Is there one thing that is common to all of our major global crises; crises as diverse as sexual harassment and assault, mass immigration and globalization, technologies advancing beyond our control and global environmental destruction?

As a holistic philosopher, I strive hard each day to appreciate the full complexity of reality and not reduce or over-simplify complex problems. At the same time, I appreciate that in order for us humans to navigate our way through our complicated realities we must reduce, generalize and simplify or risk being overwhelmed. This is how living organisms like us create order against a complex background. Learning to understand and appreciate how and why we simplify reality is one of our great challenges.

My point is that I never, as a rule, argue that a problem or solution can be reduced to one thing. My understanding of philosophy, however, was shaped by, among others, Alfred North Whitehead who characterized philosophy as “the journey towards the greater generalities.” In identifying general patterns common to all of our global crises, therefore, I would say that the one thing that is most significant is a lack of understanding of order and the nature and role of boundaries in its creation (which sounds like two things).

Think about it for a moment. The MeToo Movement emerged to challenge men who overstep and disrespect women’s boundaries. The global immigration debate is about national boundaries and the ability for nation states to control and regulate flows across their boundaries, Trump’s wall being a prominent case. Today’s information technologies are challenging our ability to protect our own boundaries by obliterating privacy and the defining communal boundaries of traditional occupations and professions. Most importantly, our global environmental crises come about through human’s ability to disrespect and cross natural boundaries compromising the autonomy and health of multiple levels of natural processes.

Understanding boundaries, therefore, is essential to us understanding our problems and so perhaps if we understood them better we might be able to create healthier order in the world.

So where do we start? All of the global problems I just mentioned affect our quality of life so we should look at how boundaries condition the quality of life. Scientists researching the origins of life have shown that the original condition for complex life on this planet was the emergence of semi-permeable membranes forming semi-autonomous cells. As well as metabolizing structures, cells are containers for genetic polymers which provide the information required for generating other cells. Cells are little bubbles but their semi-permeable fatty-acid membranes are such that they allow particular things to cross them mediating a controlled relationship between their inner world and their external environment. This is understood in the growing field of biosemiotics as a semiotic process in which cells recognize the signs of what should pass through and what should not.

The field of cell research is incredibly complex, but the important things to understand for the purposes of this article is that without boundaries proscribing particular worlds and limiting what is possible, there is no life and it is the semi-permeable quality of boundaries that is essential to life. This is the condition for living processes to be both distinct and interrelated. Unfortunately, however, our current global debates are polarised into those who either promote non-permeable boundaries designed to separate and isolate, or no boundaries at all, a total lack of order.

Semi-permeable boundaries apply at multiple scales of life. For example, the whole human development process is one in which we create and develop our personal boundaries through our interactions with our environments and particularly other bounded humans. Important here is the notion of autonomy, or self-governance; the ability to develop a mind of your own. This is the condition for being able to have some conscious control over what passes through your semi-permeable membrane.

In a healthy development process, we will learn to gain a feel, or recognize the signs, for who we can open our boundaries to and who we should not. This involves also generating signs to either welcome others in or reject their attempted incursions. It is important to understand that as biological organisms we are fundamentally dependent on the life providing conditions of our environments, including our social conditions, so there is no such thing as full, or absolute autonomy. Instead, we are always partially autonomous and can only increase our relative autonomy.  This is a dialectical and heuristic process in that it involves tension between opposing forces and experimentation. To grow, we have to have courage and open ourselves at times to experience some unwanted and often painful incursions in order to recognize what relationships augment our autonomy and which do not.

This is the process of creating an environment of relationships of trust and psychology has long understood that without such relationships development can be severely retarded. Sexual assault of children, for example, and the sorts of disrespect for women’s boundaries by men in power that the MeToo movement is reacting to, are examples of how such relationships can be destroyed. When people in positions of responsibility abuse and disrespect those who they are responsible for, we say that have crossed a boundary they should not have. These are forms of what I call semiotic corruption, when the healthy signs for life and autonomy are corrupted by unhealthy ones, such as when a cancer cell mimics a healthy one in order to proliferate.

These sorts of unwanted, parasitic incursions can lead to the destruction of semi-permeable boundaries and the creation of less permeable ones. Trump’s wall is a good example here. The idea of a wall separating Mexico and the USA, emerges as a consequence of parasitic elites, the global corporatocracy, attempting to destroy the boundaries which define many traditional communities in order to increase their own wealth. Anand Giridharadas, in his recent book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, exposes how wealthy elites are prepared to destroy the autonomy of others in order to augment their own through their open-border ideology. At the same time, they cynically construct non-permeable boundaries around themselves as protection from the victims of their abuse.

The reaction to this loss of defined boundaries is disorientation and insecurity which Trump, (part of the elite), exploits to gain support for the building of a non-permeable boundary; his wall. This is not unlike a trauma victim shutting down interactions with the world and their own memories in order to protect themselves from further harm. To become healthy again, however, (or whole) the trauma victim must eventually find a way to gradually and partially open their boundaries to others and construct a new future narrative. A non-permeable wall, while helping trauma in the short term, ultimately precludes the opportunity for healing, including the creation of new semi-permeable boundaries; the conditions for life.

A large part of this story of the destruction of boundaries and relationships of trust has been the rapid incursion of digital information technologies which parasitically open our boundaries and extract our personal information. Google and Facebook profit from our freely provided personal information and therefore support the view, in their self-interest, that privacy is now an outmoded concept. A level of privacy, however, is a condition for autonomy and the healthy generation of semi-permeable boundaries; the conditions for life. These are the conditions for being able to generate a relatively secure sense of self.

The most important conditions for life are those boundaries which separate different levels within natural ecosystems from each other, giving each level some degree of partial autonomy, buffering them against damaging incursions from other levels. This allows a diverse range of living processes to interact in complex ways without any one level threatening the existence of all others. Unfortunately, human self-consciousness has allowed us, unlike any other creature, to cross or destroy natural boundaries in order to exploit other levels for our own benefit. Examples are our ability to destroy the habitats of multiple other species and destroy the boundaries separating stored carbon from our atmosphere.

Complex, semi-permeable boundaries are the conditions for life yet, as I stated earlier, our public debates on our major global crises are dominated by those arguing either for non-permeable boundaries or no boundaries at all. One side wants to keep others out while the other wants complete openness. One wants too much order and the other, chaos. Debates degenerate into accusations ranging from racism and xenophobia to cosmopolitanism and naïve forms of anarchy. The neoliberal global corporatocracy are a special case who, safe behind their own boundaries seek, like cancer cells, to obliterate other’s boundaries in order to exploit them for their own gain. Better understanding the nature of semi-permeable boundaries that generate the conditions for life, may help us transcend polarized views, protect us from parasites and make progress in regenerating conditions for life on this planet.


Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1940). The barbed-wire enclosed camp for migratory workers at the Cannon [Canning] Company of Bridgeville, Delaware.


About The Author

Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.