This morning was frigid. I hear that a “polar vortex” is bearing down on the east coast. Reportedly, it will be preceded by an even more alarmingly named “bomb cyclone” that will dump freezing air on the densely populated seaboard in one massive burst.
As I walked to my car before sunrise, I could feel the heat fleeing my exposed hands. They began to ache and feel fragile. It struck me that if I were to simply stand where I was for a little while longer, that feeling would rapidly spread throughout my body, and I would soon be dead.
I am, as physicists say, a heat source in this situation, and the air around me is a heat sink. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, heat flows from sources to sinks until the temperature of the two are equalized. If I let nature have its way with me, I would become an inanimate object: just another part of the scenery, albeit a macabre one.
Heat and Life
But, as we the living and the human do at the start of every day, I chose not to succumb to nature, to the wild, to chaos. I resisted. I harnessed the products of my labor — and the labor of countless others in the economy — to carve order out of chaos, civilization out of the wild, culture out of nature.
I got into my Mazda 3. Thanks to its remote starter, the car’s internal combustion engine had already been running for several minutes, radiating heat into the surrounding air and charging the battery. And the battery had been running electrical current through the heated seats and powering fans that blew hot air into the cabin.
So as soon as I entered the car’s artificially warm environment, the mass exodus of energy from my body halted. I would, after all, live to create another day. So I drove to my local Starbucks, with its heated air, piping hot coffee, and warm sandwiches, and I started writing this essay.
Order and Creation
Each of these economic goods — the gasoline, the car, the coffee, etc — were paid for with money I earned for my work as an editor and educator.
And each product was the end result of a globe-spanning, decentralized supply chain: a vast spontaneous order of creativity ranging from oil refinery engineers in Texas to coffee growers in Brazil. Even the little green “splash stick” — which helped keep my coffee and its heat contained in the cup — had a massively complex origin story with a cast of thousands: nearly all of them strangers to each other. To get a feel for how wondrous such market phenomena are, read the classic essay “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read.
Cooperating through price-coordination, and without a central plan, countless men and women tapped the raw and random energy potential of nature — fossil fuels especially — and converted it into orderly work. Thanks to the heroic labors of my economic allies, I was able to convert the caloric energy of food I’ve eaten into brain work and the production of this essay, instead of having it dissipate uselessly into the cold around me. Thanks to human creativity, magnified by market-coordination, culture was wrought out of nature, civilization out of the wild, order out of chaos.
Yesterday, I asked my brilliant colleague David, “How much do you know about the heat death of the universe?” He assured me he knew a great deal. David explained to me that all work generates heat; every act of order-creation also produces entropy. Thus, eons from now, the inevitable, result of thermodynamic events will be a final, universal state of entropy, as many physicists believe. All reality will be devoid of informational structure and consist solely of random energy.
This theory is fascinating, but not dispiriting. Whatever may be the cosmic scheme of things, the creative opportunities before us are full of joy and meaning, however temporary, if we choose to look for it.
To paraphrase Aragorn in the final film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a day may come when the creativity of human culture fails: when, whether through natural disaster or our own moral corruption and weakness of will, we can no longer hold nature at bay and it absorbs us all. A day may even come when universal entropy reigns.
But, it is not this day.
Stay creative. Stay grateful. Stay warm.