Morowitz has presented the case, in thermodynamic terms, for the hypothesis that a steady flow of energy from the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space, by way of the earth, is mathematically destined to cause the organization of matter into an increasingly ordered state. The resulting balancing act involves a ceaseless clustering of bonded atoms into molecules of higher and higher complexity, and the emergence of cycles for the storage and release of energy. In a nonequilibrium steady state, which is postulated, the solar energy would not just flow to the earth and radiate away; it is thermodynamically inevitable that it must rearrange matter into symmetry, away from probability, against entropy, lifting it, so to speak, into a constantly changing condition of rearrangement and molecular ornamentation. In such a system, the outcome is a chancy kind of order, always on the verge of descending into chaos, held taut against probability by the unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.
- Lewis Thomas “The Lives of a Cell”
The fragility of the complex and beautiful structures we have built “away from probability, against entropy” was often lost in the day to day rushing through our hyper-consumptive industrial civilization. Absorbed in our daily tasks and annoyances we forgot how utterly and completely we were dependent upon that “unremitting, constant surge of energy from the sun.” We do live in a “chancy kind of order.” Now we have a chance to remember.
Now, in our pandemic cocoons, like the voracious caterpillar that lives only to eat, we have been knocked back from our overconsumption of overproduced corporate “goods” and forcibly cocooned. So, everything is painfully mushed into unrecognizable goo.
What will emerge from this painful crisis? Is there a butterfly in the future?
The energy from the sun is diffuse. Plant photosynthesis, a most miraculous phenomenon of “rearrangement and molecular ornamentation,” is, at best, able to capture about 6% of the diffuse solar radiation that flows from “the inexhaustible source of the sun to the unfillable sink of outer space.” And this inefficient molecular ornamentation is the foundation of our entire fragile existence.
This inefficient ornamentation stored that diffuse energy of the sun in the partially decomposed remains in primeval oceans, swamps and forests and, over hundreds of millions of years, geological processing concentrated those remains into the energy-dense sources of fire that are the foundations of our modern way of life — our “non-negotiable lifestyle.” Our voracious caterpillar stage.
It is the burning of these energy dense deposits that enabled us to move very, very far away from probability into highly ordered states; burning ever more intensely to hold back the thermodynamic forces of entropy, like the Red Queen running as fast as we could to stay in one place. And the farther away we got from probability, from equilibrium in our “nonequilibrium steady state,” the harder we pushed against entropy, the more dependent we became on that burning as we attempted the impossible task of supporting constant and continuing growth of population and resource use within a complex and limited planetary system.
The caterpillar has devoured most of the easily available sources of nutrition and is now shuddering, appalled, as the layers of its outer skin peel away.
In mutual parasitism, our non-negotiable lifestyles, as they became ever more highly ordered, enabled the rise of massive joint-stock corporations: subsidized hothouse flowers, high maintenance welfare queens which we support by socializing their depradations upon our land, water, air and communities so much that these delicate, high maintenance, freeloaders have become the Masters of our modern civilization. We the people are completely enmeshed within their products and conveniences — from the toothpaste we use in the morning, the toilets we flush, the automobiles we ride in, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, … and our jobs… which have evaporated as the caterpillar has stopped devouring its environment.
And now we find ourselves in a predicament. The cocoon begins painfully to turn everything to mush. It is a multifaceted predicament: a population soon to be nearing 10 billion; degraded land, water, air and oceans; vast inequities in resource use and wealth distribution; social upheaval; viruses arising from our uncontrolled expansions into exotic environments; all in service to our caterpillar hunger.
But crucial questions about the nature of what is happening in this cocooning remain unanswered. Are we talking about the slow cessation of an unsustainable hyperconsumption devolving into a much healthier and happier future of solar powered ecovillages or are we talking an immediate and monstrous crash into violent warfare between cannibal armies?
I do think there is no way to avoid the conclusion that there will be far fewer humans on the planet in the not too distant future. Covid-19 isn’t the only virus out there. There have already been many warning signs: ebola, H1N1, SARS, MERS. There is a natural way of dealing with out of control populations and, since predation and famine have been temporarily dealt with (although climate change may have something to say about famine), the preferred natural tool is, apparently, disease.
Ten billion large mammals is a massive disordering of the Laws of Nature and cannot be sustained. But reaching a smaller population doesn’t necessarily require some kind of terrible die-off. If everyone suddenly stopped having babies there would be no humans on the planet in about a hundred years. The apocalyptic question is: do we have enough time to get there by reducing birth rates or do we need to call in the armies of virus vectors out there in all those rapidly diminishing wilderness areas?
Given the fact that it’s been pretty clearly established that lowered birth rates are most effectively generated by educating and empowering women and girls, this provides us with a positive, hopeful and worthy means of getting there. A future of wise and empowered women judiciously reclaiming our degraded land and building a sensible civilization is a comforting vision. I sincerely hope we have enough time to get there. Maybe the butterfly is a flowering of powerful women flexing their wings and leading us into a better place.
It’s possible. Non-fossil fuel energy sources are experiencing a renaissance. Alternate methods to our deeply misguided industrial food systems are arising everywhere. Agro-ecology, permaculture, ecovillages — there are hopeful developments springing up all over the planet. But we cannot predict the future. It could be worse than our darkest imaginings, or better than our fondest hopes.
Nevertheless, everyone seems to think “it” will happen in the near future. This is a majority opinion now, I think. Personally, my opinion is that unambiguous, in our faces, collapse will be in full force within the next 20 years. I can see signs of its beginning phases right now all around me. And I can also see growing awareness of its impending arrival and the beginning phases of energetic work towards cushioning its impacts.
Amid all my uncertainties about the future, one thing I am sure of is that whatever takes the place of our current “chancy kind of order,” in a universe of flux and impermanence, will also be a “chancy kind of order.” Twenty years in the cocoon, twenty years of painful, dissolute mush and then… what will emerge?
For the Children
The rising hills, the slopes,
lie before us.
the steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
In the next century
or the one beyond that,
are valleys, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.
To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:
learn the flowers
- Gary Snyder