Growth fallacies in sustainability; entropy fallacies in biology

The moon is still lighting up the landscape this morning, even though its not visible.  Just enough clouds to hide it, but not enough to keep its light out.  It’s not as crucial to have light in the greenhouse nowadays though.

Philodendron_martianum (1)The monster which had taken over our Delta greenhouse is gone.  A 40 foot philodendron was sending vines to all corners of the structure.   To make room for winter tomatoes, the philodendron caught a ride up to Meadowcreek.  Now we can walk in the Delta greenhouse without having tip toe through the philodendron vines snaking everywhere.

We used to have a philodendron in the dining room at Meadowcreek until I was in Angola too long last winter.  And now we have another much bigger one and a very minor challenge to everyone to water it now and then when I’m gone for long periods.

The fantastic growth of this plant refutes basic principles which many modern folk hold dear.  First, its growth is just one example of how growth is good, as long as it is biological growth which becomes food for other biological growth.  The growth is bad mantra is a misreading of Herman Daly’s hugely influential Beyond Growth.

Biological growth is required for all life and all ecosystems, as is maturation, death and reorganization/rebirth.    A little learning is a dangerous thing.  Especially when Daly’s title makes his thesis sound simple and straightforward when it is complex and recursive.  To be anti-growth is to be anti-life.

Our philodendron speedily growing through the greenhouse also contradicts what many regard an absolute law of physics and Nature. Entropy.  The second law of thermodynamics is sometimes stated as “disorder increases over time”.  That statement seems to hold true, what with  mountains wearing down, machines breaking down, and the inevitable, crushing march of time across our aging faces and hands.

Living things are an exception.  Plants can turn dirt (disordered) into more plants (order), and on a larger scale life has evolved from atoms to self-replicating molecules to  individual cells (fairly ordered) to big complicated critters (very ordered).

However, entropy believers note that there are a couple things missing from the statement “disorder increases over time”, such as the often-dropped stipulation that the second law of thermodynamics only applies to closed systems.

Living beings, both in the context of growing and reproducing, and in the context of evolution are definitely not closed systems.  Growth and reproduction absolutely involve an increase in order.

True believers in the second law of thermodynamics say that the increase in order in living systems only comes at the expense of a much greater increase in disorder elsewhere.  Specifically, we eat food which, with all of its carbohydrates and proteins, is fairly ordered, and produce lots of heat, sweat, and organic fertilizer.  Food, and air, and excrement make living things “open systems”.

Entropy-believers do admit that if a living being or system could take, say, a kilogram of non-living, highly disordered material and turn it into a kilogram of highly ordered creature, then that would certainly be a big violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

The biggest problem for entropy-believers is photosynthesizing plants.  They really can turn a kilogram of inert, high-disorder dirt, air, and water into a kilogram of low-disorder plant matter.  But, again, they’re working with a bigger system than just the “plant/dirt/air/water system”.

Sunlight is a bunch of high-energy photons coming from one direction and supplies what plants need to create order.  The sunlight’s energy is later re-radiated from the Earth as heat and far less concentrated, so some would say it has a lot more entropy.  This huge increase in entropy, between the incoming sunlight and the outgoing heat, is the “entropy sink” that makes all life on Earth possible (with just a handful of exceptions such as the communities living in hydrothermal vents).

To paraphrase one of the entropy devout, green plants take a tiny amount of the sunlight that hits Earth and turns some of the energy into sugars and other useful material.  It all eventually turns into heat and radiates away, but instead of doing it all at once it does it through a few links in the food chain.

This devotee further contends you can think of this huge sunlight-to-re-radiated-heat increase in entropy is like water going over a waterfall, and life as being like a hydro-electric dam.  It all ends up at the bottom of the falls, but sometimes it can do some interesting stuff (life and other useful mechanical work) on the way.

So the true believer finds ways of rationalizing the development of a vastly more ordered planet teeming with life.  Eventually, they have faith, it will all dissolve into disorder.

It’s so funny that some scientists are so rigidly orthodox in their adherence to certain “laws” of Nature.  Too bad for them that there aren’t any “laws of Nature.”  Nature just is.  Our attempts to formulate laws or rules or theories will always be at least partially wrong.

But its still lots of fun to generate theories and test them and be able to make better and better predictions of what will happen.  The trouble comes when you believe in your theory so much you don’t recognize the reality of the world.

If only those who believe in entropy would learn a little more about complex adaptive systems theory.  Then they would find out what chaos is.  Chaos is multiple conflicting impulses with lots of energy and potential.  It just must be managed.  And that’s our task as farmers and cooperative managers and facilitators of groups: managing chaos.

Have fun with your little bit of chaos today.  See if you can’t manage it into another repeal of the silly religious concept of entropy.


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