Musing on the perfect law

The title track on Muse’s excellent 2013 album ‘The 2nd law’ refers to the second law of thermodynamics.  This defines Entropy and boils down (literally) to  the fact that in a closed system the amount of energy remains constant , but things will even out until everything has the same energy when no use  or work can be derived from this.

Or to put it another way:  “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.”  Woody Allen, in Husbands and wives (1992).

The law is so fundamental that it has remained unassailed by advances in our knowledge and does seem to be a perfect law.

This might interest physicists and cosmologists but why is it of relevance to the rest of us?   It does suggest that in the fullness of time the Universe ends with a gentle sigh as entropy reaches it’s maximum and all things are at equilibrium.  I find that oddly calming, but it doesn’t excite me. After all the Earth will be long gone by then – in a far more exciting explosion of a star.   Of course the Earth is not a closed system, energy from the Sun pours down on us continually, but the principles of the Second Law hold true in many instances and serve as a good guide to how things operate at a fundamental level.

We are bombarded with economic statistics that assume that we must have growth.  To be successful as a Nation (and so presumably as individuals) we must continually have more stuff.  The same amount of stuff as last year is considered stagnation.  Less stuff than previously is considered a National tragedy and all manner of tactics are used to create growth.

The fundamental truth illuminated by the Second Law is that there is only so much ‘stuff’ to go around and once it has been used it get’s harder and harder to re-use until it’s gone.  There are more and more people chasing the finite amount of ‘stuff’ which, to me at least, makes our endless quest for growth seem contrary to the very forces of nature.  As Matt Bellamy sings  “…An economy based on endless growth is unsustainable”.

Ask yourself – beyond the necessities of life do you feel happier having more stuff?  As a family we have loads more stuff than I had as a kid, but I don’t think that’s what makes us either more or less fulfilled.  It seems that it is the quality and nature of what we have that creates well being.  A hand crafted artifact made with care and passion has far more worth than container loads of cheap goods made on a production line.  And compassion, care and love use up no stuff at all but are invaluable.

I believe that it is time to challenge the assertion that growth is per se good.  Growth can be a force for good and cheap mass produced food and goods help us to feed and clothe an ever increasing population.  But let’s support those who don’t want to be the biggest but who want to be the best, or just different.  Let’s base our views of our own self worth on something more than the amount of ‘stuff’ we can accumulate.  Our own well being rests not on material wealth but the less tangible. The expression of contentment, patience, tolerance and compassion for others attract real friends not money and power.

To quote the Dalai Lama “…By changing ourselves we can change our human way of life and make this a century of compassion”  and maybe then we’ll care less about ‘stuff’ and more about true well being.


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