Bertrand Russell's acceptance of the heat death (1903)

"That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

"Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding dispair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built."

Charles Darwin considering the heat death (1876)

"[consider] ... the view now held by most physicists, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus gives it fresh life--believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all the other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress."


"The idea that low-entropy matter-energy is the ultimate natural resource requires some explanation. This can be provided easily by a short exposition of the laws of thermodynamics in terms of an apt image borrowed from Georgescu-Roegen. Consider an hour glass. It is a closed system in that no sand enters the glass and none leaves. The amount of sand in the glass is constant -- no sand is created or destroyed within the hour glass. This is the analog of the first law of thermodynamics: there is no creation or destruction of matter-energy. Although the quantity of sand in the hour glass is constant, its qualitative distribution is constantly changing: the bottom chamber is filling up and the top chamber becoming empty. This is the analog of the second law, that entropy (bottom-chamber sand) always increases. Sand in the top chamber (low entropy) is capable of doing work by falling, like water at the top of a waterfall. Sand in the bottom chamber (high entropy) has spent its capacity to do work. The hour glass cannot be turned upside down: waste energy cannot be recycled, except by spending more energy to power the recycle than would be reclaimed in the amount recycled. As explained above, we have two sources of the ultimate natural resource, the solar and the terrestrial, and our dependence has shifted from the former toward the latter."

From: Daly and Cobb: For the Common Good (1989)

Personal Note

In the early 70's both recycling and entropy were popular political and intellectual topics. Today we are aware that recyling a material often costs more than just plain throwing away it away. And the universal law of entropy as a cultural theme has been reversed.

Smithson's world view: Chaos out of Order
Prigogine's world view: Order out of Chaos

Robert Smithson on Recycling and Entropy in 'Entropy made Visible' (1973)

"O.K. we'll begin with entropy. That's a subject that's preoccupied me for some time. On the whole I would say that entropy contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. In other word it's a condition that's irreversible, it's a condition that's moving towards a glacial equilibrium and it's suggested in many ways. Perhaps a nice succint definition of entropy would be Humpty Dumpty. Like Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There is a tendency to treat closed systems in such a way. One might even say that the current Watergate situation is an example of entropy. You have a closed system which eventually deteriorates and starts to break apart and there's no way that you can really piece it back together again.

"Another example might be the shattering of Marcel Duchamp's Glass, and his attempt to put all the pieces back together again attempting to overcome entropy. Buckminster Fuller also has a notion of entropy as a kind of devil that he must fight against and recycle. Norbert Weiner in 'The Human Use of Human Beings' also postulates that entropy is a devil, but unlike the Christian devil which is simply a rational devil with a very simple morality of good and bad, the entropic devil is more Manchean in that you really can't tell the good from the bad, there's no clear cut distinction. And I think that at one point Norbert Weiner also refers to modern art as one Niagra of entropy. In information theory you have another kind of entropy. The more information you have the higher degree of entropy, so that one piece of information tends to cancel out the other. The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen has gone so far as to say that the second law of thermodynamics is not only a physical law but linked to economics. He says that Sadi Carnot could be called an econometrician. Pure science, like pure art tends to view abstraction as independent of nature, there's no accounting for change or the temporality of the mundane world. Abstraction rules in a void, pretending to be free of time.

"One might even say that the whole energy crisis is a form of entropy. The earth being the closed system, there's only a certain amount of resources and of course there's an attempt to reverse entropy through the recycling of garbage. People going around collecting bottles and tin cans and whatnot and placing them in certain compounds like the one over on Greenwich Avenue across from St. Vincent's Hospital. Well this seems to be a rather problematic situation. Actually right now I would like to quote from Georgescu-Roegen, 'The Entropy Law and the Economic Process', about what he calls entropic bootlegging. It's an interesting conception I think. This is what he says about recycling waste materials."

"This is what the promoters of entropy bootlegging fail to understand. To be sure, one can cite numberless scrap campaigns aimed at saving low entropy (low entropy in his definition is raw materials before they are processed into refined materials. In other words raw ore would be low entropy and high entropy would be the refined material such as steel)... by sorting waste. They have been successful only because in given circumstances the sorting of, say, copper required a smaller consumption of low entropy than the alternative way of obtaining the same amount of metal. It is equally true that the advance of technological knowledge may change the balance sheet of any scrap campaign, although history shows that past progress has benefited ordinary production rather than scrap saving. However to sort out the scrap molecules scattered over the land and at the bottom of the sea, would require such a long time that the entire low entropy of our environment would not suffice to keep alive the numberless generations of Maxwell's demons needed for the completed project."

"In other words he giving us an indication that recycling is like looking for needles in haystacks.

"Now, I would like to get into an area of, let's say, the problems of waste. It seems that when one is talking about preserving the environment or conserving energy or recycling one inevitably gets to the question of waste and I would like to postulate actually that waste and enjoyment are in one sense coupled. There's a certain kind of pleasure principle that comes out of a preoccupation with waste. Like if we want a bigger and better car we are going to have bigger and better waste productions. So there is a kind of equation between the enjoyment of life and waste."

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