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Our World in High Entropy

By Jack Hokikian, Ph.D.

Version 1.1, Updated 3/17/2009

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
                                           —T.S. Eliot

Every process, event, happening—call it what you will; in a word, everything that is going on in Nature means an increase of the entropy of the part of the world where it is going on. [2]

              —Erwin Schrödinger, Physics Nobel Laureate


Our world is changing rapidly and becoming increasingly complex, disordered and polluted. Economies are in disarray, conflicts are all too frequent, our ecosystem is in a state of distress and our lives are becoming ever more hectic and uncertain. The explanation to our situation can be found in the discipline of thermodynamics, especially in the Second Law of Thermodynamics—the Law of Entropy.

    The Second Law is about the irreversibility of natural processes. It states that there is a physical quantity called entropy that increases in all processes irreversibly. Physicists identify entropy as a measure of the disorder or complexity of a system. [3] In economic terms, the Second Law can be regarded as Nature’s unyielding tax collector. It exacts a tax from all our activities by increasing the disorder of our thermodynamic system. No process eludes Nature’s Second Law; her tax code contains no loopholes and no tax shelters. Through increases in entropy, the Second Law controls and dictates the way all processes proceed in the universe. For this reason, it maintains a supreme position within the Laws of Nature. It demands our undivided consideration.

    (The First Law is about a physical quantity called energy. It states that the amount of energy in the universe is constant; energy cannot be created or destroyed but can be transformed from one form to another.) [4]

    Regrettably, humanity is not paying much attention to the Second Law and is increasing entropy massively and rapidly, thus paying a high price to the Second Law. Thanks to globalization of economies, free trade, population growth and advances in science and technology, our world is developing and changing swiftly. As more people become indoctrinated into a high-entropic lifestyle governed by profligate methods of production and consumption and high levels of obsolescence, the pressure on natural resources heightens, the disorder of the environment magnifies, and the competition—ideological, socioeconomic, and technological—between people and nations intensifies. Life becomes more hectic, more disorderly, more problematic, more uncertain.

    In 1983, the Wall Street Journal brought to our attention that in recent years growing global interdependence “has had an almost utopian appeal,” and was the dream of the 1960s and early 1970s. “ ‘Peace trough trade’ was the catch phrase. A Brazilian-grown chicken in a French-made pot: What a feast the two could make!” [5]

    The Journal pointed out that global interdependence is now here and growing. It has brought heightened world trade and increased incomes—and living standards—and has propelled some developing countries into industrialization. International investment has bloomed, opening new and seemingly unlimited avenues for the determined entrepreneur.

    The increased interdependence also has brought about some problems—disorders—that proponents did not foresee when touting its potential benefits. Nations are far more vulnerable to outside economic disruptions than they were before. Previously safe domestic industries have been hit by world markets, necessitating painful adjustments. Distortions in currency exchange rates can shut out nations’ traditional export markets. Economic autonomies of nations have been limited, as drastic actions by one nation quickly translate into hardships to others. “As a result, there are serious questions whether the long-sought-after interdependence hasn’t finally reached the point where its costs may be outweighing its benefits,” remarked the Wall Street Journal. [6]

    The desirability of increased independence has not always been shared by economists and policymakers. An article in the Yale Review called for “a greater measure of national self-sufficiency and economic isolation” among nations. “Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel—these are the things which should of their nature be international,” the author argued. “But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national.” [7] The author was the renowned economist John Maynard Keynes, in 1933.

    “It’s still too early to tell how the debate over ‘increased interdependence’ will turn out,” concluded the Wall Street Journal. “But the concept plainly has far more minuses [disorders] than it seemed to have in the 1960s—and that may require more thought.” [8] As it turns out, the Second Law of Thermodynamics gives us an insight into the situation.

    Imagine a cube made of a transparent material whose volume is 250 cubic feet, with 250 compartments filled with liquids of different colors. What happens if we make a pinhole on each side of the compartments? The individual molecules, finding additional degrees of freedom, will start to move around within a larger volume. The entropy of the system will increase. When the entropy of a system increases, so does our ignorance about the system. [9] Before, we knew that a green molecule was in the green compartment. Now it can be in any compartment. With the passage of time, our ignorance about the system increases as the mixing process goes on. And if the size of the pinhole opening within the compartments should widen, the molecules will find more degrees of freedom to roam around, further increasing our ignorance—uncertainty—about the system.

    The same principle applies to world affairs. Suppose those compartments were national boundaries. As barriers between nations begin to fall, each constituent (molecule) finds more degrees of freedom to move around in a larger volume. In our case, the molecules can be anything: people, ideologies, knowledge, religions, raw materials, goods, diseases, chemicals, information (or misinformation), cults, factories, jobs, terrorism, technology, money, food, drugs, or weapons. It is crucial to realize that once physical barriers fall, it becomes a practical impossibility to “control” the types of things that cross national boundaries. [10]

    The entropies produced by “free trade” and globalization of commerce gradually picked up momentum in the 1980s, especially after the demise of the Soviet Union, and became increasingly disturbing and apparent. Books and articles began to talk about the effects and “minuses” of growing global interdependence.

    The discipline of economics accepts the concept of free trade as an axiom not to be challenged. As Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman, author of Rethinking International Trade, has pointed out, “If there were an Economist’s Creed,” it would surely contain the affirmation, “I believe in free trade.” [11] Consequently, it is difficult for professors of economics to publish articles and books criticizing the fundamentals behind free trade. There have been, however, some exceptions notably Professor Herman E. Daly of the University of Maryland. In his book, Beyond Growth, Daly denounces the economists’ free trade dogma: “Economists overwhelming agree that (1) economic growth, as measured by GNP, is a very good thing, and (2) that global economic integration via free trade is unarguable because it contributes to competition, cheaper products, world peace, and especially to growth in GNP. Policies based on these two conceptually immaculate—and interrelated—tenets of economic orthodoxy are reducing the capacity of the earth to support life, thereby literally killing the world.” [12]

    Free trade with free movement of just about everything among nations has many offensive side effects—from financial to social to ecological. More and more economists are speaking out free trade’s environmental side effects, which economists call externalities. In The Myth of Free Trade, Professor of Economics at Southern Methodist University Ravi Batra reminds us that airborne trade pumps millions of tons of jet fuel wastes into the atmosphere; when merchant ships crisscross the globe, they use energy and dump contaminants into the water; when trucks zip through Europe, Asia, and Africa transporting products from one nation to another, they burn gasoline, pollute the air, and contribute to global warming. He concludes: “Thus international trade is a major source of environmental degradation.” [13]

    The socioeconomic disorders generated by increased global free trade have become so pronounced that even George Soros, a long-time practitioner of international finance, is writing about them. Events in 1980s and 1990s, such as the financial crises in Asia and Latin America, and the Russian meltdown, made Soros even more aware that “the global capitalist system was unsound and unsustainable.” [14] In The Crisis of Global Capitalism, he remarks that classical economists were inspired by Newtonian physics and its laws. Their goal was to use the laws of mechanics to explain and predict economic behavior. [15] As Soros points out, this has not happened:

    The rethinking must start with the recognition that financial markets are inherently unstable. The global capitalist system is based on the belief that financial markets, left to their own devices, tend towards equilibrium. They are supposed to move like a pendulum: they may be dislocated by external forces, so-called exogenous shocks, but they will seek to return to the equilibrium position. This belief is false. Financial markets are given to excesses and if a boom/bust sequence progresses beyond a certain point it will never revert to where it came from. Instead of acting like a pendulum financial markets have recently acted more like a wrecking ball, knocking over one economy after another. [16]

    Soros is expressing what thermodynamics has been telling us through its Second Law for nearly a century and a half—that we live in an irreversible world, not a pendulum-like world. In the early 1970s, economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen began urging his colleagues to pay attention to the Law of Entropy. [17] Professor Daly has reminded economists of his teacher’s work. [18] In Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, Garrett Hardin reiterates in strong words that economists can no longer evade the Laws of Thermodynamics. [19] Had economists embodied the principles of thermodynamics in their theories, they would not have made such a gross error in thinking that financial markets, or economic activities in general, behave like a reversible mechanical pendulum.

    Recent global financial and socioeconomic crises, which are still in progress, are yet another reminder that humanity would not be wise to ignore the Law of Entropy.

    Decades ago, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge expressed his low-entropy philosophy of life by stating that “there is no dignity quite so impressive, and no independence quite so important, as living within your means.” [20] Many presidents have not followed Coolidge’s philosophy, and the federal government has amassed—and still amassing—a huge national debt, unpaid entropy. As it turns out, many governments and individuals worldwide have not been living within their means either and, consequently, have piled up enormous debts.

    Although the Laws of Thermodynamics were discovered a century and a half ago, most people—including the educated—do not know enough about them. For example, in Earth in the Balance, Nobel Laureate Al Gore refers briefly to the First Law of Thermodynamics. [21] But he makes no mention of the Second Law, the one that affects us most.

    In everyday life, we all feel and are affected by the cumulative effects of the physical, social, environmental, economic, and intellectual entropies within us and around us. Thus, it is to our advantage to learn and understand what entropy is all about.

    In our everyday language, we use the word energy but not entropy. In books and magazine articles, as well as on radio and television, the word pollution is usually substituted for entropy, especially when the environment is involved. We find a typical statement in Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society: “The automobile pollutes, as does virtually every human endeavor, from making a campfire to raising cattle to publishing magazines.” [22] A similar statement is found in U.S. News & World Report: “At bottom, economic activity generates pollution, whether it is acid rain, toxic waste or smog.” [23] Connoisseurs of the Second Law recognize what these assertions mean: that all processes and activities generate entropy. Other words and phrases found in the literature that essentially mean entropy include disorder, waste, complexity, externalities, side effects, collateral effects, hidden costs, and unintended consequences.

    As more people—worldwide—become familiar with the Laws of Thermodynamics, especially the Second Law, more of us will be aware of the disorders emanating from our socioeconomic, technological, and intellectual activities, which are increasing massively. Hence, we need to make the concept of entropy an inseparable part of our daily language.

    Because thermodynamics came about from the study of heat and heat engines, it has not received the general attention it deserves. The word thermodynamics gives the impression that its laws are only for heat engines and not for everything going on in Nature. The time has come, however, to regard the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics as Nature’s First and Second Laws—as Nature’s Two Commandments.

    If we learned from the very beginning of childhood that all processes increase the disorder of our environment, and that all our activities contribute to that disorder, we would be more aware of the consequences of our actions throughout our lives.

    We need a new generation of philosophers who would penetrate into the basic laws of science, especially the Laws of Thermodynamics, and make an effort to illuminate scientific truths and present a synthesized view of Nature. We need a new generation of teachers and parents who would explain to the young the concepts of order and disorder, and teach values that are in conformity with the Laws of Nature. We need a new generation of reporters, writers, and communicators who would not only report environmental and socioeconomic disorders but would also explain observed phenomena objectively in terms of natural laws. We need a new generation of economists who would propose socioeconomic policies that are in harmony with the Laws of Nature. We need a new generation of world leaders who are familiar with the Laws of Thermodynamics, who share a common understanding of how Nature works, and who would work together to reduce the expansion of world disorder.

    In essence, we need a new generation of people who are bonded together with a common understanding of the basic Laws of Thermodynamics, and who would work in concert to tackle humanity’s outstanding problems. The thermodynamic clock is ticking—irreversibly!

    This essay was excerpted and adapted from The Science of Disorder

    Jack Hokikian's email:  jhokikian@losfelizpublishing.com



[1] T.S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952), p. 96.

[2] Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1944), p. 72.

[3] Jack Hokikian, The Science of Disorder: Understanding the Complexity, Uncertainty, and Pollution in Our World (Los Angeles: Los Feliz Publishing, 2002), pp. 17-42.

[4] Ibid., pp. 1-15.

[5] Art Pine, “Interdependence: It’s Not Entirely a Plus,” Wall Street Journal, 27 June 1983, p. 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Maynard Keynes, “National Self-Sufficiency,” Yale Review, XXII, June 1933, Vol. 4, pp. 755-69.

[8] Pine, “Interdependence: It’s Not Entirely a Plus,” p. 1.

[9] Hokikian, The Science of Disorder, pp. 57-62.

[10] Ibid., pp. 197-203.

[11] Quoted in Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, 2nd ed., updated and expanded (Boston: Beacan Press, 1994, p. 209.

[12] Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development (Boston: Beacan Press, 1996), p. 145.

[13] Raveendra N. Batra, The Myth of Free Trade: A Plan for America’s Economic Revival (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993), p. 222.

[14] George Soros, The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (New York: BBS/Public Affairs, 1998), p. xi.

[15] Ibid., p. 36.

[16] Ibid., p. xvi.

[17] Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[18] Daly, Beyond Growth, pp. 191-98.

[19] Garrett Hardin, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 45, 193-94.

[20] Marvin Stone, "The Good Sense of 'Silent Cal,' " U.S. News & World Report, 6 July, 1981, p. 72.

[21] Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), p. 186.

[22] Stephan Wilkinson, “The Automobile and the Environment: Our Next Car?” Audubon, May-June 1993, p. 58.

[23] Betsy Carpenter, “Living with Our Legacy,” U.S. World & News Report, 23 April, 1990, p. 65.