Saturday, October 29, 2005

Maps of Time

I've just finished David Chritian's "Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History." Fascinating book, it takes a very macro-view of everthing from the unfolding of the universe to the unfolding of modern human civilization. Perhaps the strength of the book lies in this removed perspective, for Christian is able to calmly discuss the similarities between the energy storage value of animals in pastoralism and humans in slavery in the same sentence. He provides an interesting framework for understanding networks of complexity--that of "centers of gravity" and "hubs." A center of gravity, in Christian's terms, is where the bulk of trade and population lie, but the more important hub is the concentrated location of many significant or long-distance connections. For example, even into the 19th century, India and China were still the "centers of gravity" of the world, but the significance, reach and concentration of linkages in a few Western European locales (London, Netherlands, etc.) made them the much more significant hubs. Here's a brief examle of Christain's analysis:

"At a local scale, and in the short run, complex entities seem to reverse the workings of the second law of thermodynamics by increasing order. But viewed within the larger environment from which they draw free energy, they clearly actually increase entropy by speeding up the transformation of free energy into unuseable forms of heat. Thus complexity is, in a sense, a cunning way for the second law of thermodynamics to work more efficiently towards its bleak goal of a universe without order." (509)

This take on the thermodynamics of civilizaiton seems to have some significance for collapse theory, specifically for the implications of collapse of a global-system. In our peer-polity world, the need to draw free energy from outside sources--whether third world labor or petroleum reserves--demands that the system eventually collapse when it reaches the limits of our "closed system" of Earth. Of course, we don't live in a closed system: we have a continual free-energy input in the form of solar energy. From the perspective of thermodynamics (and within a "human-historical" time-frame) any civilization that requires more free energy than the sun provides will eventually succumb to entropy: collapse.

1 comment:

Libb Thims said...


You’re in the very close neighborhood of the correct answer here. I like the direction of your thought processes. Thermodynamically, the term ‘closed’ means that energy but not matter may cross the system boundary. Thus, we ‘do’ live in a closed system. Regarding your free energy take, you are very close to the correct answer. Free energy is a measure of the useful ‘work’ the society or civilization releases over the course of its formation and evolution towards the point of maximal structural stability, i.e. the ‘height of civilization’. It is the measure of the ‘change’ in free energy that quantitatively characterizes the structure of each civilization. In correct form your sentence should read: “From the perspective of thermodynamics, any civilization that reaches a point in time in which it absorbs more energy than it releases, energy indirectly channeled via solar actions, will eventually succumb to collapse, i.e. reactionary transition (revolution) towards a new time-enhanced future civilization.

Anyway, thanks for the tip on the book. I will check it out. Also, what are your educational credentials? I am assembling writers for a new “Journal of Human Thermodynamics”:

Give me an email if you might be interested in contributing an article.

P.S. the following link details our group thus far:

Libb Thims []