Cairns #2 – Cat twist of the Second Law

Helping turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the vast headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come.

Cairns #2 – Beginning of the Long Days, 1995

What is H.O.P.E.?

H.O.P.E. is the seed of an organization. Its title is an acronym for Hands-On Phenomenological Ecology. (More on what I mean by that in some other issue.) Peter Drucker emphasizes that all organizational planning, all strategies start with the mission of the organization. I had a pretty good idea of specific goals for H.O.P.E. But on a three day snowshoe solo on Mt. Lassen’s 15 feet of snow last month, I began seeing it within a bigger picture. And so I would like to present, in this issue of Cairns, the big, big picture mission statement of H.O.P.E.

The poetically-expressed Mission of H.O.P.E.

All planets and stars in the universe can be thought of as spaceships, hurtling through the three dimensions of space. But there are other dimensions. The Earth is more than a spaceship. Earth is an entropyship that has been Sunsailing for billions of years against the universal current that flows towards greater entropy.

Currently, however, our entropyship is drifting downstream towards fearsome rocks. People are abandoning their hope, cursing the time into which they were born. But rather than cursing, we can give thanks for being born into heroic times, being given the opportunity to do the inspiring work of turning the prow around. If we can turn it, then that ship, carrying evolving consciousness, can sail upstream for billions of years more and explore the headwaters of the Universe. The stories of that turning will be told to each new generation for billions of years. These stories will be told to communicate some of the lessons the next generation will need to keep the ship headed upstream and to inspire them to their own heroic deeds.

And so the mission of H.O.P.E. is the turning of the prow.

The Twisting Cat

What follows now has been very difficult to write. I wanted to express these ideas explicitly in Shifting but it kept coming out so stiff and pedantic that I couldn’t make it fit within the style and structure of Shifting. The reason this newsletter is several weeks late is because I’ve been trying for more than a month to capture what I feel is the magic and importance of the “twisting cat” for our culture. What follows might not read like my usual style. I welcome feedback on whether this makes sense, whether it is standard fare that you knew already, whether it seems important at all.

I’m sure all of you have heard (and possibly tested as a child) that cats, no matter in what position they are dropped, will always land on their feet. A child might not be able to explain why this ability feels “magical”. A scientist could; it feels “magical” because it seems to contradict the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum – a major conservation law of physics. How can something with its feet up land with its feet down with nothing to push against? Though the twisting of the falling cat seems to contradict the Law, in truth it conforms with the Law. The twist is impossible without that law. In a similar way, life has evolved a cat twist way of relating to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This “cat twist” by which life “gives more than it takes” is one of the tools needed for turning the prow.

The Second Law

The Second Law is about how the quality of energy changes over time. There are several ways to express the Second Law. The way I express it in “Gaia sermons” is “It is easier to destroy than to create.” An engineering formulation is that no transformation of energy is 100% efficient. The most popular formulation of the Second Law is that any closed system can not experience a decrease in entropy – popularized incorrectly as “What’s the point? The Universe is going to run down in the end, anyway”.

However, since no living thing is a “closed system”, I dwell on a formulation of the Second Law I find more interesting because of the relationship between living systems that it requires: Any decrease in entropy within a local subsystem can happen only at the expense of a greater increase in entropy in the larger encompassing system.

For example, a cell can only survive if it can harvest the greater system it exists within, the body. Every cell depletes the very system it is dependent on. Therefore, the body can only survive if it can obtain food faster than the cells harvest the energy within the food. For a baby, this means suckling and draining the possibilities from the mother. But mother and child form a sub-system of a greater cultural system whose long-term survival is totally dependent on the survival of the babies growing up within it. So that greater cultural system harvests energy from an even greater system (the ecosystem) and brings it to the mother so that the inflow of energy into the mother is great enough to “undo” the increase of entropy within the mother so that she can sustain a flow of energy into the baby great enough to “undo” the increase of entropy in that baby so that the growing baby’s body can sustain a flow of energy into each cell great enough to “undo” the increase of entropy in each cell.

Tracing paths of energy with this viewpoint gets one thinking of things in terms of nested subsystems. From an energy point of view, these nested subsystems are “self-similar”, meaning that the same nesting structure and the same energy relationships are found, no matter what scale one is looking at. For example, if we put one of the subsystems “under a microscope”, it would look the same.

It would contain other subsystems which, if put “under the microscope”, would contain even smaller subsystems. Similarly, if one stepped back, one would find that the larger containing system would look like the diagram of this system and that it occurred within a larger system which, when examined, also looked like this diagram and so on.

For example, the larger system, in this diagram could be labeled Solar System. The system could be Earth. One of the subsystems could be labeled Biosphere and a subsystem within that could be labeled Green Plants. Or I could label the larger system Human Body and the system would be labeled Circulatory System and one of the subsystems could be labeled Heart and a subsystem within that could be the Ventricles. But no matter how this diagram is labeled, the constraints of the Second Law will be similar. In every case, a decrease in entropy in any subsystem can only happen if there is a greater increase in entropy within the larger encompassing system.

The pattern that repeats in system after system is concentrated energy gradually becoming less concentrated, less useful as it spreads out into a myriad of smaller and smaller subsystems until it dissipates in the smallest subsystems as random molecular motion (heat).

The Challenge of the Second Law

Since any living subsystem that continues to increase in entropy will die, the Second Law requires all living things, in order to survive, to harvest energy from surrounding (sub)systems. This is normally thought of as killing something and eating it. It can also mean grazing on a plant or picking a berry and eating it. But a cat that curls up in a sunny place is harvesting energy – as is a person who kills an animal for its warm, insulating fur or feathers. Cutting firewood is harvesting energy as is drilling for oil.

This harvesting is an important, irreplaceable part of all ecology that has shaped all life. We call this characteristic of life “competition” and any ideology that tries to eliminate it has not fully accepted the nature of the universe. In a diagram, competition might look like this:

The competitive component of nature – the drawing of boundaries between “Us” and “Them”
and harvesting “Them” or diverting energy flow from “Them” to “Us”
or preventing “Them” from harvesting “Us”

Notice that the coyote family will try harvesting the energy from several other subsystems that exist within the larger ecosystem. Each of those other subsystems will try to avoid being harvested just as the coyotes will try avoiding being harvested by the mosquitoes and humans. The coyotes and the humans will both try harvesting more of the chickens than the other would prefer.

All ecosystems will contain this characteristic of competition. Smaller systems “boost themselves” by harvesting surrounding systems. One survives at the “expense” of the greater system. One tries to take and harvest more than one has to give.

However, this model does not express life’s full relationship with the Second Law. It leaves out something very important. If a culture models itself on this incomplete picture (as I believe our culture is increasingly doing), it will create interactions that will send it in a very different direction than people want it to go. I describe this process in Shifting’s chapter “The Downward Spiral”. The double whammy of exponentially rising population and technologies creating new “needs” which lead to exponentially rising consumption has shifted regional balances around the world. For more and more people, the greater ecosystem they live within is decreasing in possibilities.

If competition is the only way known to respond to a decreasing ecosystem, people will concentrate on drawing boundaries between “us” and “them”. People will try securing a larger chunk of the diminishing pie. But this scramble will cause the pie to shrink faster. More people will develop a mental state of the future as discouraging; this psychological orientation makes solutions increasingly difficult to either see or implement.

The Second Way

What we need to do (one of H.O.P.E.’s goals) is to increase understanding about the second way life responds to the Second Law. Let me introduce this second way by imagining a monster machine whose sole purpose is to harvest all the energy within the world and transform it into random chaos. Something like a ten-mile high rototiller that creeps over the Earth chewing up everything and spewing out noise, dust, and heat. Imagine that the machine is somehow tapped into all sources of solar energy in an automated way so that the machine can crawl along for ten billion years, criss-crossing the Earth so that every few centuries every square foot will be crumbled once again. The machine is built and the machine is started. Now imagine a person climbing onto the machine and turning it off with a flick of a switch.

All the biological processes (eating, digesting, thinking, moving) involved in flicking that switch will obey the Second Law. When the person is seen just as a system unto itself, the act of flicking the switch could only be done at the expense of an increase in entropy in the greater system. But, when one takes into consideration, the flows and transformations of energy that will occur all over the planet over the next ten billion years as a result of that finger switch, one has to conclude that the Second Law “ran backwards”, that a small increase in entropy within the person’s body led to a massive decrease in entropy in the much greater global system. That finger flick “gave more than it took”. Like the cat twisting, there is no violation of the Second Law.

A more mundane relationship happens in our body everyday. Every cell takes from the body more than it gives – when measured in terms of entropy. However, the harvesting of the body’s energy supply by the cells allow the cells to do work which, when properly coordinated, sustain the body and allow it to move over the land and harvest more energy from the environment. So if the coordinated work of cells allows the larger system of the body to bring in more energy which then cascades down through the nested subsystems of the body, then the transformation of energy into work and back into energy (from the cell’s point of view) is more than 100% efficient.

In other words, there is feedback involved. The subsystem harvests the energy within the larger system. This energy allows the subsystem to do work, some of which feeds back to sustain or increase the rate at which the larger system can harvest energy from an even larger system. This is the paradoxical twist. If a subsystem can use the energy that flows in from a larger system to change the nature of the larger system in a way than increases energy flow through both the larger system and subsequently the subsystem, does that subsystem take more than it gives or give more than it takes?

The Second Law describes the inevitable fate of any particular packet of energy. But it does not define the relationship one can have with a continuous flow of energy. So on Earth, we do have a flow of energy cascading down through the nested subsystems until it “fades away” in random molecular motion. But we also have that cascading flow entering into smaller subsystems and empowering those subsystems to do work that loops back to larger subsystems in a way that increases the flow of energy through that larger subsystem – which then leads to more energy flowing through the smaller subsystem which does the work that loops back up to the greater system which leads to…. Feedback is powerful. It makes predictions of the future unreliable which is why I remain so hopeful about humans and the Earth.

The cooperative component of nature – a subsystem using the gift of energy

flowing from a larger system to perform work that increases

the ongoing flow of energy into larger systems.

So part of our work is to point out the myriad ways life uses its harvested energy to do “ecological service”, work that loops back up to the larger systems within which life lives. To be inspired by oxygen bubbles arising from pond plants and beavers and salmon. To sing praises to the miracle of rising soil and each day’s transpired moisture returning each night as dew. To marvel at the ways life has found to decrease the entropy of the Earth – the largest subsystem life can influence and the subsystem on which all life is dependent.

Transcending a Problem with the Environmental Movement

One of the greatest problems facing the environmental movement is that too many people within it lack an inspiring vision for the role of humans on Earth. Too often I hear, especially from children, “Humans just destroy everything we touch. It would be better for the planet if we didn’t exist.”

To which I sing, “No! We are part of life. We are part of this planet. We are surrounded by wonderful opportunities to contribute to the creative power of this planet.” We should celebrate the gift of being mobile consciousness with eyes, hands, and tools by which to dance with the Earth. And one of our greatest allies is the Second Law because it defines a direction that gives shape to the Universe. And defining that direction nourishes upward aspirations, nourishes visions that help the spirit soar, and inspires one to challenging work.

Let the Earth nourish our work. If we can turn the prow, then the psychological orientation of people to their future changes in a profound way which revisualizes all other issues. If we can turn the prow, then the change in outlook will be so major that many “unsolvable problems” become irrelevant.

The Day-to-Day Work

How does this lofty but somewhat abstract mission guide the day-to-day work of H.O.P.E.? Here is one small example. As an educator, I don’t like the way ecology is taught in schools – too much focus on “eating”. Predator-prey. Food chains. Teeth adaptations. Life as eating and being eaten. This slant on ecology helps prepare students for thinking of their life as being a “consumer”.

But what is life for? What does a life accomplish beyond consuming possibilities or being food for somebody else? This gets into Gaian creation which is where the heart of ecology is. The relationships that build and sustain ecosystems. So in a pond ecology curriculum I am working on, we make simple bubble collectors that float on the pond. We plug the narrow end of a funnel with candle wax and then attach the funnel to a ring of Styrofoam so that it floats with the narrow end point up. With a permanent marker we calibrate volume (in cubic centimeters) from the top down. The funnel catches oxygen bubbles being given off by photosynthesizing aquatic plants. This provides a relative measure of the amount of life within the pond. It is fascinating to watch the collector gather more bubbles on a sunny day than on a shady day and watch the trend of increasing oxygen production throughout the spring. Life creates as well as consumes.

As I told a church group last week, “Christians say we were created in the image of God. We were made in the image of the Creator but we have allowed our self-image to be degraded to that of a consumer. We are more than that.”

Last Words

As I move along my life path, I encounter certain spiritual obstacles that gradually rise into consciousness and with which I struggle, often for several years, until finding a way past them. I call these obstacles “koans” after the Zen riddles. Sometimes a quote from another person who has struggled with and resolved the same question is all it takes to get me past that obstacle and moving again. Here is one of my favorite such quotes (as retrieved from memory) from E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful – though not occuring in that book.

“I’m often asked whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future. If I was optimistic, I would grow complacent and stop doing the work. If I was pessimistic, I would fall into despair and stop doing the work. The best thing is to ignore the question and do the work.”


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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