He who knew nothing other than creatures would have no need for thinking of sermons, for each creature is full of God and is a book [about God].
High school physics classes generally teach something about the Laws of Thermodynamics, which can be summed up, more or less, as the following: Energy can be transformed — for example, from electricity into light, as in a light bulb, or vice versa, as in a solar panel — but energy can never be destroyed. It does, however, inevitably change into less and less usable forms. In other words, there is always a bit of waste. When electricity is turned into light in an incandescent bulb, a bit of the energy is lost as heat. As energy changes form, it tends to become less useful, a process called entropy.
Physics Lesson Two: A couple of decades ago, physicists and cosmologists had basically agreed that the universe started with the Big Bang, when the entire cosmos exploded from a point microscopically small, and that the universe would end with everything collapsing back onto itself in what they termed the Big Crunch. The theory was appealing for a number of reasons, not least of which is the symmetry of explosion and collapse. A lot of religious folks found the theory interesting because it seemed to mirror the traditional stories of Genesis and Apocalypse.
In the past few years, nothing important has changed about how scientists feel about the Big Bang. If anything, the evidence is more conclusive than ever that it truly happened. What has changed is the Big Crunch. Physicists generally agree that the Crunch can’t happen because there simply isn’t enough mass in the universe to cause everything to collapse back in upon itself. In fact, observations show that the universe does not merely continue to expand, but, for some fairly mysterious reason, the expansion is accelerating.
Entropy dictates that the energy in the universe gets less and less useful, which in concrete terms means that it eventually turns into heat. Meanwhile, the universe is getting bigger and bigger, so the heat has to fill more and more space. And as anyone knows, we can be perfectly comfortable in a small room on a winter’s day until someone opens a window. The heat doesn’t vanish — it just has a lot more room to bounce around in. The result is that we start to feel awfully cold.
That is the universe we have to look forward to, although it will be billions and billions of years down the road. We won’t go out with a bang (or, rather, a Crunch), but with a whimper … a very long, very cold whimper. Even though it is a long, long time away and I’ll have been dead for billions of years already, the thought of a cold, dying universe depresses me a little.
But forget all the cosmic background for a minute.
Take a look at our own little blue and green planet Earth. Look specifically at the one little thing that, so far as we know, makes our planet unique in the cosmos:
James Lovelock is the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. In the early days of space exploration, NASA asked him to design equipment that probes would carry to Mars to test the atmosphere there for traces of life. To figure out what kind of tests he would need, he began looking at the effects of life on Earth’s atmosphere, and he quickly realized that Earth’s atmospheric composition is very strange. For one thing, the atmosphere is around twenty percent oxygen. Under normal conditions, that very volatile oxygen would bond with things like iron (making rust) and quickly disappear from the atmosphere. Oxygen’s potent energy-storing ability would be lost. The amount of oxygen is oddly convenient, too. Much more of it and the planet would have burned to a cinder a long time ago the first time a lightning strike ignited some dry grass. Other components of Earth’s atmosphere are equally strange. Moreover, when Lovelock looked at the geological record, he realized that Earth’s atmospheric composition had remained basically constant for a couple of billion years. There simply isn’t a geological process that could explain such consistency, especially with all the volatile gases in the atmosphere.
Lovelock concluded that only life itself could be creating and maintaining the atmospheric composition that is so conducive to life. Because Earth harbors life, the Earth itself behaves like a living system, regulating itself in ways similar to an organism’s metabolism. Lovelock named this Earth organism “Gaia,” after the old Greek Mother Earth.
Mars, the original object of Lovelock’s study, has an atmosphere that is totally explainable by geological processes alone. Lovelock told NASA that they didn’t need any of his equipment because he could tell all the way from Earth that Mars’ atmosphere showed no signs of life. NASA didn’t much like that conclusion, and to this day they’re still cramming spacecraft full of tests to search for life on Mars, though there hasn’t been an atom of evidence that life exists there.
Life doesn’t behave like other natural phenomena. That’s obvious. What isn’t necessarily obvious is how life is different, or why. Scientists have been striving for a very long time to devise a comprehensive definition of life, but there simply isn’t one on which all parties agree. My distinctly unlearnÃ©d hypothesis is that life is different from other natural phenomena because of how it deals with the Laws of Thermodynamics, and specifically with entropy. In most systems, energy enters and passes on through, getting degraded in the process. Sunlight hits a rock and some of it bounces back into space while some of it changes into heat that gradually radiates away. Or a meteorite enters the atmosphere and its energy of motion is changed by friction into heat and light — we see a shooting star — and then it burns up and is gone.
Life still follows the rules of entropy, but it does bend them. Individual living beings do this to some extent, but communities of life — ecosystems — do it much more profoundly. Light striking a leaf doesn’t simply bounce back into space as light and heat. It is captured and converted to chemical energy, allowing the plant to grow. But the story doesn’t end there. The plant’s waste materials — dead leaves, twigs, perhaps some fruit — are consumed by worms or termites, and the stored chemical energy allows them to grow and reproduce. The story doesn’t end there, either. The worm’s waste materials, delicately referred to as “castings,” or, indelicately, as “poop,” are eaten by microbes and fungi, allowing them to grow and reproduce and sequester minerals from the soil. Their wastes in turn are ready to be incorporated into a plant using added energy from photosynthesis. This story isn’t just a linear chain of events, either. There might be a deer or a katydid or a fungus that eats the plant’s leaves before they fall, or a mole might come across the worms. There are an infinity of ways that the energies captured by life are shared and redistributed through the entire ecosystem. At every stage a little energy is lost, often as heat, but the original sunlight has been used at least several times. Contrast this multiplicity of uses with the rock which “uses” the sunlight just once — if we can even call it use — before the energy is lost.
Life, then, makes efficient use of energy. It cannot counter entropy, but it does mitigate it. There are, of course counter-examples, as when the population of newly-introduced goats grows unchecked on an isolated island, defoliating the landscape and leaving a desolate, eroded moonscape. But in the long term and on an ecosystem scale, life uses energy efficiently in every single case. In forests, the light that gets past the canopy is gathered by the understory, and the light that passes the understory is used by shrubs, and the light the shrubs miss is used by herbacious plants on the forest floor, like orchids and lilies and ferns. On a creek, a beaver builds a dam that slows the flow of water and allows it to be used by alders, cattails, teal, muskrats, and many others. It seems to me that this is the purpose (the God-given purpose, perhaps?) of life: to use energy efficiently and well.
Perhaps, then, this is what is so tragic about our modern global society and culture: that we use energy so inefficiently. We take energy that has been buried in the ground for tens of millions of years and burn a gallon of it to drive twenty miles to see a movie. Or we import grapes from Chile or apples from New Zealand. Or we destroy wetlands to build a freeway, or chop down a forest to get the plywood to build stripmalls. There are certain forms of logic to support all these activities, rationales we hear every day, but none of those logics reference the sort of efficient use of energy at the core of biological systems. In short, we — living beings though we are — do not behave as living beings. We act as agents of entropy, and this wonderful living planet scrambles madly to recover the energy we waste despite the many egregious wounds we have caused it.
Our Christian faith informs us that Christ is God made flesh, that he was crucified and resurrected. When William Stringfellow was pressed to say whether he really believed in the resurrection, he said simply, “Phil Berrigan is going to jail.” In a similar way, when asked if we believe in the crucifixion, we can reply, “Women in Darfur are being raped; children in Iraq are being bombed.” The Amazon rainforest cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The rivers of Appalachia gasp, “It is finished.”
So what do we do in the face of the crucifixion of the living planet? We must participate in the resurrection. I am reminded of the Malvina Reynolds song:
God bless the grass that grows through the crack
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows through
And God bless the grass
To participate in the resurrection we partake of the body and blood of Christ, and we partake of the body and blood of God’s living creation. We become vessels of the Holy Spirit, not agents of entropy.
In a time when our food travels an average of 1500 miles to reach our tables, gardening is a revolutionary act. Buying from local farmers’ markets is a declaration of radical efficiency. Eating local is a prayer of thanks for the beauty God has created around us. Growing our own found in our own place can save both ecosystems and human lives on the other side of the globe.
So turn some of your lawn into an orchard or an asparagus patch. Chat with farmers at your local market. Keep pet worms to eat your food scraps. Remember that food, drink, and sunlight are sacred and come from your God.
this post is so amazing! god bless the grass is my favorite song, i sing it at every talent show possible (though that makes people think i’m crazy)…your post was so informational, thank you, i didn’t know about the details of entropy and how we are acting en contra to nature. i knew that we were, but this rational is super clear and i think it can be something that can communicate across traditional political lines.
great post, archaic. thanks.
I don’t believe the Christian faith and I thought it was a great post too!
I found you with a Google search – life agent of entropy. My guess is that all life is an agent of entropy, but I agree that humans have entropy down to a fine art. The next century will be difficult for everyone but I hold high hopes that some of us will survive and continue our incredible technological advances … but in a more temperate way.