Dinosaurs, Entropy, and Hope

11 08 2012

I have been reading a bit of John Michael Greer of late–first his blog (see my blogroll over on the sidebar), then The Ecotechnic Future, and now The Wealth of Nature. It is all good stuff: thought-provoking as well as a sort of call to moral and practical action. I imagine I will talk more about that as I digest it more thoroughly, but at the moment all the talk about the laws of thermodynamics makes me want to tell my own favorite laws of thermodynamics story.

It was just about fifteen years ago now, when I was in college. I was taking a class that explored the application of evolutionary theory outside of a strictly biological context (think things like Darwin’s Dangerous Idea). I can’t remember how it came up, but at some point one person in the class suggested that one of the amazing things about life is that it operated contrary to the laws of thermodynamics. Their thinking went something like this: Unlike those laws predicted, which said that energy moves from the more concentrated and useful forms to diffuse and useless forms, biological systems moved energy from the more diffuse to the more complex.

As the person talked, I remember clearly thinking that this couldn’t be right. You couldn’t get a much more basic and well-established scientific law than those of thermodynamics. So, I sat there for a second replaying them in my head and I caught myself repeating the all-important qualifer–the laws of thermodynamics only hold in a closed system. Since life took place on Earth, and Earth is no closed system, there was no danger of life breaking the laws of thermodynamics.

As I was starting to explain just this to my fellows, the corollary caught up to me. The closer Earth gets to operating like a closed system, the more closely life should be constrained by the laws of thermodynamics. One clear example presented itself immediately–the dinosaur extinctions. The current model for those die-offs rely upon a meteor impact throwing up dust into the atmosphere, dramatically lowering the amount of solar energy that entered the system. What happened then? Thermodynamics caught right up to life. All of those massive animals, dependent on enormous amounts of energy, started to die. Without as much solar energy to drive the complex ecosystem, the concentrated energy bound up in dinosaurs starting to grow more diffuse as the dinosaurs died.

Meanwhile, smaller forms of life that could make use of the diffuse energy being released by the dinosaurs (i.e. scavengers) found their opportunity to thrive. When the dust started to settle, energy flooded back in, but now the giants weren’t there to consume it. A whole new wave of evolutionary opportunities opened up as new forms of life evolved to make use of the now unused energy circulating through the system. Those initial scavengers probably didn’t look like much, but their descendants had rich opportunities ahead of them and developed into the amazing complexity within which human life emerged.

This memory has been nagging at me ever since I started making sense of peak oil. In part, it’s because the modern industrial world occupies a place very much like the dinosaurs of old. Its forms have thrived, developed to unimaginable size, atop the resources of fossil fuel. Like the dinosaurs, by virtue of their size, industrial societies have crowded out a lot of other forms of society or inhibited their development. This gives me a fair amount of hope. Forms of society are not just ways people do things, but ways people live with their ecosystems, negotiating with it for resources to live and thrive. As the decline of oil is like the sun disappearing for the dinosaurs, maybe the period after decline will see a blossoming complexity in human societies, better and more closely adapted to their many ecosystems.

The analogy isn’t perfect; the energy offered by oil won’t return like the sun. Still, industrial societies aren’t running entirely on fossil fuels. Those fuels just give them the opportunity to exploit a lot of other resources, at the expense of other societies. Those resources will remain after the fuel pumps go dry and those resources will be available to the future societies that take shape within them. The interim societies toward that may not be so pretty, much like those early mammalian scavengers weren’t so pretty, but they may form the seedbed for a new flowering of cultures.

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