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16.4 Entropic crisis and the learning response

1. Entropic crisis

Society may be usefully perceived as facing an entropic crisis. This view has been explored by Jeremy Rifkin (1980). 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:

"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" (p.9).

2. Interpretation of dissipative structures by optimists

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" (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" (1980, 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 bioengineering 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" (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" (p.254).

3. Challenge of low-energy society

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 section, 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" (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.

4. Implications for cultural change

The entropic constraint in social development has been specifically explored by anthropologist Richard Adams. He cites Alfred Lotka's observation that the second law of thermodynamics cannot be contravened by human action. Lotka's principle states that in evolution natural selection favours those populations that convert the greater amount of energy, that is, that bring the greater amount of energy form and process under control. But any "islands" of local order are not themselves an indication of counter-entropic process but rather zones where energy is hastened to entropy or converted into equilibrium forms (1975, p.1256).

Adams argues, with Carneiro, that the evident macroscopic expansion of human society in terms of "culture traits" is exponential due to this expansion being proportional to the number of traits already generated. But instead of culture traits, Adams argues that the concept of energy conversion (as opposed to input) is more significant, as well as more directly related to loss of entropy.

He suggests the formulation: "The rate of cultural change is proportional to the rate of energy conversion carried out within the system." (p.281). He emphasizes that this is not simply valid for the material portion of the system. "For not only does the amount of energy in the system have a direct relation to the amount of energy that will be communicated and stored, but it is also subjected to the inevitable human-cultural device of reduction to size." (p.281).

This "reduction to size" takes place through the central process of binary differentiation which Adams considers as providing the basis for ranking and the treatment of much of what is meant by value: "I do not know whether the mere fact of identification, that is, of making a binary differentiation, may be said to imply the immediate bestowal of something we may want to call value; and I am not sure that it really makes any difference" (p.155).

A significant aspect of the process is that it is done constantly: "While there is obviously great individual difference in the relative ability to project new cuts in the environment, we are nevertheless constantly imposing old bifurcate categories on new events, thereby reducing them and simplifying them - in a word, mentally classifying them. More important, there are regularly new formulations of such differentiations, new ways of cutting up the world, that are invented and tried out. Most of these, like the lethal mutants of the genetic process, serve to extinguish themselves (and in some case their bearers)... Westerners have tended to see this process of recutting the world as something of a hallmark of progress. It can, however, also be seen as man's way of reducing the world to size, to terms with which he can deal" (p.281).

5. Constraint of fixed mental equipment

Adams points out that in these terms mankind can be viewed as a species confronting a constantly changing environment. The confrontations are however repeatedly made with relatively fixed mental equipment: "No matter how new the events perceived, they had to be reduced to a comprehensible scope and to familiar dimensions. The totality of the energetic component may have been beyond his control, but man could always cut a piece of it down to size and form it to fit the "order" demanded by his mentalistic limitations...So while societies become increasingly complex in terms of their energetic structures, their organizational dimensions are constantly reintegrated to mentalistic structural dimensions that are comprehensible to the human mind" (p.282).

Adams draws attention to research on the apparent limitation on the number of taxonomic dimensions that the human mind can comfortably handle within a social communication context (p.1578). This number appears to be around six or seven as discussed earlier. He cites studies of folk taxonomies showing that there are at least five, perhaps six, taxonomic ethnobiological categories which appear to be highly general if not universal. They are arranged hierarchically and taxa assigned to each rank are mutually exclusive. One modern example given is a banner in a hall at the Palais des Nations (Geneva), indicating: family, village, clan, medieval state, nation, federation (p.1589).

6. Social integration constrained by mental equipment

For Adams the limited number of levels of integration a society uses to describe its own organization then replaces in practice the levels of articulation that may be empirically found in the course of interactions in society (p.282). Such levels of description then become significant determinants of the kind of structures which can be perceived as emerging or required in society.

Adams points out that the process of binary differentiation, taxonomy making and classification, and ranking with its implicit bestowal of priority, is not an unorganized activity unrelated to the question of power and control: "It is, rather, a mentalistic structural concomitant of overt control...Ranking, then, is an attempt to arrange events in the external world so that they will behave as our mental limitations dictate and will reflect our ability to handle them. It becomes a way to put order in the environment, to imbue things with a positive or negative value that permits them to be maximized, minimized, or optimized" (p.166).

7. Development through coordination

Given the above relationship between the mentalistic and energetic components, much of Adam's study is concerned with how a (demographically) expanding society organizes itself. For him, the process whereby centralized units expand through a multiplication of their numbers is a coordinate growth process not involving any qualitative change. Centralization, however, marks a qualitative change in the amount of energy that is being brought under control within one part of the system.

The process of development has as a parallel a process of coordination. This correlates closely with the process of ecological succession except that, instead of moving into a steady state limiting further expansion, new inventions set aside this governing mechanism and permit an increase of energy input to press for a continued expansion (p.287). Of great interest therefore is the possibility of using computers to assist in the invention of better cuts of the environment which remain comprehensible. This is one reason for further investigating tensegrity organization as a more powerful way of handling and integrating sets of binary differentiations.

8. Alternation between coordination and centralization

Adams draws attention to the oscillation between the two modes noted above (which correspond to mentalistic and energetic emphases): "The alternation of phases of coordination and centralization that can be seen in the macroview of societal and cultural evolution is equally useful in the examination of the processes that particular societies are undergoing at a given point in time...This oscillation may take place simultaneously in two phases or dimensions:

  • (a) horizontal, that is, the shift from a fragmented (identity) unit to a coordinated unit and back (in other terms, fusion and fission, or recombination and segmentation); and
  • (b) vertical, that is, the shift from a coordinated unit to a centralized unit and back (also described as integration and disintegration, centralization and decentralization, etc.)" (p.2903).

The literature of ethnography and history is replete with instances of societies undergoing some such kind of oscillation, of which Adams gives a number of examples.

With regard to this alternation process he concludes: "I think that we would have to argue that oscillations are inevitable parts of the evolutionary process; they are the ongoing trial-and-error of a unit, at whatever level, the coming into direct touch with the environment, the testing of the validity of mentalistic pictures and accumulated knowledge. It is the constant inherent structural pushtoward expansion that makes actors and the units they operate in try again. The oscillating pattern simply means some lack of success, which may be due to any of a wide variety of circumstances. But "success" is hardly the appropriate word, particularly when we recognize that consumption and destruction are both necessary parts of the scene. The fact that old people die will, in the long run, mean success for the young. Or what is successful centralization for one nation, state, chiefdom, may spell disaster for another.

What is important about the oscillation process is that it cues the observer as to what he should be looking for. Every operating unit will be at some stage of oscillation at any point in time; to seek out its state and the factors that make it move is to understand how the power system is currently working" (p.298. emphasis added).