LXI – Save the Universe!

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After
years of listening to environmentalists bemoan their visions of
the fate of this planet, it struck me that they are being very shortsighted.
They paint a picture of the earth, with its varied life forms, facing
an inevitable extinction, brought on by humanity's failure to adequately
deal with the byproducts of life processes (what economists call
"externalities"). Because life is not one hundred percent
efficient, there will always be "entropy" associated with
what we do, and entropy is defined, in part, as energy that is unavailable
for productive purposes. To the environmentalists, this is a major
problem to be overcome by governmental planning and regulatory systems.

That
"entropy" is often a matter of perspective is generally
overlooked by those who seek to sterilize and cleanse nature. One
organism's waste (entropy) may be another organism's source of nourishment
or a productive resource. My next-door neighbor periodically puts
steer manure in his yard to promote the growth of new grass, a purpose
I am certain the steers never had in mind. The garbage we put into
dumpsters becomes food sources for scavenging bears, raccoons, and
possums. A dead tree in a forest becomes a bed upon which fungi
will take root and feed.

The
second law of thermodynamics — upon which our understanding of entropy
is grounded – tells us that it is the fate of every closed
system to move from a condition of order to disorder. So consistently
has this proposition been repeated that most of us take it as an
established truth. But what if this view derives less from empirical
fact, than from logical reasoning premised on our limited understanding
of the universe?

If
we examine the nature of systems — including the universe itself
— we discover many of them becoming more complex and more
orderly, contrary to the expectations implicit in the second
law. If, as the "big bang" suggests, the universe began
as a kind of primordial, undifferentiated plasma, it quickly began
to distill out the various elements of which it is comprised. Out
of all this developed the galaxies and star systems that reflect
a more sophisticated organization than what prevailed prior to that.

The
emergence of life — in its varied and interconnected forms — out
of an apparently lifeless world, provides yet another example of
the elaboration, rather than the dissipation, of a more complex
order in nature. The continuing unfolding of the mind, of language,
and of social systems, further illustrates the incompleteness of
the second law.

The
Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine, raised perhaps the most serious
challenges to this long-established doctrine. In his work on "dissipative
structures," Prigogine theorized that a given system may reach
a "bifurcation point," at which its simpler processes
can no longer provide for order. At this point, Prigogine tells
us, the system can either go into a total, entropic collapse, or
evolve into a higher form of order. Prigogine has been a major contributor
to the study of "chaos" which, as I have suggested in
previous articles, provides some of the most persuasive evidence
for why vertically-structured systems (e.g., the state) are irrelevant
in an increasingly complex world. The study of economics helps us
understand that a complex world most effectively functions on the
basis of spontaneous behavior, in which people are free to respond
to the conditions before them; that efforts to impose order by fiat
interfere with the self-ordering processes by which systems thrive.
In the words of Erich Jantsch: "The more freedom in self-organization,
the more order!"

I
bring this to your attention in order to put the thinking of the
politically-driven environmentalists in perspective. If the second
law does not represent an unalterable truth (i.e., if the cosmos
is not fated to collapse into disorder), what impact might this
change in perspective have on the efforts of those whom Alan Watts
described as wanting "to scrub the universe"?

To
Prigogine, the world is a "self-organizing system," in
which order emerges out of disorder. In his view, the world — in
its many manifestations — continues to renew itself; is in a constant
process of becoming. Most environmentalists seem to view
the world in the same way as other collectivists: as an entity of
limited and fixed dimensions, whose usage must be distributed according
to a system of rationing. They, of course, imagine themselves to
be the appropriate "rationers," deciding who gets to make
decisions about what resources in the world! Socialists view the
phenomenon of wealth in the same way: it has somehow come into existence
in a fixed quantity; a few people have managed to get more than
their "fair share" of such wealth; and the state ought
to "redistribute" it — under the direction of the socialists,
of course — for the sake of "fairness."

The
idea that wealth is something produced by individuals, and that
the material well-being of mankind can continue to expand if the
state will simply get out of people's way, is a mindset the socialist
can never attain. The same holds true for most environmentalists:
the view that life processes interact, without supervision, to maintain
the conditions necessary for life to sustain itself, is of nightmarish
proportions to them. When James Lovelock's now classic work, Gaia,
suggested that life systems spontaneously maintain a balance between
oxygen and carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere that are appropriate
for all life, many environmentalists were aghast.

The
comedian, George Carlin, has a wonderful routine that ought to put
environmentalist-driven fears in perspective. After observing how
much turbulence the earth has experienced throughout its history
— e.g., polar magnetic shifts; volcanic eruptions; being hit by
comets, meteors, and solar flares; plate tectonics and continental
drift; floods and ice ages — Carlin asks if, in the face of all
this, the earth is now going to be threatened by plastic bags?

The
environmentalists may respond that, in the end, the second law of
thermodynamics will prevail; that the lives of each of us — as well
as all other systems in nature — are doomed to an entropic death.
They will point out that the sun will eventually expand in size
to consume its planetary neighbors, and may one day explode or implode.
Astronomers and physicists — who are also the authors of the second
law — have described a volatile universe of exploding galaxies,
black holes, and other indications of environments presumably not
conducive to life as we know it. Eventually, physicists advise us,
a universe that began in a "big bang" will cease to expand,
and will reverse itself into what will prove to be a "big crunch,"
a most untidy affair that will make our littering of streets and
parks meaningless in comparison.

I
wonder if the environmentalists have a plan to avert this horrifying
fate? Perhaps they — and the state, upon which they always seem
to call — can undertake a program aimed at saving not simply
the earth, but the universe itself. Science and technology
— who can always be counted upon to join any cause funded by the
taxpayers — should be able to concoct a detailed proposal to convince
a gullible public of the importance of such an undertaking. I can
imagine bumper-stickers and T-shirts that read: "Save the Universe!
Help Fight Entropy!"

There
is abundant evidence for this threat to the cosmos, and it is becoming
clear just how much the human species is contributing to it. It
was revealed, a few months ago, that the planet Mars is experiencing
global warming and a melting of its polar ice caps. And since all
right-thinking people know that, here on earth, such conditions
can only be brought about by automobiles, factories, and aerosol
sprays, this is convincing evidence that Mars must be populated
by humanlike creatures, right? Perhaps George W. Bush is more of
a visionary than we have given him credit for being; perhaps his
recent proposal to send people to Mars is but an interplanetary
extension of his "war on terror" to include Martians!

Environmentalists
will make clear to us that we can no longer be either special or
even geocentric in our outlook. Nothing less than a cosmic reorientation
will suffice! Because everything will be seen as contributing to
this cosmic disaster, everything must be controlled! We might begin
with saving the solar system from the threat of an expanding sun.
I read, a few days ago, of a planet discovered in another star system
that feeds heat to its sun through electromagnetic fields. Perhaps
physicists and engineers can get to work on some technology that
will allow earthlings to regulate the sun's temperatures, giving
future generations more time within which to work on the greater
cosmic project!

Saving
the universe from itself may become a governmental priority exceeding
that of controlling obesity. The threat of your distant descendants
being pulled apart as they are sucked into a black hole should be
enough to enlist your support for the cause. And what of the patriotic
types who would rise in anger at the thought of the American flag
being burned by a sun with expansionist ambitions?

There
will be those defeatists among us who will tell us that the earth,
itself, is but a faint speck in an equally inconspicuous galaxy,
and that our efforts would amount to nothing. They will inform us
that the universe is probably made up of billions of galaxies, and
that the combined forces and energies that permeate the universe
would far exceed our puny efforts to change things. But environmentalists
will likely react to such negativism, reminding us of the Frank
Sinatra song "High Hopes," that celebrated an ant
moving a rubber-tree plant! Besides, when political will joins forces
with technology, we can do anything! What black hole can
stand up against a CNN opinion poll?

These
are critical times. In this war to save the universe, there can
be no place for neutrals or conscientious objectors. Those who oppose
the war will, of course, be treated as traitors. In the mantra that
has become the epitome of beltway reasoning: "if you're not
with us, you're against us!"

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