The war on entropy
Ever since we lost the Concorde, the passenger airplane that flew faster than the speed of sound, I’ve felt like the world has been treading water in place. It just doesn’t rime with me, if we are on the way to ‘ever better’, ‘ever faster’ and ‘always onward’, how the holly-smokes have we not reclaimed commercial mach-1 by now? Don’t get me wrong, I never lost any real sleep over this, I just thought it was a dissonant in the dominating marketing-PR of our time. ‘Temporary set backs are possible, but the trend is always up.’
But off course reality is otherwise. Even if we disregard the economic crisis since 2008, the limits to the growth were known long before that. For every pound of work done a cost is paid in resources and carbon emissions. And the truth is that the world simply can’t afford to produce that pound of work for each living soul alive today. For us, the 99% non-Rockefellers of the rich-and-developed world, making trips beyond our mesosphere or going faster than the speed of sound is simply one of those first-world problems we aren’t really troubled with. Yet still there are some very first-worldian problems we get upset about, which second-worldians would tremendously envy us for having. And we have yet to mention the third and fourth world in this obviously fundamentally imperfect world.
But lately I’ve remarked that my worries are becoming decreasingly less trivial and I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m sinking. It feels like my world is coming apart. The question that remains is: is it just me, is it my country? Perhaps it is just Europe that is going down; but then again, maybe it is every single last one of us. Ok, I know some of the stuff I’m dealing with are really personal issues. Family members passing away, close relatives that lose their job and who come to depend on me for a feeling of security. Also myself, I’ve been on the edge of unemployment on several occasions in the last couple of years, finding a new job in the nick of time, only to be informed that more reorganization is forthcoming.
Other factors are obviously country related: Flemish separatists cracking the whip in a new right-wing Belgian government like we are Ukraine or something. Or for instance the cut-backs in the domain of public transport, resulting in ever longer commutes to and from work. Or perhaps it’s the increasingly plausible scenario that Belgium will have to selectively cut the power (as in electricity!) to some parts of the country, given as the (unbelievable) numbers predict that we will no longer have the capacity to cover the needs of everyone during winter. Unemployment is rising due to government savings while social-security is being reduced in order to please the corporations. My first world problems seem to have evaporated and I’ve started to evaluate my position in a historical perspective.
How much better off am I compared to Marlon Brando in ‘On The Waterfront’ if we compare job-security, expenditure for housing, electricity, heating in winter and food? If you haven’t seen this movie I suggest you skip the next “Transformers” iteration and rent this introduction into your own social history. Don’t get me wrong, I still have it better, we pretty much all do. But we do not have it twice as good as we would have had a hundred years ago. At the same time the average speed of transport on land has tripled or even quadrupled. Even in the richest of countries, 10% of us are living beneath a poverty line that excludes those people from most of what defines these countries as ‘Rich’. What makes this all so incredible for me is that in these same hundred years we have harnessed more energy and applied it increasingly automatically such that our capacities to act surpasses entire millennia of human endeavor. We have invented things as the film-industry during this period and by now many of us have consumed it’s produce on hand held devices, mimicking science-fiction concepts that are themselves merely decades old.
Yet the problems of the very first century CE still continue to baffle us today. Despite the capacity to travel distances multiplying many times over, the daily displacement to where you need to be isn’t anything less frustrating today than it was in Rome the day Caesar was slain. Just as then, mobility is still a component of wealth, while speed and comfort are determined by the means at your disposal.
With 7 billion people on the planet the cost of living space may actually be more expensive today than it used to be. In any case it doesn’t seem we have significantly less of those that are deprived of shelter for sleeping. Off course much of that is influenced by that other thing that returned while never actually having been gone: slavery. This is as much an integral part of the economy today as it was in the first century. Human trafficking, using distance as a means of coercion, is still feeding the markets for cheap domestic servants, high-risk industrial work and paid-sex.
Access to water then, is actually one thing that will decrease over the coming centuries since every day more is being used by industrial needs who get first and easy access. At the same time rising temperatures predict an even less even distribution. Literally drowning some while ‘drought-ing’ others.
Finally, between the ipads and the heart-monitor, the very fabric of our society is hard-linked to access to cheap energy. With the production shifting to the margins of fossil-fuels (tar-sands, fracking) the leukemia is set in the very backbone of our world. And just as in the case of ‘that other spaceship’ Apollo 13, while we have enough oxygen the one thing we have too much of is carbon-dioxide. Despite while most of us are rushing –to fit squareshaped ‘scrubbers’ into round LEM fittings– still too many decide to ignore the gauges and decide to wait until the poisoning sets in. But this is just a metaphor mind you.
Between all this, between ebola and Isis, with Israeli fanatics, Muslim ‘moderates’ and Russian Tsars mounting more aggressive actions in spite of humanity, I have started to wonder if it’s not the entire world which is gradually going down the drain. I wonder how many of you are having the same feeling.
“Radio Lab” is a U.S. podcast that deals creatively, artistically and scientifically with a very wide range of subjects. It is the kind of show that, even when something is not the subject for you, that grips your attention and wrings you out. Despite the scientific nature of the way they tend to deal with subjects I find it to be a very emotional show. You should really check it out.
It is from one of their recent shows that this post starts off. “In the dust of this planet ” is a philosophical book written by the brother-in-law of one of the podcast presenters. I haven’t read it and the podcast only dealt with it on a tangent because the podcast focuses on the way the title (and mostly only the title) of this fringe-public book was picked up by mainstream media. I will do the same here though I will be implementing a lot more of the nihilism the book deals with at the same time.
You see, I have always been somewhat of a pessimist. My dentist isn’t too happy with my teeth grinding, my headaches are caused by the stress I let accumulate on my neck-muscles if my physical-therapist is to be believed. But I’ll stick with being a pessimist for I fear little else worse than being a disappointed optimist. That doesn’t mean I like worrying. It just means I live by ‘hope for the best prepare for the worst’.
But obviously I haven’t been a pure pessimist. Real pessimists don’t start blogs. Romantics do.
Perhaps some of this ‘sinking-feeling’ comes from being at this age where you start to see the illusions of youth fall across the event-horizon of possibility and realism. Certainly some of it comes from seeing right-wing government abandon compassion for cold cuts and for a badly veiled euphemism of ‘self-reliance’ in the face of massive unemployment. Another part is perhaps the general retreat of compassion, not only all around us, but also in myself (perhaps in you as well?).
The second law of thermodynamics says that in a closed system entropy can never decrease. Though the world is not a closed system, it is obvious how this law implies that there is a strong tendency for everything to come apart at the seams if left alone. If I postulate that a good world system where everybody is happy contains less entropy than a world in disorder, as I feel we are gliding off to, we kind of need to ask the question: at what cost in entropy can we make the world a better place?
The world is not a closed system as it takes energy from the sun and it can expel stuff into space. It is not a closed system but there is a limit to the intake and the output of the system. In trying to make a better world (for some) we have used much of the fossilized energy from the sun and are paying the price by having too much carbon in our atmosphere. Entropy has gone up. Temperature is rising and the weather-gods are stronger and more aggressive.
And yet even in light of all these things optimism is not unwarranted. Okay, there are hard times ahead, but we can overcome all this can’t we? We’ve known wars before. We’ve known economic crisis before. I guess we can and we will pull-through since option number “2” lacks that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that ‘survival’ seems to have. But let us be truly pessimistic and disregard the first few millennia. If we think in geologic time-frames, can mankind really make it?
Considering that 99% of all species that ever evolved have not made it until today the probabilities are not looking good. And yet extinction of humanity is one of those things ‘John Doe’ rarely considers or falsely rejects as being unrealistic. And yes, perhaps we are a very unique species when it comes to survival strategy. Humans and their technology are on all continents and even off this world surviving in the widest range of circumstances any species to date has. Most of what we do is unmatched by any other species in history. But does that matter? I’m sure spiders are very cocky about their web-weaving abilities too: “It’s stronger then steel!!” When looking at things that do matter though, such as duration of species and duration of world-dominance, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. Realistically speaking mankind would not stand a much greater chance today to survive the historic events that wiped out many of dominant predecessors. Any change to our eco-system would be as hard-felt at it would have been in the Iron age, with the only difference being that we have not 7 million but rather 7 billion mouths to feed and we depend not on dozens but on the collaboration of millions to survive. Like the spider’s web, it is very strong in essence, but awfully thin.
Countless things, other than those things caused by ourselves, have the potential to severely ‘fudge’ with our survival advantages. And even if geological time doesn’t pass our position onto some still-to-evolve species and we succeed in never-ending earthly dominance, earth and our solar system themselves have a limited shelf-life. And yes, there are those that fantasize about making space-ships and swarming out to other habitable worlds. I wonder if earth has the resources to build such moving eco-systems; or whether we’d be focused enough to bridge the millennia it would take to ship-in the resources from uninhabitable colonies that are themselves multiple light-years away. I kind of doubt it. And from this temporary conclusion flows my wonderment: “who will they be, the people that will witness the end of human-history? And will they know it as it happens? And if they know, what will they think and how will they feel?”
The upside to pessimism
The upside to dying is that once it’s over you barely having anything to worry about. Yes, that’s a joke, sort of. Coming to terms with the mortality of your species is much like coming to terms with your own. It helps to look at it from a higher perspective. For your own death that is perhaps tied to your children and the continuity of life you’ve been a part of. If, like me, you have no children, it might be that the opposite of death, eternal life, must be awfully tiresome at some point. The extinction of the human race (and perhaps all known living things on earth) however means that even the descendants of your children’s children are no more. It is a ‘very final’ final in that way. But here is perhaps a difficult question: Is it a bad thing? Is the ending of our species, by itself, a fate that is wrong on a cosmological scale?
Well let’s stretch the analogy a bit further. Is it bad that you will eventually die? Is this question still too hard? Well let’s start with something that is most definitely bad: your four years old daughter dies and that is very bad. It is bad because you suffer terribly and you suffer terribly because your daughter didn’t experience much of what she was reasonably to expect. Furthermore she was not at an age where she, through experience, had gotten to a place where both she and her loved ones where comforted that she lived a full life. It is bad because of her missing out disproportionally on a large part of her potential and it is bad because it tremendously influences what remains in a negative way, leaving you broken like that.
If we look at humanity in this way it is very hard to say at what ‘age’ it is or what age it may have on its last day. There were species that were extremely ‘in sync’ resource-wise with their environment who roamed the earth for millions of years. We are very young in their eyes. If we look at humanity in the sense of how its demise would negatively impact what remains, it is very small. Most of the universe is inanimate matter. Its fate is determined by the fundamental forces and living matter has only an imperceptible impact on it. If with earth, all complex life would disappear from the universe that certainly would be a terrible blow to the universes diversity. On the other hand, in all its uniformity the universe may not actually care at all about diversity. The order in the chaos, that life represents, may just be chaos’ unwanted pollution with entropy being the great cleanser.
The universe doesn’t care either way whether we live or die so we might as well follow our instinct and try to hold on a little longer. And if we can’t, well that’s mostly our problem and rather a ‘too bad’ instead of a ‘it’s so unfair!’.
So that’s the upside of pessimism, a man that knows his fate and accepts it, has no fear. There are epidemics ahead, some brutal global wars even, still too many of us will starve. You may lose your house and your job and none of your life may go as planned. But here is the thing: it doesn’t mean you failed! You are fighting entropy, a force that eventually will render the universe itself void, you are not meant to win this fight. You will lose it in the end and we will mourn you, or I’ll die first and you’ll be sad for me. We all will die, it is not the end of the world. And even if it is, that was already inevitable so why be sad about it?
Entropy is trying to dissolve you every day and you claim a victory over it every day. Entropy has no meaning, it doesn’t love and isn’t loved, but you are loved by many around you and thus have a quality that entropy can never mimic. You are a contender, in a losing battle, but a noble one, a battle on a universal scale. Be fearless!
Finally, if we are saddened by the inevitability of hardship, by the sheer meaninglessness of our existence or by the futility of our resistance there is solace in things that are greater than ourselves. For there is music that invokes tears and landscapes that stop our breath; there are books that makes our understanding transcend and there are poems in which we read meaning and truth were only seeds of both were planted. Let me attempt a stab at the latter within the theme we are talking of.
In the dust of this planet
Through deserted echoes my feet beat the withered ways.
Gone are the people, the chops and this self-evident wave of days.
The bricks, the leaves, the quick and the dead
have returned to clays.
between the green rays, in the dust of this planet.
I walk this city stripped of its attire.
A Roman walking the ruins of his scorched empire.
Will I be the last? The last to damn it?
The last to kneel, in the dust of this planet?
As the sun sets between the blistered skyscrapers I ponder the day ahead.
I pray not to thee my Lord, my God,
you are but a fantasy the world will forget.
Still it may be odd, that I talk out loud,
as I’m not mad and what I talk about
is between me and my love,
my hill and this rock,
all laying in the dust of this planet.
I’m not sad that it so came to pass.
Nor scared of whatever fate is ours.
you say and pray
to entropy between the stars.
Where once were billions, suddenly there were only thousands,
now there’s merely dozens left.
Sick and starving, killing and rotting exiting of scavenging and theft.
I found this grave yesterday
and It reminded me of things that may.
“Traveler, what I am today,
soon you too will be,
fodder for worm and flea,
in spite of how you planned it.
So lay down beside me and enjoy the end of history.
Lay down beside me,
in the dust of this planet.”
He may be right, but I was brought up to fight,
to a life of awe and shock,
to do what I must do,
but I could not carry you, nor say goodbye to you,
…so I placed your head upon this rock.
My skinless hands are now infected
I am almost done,
my last water is wrung,
From my shirt, it’s sweat and dirt
and the slime some bug ejected.
A gun and a clip of caliber .33
stand between me and destiny
I stand bolted
on this hill I defend
only because it was assaulted.
As good a place as any, for everything to end.
For all we have known and all we have done,
Played out on this pale blue dot.
I’m among the lucky that get to see the end of the story,
and get to part-take in the worlds last rave.
That see it was us, not God, that did it.
and stand witness among the wicked, the godless and the brave,
as I will stand my ground, in the dust of this planet.
Post – scriptum
This post is late because I was working hard and because poetry, however mediocre, can’t be forced.
Then it was late because two weeks ago I was indeed let go from my job and I had to priorities my re-entry on the job-scavenging arena.
Beaten but not broken.