Entropy and Me

This really isn’t just about me, but I couldn’t resist–entropy being, for those who need a reminder of their undergrad science classes, the state I’m heading toward, which we all are heading towards, some of us already there. I’m reading a book for my fall class called The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, by Tom Wessels, for, of all things, you might say, my course on Utopias, Dystopias, and Intentional Communities. But here’s the glue (ironically): entropy.

So a quick review. When the world began we were anti-entropic, a state wherein a complex system grows, taking in more energy than it releases; at maturity–where we’ve been for over 3 billion years on earth, a state of dynamic equilibrium, where there is balance between the taking in and releasing of energy. The third thing that happens is entropy–what we humans have been accelerating since the Industrial Revolution, a process that’s speeding up as we devour oil and shit out pollution.

The essence of entropy is a move from complex to simple or from concentration to diffusion, expending more energy than is taken in–think of a tree trunk, now in its entropic step toward re-integration into the earth. It began anti-entropic, that little acorn, taking in lots and lots of energy so that it grew to its adult magnificence. Equilibrium for a number of years, even those in which a drought or flood or fire occurred, and now that it is “dying,” it is no longer taking in energy but only giving it back–feeding all those creatures that are anti-entropic. Every complex system goes through this process, which we call the “life cycle.”

I think Wessels’ small book is good for my class because we are focusing on Ecological Crisis. Intentional communities are increasing in number–“commoners” another book I want to use calls them (Tom Bollier), those seeking a life where “the commons” are again respected and plentiful. The capitalist economy, both Bollier and Wessels say, is a complex system that is in its entropic stage. Another of those complex systems to join the ranks of the entropic is patriarchy. These are dying systems that cannot (if they ever could) accommodate for the realities of life–the individual, the community–because they assume a) control and hierarchy and b) unending progress. They (in various iterations) have gone hand in hand in our world for enough centuries to have caused enough damage, heartache, war, degradation to feel, well, a little bit delirious at the signs of their decay.

Or I would if it weren’t for another reality that comes with the entropic disintegration of a complex system like capitalism or patriarchy, and that’s backlash. Look around–can we say that the increase in hate radio, hate campaigns, hate wars, and hate policies is due to “advances” in technology alone? I agree that technology has sped up everything, accelerating the insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety that comes with massive social and environmental change. But I see the growing number of frantic acts as signs of desperation. A drowning white man (in a suit) grasping for anything as his little chunk of ice gets smaller and smaller in a big, salty, warming sea.

And here’s where we have to turn off our 24/7 news channels and instead skim the titles of a decent newspaper, dip in here and there to read (know what’s going on in the Ukraine, the Congo, LA), and then go in search of Something Else. Find the people and places where Something Else is going on. Where people who are able to make choices are. Option A Same Old Same Old–using hot water to wash their clothes, driving gas guzzlers, tossing plastic into the trash, feeling hostile. Option B Choose the anti-entropic action instead: cold water, bicycles/walking/fewer trips, recycling, practicing small acts of kindness. . . . I still feel hostile some days, but I have not surrendered to it.

So when we look at such dyspopic works as Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or McCarthy’s The Road, both of which I’m using in my class, we see the entropic direction of our current path taken to the logical conclusion, what’s next for Planet Earth and Creature Human. When we look at the impulse toward complexity (diversity) and away from simplicity (mono-agriculture) we see life-affirming action seeking equilibruium, stretching to pull us back from the dystopic brink.