August 26, 2012

Nature seeks chaos, energy creates order

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — I received quite a bit of push-back on my column from a couple weeks ago about how global warming will change geopolitics and geoeconomics in ways we have yet to imagine. Some readers challenged my claim that we are all concerned about the footprint we leave on the earth. I began thinking about how we affect our surroundings.

The earth was formed through the convolution of great energy and forces. As the energy of our sun inevitably declines over billions of years, the order of the earth, in its stark and grand scenery and in life itself, gradually decays. Physicists call this entropy. It takes energy to create and maintain order. And, without adding energy to the system, our world becomes more random.

Almost everything we do is designed to maintain order. We seek it when we tidy our yard or clean our kitchen. We constantly move stuff from one place to another, file stuff in one place or another, build stuff out of random sticks or steel, and sometimes break down stuff so that something else can be created. Our education allows us to understand and create order out of what we observe.

Our songs and poetry attempt to give us greater insights into the purpose around us. Even those who live as close to nature as possible may still try to preserve their properties from floods, keep their food from decaying or their garden from becoming wrought with weeds. We are creatures of order.

The acts of creation and production are our attempts to create and thrive on order. When forces of nature destroy our order, we feel violated. Our economy is an entropy-denying machine, extracting and building, moving, transforming, selling and consuming our products and those produced by nature long ago or those produced today. Our lives are defined by our roles in balancing our need for organization and order with nature’s tendency to decay and rebuild.

In fact, all species share this purpose to take energy from around them to create order for themselves. Even the simplest organisms take energy from the sun, from the warmth of the sea or wherever they can find it to synthesize food or consume other species and usurp their energy.

The difference is in scale. Humans can create order at a massive scale and employ myriad machines to assist in this process. We build artifacts that leave no doubt about our ability to organize our surroundings in ways that make living more comfortable.

In the process, some are more mindful than others on the effects we have on our environment. However, all of us share that same natural human inclination to convert nature’s order and chaos into something we can use. And, nature inevitably works to reverse our best efforts over days, years or millennia.

We do this most beautifully when we use as little energy and raw materials as possible. This premise is simply a restatement of the fundamental purpose of economics. How can we produce what we want using as few resources as possible? Alternately, for a given level of resources, how can we create as much order and production as possible to satisfy human wants?

In fact, the word economics states just that. The “nomics” part refers to our management or our creation of order. The “eco” part is derived from the Greek word “oikos,” which means our house or, more figuratively, our environment. If economists harp about efficiency and limiting waste, it is in recognition of the discipline’s purpose to both create order and minimize our natural and human-resource footprint for a given level of production.

Of course, there can be a debate over just how big our economic pie must be. And, there is inevitably the political struggle over how to divide it. However, for whatever pie we decide to create, the economic issue remains. How can we do so with as little waste and energy, and natural and human resource consumption, as possible. The question is not whether we will try to reverse the tide of nature, but how much order will we create and how much energy and resources will we consume in the process?

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at