Development through Alternation

8.6 The entropic crisis and the learning response

Anthony Judge

Society may be usefully perceived as facing an entropic crisis. This view has been explored by Jeremy Rifkin (105). The second (entropy) law of thermodynamics states that matter and energy can only be changed in one direction, from usable to unusable, or from available to unavailable, or from ordered to disordered. And whenever any semblance of order is created anywhere, it is done at the expense of causing an even greater disorder in the surrounding environment. For Rifkin the inexorable nature of this process provides an understanding of why the existing world views are breaking down. For:

"The laws of thermodynamics, then, govern the physical world. The way humanity decides to interact with those laws in establishing a framework for physical existence is of crucial importance in whether humankind's spiritual journey is allowed to flourish or languish" (105, p. 9) (#16)

He anticipates three types of response to the implications of the entropy law, namely from optimists, pragmatists, or hedonists. It is very interesting that he challenges the use to which Prigogine's work on dissipative structures will be put by the optimists. For Rifkin:

"The theory of dissipative structures is an attempt to provide a growth paradigm for an energy environment based on renewables, just as Newtonian physics provided a growth paradigm for a nonrenewable energy environment." (105, p. 245)

He argues that the theory of dissipative structures completely ignores the wider significance of the entropy law by concentrating only on that part of the unfolding process that creates increasing order. And on the question of irreversibility on a cosmic scale, Prigogine does indeed state "I prefer to confess ignorance" (39, p. 214). Rifkin continues:

"By refusing to recognize that increased ordering and energy flow-through always creates ever greater disorder in the surrounding environment, those who advocate bio-engineering technology as the transforming apparatus for a renewable energy environment are doomed to repeat the same folly that has led to the final collapse of our nonrenewable energy environment and the age of physics that was built upon it." (105, p. 247)

He concludes:

"Like it or not, we are irrevocably headed toward a low-energy society....The longer we put off the necessary transition from a high- to a low-entropy society, the bigger the entropy bill becomes and the more difficult the turnaround becomes....The alternative to this wholescale squandering of available energy is an internalization of the values and dictates of the entropic paradigm," (105, p. 254)

The difficulty is that Rifkin is clear on what should not be done but provides few practical insights into the social order required to do whatever ought to be done - whatever that is. In particular, in the light of the theme of this paper, he accumulates significance in relation to entropy at the expense of conceptual ordering in relation to issues and perspectives to which others are sensitive. By striving for support, as does any proponent of a world view (whatever its merits), he condemns his perspective to compete in the "gladiatorial arena" discussed earlier.

Rifkin believes that the entropy constraint applies only to the physical domain and that there is an escape route.

"There are those among us who are willing to accept the finiteness of the physical world but who believe that the entropic flow is counterbalanced by an ever-expanding stream of psychic order. To these people, the becoming process of life is synonymous with the notion of an ever-growing consciousness." (105, p. 257)

Whatever the merits of the argument, as an ordering device, it does not clarify the basis for the emergence of such a new psychic order. His presentation implies that it could be based on a psychic, constraint-free replication of the pattern which he so effectively criticizes in the physical domain. But the accumulation of "hot spots" of significance at the expense of a surrounding, unredeemable "wasteland" of increasing irrelevance does not seem to be the basis for the needed breakthrough. Whether it is "experienced" or "achieved", somehow a low-energy psychic order is required to interrelate the various domains of significance to permit the emergence of a physical low-energy society. "Hot-wiring", to use Rifkin's term, also needs to be avoided in the patterns of communication between such domains, between his "answer" and those of others.