A Thermodynamic Critique

This essay outlines some of the broad strokes of my developing critique of the human situation on the planet today.
First let's review some of the important physical evidence.
Since 1800 we have emitted about 1.4 trillion tonnes of CO2 from fossil fuel use and cement making. We're currently emitting 35 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, and that amount has increased by ~850 million tonnes each year for the last decade. Emissions have grown by an average of 2% a year for the last 30 years, and 2.8% a year over the last decade.
The added CO2 is warming the atmosphere, but it's warming more at the poles than at the equator. That means the thermal gradient between the equator and the North Pole is decreasing. That gradient is what keeps the polar jet stream organized, and stabilizes the climate in the Northern Hemisphere. The reduction of the gradient is disrupting the jet stream, which in turn is triggering weather disturbances that are interfering with NH agriculture, from the American Midwest though Europe to Russia and Asia.
Polar warming is already melting the permafrost and warming the polar sea beds, thereby triggering the release of large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas methane.  This has the potential of initiating positive feedback loops that could lead in fairly short order to runaway global warming.
The added CO2 is also acidifying the oceans, making it harder for tiny marine organisms to form shells. In addition to the acidification threatening the bottom of the oceanic food chain, we have already stripped off the top of the food chain. 90% of the apex predators in the ocean are gone, fished out and eaten by humans over the last 100 years. The ocean is now largely a garbage-filled desert, favored by ever-increasing numbers of jellyfish.
Despite the clear and growing mountain of scientific evidence of an imminent ecological catastrophe, humanity in general (as represented by our national governments) has done nothing significant to respond. This is clear from the fact that rather than slowing down, the trend of ecological destruction is still accelerating.
In fact, we can't slow down our energy use, since over 90% of the energy we consume goes either to immediate use (for transportation, etc.) or to maintain the infrastructure we've already built in the past. If we were to reduce our net energy consumption, things would begin to fall apart in very short order.
For the last 50 years activists have expected that the combination of education and technological development would allow us to displace fossil fuel use by electricity from hydro, wind and solar. However, that has not happened. Instead, the renewable energy we produce is being used in addition to fossil fuels, not instead of them. Of course, because of the atmospheric dwell time of CO2, even if we did manage to entirely stop using all fossil fuels today, we'd still be left with a dangerous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and no way to get it out.
From the evidence in the ice core records, natural processes take about 1000 years to remove 1 ppm of CO2 from the air. So it would take the planet 120,000 years to remove the CO2 we've added over the last 200 years. And we're adding another 2,500 years to that planetary bill every single year.
Next let's look at what has made it impossible (so far, anyway) for us to slow or turn the Titanic. This is where my critique parts company with the standard critiques based on human greed and ignorance.
We are unwitting prisoners of our evolutionary history. Recent research in evolutionary psychology is demonstrating that most of what we believe to be rational thought is anything but. It turns out that we are not rational creatures. Instead, we are largely rationalizing creatures.
It appears that many or even most of our decisions are made by evolved special-purpose neural circuits in our unconscious, based on purely emotional criteria. They are then presented to our conscious mind, whose job it is to dress up the pre-made decisions with socially acceptable justifications. The justification process apparently tricks the conscious, rational mind into believing that it was the source of the decisions in the first place.
The result is that most of our behavior is controlled by unconscious processes that use decision-making logic laid down tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. This logic is fed by memories of our past experiences, and uses our emotions to enforce the outcome. While reason and logic may play a role in some individuals, if we are honest even those of us who feel we live out in the rational tail of the human bell curve will admit that our behavior is driven largely by our emotional responses.
Why did we develop that way? It came about through natural selection. It's more effective to have general classes of survival problems solved by special-purpose neural circuits rather engaging a full analytical response each time the same problem needs to be solved. People who have the ability to solve a problem without having to think it through tend to out-survive those who don't.
So behaviors related to genetic imperatives like survival or reproduction are strongly coordinated by neural processes that are not directly accessible to the conscious mind. As I said above, the main role of the rational mind in these situations is to paint an acceptable face on what our unconscious has already decided we will do. Education makes little difference. In fact, recent research has shown that attempts at corrective education can actually reinforce counter-productive behavior.
On an even deeper level, the growth in our cultural and technological complexity over time seems to exhibit many characteristics similar to non-living complex adaptive systems. This is particularly visible in the spontaneous increases in a system's size, organization and energy processing capacity as more and more energy is pumped in from the environment. This is seen in hurricanes passing over warmer waters, as well as in human civilization as it gained greater access to fossil fuels over the last century and a half.
This effect of growing size and complexity appears to be due to the operation of the generalized Second Law of Thermodynamics on both non-living and living systems. Scientists like Erwin Schrodinger, Eric Schneider, James Kay, Howard Odum, Eric Chaisson and many others, working in physics, biology, astrophysics and ecology, have demonstrated that life itself, with its genetic information-storage medium, is a result of the operation of the Second Law.
Living DNA enshrines the dissipative imperative of the Second Law on which it is based, and this manifests in turn as the imperatives necessary to make life an effective dissipative structure: survival and reproduction.
The particular environmental circumstances during human evolution has resulted in us turning these thermodynamic/genetic imperatives into the cultural sub-systems we see around us today, particularly politics, technology, moral codes, educational and legal systems, economic systems of all types. Their function is to make human beings more effective dissipators of exergy gradients as we find them in our environment.
The fact that human behavior is traceable back to deep roots in physics and genetics goes a long way toward explaining why our current mess is proving to be so intractable. It's very, very hard to countermand orders that are coming up from one of the fundamental physical principles of the universe, by way of our DNA, through over a million years of human evolutionary history.

 Paul Chefurka
October 18, 2013

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