Systemic Equilibrium

The second law of thermodynamics, the so-called "arrow of time", popularly associated with entropy (and by association death), is the most widely misunderstood shorthand abstraction in human society today. We need to fix this.

The second law states that over time, closed systems will become more similar, eventually reaching systemic equilibrium. It is not a question of if a system will reach equilibrium; it is only a question of whena system will reach equilibrium.

Living on a single planet, we are all participants in a single physical system which has only one direction — towards systemic equilibrium. The logical consequences are obvious; our environmental, industrial and political systems (even our intellectual and theological systems) will become more homogenous over time. It's already started. The physical resources available to every person on earth, including air, food and water, have already been significantly degraded by the high burn rate of industrialization, just as the intellectual resources available to every person on earth have already been significantly increased by the high distribution rate of globalization.

Human societies are already far more similar than ever before (does anyone really miss dynastic worship?) and it would be very tempting to imagine that a modern democracy based on equal rights and opportunities is the system in equilibrium. That seems unlikely, given our current energy footprint. More likely, if the total system energy is depleted too fast, is that modern democracies will be compromised if the system crashes to its lowest equilibrium too quickly for socially equitable evolution.

Our one real opportunity is to use the certain knowledge of ever increasing systemic equilibrium to build a model for an equitable and sustainable future. The mass distribution of knowledge and access to information through the world wide web is our civilization's signal achievement. Societies that adopt innovative, predictive and adaptive models designed around a significant, on-going redistribution of global resources will be most likely to survive in the future.

But since we are biologically and socially programmed to avoid discussing entropy (death), we reflexively avoid the subject of systemic changes to our way of life, both as a society and individuals. We think it's a bummer. Instead of examining the real problems, we consume apocalyptic fantasies as "entertainment" and deride our leaders for their impotence. We really need to fix this.

Unfortunately, even facing this basic concept faces an uphill battle today. In earlier, expansionist phases of society, various metaphorical engines such as "progress" and "destiny" allowed the metaphorical "arrow" to supplant the previously (admittedly spirit-crushing) "wheel" of time. Intellectual positions that supported scientific experimentation and causality were tolerated, even endorsed, as long as they contributed to the arrow's cultural momentum. But in a more crowded and contested world, the limits of projected national power and consumption control have become more obvious. Resurgent strands of populism, radicalism and magical thinking have found mass appeal in their rejection of many rational concepts. But perhaps most significant is the rejection of undisputed physical laws.

The practical effect of this denial on the relationship between the global economy and the climate change debate (for example) is obvious. Advocates propose continuous "good" (green) growth, while denialists propose continuous "bad" (brown) growth. Both sides are more interested in backing winners and losers in a future economic environment predicated on the continuation of today's systems, than accepting the physical inevitability of increasing systemic equilibrium in any scenario.

Of course, any system can temporarily cheat entropy. Hotter particles (or societies) can "steal" the stored energy of colder (or weaker) ones, for a while. But in the end, the rate at which the total energy is burned and redistributed will still determine the speed at which the planetary system will reach its true systemic equilibrium. Whether we extend the lifetime of our local "heat" through war, or improved window insulation, is the stuff of politics. But even if in reality we can't beat the house, its worth a try, isn't it?