Brave New World of Disappearing Boundaries


In the present era of mobile populations, instant communications and rising expectations, boundaries of all sorts are being pushed, pulled, raised, lowered, obliterated, re-drawn, bickered about and quibbled over as never before. People are coming to regard any boundary, whether it limits a country or a concept, as a human creation and therefore fair game.

Psychiatrist Robert Lifton believes we are in the midst of a "crisis of boundaries" which raises a multitude of conflicts not only about specific boundaries but also about the larger questions concerning what boundaries we need, who gets to draw them and why.

In this crisis, says Mr. Lifton, people are driven toward extremes.

One extreme, he says, "is a desperate attempt to hold fast to all existing boundaries, to keep all definitions pure." This is the game being played everywhere in the world -- not only by fundamentalists and racists but also by ethnic groups struggling to maintain their identities.

The other extreme response "is to destroy or seek to destroy all boundaries in the name of an all-encompassing oneness." This is the vague but widespread urge of New Age, peace and ' ecological do-gooders who hope to see not only all people but all people and nature somehow flow together into a blissfully undifferentiated whole.

Boundary issues, in one way or another, touch us all. The crisis invades our working lives, affects our personal health, re-shapes societies and ecosystems.

Economic forces, for example, are rapidly creating a new global marketplace that transcends national borders. Some people try to deal with this by drawing new and wider sets of boundaries -- the European Community, the North American Common Market -- while others try desperately to hold onto protectionist barricades.

Ecological problems such as climate change and acid rain are no respecters of national borders either; they require new kinds of cooperation between governments. They have also touched off a new philosophical and religious debate about the boundaries between (or the oneness of) humanity and nature.

Meanwhile, traditional boundaries between the sexes are being challenged, even in such male bastions as the military. Women played a major role in the Iraq war and now are demanding re-examination of the last big boundary -- the one that keeps them out of active combat.

Racial boundaries are tenacious, but they are also incessantly under siege. It is hardly surprising that the world's most elaborate system of institutionalized racial boundaries, South Africa's apartheid, became one of the world's most explosive political issues.

The parameters that maintain distinct tribal and national cultures are seriously endangered, and many people are afraid that the future will bring a single homogeneous global culture -- probably heavily influenced by the West. This fear produces all manner of cultural-purity and cultural-preservation movements, ranging from simple tribal traditionalism to militant national fascism.

Biological boundaries are not what they used to be, either. As human mobility increases, so does that of plants and animals and microorganisms. This huge silent migration includes animals bound for zoos and hunting preserves; seeds and clippings exchanged among plant breeders; renegade insects (such as gypsy moths, Mediterranean fruit flies and the African "killer bees"); and the AIDS virus, which probably existed for thousands of years in a limited geographic area but is now becoming yet another citizen of the world.

Other familiar boundaries are eroded by progress in science. Human blood, organs, bone marrow and skin are routinely moved from one body to another. Genetic engineers grow bacteria that contain human insulin-producing genes, while anti-biotechnology advocates lobby for a law to forbid transplanting genes across species boundaries -- a boundary maintenance project that will probably go the way of American miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriages.

These various boundary disputes give a clue to the shape of the future: far from moving into a "new world order" with yet another set of fixed boundaries, we are heading for a long period of global flux with continually shifting boundaries.

Professional futurists such as Donald Michael, author of "The Unprepared Society," believe that in the years and decades just ahead, the most troublesome boundary-maintenance conflicts will be over those that separate the developed and undeveloped worlds. "There are a lot of incentives," he says, "for keeping those boundaries -- saying nothing can be done, Africa's a basket case, let's pay attention to what we need at home." But even those boundaries, he argues, are destined to break down as more and more people and information flow across them.

If Mr. Michael is right, we are on the verge of becoming one world where no boundary is so intractable as to relegate whole peoples or regions to permanent affluence or impoverishment. For all the diversity of our economies, ecosystems and cultures, our lives will be -- for better or for worse -- inseparable from one another, ever in motion.

Walter Truett Anderson, author of "Reality Isn't What It Used To Be" and "To Govern Evolution: Further Adventures of the Political Animal." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service. Barry Rascovar, whose column usually appears in this space, is

on vacation.

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