The Cosmic Slippery Dip

Humans possess minds and concepts that developed to help us function in small social groups over what amounts to very short lifetimes on a universal scale. As such our intuitive understanding of how the universe functions is mostly good for matters that directly concern us, but beyond that completely lacking. The role of energy and entropy have only recently been revealed by our new found trick of scientific investigation, but even then the concepts and language remain impenetrable to the average human wandering the planet.

When you ask a normal person to define energy they will easily be able to identify different types of energy and high and low energy situations, but an exact definition is usually elusive. Someone with scientific training will regurgitate the definition “energy is the capacity to do work”. Probe more deeply and they will tell you that work is the transformation of energy from one form to another, a circular definition. Ask the average person what entropy is and you will get a blank stare. Ask a scientist and they will say “disorder”.

Entropy however seems to be key to everything in the universe and appears to be one of the most fundamental laws, though oddly it isn’t neatly summed up in a mathematical formula like most physical laws. It simply states that the entropy of a closed system (where nothing flows in or out) must increase over time. This means that over time a system will tend to move from a highly organised state (e.g. all the hamsters in a neat row) to a disorganised state (hamsters scattered everywhere, more or less at random). The very phenomenon of the passage of time appears to be linked to this tendency. It is also linked to statistics since there are relatively few ways to line the hamsters up neatly, while there are virtually uncountable ways for them to be scattered at random. The chance of all the hamsters randomly wandering back into a perfect line is very small. In systems where the behaviour of much more numerous particles like molecules is involved the chance is so small of order spontaneously forming that it is virtually impossible. The classic scientific example of entropy is how a drop of dye placed in an otherwise still pool of water will eventually end up evenly spread everywhere. The chance of the dye all ending up back in one spot is virtually zero. What links the two scenarios is the effectively random motion of either the hamsters or dye and water molecules.

Energy then represents the potential for an external influence to reverse the flow of entropy and time. A person could run around the room gathering hamsters and putting them back in a line, consuming some form of stored energy in the process, rather than waiting almost forever for it to happen on its own. Even if they achieve their goal it is just a matter of time before the hamsters end up scattered again, so their job organising hamsters is unending and will eventually end in failure. How does the person manage to violate this universal law that disorder always increases over time? The answer is that they do so by consuming solar energy flowing in from elsewhere in the system, which is itself released spontaneously because the sun is increasing in entropy as it burns through its fuel. The order and complexity of almost all life on Earth can be traced back to the energy released as the sun consumes itself. The remaining fraction of a percent of energy that animates deep sea organisms around volcanic sea vents ultimately comes from nuclear reactions heating the core of the Earth, originally provided by other suns that lived and died before our sun was even born.

This situation on Earth that we are so accustomed to, where abundant energy pours into our world from afar and reverses the most fundamental law of the universe, makes Earth a most unusual place to live. It also gives us the expectation that growth, order and progress are the most natural conditions of existence. This mindset is then projected into the future of humanity, imagining us one day spreading out to organise the solar system, galaxy and universe as a whole. This more recent mindset of scientific progress is based on the even more explosive consumption of stored fossil fuel energy that allowed us to organise the planet like never before. Before that when societies were limited to more meagre solar energy they mostly dreamed of ascending into a perfectly ordered and everlasting heaven as a substitute, but the basic notion was the same. These dreams collide with the reality that the universe is vastly more hostile than Earth. Beyond that if we did manage to colonise the entire universe it seems certain that in time the entire show will run out of useful energy as the last stars burn out, collapse into black holes, and accelerate away from each other at ever increasing speeds. Just as humans need to process the notion of their own mortality we also need to come to terms with the fact that the entire universe is also mortal. It is ironic that the same culture that discovered these extraordinary facts about our reality is also the one that hangs onto the notion of colonising the universe is both possible and desirable.

So what does this all have to do with agriculture I hear you wondering (if you made it this far). Consider this a broadside at the fundamental motivation behind permaculture. This design science/philosophy has the stated aim of creating permanent (agri)culture. The goal is to develop stable human societies that live in harmony with the stable natural ecosystems that exist around us. I would like to argue that stability, permanence and even resilience are dangerous illusions and not worth working towards.

Going back to our recent understanding of stability, a simple model might suffice. The graph below represents a simple energy well, with the height of the line representing energy and the sideways motions representing different arrangements of molecules or objects in the system in an abstract way. A simple example would be the length of a spring, which has a natural resting length at the bottom of the energy well. Stretching or compressing the spring uses energy, and releasing these high energy states will release that stored energy, causing the system to return to its resting state. If released quickly enough the spring might oscillate between being too short and too long, gradually releasing energy and approaching resting length. This is what a stable, balanced, equilibrium state corresponds to in reality. Once the system reaches stability it has no useful energy left and is unable to change any more. It is death incarnate.

Living systems are a completely different model. Instead imagine a fan blowing up air in a long cylinder. This represents the solar energy entering the planet. Inside the column are numerous pieces of paper of various sizes and shapes, representing different living organisms. Without the energy of the fan these pieces of paper would lie motionless on the ground, stable but dead. With the fan running they overcome this tendency and are lifted into the air, full of life. Under ideal conditions with a stable flow of air and just the right shape and size piece of paper an apparently constant height of paper might be achieved, but much more commonly any one piece of paper will oscillate wildly between different heights and positions. The rare piece of paper that hovers at a constant height is meta-stable, trapped in a high energy configuration that only needs the right nudge from external influences to cause it to tumble down again. Under constant energy input individual organisms and even whole ecosystems tend towards optimising their shapes to trap more energy, causing them to rise ever higher into the air, driven by the logic of evolution. Individual organisms however have incentives to trap energy before others do, or take it from them, causing a multitude of chaotic and unpredictable interactions. The tendency for ecosystems to increase the amount of energy captured by changing over time is called succession, but it does not lead necessarily to stability. Instead the higher the pieces of paper twirl the further they have to fall. Early simple models of ecology promoted ideas like succession but more detailed analysis of real ecosystems has found nothing so pleasing. Instead chaos reigns over meaningful timescales, with species constantly shifting, evolving and recombining into different ecosystems. Species combinations that we imagined as being ancient are instead recent combinations thrown together by circumstance. Individual locations regularly go through catastrophic setbacks, both due to external influences like natural disasters and due to new species interactions as they engage in a constant arms race.

This then leads to the big question- if the purpose of life isn’t to organise the planet or universe into stability then what is it? I can only speak for myself but I look to the fundamental mechanics of the universe of itself as a guide. As best we can tell the universe started in a simple and organised state that through the actions of random motion and entropy evolved into the complex and chaotic arrangement we see above us in the night sky. In very rare pockets like Earth energy harvesting organisms arose that created even greater complexity, culminating in the weird lump of conscious gludge between our ears, the most complex and unlikely object in the universe (by our totally unbiased estimation). To me the fundamental purpose of the universe is exploration of all the possibilities as countless particles and stars hurtle out into the void. It will someday end when we run out of new things to discover, but that is the inescapable price of enlightenment (you only get to do it once). We should find ourselves exhilarated by our trip down the cosmic slippery dip. Rather than worrying about where it started or where it ends we should just try to enjoy the ride while it lasts and see where it takes us, and pray that our inevitable appointment with permanence is a long time coming.

Chaotic goslings in a highly organised initial state….
……over time wander randomly across the universe.

2 thoughts on “The Cosmic Slippery Dip

  1. Very good, Shane.
    This has depth I rarely find, especially in the perma/ag/sustainability/off-grid paradigms.
    And goslings to illustrate it all!
    Love it.


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