasonable chance of happening. This assurance that their decision-making is not mocked by events and interests outside their control is a key condition for successful management of the commons and for the evolution of community.

Secondly, boundaries are central to the principle of a closed-loop system. For a system whose boundaries give it the benefit of a small-scale, modular structure, it becomes realistic to conserve its materials and other assets—developing the proximity principle, keeping transport and intermediate needs to a minimum, conserving, sorting, reusing and recycling, and trading materials across its edges. This complex, holonic, bounded structure opens the way to a resilient ecology that wastes none of its foundation capital.

Thirdly, boundaries have a complementary effect for the people who live within them: they limit access to territories beyond the boundary. In this sense, “boundaries” are the opposite of “frontiers”. “Frontiers” can carry the implication that, if things get difficult at home—if fertility is in decline, if the demand for goods and services is allowed to rise beyond what can be supplied in the locality, if there is overpopulation or conflict or any other persistent problem—the natural thing to do is to cross the frontier and start again somewhere else. There are clear easy-option benefits here: you do not have to manage land in a sustainable way, nor do you have to resolve disputes: you can just move on.

The market economy has demolished its boundaries and turned them into frontiers. Its communities have lost control of their own decisions while at the same time pretending that there are always new frontiers beyond which new wealth can be plundered to solve troubles brought about by mismanagement at home. The principle of the localised, resilient Lean Economy, on the contrary, celebrates its limits and recognises that, when you can’t either walk away from a problem or export it, you need instead to organise your brain. This is a world without a frontier—a “beyond”. It has to solve its own problems, or at least try to.B18


Related entries:

Commons, Closed Access, Closed-Loop Systems, Resilience.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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