Entropy: Decoding the DNA of This American Moment

The second law of thermodynamics asserts that things move from a state of high energy to a state of low. The universe, which began as a ball the size of a marble, exploded with such energy that it is still expanding X years later.

Rain falling from the skies dissipates the energy imparted to it by gravity. This rain, falling over millennia, seeks the lowest possible level, the level, that is, where the energy could no longer be dissipated. In its descent the water has carved rivers, valleys, streams and paths.

When Boston was a village, cows and cowherds followed these riven paths, and the paths became the growing city's streets. The city planners and residents laying out the streets allowed not only the energy of the water but the energy of decision to move freely, letting it take the easiest path "downhill." They built along the cow paths, called the cow paths streets and later paved them.

Imagine now the nation's first immigrants, flowing from a state of high order (Europe) into a state of low (the New World). Europe, in this case, could be said to be shedding its energy, as any engine must do, and this new source of energy—the immigrants—transformed the land.

The Native Americans lived here for millennia in more or less the same way. Nothing much changed their culture, as there was no new energy source to do so. Then the Spanish introduced the horse, which was—and is—a machine harnessing cheap energy (the sun) and turning it to use. The use to which Native Americans turned this new device was marauding, theft and conquest: in short, war, which is, finally, the dissipation of excess energy in the quest for cheap energy. (There is, proverbially, nothing more difficult to get than "easy money." And otherwise incomprehensible wars may, perhaps, be explained as the thermodynamic effect of "throwing good money after bad.")

The First World War was fought between the two most advanced and most closely aligned civilizations in Europe. Germany and England, in the heat of the Industrial Age, had energy to expend (look at their military uniforms), and this excess energy was spent in braggadocio and the incessant prosecutions of various claims of territory and allegiance. These claims were as real to those rulers, and perhaps to their peoples, as is first love to a 17-year-old. The force of their claims was not delusion but truth, driven by the intolerable goad, in the youth, of hormones and, in the state, of wealth.

America, at the height of our power, more powerful than any nation in history, blundered into that war that announced and accelerated our imperial decline. Was it "a good idea" to spend 10 years in Vietnam at the cost of 60,000 American dead and, quite literally, inestimable treasure?

How did it happen? May we not indict the second law of thermodynamics? For the roots of this war, as that of the First World War, may be found in pretension born of excess. Germany had pretensions to stewardship of various Balkan states. And we to be stewards of Indochina—why? What poor man has these delusions? They are an outgrowth of surplus.

Greater power demands more effective outlets for its use, which is to say for its dissipation and waste—either directly (the internal combustion engine) or through inefficiency (fashion). Here, the emperor is like the billionaire, who has the power not necessarily to accomplish his supposed goals (a bigger yacht, a cliffside home) but to expend energy in their pursuit. The richest man, with his pick of mates, may marry a shrew. He must make decisions, and whichever decisions he makes will involve the expenditure of energy and the risk of total—and the certainty of potential—waste.

The billionaire may also invest his money. Here, in addition to risking his investment, he is diluting his power over it. Here he has, like a sovereign nation, made an alliance with other forces of control: advisors, accountants, lawyers, consultants. These treaties are made to promote not only the stated goal, mutual security, but the unstated pursuit, individual self-estimation. Both are at risk. He may give money to a hospital; the hospital bearing his name may prove inefficient or corrupt. Britain may have had treaties with Czechoslovakia and France against Hitler, but Chamberlain broke the British treaty of military support with Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak army, the most efficient on the continent, was larger than Hitler's and could have defeated him. Having sacrificed Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain then abided by a treaty with France for the mutual defense of Poland; both of these actions, his original betrayal and his subsequent support, led to World War II. Why would Chamberlain act with such absurd inconsistence? Because he was human.

As we are a product of energy (some quantum folks would say we are energy), we must run downhill; that is to say, we, forced to make decisions, must regularly choose wrongly, which is to say, expend irretrievable energy. Therefore, all civilizations must eventually fail. Lincoln put it magnificently in his Second Inaugural Address, in which he suggests that all the wealth accrued through slavery may have to be dispersed through the medium of war.

But there is, of course, no status quo ante, and the effects of slavery, and of the Civil War, are, even today, occupying our energies, physical and mental; and original unfortunate choices in the source of cheap energy (slaves) are still playing out their course downstream in affirmative action, welfare, "diversity," busing and our foreign policy (those with darker skins are considered "more worthy"), just as they did in Jim Crow segregation, lynching and miscegenation laws.

Is this progression toward chaos a sign of man's evil nature or, put differently, of our ineradicable propensity to search for an easy way to do a hard job? The introduction of slavery into the United States, and the refusal of the Continental Congress to outlaw it in our Constitution, was a predictable human vote for something-for-nothing, for cheap energy; or, say for energy conservation, in the avoidance of a difficult choice. It turned out, in the event, to be the most expensive choice our country ever made.

Slavery was abolished at the cost of great agony, sacrifice and waste. It was the expenditure of energy in the service of Good (a rather unique choice and one recapitulated by our participation in World War II). Here the United States, as a body politic, acted to defend the powerless, with no ulterior motive. But two things occurred, the first being that such massing created the most expeditious machine for the dissipation of energy the world has ever known, the Federal Government; and the second, that we, as a people, had learned a Good Trick.

This trick ("doing good") gave to the body politic great satisfaction, as it should, and to politicians great opportunity to exert and expand their power and to solidify their perch on the catbird seat, through demagoguery.

Our Good Trick, in fighting the Civil War for Good, persisted. We fought the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines for similar reasons, not the least of which was to defend the honor of an American white woman who was supposedly examined and affronted by Spanish officials in Cuba. Our cultural memory retained the sterling example of heroism in the Civil War, and newspapermen like William Randolph Hearst, and others who might otherwise profit from the Spanish-American War, brought it about.

The presumption of goodness, on the part of a country or an individual, is moot. Information is costly, and we humans tend to make the easiest choice and call it good. So the defeat of tyranny in the Second World War, as the machine was not yet exhausted, led to the occupation of Japan and Germany and the restoration of their economic health.

But our occupation of Japan led to the defense of South Korea and thus to our doctrine of opposition to Communism, which led us to Vietnam.

Was our stance against Communism a mistake? In Asia, arguably so (North Korea is Communist today, as is all of Vietnam); in Europe, we must say no, as our presence through the Cold War kept Europe free of totalitarian slavery.

But note that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States' presence in Europe, always opposed by the very folk protected by it, is decried at home; and we, in the waning days of our empire, withdraw our forces, creating that cheap energy (material resources and slaves) that will, in time, be garnered by Russia or by a revived Ottoman Empire.

We cannot escape the essential nature of the machine, which is human nature and its elaboration into society. The billionaire must have a bigger plane, and the country must have its excess cathected into war, government "programs" and other attractive waste.

The healthy uses of our energy are spelled out in the Constitution, and they are reducible to the law that the government shall do only those things the States cannot do, and the States only those things from which the individual may profit but with which he cannot supply himself (courts, roads, sewers and so on).

The attempt of the body politic to live under the Constitution has resulted in 226 years of strife. It must, as individuals must differ in their intelligence, goodness, information, resolve and willingness to debate. That is the meaning of "a free society."

The Constitution is the possession of the American people. It is not the fiefdom but rather the rule book of those employed to administer it. It is, however, inevitable that with the growth and prosperity of the Country, energy would become diffuse—flowing from a state of high entropy (the individual) to one of low, the government.

The rejection of Governmental power in aid of the governed is so rare as to be the stuff of legend. (When George III heard of George Washington's resignation as commander, the king remarked, "He is the greatest man in the world.")

The question, finally, is, What is going on here? How is it possible that Germany and England, twice in two decades, retired to the traditional dueling grounds to kill off an entire generation of their youth? Why did we follow France to Vietnam, and Russia into Afghanistan? Why have we, the citizen—owners of this country, allowed an entrenched class of bureaucrats to have control over our laws and resources? Here is my own law of thermodynamics: The blonde always breaks up the band.

The successful band attracts groupies. The groupie, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse of the most successful member of the band may inherit a certain power. He or she, at the least, may, in bed, comment upon or indeed contravene the decisions made in the studio. He or she is taking easily offered (cheap) power and using it. Does this make these operations evil? Not necessarily. The paramour may very well have the interests of the band at heart and may even have musical knowledge and insight. But the mechanism of decision (the band in the studio) is forever altered and weakened. The other band members, faced with this new regime, each will find his or her own blonde (paramour, agent, brother-in-law), for the precedent has been set, the compact has been broken, and energy will take the most efficient path downhill, and thus it ends in court. As it does with our government in the waning days of American hegemony.

What can one say of a country in which elected officials voted, in a 2,400-page bill, to give the government power over six percent of the economy, according to laws that no one had read? "We have to pass the bill to find out what's in it," said Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. Is this an example of daylight madness? Of course.

It is also an example of the dissipation of energy.

Money, put in the vulgate, has burned a hole in our pocket. The larger yacht looks not only attractive but essential to the billionaire, the trophy wife to the successful merchant; and our actions in concert cannot but partake of our individual nature, which is to expend energy and, after the fact, to explain the expenditure as reason.

Is the West dismantling itself because we are fools? Of course we are fools; we are human. Is this devolution inevitable? Yes, though its course and speed are unforeseeable.

Is my view overly bleak? I don't think so. The human body, a machine, has its natural span. We have extended the human life span greatly, but it cannot be extended indefinitely, as such would fall afoul of the Second Law.

We might understand our lives as a house built on a cliff. In an attempt to enjoy the view (get something for nothing), we spend much time and energy (including the expenditure of information costs) testing the soil, researching various modes of construction, studying or paying others to study winds and tides and the optimum architectural design to promote structural longevity. And then we build our house. Do we intend it to last forever? We know that neither it nor we will last forever, but we plan to have it last a "reasonable" amount of time.

But we may have sited our house in error, winds may change, the soil reports may have been inaccurate or, indeed, fudged; a freak, which is to say rare but probable, wind or earthquake may tumble our house down the cliff. It may outlast us, but neither it nor we will last forever. And no civilization can last forever.

Note that a large component of energy is expended in information costs: what is the best site for the house, what are the best materials, who is the best architect, what is a reasonable price and so on. The Wright brothers profited from their own pursuit of information, from years of testing and thought, and from the energy expended by hundreds of others in studying not only the nature of flight but of air, winds and mechanics.

Now the United States has turned its back on manufacturing. And the current administration is, inexplicably, tragically, opposed to development, experiment and the personal wealth that funds them; we may see, if we step back, an astonishing phenomenon. We, American citizens, do a small fraction of the physical work done a century ago; we do a fraction of the manufacturing work done a generation ago. But the energy this work amassed must be dissipated (just as the billionaire must dissipate the hundred million or so for the new yacht advertised as "the latest thing").

Our current administration, our President, who has not vetoed one spending bill in one and a half terms, has risen to power as a proto-Marxist; that is, one dedicated to an equal distribution of goods, such equality effectuated by the state's ability to confiscate and award.

Note that those things he has done in supposed support of conservation (banning drilling, banning the Alaska pipeline, banning development the EPA might find objectionable, attempting to overtax medical devices, bludgeoning a health care bill through Congress) have, inevitably, resulted in a greater consumption of energy—just as the production of the electric car uses more energy than the continued use of the aged internal-combustion vehicle.

All expenditure of energy increases disorder. It seems there is no exception. Is there, however, any comfort? I think so.

A myth is not an untruth. It is an attempt to state, poetically or symbolically, a shared foundation belief that cannot be empirically proved. When quantum physicists posit the big bang, they are, essentially, retelling a myth first noted some time before.

I refer to Genesis, in which we are told there was nothing and then there was something. The something, in the Bible, is called God; the physicists call it the singularity, that which came from nothing and caused everything. Both formulations may be reducible to "Damned if I know.…"

In the Bible we are told God created the heavens and the earth (the universe, which was void and dark), and the spirit of God hovered upon the face of the waters. And so the first process described in our foundation myth (the foundation myth of the West) was evaporation, which is to say the movement of energy from a more- to a less-ordered state.

God then, as we know, created light, day, night and a firmament between the waters below and the waters above, which machine we may, if we wish, recognize as a cell and the text as a description of the cell dividing. The cell, of course, grows into various creatures and, eventually, culminates in Woman and Man, who, in their first human act, get into trouble.

And there we have it. Adam and Eve form a family, which begins to fight and kill. Other families arise; none are happy. Jacob's prosperity leads to children who quarrel, and one of them, Joseph, is abandoned to slavery. He rises to be vizier of Egypt. Moses, another Jew risen to prominence, takes the slaves out of Egypt, and they reward him by clamoring to go back and put an end to all this foolishness.

They do not know how else to dissipate (employ) their energies. So, as they cannot any longer use their energies according to the way of slaves, they turn their energies on Moses, who has forced them into this new, traumatic position.

I will not belabor the parallels with the current position of Western democracy wending its way back to the sea.

Of what is all this headlong elaboration in aid? Toward what are we rushing and why? This daunting problem seems to admit of no solution at all, but if we address it not as a problem but as a solution in itself, it may begin to make some sense.

If before the big bang there was nothing, and if all energy since then is expended in the manner best suited to return the world to that state, then all seemingly random permutations of energy dispersal must be attempts to accelerate the return to chaos.

Life then, human and otherwise, may be understood not primarily as the desire to perpetuate life (which just begs the question "Why?") but as an attempt to maximize this dispersal.

The paramecia, reptiles, primates and so on evolved toward the agent best capable of waste; that is, the human being, whose sole adaptive excellence is the ability to conceive of and create increasingly effective engines for the discovery and dispersal of energy.

Though we may not find this purpose flattering, we may draw comfort in being part of a universal plan in which even if God did not love us, he must admire our capacity to throw ourselves into our work.

This article was originally published in the 60th Anniversary Issue of Playboy. Check out more from the issue at and from every issue in Playboy's complete archive, visit iplayboy.com.

Illustration by Chris Buzelli