The Vine

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Entropy, Evolution, and the Basket We Are In

Once upon a time, when I lived in a houseful of environmental activists, we soon noticed a pattern: that after a stint of organizing, some demonstration or newsletter production period or benefit, the house would be a shambles. Why was it that organizing was such a messy business? I forget, and none of us there at the time remember, who it was that pointed out that the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that the universe tends towards a disorganized state (entropy) and that in a closed system (as most of us believe the universe to be, or at least Texas) organization is only accomplished by creating disorder in another part of the closed system. From there on out, the house was called Entropy.

Some time thereafter we discovered that there was a more proper definition for the word "entropy" which we all understood to be the bachelor-quality mess the house and our personal lives represented. That more scientific definition was "the amount of energy present in a system that is unavailable for work." More than a few pitchers and bottles of tequila were toasted to that!

Only because I was a fan of Ken Kesey's books did I later get into some of the less funny aspects of the 2nd Law. Having polished off Sometimes a Great Notion I careened straight into Demon Box. I won't even attempt to explain what a "demon box" is except that it is a perennial quixotic attempt to defeat Entropy and make possible the Perpetual Motion Machine. So often my introduction to reality comes through fiction that I will sometimes say things like "There is no such thing as fiction."

I had to check out a nonfiction treatment of the same concepts, and only now do I wonder if Ken Kesey had just finished reading Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin before coming up with Demon Box. Surely there were lots of physics professors who understood that stuff, but did Ken even take physics in college?

Entropy is very frightening in a way that may have contributed to my retirement as an activist while at the same time making me believe more in the goals and motivations of the environmental and green left movements.

Entropy argues that the process of evolution, and the evolution of human civilization not just follows the 2nd Law, but accelerates it. Each new advantage of evolution results in a creature more able to exploit natural resources and convert them into offspring and heat (aka entropy, the energy that has gone from a useful state to a dissipated one).

Next Rifkin has us take a look at human culture in this context, because we humans have managed to evolve beyond the necessity of evolution. Now knowlege and technology have superceeded biological evolution as the means for our species to accelerate the exploitation of natural resources. And when we talk about acceleration, it is not a mere mathematical acceleration, it is exponential, reflecting the exponential growth of human population, which has a consequent result of producing a lot of unusable energy aka heat, that is, global warming. I don't even think that global warming was a concept at the time of writing of Entropy.

Rifkin mostly relates this process to the uncomfortable processes that humanity has gone through in the search for the next energy source. Our habit is to get into a new energy source and then accelerate its exploitation until it is all used up and then switch to the next most easily exploited source, which is not as efficient and therefore in the effort converts a higher percentage of usable energy to heat waste. There are charts and graphs, so watch out!

His suggestion? If we want to be a long-lived species on a resource-plentiful planet and let other species do their thing, too: slow down. Slow down the conversion of natural resources into human beings, because as the most highly evolved beings on the planet using highly evolved energy intensive technology, we are very expensive on the planet and our organized state of living causes a concurrent increase of entropy in the system (our planet Earth). We experience this as global warming, hurricanes, and political instability, but it could just be called what it is: entropy.

So what is the bad news? It would be unlikely, anti-patternistic, and devolutionary to make any choices like this, because while we have used culture to accelerate the "goals" of evolution, we have never used culture to limit those goals in the interest of a long-term purpose. Anyone who make choices like that, well there are names for them. "Conquered" "colonized" "loser" "whining liberal" if you get my drift. Unfortunately, asshole/conquistador/fratboy genes win out in the entropic game of evolution, producing more heirs and more heat.

Whatcha gonna do? I wonder what Charles Darwin would have thought.


At 7:03 PM, Blogger dragonfly jenny said...

Excellent post. I have nothing to add. Except maybe I would change "unusable" heat to "not yet constructively harnessed" heat. Wouldn't it be nice to be able to store up some of that heat for winter.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger princess poysen ivieee said...

Oopsy, Entropy was written by Jeremy Rifkin, not Paul Erlich. Sorry.


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