Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Jeremy Rifkin: Saying Everything about Everything

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of dozens of books on almost every subject. He has a voluminous mind and can marshal hundreds of facts to illustrate his points. But he made so many points that, at least in some cases, he misunderstood his basic concepts. One of these concepts is entropy, and his misunderstandings filled a book called Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World, originally published in 1980, long before the widespread acceptance of global warming science.

The second law of thermodynamics states that with every physical or chemical transformation, the total amount of disorder increases. The amount of disorder can decrease within an open system, but only at the expense of greater disorder outside of the open system. The inside of a refrigerator can get cooler and more orderly, for example disorderly water molecules can freeze into orderly ice, but only at the expense of heat production by the coils.

Rifkin’s book has, I believe, a very vague thrust. He believed that all of our problems—and nearly every problem in the world shows up somewhere in the book—are the result of the second law of thermodynamics. Well, if this is the case, then it would seem hopeless for us to try to solve any of our problems; they would seem to be physically inevitable.

But there is something we can do about the second law. At the very least, we can stop helping it. As the joke goes, “Mistakes will happne, but…must you give them so much help?” Many of the things that political conservatives demand are things that facilitate the second law, and help to increase disorder. It almost seems like conservatives want to help the second law of thermodynamics, as if it needs any help. Things would be a lot better in the world if conservatives just didn’t try to make things more disorganized.

Probably the major example is that political conservatives want to let the second law of thermodynamics take care of guns. Over centuries, we have built a society in which law enforcement officials maintain public order, and disputes are resolved through courts. But many political conservatives want to create a world in which order is maintained and justice practiced by everyone having firearms. If the people in that church in Charleston had had guns, said one National Rifle Association official (not necessarily on behalf of the whole organization), they could have stopped the shooter by shooting him. One of the core beliefs of political conservatives is the Second Amendment, which defends the existence of “a well-regulated militia.” To the NRA and the politicians it has bought, however, instead of a well-regulated militia, we should have a trigger-happy group of white men with assault weapons ready to shoot first and ask questions later. As I have noted in an earlier entry, white police frequently shoot unarmed black men. But police are trained and conscientious. You need no training and no conscience to join a white “militia”.

This is one reason that Donald Trump has such an easy view of the world. Republicans in general, and Trump in particular, ride along with the flow of entropy. The world is becoming more disorderly, and they ride the wave of entropy as if it were a bronco. Things are getting messed up; Republicans whoop and holler as they mess things up even more. Meanwhile, during every Democratic administration, the president tries to clean up the mess, stop war and create peace, reduce the deficit, etc. But Democrats will never succeed, because Republicans are tapping into the juggernaut of entropy.

Rifkin was right that we can and should resist the second law of thermodynamics in the few local places and brief times that we can. But he also misunderstood the law. He applied it to the Earth, which is an open system. One of his statements was that not a single blade of grass can grow that will not reduce the ability of another blade of grass to grow in the future. This is not true. Entropy will eventually make the Earth die and disintegrate, but this will happen whether grass grows or not. Rifkin, like many other people, got entropy mixed up. But most of us who get it mixed up do not write books about it.

The net effect of reading Rifkin’s Entropy was to be left baffled, rather than feeling geared up to do something to help to diminish the problems of the world, if only mildly and briefly. Genius he may be, but this book (and others, such as Algeny) will not necessarily help you understand or cope with the world better.

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