Morowitz has presented the case, in thermodynamic terms, for the hypothesis that a steady flow of energy from the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space, by way of the earth, is mathematically destined to cause the organization of matter into an increasingly ordered state. The resulting balancing act involves a ceaseless clustering of bonded atoms into molecules of higher and higher complexity, and the emergence of cycles for the storage and release of energy. In a nonequilibrium steady state, which is postulated, the solar energy would not just flow to the earth and radiate away; it is thermodynamically inevitable that it must rearrange matter into symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation. In such a system, the outcome is a chancy kind of order, always on the verge of descending into chaos, held taut against probability by the unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.The fragility of the complex and beautiful structures we have built “away from probability, against entropy” is often lost in the day to day rushing through our hyper-consumptive industrial civilization. Absorbed in our daily tasks and annoyances we forget how utterly and completely we are dependent upon that “unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.” We do live in a “chancy kind of order.”
- Lewis Thomas "The Lives of a Cell"
But not just that. The energy from the sun is diffuse. Plant photosynthesis, a most miraculous phenomenon of “rearrangement and molecular ornamentation,” is, at best, able to capture about 6% of the diffuse solar radiation that flows from “the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space.” And this inefficient molecular ornamentation is the foundation of our entire fragile existence.
This inefficient ornamentation stored that diffuse energy of the sun in the partially decomposed remains of primeval swamps and forests and, over hundreds of millions of years, geological processing concentrated those remains into the energy-dense sources of fire that are the foundations of our modern way of life - our “non-negotiable lifestyle.” It is the burning of these energy dense deposits that has enabled us to move very, very far away from probability into highly ordered states; burning ever more intensely to hold back the thermodynamic forces of entropy, like the Red Queen running as fast as we can to stay in one place. And the farther away we get from probability, the harder we push against entropy, the more dependent we become on that burning as we attempt the impossible task of supporting constant and continuing growth of population and resource use within a complex and limited planetary system.
In mutual parasitism, our non-negotiable lifestyles, as they become ever more highly ordered, have enabled the rise of massive joint-stock corporations, those subsidized hothouse flowers, those high maintenance welfare queens, which we support by socializing their depradations upon our land, water, air and communities so that they may shower their executives and stockholders with material riches. These delicate, high maintenance, freeloaders have now become the Masters of our modern civilization. We the people are completely enmeshed within the products and conveniences provided by these profit generating dandies – from the toothpaste we use in the morning, the toilets we flush, the automobiles we ride in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, … and the jobs from which we get the money to buy all the products that give us life and support our lifestyle.
And now, after only a few hundred years of this (the briefest microsecond in the life of our planet), we find ourselves in a predicament. A predicament that involves the unintended consequences of that burning, among other things. It is a multifaceted predicament: a population soon to be nearing 10 billion; degraded land, water, air and oceans; vast inequities in resource use and wealth distribution; social upheaval; it goes on and on.
So we find ourselves awash in apocalyptic scenarios. What’s your favorite? A worldwide plague among overcrowded, malnourished inhabitants of cities whose infrastructure is designed to support one tenth the number of inhabitants? Climate chaos, causing mass migrations of displaced wanderers stressing political systems of vast regions leading to violence, disease and starvation? Water shortages from disappearing glaciers causing mass suffering, famine and death? Seal level rise wiping out cities? Chaos, leading to warfare, leading to nuclear annihilation?
What is interesting about these scenarios is that they are not fevered imaginings of small numbers of religious crazies predicting the end of the world. They arise as people react to trends elucidated by mainstream scientists. We wouldn’t know about rising CO2 levels if scientists hadn’t studied them and raised alarms about probable consequences should those levels continue to increase. The impossibility of continued exponential growth in a limited system is just basic mathematics – it’s not some arcane interpretation of biblical passages.
Now, it seems, things have reversed themselves. The silly wackos, the crackpots, are the ones saying everything will be fine. Anticipating apocalypse is becoming mainstream.
But crucial questions about the nature of this impending collapse and when it will occur remain unanswered. Are we talking about the slow cessation of an unsustainable hyperconsumption devolving into a much healthier and happier future of solar powered ecovillages or are we talking an immediate and monstrous crash into violent warfare between cannibal armies?
I do think there is no way to avoid the conclusion that there will be far fewer humans on the planet in the not too distant future. Ten billion large mammals is a massive disordering of the Laws of Nature and cannot be sustained. Nor can 7 billion. My ideal number is 10 million. I get that number from data on the population sizes, in natural ecosystems, of other species of large mammals. It seems that Nature prefers a population size of a few, or several, millions of our type of mammal. Of course, other people have different numbers. But, like I said, only crackpots these days claim our population can keep growing without limit.
But reaching a smaller population – even my drastic 10 million – doesn’t necessarily require some kind of terrible die-off. If everyone suddenly stopped having babies there would be no humans on the planet in about a hundred years. The apocalyptic question is, do we have enough time to get there by reducing birth rates or do we need to call in the cannibal armies? Given the fact that it’s been pretty clearly established that lowered birth rates are most effectively generated by educating and empowering women and girls, this provides us with a positive, hopeful and worthy means of getting there. A future of wise and empowered women judiciously reclaiming our degraded land and building a sensible civilization is a comforting vision. I sincerely hope we have enough time to get there.
It’s possible. Non-fossil fuel energy sources are experiencing a renaissance. Alternate methods to our deeply misguided industrial food systems are arising everywhere. Agro-ecology, permaculture, ecovillages - there are hopeful developments springing up all over the planet. But we cannot predict the future. It could be worse than our darkest imaginings, or better than our fondest hopes.
Nevertheless, everyone seems to think “it” will happen in the near future. This is a majority opinion now, I think. Personally, my opinion is that unambiguous, in our faces, collapse will be in full force within the next 20 years. I can see signs of its beginning phases right now all around me. And I can also see growing awareness of its impending arrival and the beginning phases of energetic work towards cushioning its impacts.
Amid all my uncertainties about the future, one thing I am sure of is that whatever takes the place of our current "chancy kind of order," in a universe of flux and impermanence, will also be a "chancy kind of order."
For the Children
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
- Gary Snyder