Erwin Schrödinger introduced the idea of negative entropy to characterize Life. It’s a mystical concept, as I’m sure he well knew. For Life bathes in a colossal gusher of local energy from Sol. That astonishing light and unimaginable heat vanish surely and almost completely into the Universe, leaving nothing but agitated motion among the sparse molecules spread across the lightyears. Life thrives in the flow, but it is not energy, nor does it violate the laws of energy.
Energy spreads out until it is useless. This loss, we feel it as a loss for some reason, is remorseless, like the flowing of the water remorselessly through a billion channels from the highest clouds to the level of the Sea. But what are we in such a scheme? A physicist sees Life as somewhat counterintuitive, comparing it perhaps to a capacitor, some curious electro-chemical mousetrap that holds back some of that energy flow for later use, where the word "use" itself implies an unscientific refutation of entropy.
It is a mystical concept, I repeat. It has confused generations of creationists. Living things are not immune to entropy and pose no challenges to it. The apparent complexity and organization of life is a product of the flowing energy, slowing it down but an instant, similar perhaps to an eddy in the flowing river. The eddy is not made of water, and causes the water to tarry only a short time. The eddy is not the water, yet the eddy is a complex form that holds together in itself, an apparent spirit of the water, retaining its form and dancing in the water for the span of its moments or days. It seems alive. By Schrödinger’s light, it is alive, and its path cannot be predicted. Nor can ours. But the energy goes its way.
People who apply mystical concepts to the workings of the human universe are almost always misled by those concepts. People who get mystical gratification from understanding those workings, however, can have the profoundest impact on the rest of us. Schrödinger was from that second group, as were Adam Smith, Einstein and Darwin, who found that there was grandeur in his view of Life. Carl Sagan tried to express this in his series, Cosmos, which I recommend as still inspiring after two decades. Wonder and awe and even mystical experiences are common to those who explore the world with the cold scalpel of reason. Why that is so, I can only guess, and my guess is this: it is because the real world is worthy of such emotions, and the mystical world is worthy of such a scalpel.
While Darwin had the pleasure of his discovery, that marvelous engine of Beauty, I suspect that Thomas Malthus, who has also given us a great truth, had trouble getting out of bed. I imagine that he found it hard to breathe from time to time, as I do when I think about his offering to us. It is the straitjacket of reproductive life. The Malthusian Denialists are rampant among us. It’s hard to blame them. Bartletts’s Law suggests that this simple idea is indigestible, that humans cannot, by their nature, understand it . Perhaps, as has been suggested, Bartletts’s Law is an inevitable outcome of natural selection when the human mind meets Malthus. Can anyone who comes to understand him reproduce as productively as before? Darwin certainly could, but he was an unusual creature.
These thoughts are occurring to me as I try to put the work of Joseph Tainter in perspective. I am pondering the subject at Steve Sturgill’s behest. Steve has, I think he would agree, been driven to pessimism at least in part by the school of thought currently thrashing in those waters that Tainter described so cogently.
Tainter, in my abrupt summary, has identified energy and complexity as the limiting factors, the controlling inputs, of modern civilization. Even research and development, he would say, requires increased complexity and energy inputs that are reaching a saturation point. The Law of Diminishing Returns would indicate that increasing inputs into the business of solving problems rewards us with smaller and smaller payoffs.
I would like to generalize his viewpoint and make a statement I can agree with. Every society, every growing system, requires one thing that it does not have. The limiting factor could be energy, labor, land, knowledge or just plain resolve. If the society gets more of that one thing, then it will be short of something else. Each solution requires effort, concerted action, and probably some physical inputs, such as energy or nitrates or water. The odds are that sooner or later the society will, solving many problems as it grows, finally stumble upon a required input that the society is congenitally unable to provide. The suggestion was that the Roman Empire lacked energy resources, provided in those days by slaves, and resolved the issue in a dysfunctional way, by adapting a strategy of conquest, which could not be sustained. It is obvious that the problem is growth itself, to which there are indeed limits.
We know, however, that we have not reached those limits yet, for the growth of GDP still outpaces population growth. We are, however, borrowing against a future that will come to its limit more abruptly because of our profligacy. Abrupt limits lead to collapse. Do we have a choice? I certainly think so, but not as we are.
One of the limiting factors in our society is decision unification. The democratic structure does not allow for rational choices pursued patiently. And autarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy are much worse in every way except single-mindedness. We see this amply demonstrated in the ecological crimes of the USSR, the PRC, the states of the Warsaw Pact and Saddam’s Iraq.
Part of Tainter’s thesis is that complexity increases continually. Most of what he sees as complexity is Division of Labor as delimned by Adam Smith in 1776. We become more productive by breaking difficult jobs into many parts and allowing people to specialize in each part. It applies to manufacturing, regulation, research and general scholarship alike. But it is only one of the ways that we improve productivity. When I was a child, my father had several mechanics who worked on his car. One of them was a specialist in carburetors. He had studied them for decades and could take one apart and put it back together in the dark. Today, he would be out of a job. There are no carburetors, so no repairmen. Things have been simplified, not complicated. There are also no computer repairmen or vacuum clearner repairmen because we have become so productive at producing them that it’s cheaper to replace than fix. Maybe they still have carburetor mechanics and vacuum cleaner repairmen in Cuba, but that speaks to other problems.
I used to be a computer programmer, but now most of these jobs are gone. Why is that? Software has added to our productivity so effectively that upgrades have become nuisances rather than eagerly awaited benefits. People can do a lot of their own programming now because it’s so packaged and programming languages have improved. Outsourcing is routine. Simpler in some ways, harder in other ways. People can’t program their VCRs, so we now have the Geek Squad. That complicates things a little for now, but in ten years your electronic devices will interface with humans much more conveniently. Part of our complexity input is being reaped in the form of simplicity output. So Tainter is not necessarily correct. At least not yet. And maybe we can change in more fundamental ways as well. Maybe we can learn to observe ourselves, rule ourselves and regulate our growth.
2/13/2007 1:28 AM