Groundwork - Universe Bounded

globe By Gary Gardner

Here’s a happy thought: the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the entropy law, says that the universe is running down, that energy and materials are moving from concentrated, useful states to diffuse, unusable ones, as when a pile of coal is combusted and disperses as carbon dioxide and heat. The Second Law tells us that energy and materials tend to be transformed in one direction: toward disintegration. But if the physics of entropy are depressing, the metaphysical implications of a universe of tightening limits are much more hopeful, and even inspiring, because limits seem to be central to the sustainable development of our universe and everything in it.

First, the physics. Admittedly, the entropy law seems only partially to accord with our experience. Burned coal or wood is degraded to ash, gas, and heat, it’s true, but buildings and mountains are not collapsing around us. On the whole, our world seems far more stable than not. In fact, we see regular evidence of movement toward greater complexity, not less: each spring lesser materials like sugars and water are transformed into greater ones such as new buds and leaves, through the wonder of photosynthesis. And minerals, metals, and other materials, fueled by energy and human ingenuity, are regularly transformed into complex office buildings, homes, and freeways. A disintegrating universe? That’s not what the building boom in Shanghai seems to suggest.

But don’t be fooled.While humans can create new uses of energy and materials, we cannot create new sources. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger once wrote that “the device by which an organism maintains itself at a fairly high level of orderliness…really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment.” Shanghai’s skyscrapers signal a temporary increase in complexity that actually increases the entropy of materials and energy sources faster than if they had been left alone. And the complex creativity that nature produces each spring is possible because of the steady inflow of solar energy to our planet.

So the entropy law is real. And it has implications for our economies. Spent energy and materials can be recaptured or recycled, but with steadily diminishing efficiency—and at some point it’s simply not worth it anymore. In the face of human numbers and human appetites, we are quickly running up against limits in the availability of key economic resources.We can use oil and copper more efficiently, and we can conserve them, but we cannot create new stocks.We can also turn outside our terrestrial system and pretend to sidestep the entropy law, say by tapping the sun’s abundant energy. But until we become skilled at managing the intermittent flow of this abundant source, affordably, so that it is available for on-demand use, the limits of solar may turn out to be economic limits as well.

Thus, the Second Law in human experience is ultimately about limits. Its short-run value is its reminder that our development, our economies, and our potential as a species are not open-ended from a physical perspective. Limits are unfamiliar territory for industrial economies, judging from the messages that governments and businesses send us on a daily basis. Growth is good, more is better, you can have it all, no payments for 18 months—all of these communicate an open-endedness to life that does not accord with the limits of the physical world around us, limits that the Second Law insists on.

But recognizing limits does not mean that we are doomed to a static, straitjacketed life.While the physical world is limited, our imaginations are not. Imagination was central to genius in the 20th century; it was responsible for myriad wonders, from antibiotics to microcredit to hot food at 30,000 feet. Imagination is even more valuable in a world of limits. Using human creativity to meet human needs within boundaries established by nature—that is a higher standard of genius, and arguably the standard we are challenged to meet in the 21st century.

We appear to be up to the challenge. As cities have been overrun with cars, Europeans have developed car-sharing: access to private transportation without the need for two autos in every driveway. (In fact, Europeans enjoy a standard of living comparable to that of Americans while using roughly half the per-capita resources.) As waste flows have polluted air, water, and our bodies, companies have learned to design for remanufacturing, to give us the machines we need to minimize virgin materials use and reduce waste. As virgin materials have become scarce, some businesses have learned to dematerialize— no need to drive to the music store to buy a CD if we can download it from the Internet.Who says we cannot replicate this ingenuity economy-wide?

Indeed, these limits-driven successes suggest an encouraging truth: perhaps we humans do our best work in a world of limits. Oil-rich nations often develop undiversified mono-economies, whereas resource-poor countries like Japan have learned to develop robust, complex economic machines. Lottery winners, flooded with new wealth and a life without limits, often see their previous problems only worsen, according to researchers.

The importance of limits for creativity may even rise to the level of universal law. Cultural historian Thomas Berry has noted that the unfolding of the universe itself is governed by a combination of energy, released at the Big Bang, and constraint, in the form of gravity. Gravity helps the dispersed energy congeal into a progressive universe. And of course philosophers since the Roman playwright Terence have counseled “moderation in all things” for those who aspire to a high level of personal development. Is it possible that boundedness is a prerequisite for the development of a person, an economy, and of the universe itself?

The lesson arguably is of direct importance to the planners mapping out a new New Orleans. To what degree do city, state, and federal authorities regard the Mississippi River, nearby wetlands, and the Gulf coast as antagonistic forces to be tamed? Aren’t they instead natural constraints which can help shape the rebuilding effort in a sustainable way? To what degree are low-income people seen as obstacles in need of “relocation”? Can we dare to rebuild and remove the conditions that create poverty? Such energy, released subject to moral boundaries, might well unleash a new creativity in the city. But only if those planners take to heart a lesson that applies to us all: that limits are not so much handcuffs as they are frameworks that allow us to build strong, purposeful lives and economies.