The Thermodynamics of Civilization

I was recently sent this opinion in an email:

"What I have real difficulty with is the people who: acknowledge the cause of our problems; recognize that - all else being equal - our end will be quick, unpleasant and complete; but decline to fight in order to delay the process. I just don't get it."

Since I'm apparently becoming notorious for declining to "save the world", the person who forwarded that statement requested my perspective on what might constitute appropriate action as our society begins its encounter with existential limits.  That gave me an opportunity to express some of my recent thinking, which I am re-publishing here.  This note is just an initial thumbnail sketch of a very, very large topic that I will be developing over time, so please email me to ask about anything you find unclear or opaque.

First let me address the question of "people who acknowledge the cause of our problems".  This comment seems to assume that there is a set of obvious problems with one cause that is well known and is commonly acknowledged by some, but not all, people.  I don't think this is exactly true.

To begin with, there are many people who don't think there are any problems at all - certainly none that are existentially threatening.  Human nature being what it is, those who do see such problems tend to count these "happy normals" as being part of it...

There is also a wide variety of groups who acknowledge a huge range of apparent problems (insert appropriate Litany of Doom™ ), each with its own implicit set of proximate causes. Those proximate causes range from human greed and short-sightedness, through evolutionary biology and psychology, to dysfunctional cultural practices.  Most of us here would fall somewhere in this very broad second category.

From what I've learned over the last number of months, I've concluded that very few people are actually digging down to what I consider to be true root causes of the planetary predicament.  The only such researcher I've been able to identify for sure is Tim Garrett at the University of Utah, in his recent series of papers treating civilization as a thermodynamic heat engine.  But as an academic, even Garrett can't (or at least doesn't) take the speculative leap from the way civilization works to why it works that way.  Fortunately, I'm not quite so constrained.

My developing view is that a little-known and unacknowledged implication of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (let's call it "2LoT" for short) makes the existing structure of civilization essentially a foregone conclusion - not in detail of course, but when considered as a probabilistic whole, as befits a thermodynamic interpretation.  This aspect of 2LoT implies that life arises spontaneously and inevitably in response to energy gradients in open systems - given that all the other necessary physical conditions are present, of course.  In pursuit of their own survival, living organisms then develop ever-greater complexity in order to become more efficient at dissipating those energy gradients (or to put it another way, in order to access the energy they need to prosper).

In this view, life on Earth is not simply a lucky fluke, but instead was absolutely inevitable.  Where the right conditions exist, the Second Law seems to guarantee that life will appear.  The probability is not vanishingly small, but instead is 100%.

At first blush this may feel a bit like divine intervention, but it's really just a consequence of the intrinsic teleomatic (end-resulting) aspect of 2LoT. That principle results in life with its teleonomic (end-directed) developmental qualities, which in turn develops into the abstract teleological (goal-seeking) behaviour of humans. You might think of it like a layer cake, in which each higher layer is built on and develops the qualities of the underlying one.

The broad characteristics of civilization (e.g. population growth; the growth in energy and resource use, size and complexity; increasing hierarchies; the development of fire, agriculture, money and technology; the rise of the nation-state and then corporations; our inability to turn the ship around (or even aside) in the face of climate change; our relentless species-level self-interest; our visceral abhorrence of de-growth etc.) are all consistent with this interpretation.

The fact that this same physical principle underlies self-organizing physical systems like hurricanes, and drove the initial appearance of pre-biotic self-replicating molecules as well as the very earliest forms of life, means that its operation is inherent in us - it is embedded in our structure at such a deep level that we can't even see it in operation. It operates well below the level of genetics for example.  In this interpretation, genes are simply the mechanism that developed to embody this principle in the dissipative structures of living organisms.  As a result thermodynamic principles influence - probabilistically - every decision we make, to one degree or another.  And asking most people to recognize that is like asking a fish to see water.

This thermodynamic framework implies that much of human activity is shaped by physical forces below our everyday level of perception.  The implication of determinism makes it a very uncomfortable view for someone who has been steeped in the last 50,000+ years of human-centered self-awareness.  The reason the idea seems a stretch may be that we haven't completely internalized the Copernican/Galilean revolution. We still tend to think that we're "more or less" the center of the universe, and that nothing important or meaningful happens unless we will it to happen. I no longer think that's wholly true.  I now tend to see the idea of "free will" as a bit of useful illusion, a belief that has been very encouraging during the long dark nights as unknown dangers congregated just outside the circle of firelight.

So, if 2LoT is the ineluctable root cause of our planetary predicament (as I am now more convinced than ever) what is an appropriate response?

Well, there are now 7 billion of us, and as a result civilization behaves ever more like a thermodynamic box full of gas molecules.  Individual molecules may move however they move, but statistically their actions aggregate to become a measurable temperature and pressure.  The same principle applies to civilization.  Just as no single molecule can change the temperature and pressure of the whole gas (or alter the structure of a hurricane), so no single human being can change the fundamental properties of civilization.  Because the "temperature and pressure" of civilization is an emergent statistical property of the system, the influence of each molecule/individual is limited to their impact on their immediate neighbors.  We can change the course of other individuals we bump against during the Brownian motion of our lives, but our influence is limited in range and attenuates very rapidly.

If we are all to some extent being shaped by 2LoT, then there is little value in blaming others for the predicament we are in.  Whether one is a peasant or a president, we are each simply filling one of the available roles in the thermodynamic system of civilization, each according to our opportunity and to the best of our ability.  As a consequnece, CEOs are on average probably no more or less deluded, evil or misanthropic than any of the wage slaves working for them.  In my opinion, of course.

This leads to my conclusion about what I personally think is appropriate action.  To put it plainly, I feel that no one course of action is intrinsically better than any other.  Do whatever it takes to make your immediate situation better, alleviate your cognitive dissonance, calm your conscience, make peace with yourself, your neighbors and whatever god-concept you might have. Whether that involves raging against the machine, raising your kids, Deep Green Resistance, working from inside the system to change it, scientific study, or just meditation - none of it will change the outcome, but all of it has meaning.

The suggestions at the bottom of my recent article on sustainability are the ones I promote personally:
  • Stay awake to what's happening around us.
  • Don't get hung up by other people’s "shoulds and shouldn'ts".
  • Occasionally re-examine our personal values.  If they aren't in alignment with what we think the world needs, change them.
  • Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are - even the CEOs and politicians.
  • Blame, anger and outrage are pointless.  They waste precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
  • Laugh a lot, at everything - including ourselves.
  • Hold all the world's various beliefs and "isms" lightly, including our own.
  • Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. For everything.
  • Love everything just as deeply as you can.

  1. Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Schneider and Kay, 1995) [PDF]
  2. Life, gravity and the second law of thermodynamics (Lineweaver and Egan, 2008) [PDF]
  3. No way out? The double-bind in seeking global prosperity alongside mitigated climate change (Garrett, 2011) [PDF]

Paul Chefurka
May 17, 2013

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