Monday, April 30, 2012


If you ever want to excite a stickler, all you need do is take poetic liberties with the word entropy--a term coined by Rudolf Clausius to refer to the potential energy that is irrecoverably lost during any kind of work.

Just ask Jeremy Rifkin.

I read Rifkin's book Entropy: A New World View shortly after it came out in 1980, during my senior year in college.  I resonated with it at the time, and (though I have not revisited it since) still do.

In spite of what they say, I don't think the critics' beef with the book has anything to do with misappropriation of the word 'entropy'.  Rifkin hit a nerve all right, but not by misusing a technical term.  It's more like the nerve you hit when you tell an alcoholic that they have a drinking problem.  I suspect that the criticism amounts to nothing more (and nothing less) than the deep-seated defensiveness of denial.

What difference does it make if the book's subject--the increasingly destructive effects of pollution and ecological degradation caused by our industrial global economy--does not precisely fit the precise technical definition of 'entropy'?  That does not make the book's thesis any less true.

Whatever.  From my perspective the use of 'entropy' by Rifkin and co-author Ted Howard is justified, because their intended meaning is fully consonant with that of Clausius.  Entropy is not a complicated concept--all it means is that work costs potential.  So if you only attend to the benefits of doing the work, and ignore the costs ('externalization' anyone?) you are bound to run into problems: sooner or later something that you depend on--something that grants the potential necessary for you to keep working--will be gone, converted forever into an unusable form.  You don't have to look far these days to see the truth of that.  I'd say Rifkin and Howard are looking pretty prophetic.


  1. My son has his first day of (paid) work today. Should I let him know the cost to his potential?

  2. I expect that he will figure that out soon enough on his own. Congratulations though--not everyone is so lucky.