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Basic Thermodynamics as explained by Sidney Harris
Expired · 28th January 2010
Ray Grigg
Entropy is the movement of energy from complex, higher states to simple, lower states. In its largest sense, entropy is the unwinding of the universe as energy differences slowly equalize from ordered distinctions toward a terminal muddle in which all that can happen has finally happened. The theoretical ending is an undifferentiated chaos. For the universe, this will take a very, very long time.

But entropy is also happening at a very specific and mundane level. Indeed, it is powering all the activity on our planet, fuelling our modern civilization and energizing each of our lives. And this is what concerns James Kunstler in his 2005 book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century.

In this provocative and challenging book, Kunstler examines the critical importance of oil in our global economy and then anticipates the cascade of catastrophic consequences when – not if – supply fails to meet demand. After a century of profligate use of this energy-dense resource, he contends that we are within a decade of experiencing an oil shortage: for transportation, industry, heating, plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals and all the countless products essential to our modern lives. In other words, our energy-devouring civilization has been accelerating entropy.

Entropy and its relevance to us is one of Kunstler's many crucial insights. As the Second Law of Thermodynamic – the First Law is that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed – entropy dictates that energy flows in only one direction, "from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed and spread out; from being ordered to being disordered," as Kunstler describes it. This inevitable inclination explains why, he says, a cup of coffee cools down but doesn't heat up, why a tire goes flat but doesn't inflate, why a clock winds down but not up, why logs burn, iron rusts, tornadoes happen and living things die. "A given system," he writes, "will automatically select the paths or drains that get the system to a final state – exhaust its potential – at the fastest possible rate given the constraints. Simple, ordered flows drain entropy at a faster rate than complexly ordered flows."

This describes one of the fundamental differences between human endeavours and ecological processes. We aspire toward efficiency, the rapid expenditure of energy for our specific purposes, whereas natural ecologies are inclined toward complexities that recycle energies and resist entropy. Thus prairie grassland will maintain its structure almost indefinitely compared to industrial grain farming that accelerates production but quickly exhausts and erodes soil. Similarly, a pond or an old-growth forest is a complex mix of flora and fauna that sustains its structure while a net-pen salmon rearing site or a tree plantation is a precarious balance of a few crucial ingredients. In contrast with nature's sustaining complexity, the entire thrust of industrialization is an acceleration of entropy – with all the resulting risks. Remove oil from the pervasive economic system we call globalization and the entire structure crashes into chaos. "Efficiency," Kunstler notes, "is the straightest path to hell."

Kunstler argues that we don't really need to reach the end of oil to experience the disorder that accompanies entropy. The economic efficiency we praise creates one-industry towns that become simplified and vulnerable communities. Businesses evolve into big corporations that dehumanize and feudalize our lives. Our monocultures of specialization create ecological disasters. We poison our water, land and air using the justification that more and faster are always better. Mass production produces the homogeneity that deadens the spirit and vitality of people – they compensate by becoming hyper-consumers, fad-chasers, unsettled and disquieted beings in search of the meaning denied to them by a loss of complexity. Illegal drugs, terrorism, greed, violence, crime and anger are all social manifestations of the "efficiency" leading strait to "hell".

Kunstler's precautionary analysis is unsettling. But it is echoed by many other thinkers who are examining the course of modern civilization, anticipating the "convergence of catastrophes" and pondering the consequences. For confirmation, just note the number of books and movies during the last few years that contemplate an impending apocalypse. Kunstler would argue that these are all premonitions inspired by the encroaching margins of entropy, the breakdown of order as we slide faster and faster down the speedy slope of energy consumption.

Kunstler's ideas are worth considering. His scholarly, detailed and insightful analysis of who we are and what we are presently doing envisions a future of smaller communities, self-contained economic units, more complexity and stability, and greater human interaction that is tangible and meaningful. Food production and manufacturing will be more local. Backyard gardens and nearby farms will flourish. Diet will be more seasonal. Cities will become more compact and liveable places. Suburbia will collapse. Globalization will wain as "comparative advantage" returns to its pre-corporate meaning of every locality having something special that it produces or supplies. In other words, we will live in a smaller, more intimate world of increased complexity where each of us has a heightened sense of usefulness and belonging.

This will be our future, Kunstler insists. Whether we want it or not, the end of oil will guarantee its arrival. In the meantime, to ease the pain of transition, our best strategy is to begin reorganizing for this inevitability.