Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It's the entropy, stupid

I just finished the absolute best videoconference to Exeter and Falmouth in the UK. Thanks Nick Groom and all the rest of the crew. Three campuses, all video-linked, all listening and asking questions live!

I have to get a right-wing meme off my chest. On the Huffington Post, someone was venting about the Toyota Prius (I own one) and solar (ditto). S/he was claiming that since making them uses more energy than they save, there's no point to them. Sorry I can't find the link (it was a comment on a Huffington Post entry). But the observation is now a widespread meme. “It will take lifetimes to recoup all the energy lost in making them in the first place, so what's the point?”

If you do Economics 101 you learn about Sunk Capital, which is basically stuff you don't have to worry about, because it's been paid for in some way already. In this basic sense, the reactionary argument against ecological products is absurd. (At least my Prius tries to save energy, unlike a Hummer.) But there's something far deeper at work...

Here it is—if you want to exit the known Universe, Mr(s). Reactionary, go ahead (that would be fine with me). But can you think of anything that puts out more energy than you put into it? Have you ever, for instance, seen a shattered glass reassemble before your eyes? You haven't? You mean to say you live in a Universe where time goes one way, because of entropy? You mean to say that everything in the Universe is a big waste of energy?

The point is, how quickly do you want your energy to be wasted? Since it's going to be wasted in any case, do you want to slow the wasting down, or not?

It hadn't occurred to me before, but there really is a profound worldview and a politics in statements about energy-wasting electric hybrid cars, etc. (In the same way that ideology often consists in prescriptions disguised as descriptions, viz. any racist or sexist statement you can think of means “Down with [that race or gender]!”)

What worldview? Well, it's kind of like Neil Young: “It's better to burn out than fade away.” So ultimately it would be better to waste all the Earth's energy in a colossal explosion, as soon as possible. Let's explode all the hydrogen bombs, now!

I'm with John Lennon on this, who would much rather have faded away than burnt out (shame he was shot).

If your criterion for ecological products is that they must save more energy than what goes into making them, you should emigrate immediately to another Universe.

Even saying that eco-products should only waste energy in the most efficient manner imaginable is an incredibly tall order. Cue a lot of Bush stuff about waiting for the ideal technology to show up and save us. So down with solar, in the mean time!

Entropy: love it or leave it, I guess.


squirrel_cage. said...



bike (or bus) + train a much, much better way to go. the prius cannot save us unfortunately. it won't solve climate change emissions issues, and it does nothing to address liveable streets issues, a huge part of environmental justice and just environmental concerns in general.

Timothy Morton said...

No doubt, in the absolute. I'm not expecting the Prius to save us. But what am I to do in the absence of buses when I want to take say a small child to a class somewhere in the city nearby? Do I drive a non-Prius?