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!"
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.