Nature Bats Last

Posted: February 6, 2010 in Culture, Education, Environment, Industrial Collapse, Philosophy, Science

I’ve added Guy McPherson’s blog Nature Bats Last to my blogroll. I like the name of his blog a lot better than my own, and his blog is populated by posts about the coming industrial collapse (which will regrettably bring with it ecological collapse) and comments by folks who appear to get it, though most appear to still be seeking solutions or escape hatches. It’s one of a handful of blogs where I go to get my doom on, and I sometimes comment. No one is a regular reader or commenter here at The Spiral Staircase, so I’ll offer (again) that doom is not my primary blogging focus, since it’s too horrific and soul destroying for me to blog about full time. I’m more of an armchair social critic. Prof. McPherson earns my admiration for being one of the few truth-tellers I have read, and he’s free of the New Age delusions commonplace at many similar blogs. In addition, he blogs with authority as Emeritus Professor of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Whereas some have considerable disdain for scientists and academics, who are sometimes revealed to be just as human as the rest of us, I’m more inclined to believe the truth claims of science once evidence is weighed and consensus is reached. In fact, the whole point of scientific inquiry is that knowledge and understanding are sharpened and corrected by continuous reexamination, which is a procedural strength few other areas of inquiry can claim to uphold as diligently.

The reason Nature Bats Last is being added to my blogroll is that Prof. McPherson was kind enough to post at my request an entry called Entropy Revisited. A correspondent of mine had accused me of misunderstanding the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and although I’m confident I have the basic principle correct, I doubted my ability to describe the details accurately. So I contributed the basic idea of the blog entry, an initial draft, and some editorial effort. Prof. McPherson gets most of the writing credit, so I only quote a bit of it here. Go there to read and comment. The intro provides a nice snapshot:

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. Those kernels are my favorite descriptors of the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. Respectively, the clauses mean (1) energy is conserved (First Law), (2) entropy never decreases, thus precluding perpetual motion machines (Second Law), and (3) it is impossible to cool a system to absolute zero (Third Law).

The thrust of the blog entry is that we’re poised to fall off a cliff with respect to available energy, mostly the fossil fuels we’ve been using up for the past 200 years or more. The Second Law binds us to that fate. Two familiar images of Wile E. Coyote from the old Roadrunner cartoons come to mind: (1) the character suspended in midair before plummeting to the ground as sheer momentum carries him past the edge of a precipice, and (2) some hairbrained scheme that ends by bringing some large piece of the cliff down upon himself. Both scenarios apply to our current situation. The first is sometimes chalked up to simple population overshoot, but the second is what haunts my sleep, which is that we’re actively engineering our own awful fate. Or to extend the metaphor “nature bats last,” we know that Nature (the reified form) is a far more powerful contestant than are we and will assuredly get the final say or at bat, yet we’re determined to pitch a series of beanballs to crush her skull and spine before we take the inevitable line drive to the face. That makes us a tragic species, not merely because the principles we set in motion bring about our own destruction but because we know it as we enact it and are determined to commit ecocide alongside suicide. Prof. McPherson professes an optimism I can’t share. Perhaps I’ve succumbed to a learned helplessness, or what I’ve heard called a convenient fatalism. Still, I haven’t progressed to full-bore nihilism and doubt I ever will. The best I can manage seems to be admitting reality, understanding its harsh mandates, and reporting.

  1. Thanks for this post, Brutus. The words of Christopher Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, come to mind: “To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, not something you do.”

    I don’t view myself as a nihilist. I’m a rationalist and I’m optimistic about (1) non-industrial cultures, (2) non-human species, and (3) our own prospects, if (and only if) we terminate the industrial age and approach the future with an appropriately large dose of reality.

  2. It’s always good to see you add to your blogroll, Brutus.
    As is often the case, the discussion above falls beyond my education but not my imagination. I hesitate to ask my questions because they, like me, are so naive.
    Why should human beings strive toward interminable perpetuation? Everything ends eventually.

  3. Brutus says:

    Why is life of a reasonable duration better than death now? We’re programmed to preserve ourselves against death, even knowing it’s a losing battle. On the species level, we have succeeded admirably at the expense of all other living things, which is the source of no little misanthropy among those of conscience, but to survive longer in a better balance with the rest of life is still better than extinction sooner.

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