Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the ISSS - 2015 Berlin, Germany, Vol 1, No 1 (2015)

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Anthropocene as Life’s State of the Art in Disorder Production: A Sustainability Conundrum

Jeffrey H. Robbins


This paper launches on the proposal by Eric D, Schneider and James J. Kay that life is a response to the thermodynamic imperative of dissipating gradients. Adding a twist to the claim of Jeffrey Wicken that “entropic dissipation propels evolutionary structuring,” Schneider and Kay contend that “evolving life represents order emerging from disorder in the service of causing even more disorder.” Drawing on Gregory Bateson’s definition of information, a self-organizing system can dissipate a gradient, a “difference that can make a difference,” more efficiently than helter-skelter falling apart. Examples range from transient physical systems (Bénard Cells, hurricanes, tornadoes) and chemical systems (BZ color flipping clocks) to evolving biological (bacteria, trees, ant colonies, coral reefs, brains), and, it is proposed, human/biotechnological systems (automobiles, coal fired power plants, smartphones, apps) passing the baton of Erwin Schrödinger’s “order from order” means for sustainably remembering and capitalizing on what works. The second law of thermodynamics driven trend of disorder to order to even more disorder continues ever more effectively as state of the art in disorder production in the Anthropocene as autocatalytic, “Matthew Effect,” gradient degrading, human impacts on the biosphere, aided and abetted by advancing technology. Human/biotechnological driven gradient dissolution manifests itself not only in the usual tragedy of the commons victims of industrialized human activity−the sixth extinction of species, the toxic smog in Beijing and New Delhi, the vanishing glaciers, the draining of fresh water aquifers…−it manifests itself in and is linked to us. Robert Rosen observed that a “material system [can] change its own behavior in response to a force, and…that same system can generate forces that change the behavior of other systems.” Under the impress of the escalating force of techno-dependency, our addictive drug, as a system, we, convenience driven, environmentally foggy, smartphone glued to hand, clueless without app, humans are changing our behavior in ways that change the behavior of other systems, biospheric systems not excluded, and, on balance, not for the better. A sustainable future for coupled human/biotechnological systems and the soaring gradient of advancing technology is an oxymoron. The accelerating technical order is producing a deepening skew, a crossing tipping point to out-of-control, global warming scale, disorder of orders. A case-in-point can be seen by extrapolating the fragility of excessive interconnectivity in climax ecosystems, as Robert Ulanowicz pointed out, to the rising order of local and global interconnectivity rendering us, individually and collectively, increasingly vulnerable to looming, potentially catastrophic, collapse. What sustainability needs is the going forward stability of an order of orders. Viewing sustainability in the framework of flows and counterflows, excesses and deficits, concentrations and dissipations, of order as potent, transformable organized energy (exergy), a.k.a, power, this paper offers a possible handle on robustly overcoming the formidable barriers to gaining and latching a sustainable future, ourselves (hopefully) included.


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