Scarcity, Natural Selection and Entropy
Scarcity - like gravity - is a real problem faced by all living things, not just a bad attitude. Our bodies have a limited ability to store energy. If we don’t find enough food or water, we die.
If we don’t escape predators, we die. If we use more energy than we gain in those efforts, we fail to survive. This is true for individuals, families, societies and ecosystems – regardless of species.
Every living thing passionately seeks to survive and reproduce. As a result of that relentless quest, our nervous systems have evolved a genius for assessing risk.
Even a virus can balance the value of seeking nutrients in its environment against the risk of using too much energy in that pursuit. It weighs its need to escape toxins and predators that might harm it against the cost of the energy it takes to avoid them.
After all, the world is a very dangerous place. Without exception, organisms that can’t master that skill go extinct – so every species that survives on our planet today is born with that ability.
This eons old dynamic lives at the intersection of two interdependent natural processes well known to science. The first is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy.
Many scientists consider entropy the most universal law of nature. The Second Law states that all energy and mass in the universe is running down – or said more accurately – seeking a lower and more stable state of activity.
Living things are what is called “negentropic”. Life is the only known phenomena in the universe that actively works against entropy.
Time has turned mountains to sand and oceans to deserts. Nothing of the physical world we see today existed when life began, yet living things survive.
The second universal process is natural selection. Through consumption and reproduction, organisms push copies of themselves – sometimes with variation - into the future.
You and I consume plants and other animals in order to get the energy we need to survive, converting their bodies into a more “stable” form we call sewage. We are born and inevitably die, but if we survive long enough to pass our DNA on to the next generation, the essence of our form survives.
What this means is that living things have a natural genius for weighing the benefits of an action against its risks. Human beings intuitively know when a relationship, or our internal wellbeing, or an environment is out of balance.
Though we may not be consciously aware of the interdependent nature of our lives – we sense it naturally. We feel uneasy and anxious when we sense things lack equilibrium.
We have evolved this “sixth sense” because over the millions of years during which our kind evolved we have survived the collapse of that balance many times.
When nature at all levels reaches a certain level of instability, it suffers a catastrophic collapse until it finds a new, more stable state.
We know when too many predators die in an eco-system; food species overpopulate, consume the available resources, then suffer a catastrophic die off. We know when we plant the same crop over and over we deplete the soils and our yields decline.
We know when a marriage or partnership loses its balance, peace and love are lost. We know when nations fail to find stability, war erupts.
We know it from simple every day experiences. We know every time we boil water, every time the minor irritations of life burst into anger, every time a flirty smile on a pretty face inspires a fit of passion.
Right now our world is dangerously close to precipitous collapse in a variety of realms. More and more of us feel an uneasy sense of impending danger.
We know we are overpopulating the planet at an alarming rate. We know we are consuming our available resources faster than we can replace them.
We know our fossil fuel based existence is not sustainable. We are in a race to develop antibiotics to kill disease micro-organisms faster than they can evolve into new and potentially more virulent strains.
Our built environment is expanding in the face of that population pressure to the point that we are altering the temperature of the planet, polluting our oceans, depleting our water supply, destroying the diverse web of species that maintain the balance of natural systems.
We know this and it haunts us.
We know that the forces that separate us – nationalism, tribalism, racial and religious differences, and economic inequities – are at war with new and emerging social movements that can bring us together.
We know this. We feel powerless and afraid.
We feel insufficient
Continue to Sustainably Sufficient - Verse Three
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Scarcity, Natural Selection and Entropy