This book is difficult to review. It has received extravagant praise from very distinguished people, to judge by the cover. It is written in a lively, if occasionally slightly preachy, style. It has an excellent bibliography. It reads like the work of a well-read and scholarly journalist, and it says many things that are both true and important. Nevertheless, I finished it with a great sense of dissatisfaction, perhaps because of a feeling that the things it does not say produce a profound distortion in the things it does say.
In one sense this book should be regarded as an attempt to apply the entropy concept, which originated as a highly specialized and exact concept in thermodynamics, to all systems of the universe.
In spite of its importance, entropy is surprisingly difficult to define, especially for the lay person. In thermodynamics, it is an indicator of the availability of energy (in the form of a temperature differential) to perform work. In a larger philosophical sense entropy is taken as a measure of disorder , and the entropy law postulates that disorder continally increases until the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper -- with everything at a uniform temperature in which no energy is available and nothing more can happen.
The expansion of the entropy concept to other systems, and particularly into economic life, is largely the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose remarkable book, "The Entropy and the Economic Process" (Harvard University Press, 1971), not only shattered precedent by having an economist criticize some aspects of physical theory, but set the stage for a very large view of entropy as a governing principle of the universe. Rifkin's book is based in no small measure on Georgescu-Roegen's work, and Georgescu- Roegen himself wrote a brief "afterword" to it.
I have argued myself that entropy was a rather unfortunate concept, a negative concept somewhat like phlogiston, an element hypothesized in the 17th century to explain combustion, but which turned out to be simply the absence of oxygen. The positive concept is that of potential, and I have myself restated the second law in generalized form as saying that "if anything happens, there is a potential for it happening, and after it has happened, that potential has been used up."
Once we put it in this form, however, it raises the possibility that potential can be re-created. This cannot happen in a closed system, which can do nothing but run down, but in many of the world's processes potential is re-created all the time.
The steam engine, for instance, which inspired the first work on the theory of thermodynamics in 1817, is not a closed system, in that it is constantly fed fuel to re-create its potential for doing work. The earth receives a continuing supply of energy from the sun, and, while it is certainly true that the potential of the sun diminishes all the time, it is doing so on a time scale which need not bother us very much. Thus, as water runs downhill, it starts off with gravitational potential. Though it loses this as it runs downhill, the potential is constantly being re-created by the energy from the sun, which evaporates water from the oceans and circulates it through the atmosphere and deposits it as snow or rain in high places.
In biology, likewise, every organism starts off as a fertilized egg or a divided cell, which has the biological potential for creating the organism. As the organism grows, matures, and dies, this potential is used up. On the other hand, every time an egg is fertilized or a cell divides this biological potential is re-created. This is what has made evolution possible.
We cannot, of course, deny the second law of thermodynamics. Evolution is possible on earth because entropy is increasing and potential diminishing in the sun. We do not know of any instances in the brief time we have been observing a very small part of the universe in which thermodynamic potential is re-created, as it were, from scratch. We assume it was created in the "big bang," and has been running down ever since.
Yet if it was created then, presumably it can be created again. For all we know, it may be continuously being re-created in different parts of the universe with which we are not familiar. This is something that need not really concern us very much. What is clear, as Rifkin also recognizes, is that the earth is an openm system and that even its thermodynamic potential is continually being re-created, as are its biological and social potentials.
This is not to deny, of course, that there are important systems on the earth in which potential is not being re-created, but is being exhausted, and Rifkin has called attention to many of these with a good deal of vigor.
The human race indeed is no stranger to the exhaustion of resources. We almost certainly killed off the large animals that roamed the earth at the end of the last ice age, like the mastodon or the American horse. Our capacity for cutting down forests faster than they grow seems very ancient, and was observed even in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as medieval Europe, China, and India. This is now happening all through the tropics.
Agriculture is potentially nonexhaustible, but there have been many examples in which soil erosion, salting due to irrigation, and the drawing down of fertility have exhausted an agricultural resource. In the last 200 years or so, the tremendous upsurge of human population, production, and wealth as a result largely of the rise of science and science-based technologies has been based very extensively on exhaustible fossil fuels and concentrations of materials.
This has not gone unnoticed. There have been many "Club of Rome" reports. William Jevons, the English economist (who ironically enough developed the marginal-utility theory and so helped to "Newtonize" economics in 1870) in 1866 published a remarkable book entitled "The Coal Question," in which he viewed with alarm the ultimate exhaustion of coal and the collapse of society based on it. He put the problem dramatically: "We have to make the momentous choice between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity." Sir William Crookes, about 1899, foresaw the exhaustion of Chilean nitrates on which European agriculture especially was beginning to depend so heavily, and the consequent collapse of food production and widespread starvation.
It is ironic that oil and gas were discovered just before Jevons wrote and that the Haber process for the fixation of nitrogen from the air was discovered not long after Sir William Crookes.
We cannot, of course, be sure that discovery will always spoil the prophesies of a new Jeremiah. Jeremiahs, indeed, by calling attention to a problem may contribute toward solving it. One has a feeling that many of the worst catastrophes of human history, like the Thirty Years' War in Germany, or Hitler, or Cambodia today, were not preceded by any notable warnings, which perhaps is one reason they happened.
In his own view, of course, Mr. Rifkin is a Jeremiah to end all Jeremiahs. In his sight the entropy law is implacable and unrepealable, and all that we can hope to do is postpone the evil day a little, and even our efforts to postpone it often hasten it.Even energy-saving inventions like computers produced an explosion of computers and so use more energy and increase entropy.
In his view, indeed, it would seem that the more advanced the technology, the more rapidly we move toward the end. Even his little section on hope is not very hopeful. Although he toys with some Christian ideas and Buddhist economics , ultimately one feels he despairs even of love because it too has limits.
One can pass over a certain naivete about economics. As he says, "One doesn't need to be an economist to understand the process" (Page 123). But it is useful to be an economist when one wants to understand a thing like inflation , which Mr. Rifkin certainly does not. One can also pass over a fair amount of naivete about energy, which he elevates to a cardinal position in the universe, when it is really only a limiting factor, like materials, in the evolutionary process.
Rifkin indeed does not seem to understand the vital role that information, know-how, and knowledge play in the evolutionary process and indeed in the development of the universe as a whole. Energy and materials are significant mainly as coders of information, though of course it cannot be coded if they are not there, which is why they are limiting factors.
The moon, for instance, has all the energy that the earth has from the sun, being the same average distance, but nothing happened there beyond crystals because of other limiting factors. In this case the absence of materials such as water prevented the coding of the increasingly complex information which has characterized the evolutionary process on earth. There is something more worrying, however, than the failure to understand evolution and the role that both energy and entropy play in it.
In many writings of this school, there is a profound dehumanization of human society, which unfortunately is characteristic also of many who see themselves as radicals and reformers. All the values that we know about are human values, made by human valuations. The only efficiency concepts which are significant for human beings are those that evaluate in terms of human values the input and output of processes. Human valuations, of course, are related to scarcities, and scarcities are related to the limiting factors of energy and materials, but then all things interact with one another in the great ecosystem of the world. There is something that smacks of hubris in the attempt to interpret the present in terms of its place in the whole perspective of time and space.
There is something to be said after all for the very strange advice of Jesus, that we should "Take . . . no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt. 6:34). This is not quite the same thing as inviting us to "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die," for a deep concern for today almost inevitably includes a concern for tomorrow. But the uncertainties of the future are so great, as history has revealed time and time again, that there is much to be said for a strategy of doing today what seems best for today and for being adaptive, imaginative, and inventive.
Maybe it is the meek who inherit the earth (mice after all seem to be the least endangered of species). Nobody is going to repeal the entropy law, least of all Congress. But there is a lot more in the universe besides it, and it is far too simple to be made the foundation stone of a quasi-religion.