Hannah Höch Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany 1919
Ilargi: This is part 2 of Alexander Aston’s view of how upheaval and collapse can lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. Part 1 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada can be found here. Part 3 will follow soon. Check TheAutomaticEarth.com.
Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity
Energy, Ecology and Ecosystems
“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”
– Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend
The concept of energy is essentially an accounting process we have devised for describing the relationships of flow and transformation observed in the fundamental structure of the universe. It is an elegant concept, whether discussing the life of stars, the feeding of bodies or the intensity of industries, the movement of energy is remarkably consistent. In other words, it is very hard to lie about. It has one key characteristic in its movement through systems, the creation of feedback between material structures. Matter congeals from energy, planets and the basic chemical elements of life originate in novae, bronze is forged with fire and earth.
Positive feedback structures the growth of energetic systems and negative feedback shapes their stability. Stars and atmospheres remain balanced between gravity and the void, bodies respire, species co-evolve, ecological cycles persist. A self-similar pattern begins to becomes apparent in the flows of energy and matter through our universe. Cascading from singularity to the stars, flowing from hydrogen and radiated upon oceans; denser and denser, energy whirls and eddies into myriad forms, binding them together in increasingly complex configurations. Defined as the capacity to do work, there is a deceptive simplicity to our description of energy.
A universality that encompasses all activity, almost undermining the value of the concept due to the complexity of what it describes. Part of this problem is an epistemological one; our language renders a world of interacting objects. In this discourse, there is a tendency to think of “energy” as an entity, one more “object” in a milieu of discrete, bounded things. However, energy is not so much a “thing” as it is a way that “things” happen. Energy is process; indeed, it is the ability for process to exist.
Exchanges of energy are what create causal change over time due to the fundamental characteristic of entropy, the spontaneous, intrinsic characteristic of energy to move from an organized state to a disorganized one.. “It illuminates why anything – anything from the cooling of hot matter to the formulation of thought – happens at all.” (12) Process and change over time are “hardwired” into the universe. Yet this leaves us with one of the most profound questions of modern science. How, if the universe is wired for disorder, does a complex phenomenon arise that seems to run counter to entropy? (13)
The very existence of pattern is counterintuitive to a universe dominated by the processes of entropy, something made even more paradoxical by the observation that this entropic universe has, thus far, manifested increasingly complex forms of organization. As we look through deep time we repeatedly see the emergence of relatively rapid and powerful bursts of complexity, from the formation of stars to the emergence of life, the human brain, agriculture and industry. The general feature of this pattern of emergence is the energetic binding of material structures into new ecological relationships, shaped by positive and negative feedback.
Negative feedback ensures structural stability while positive feedback generates the disequilibria necessary for both growth and destruction. Unstable structures such as supernovae die out, creating not only space for more stable structures to form but also the materials that provide the structural components of new energetic relationships. Given enough time and space, energy density and material complexity would logically result from the repetition of such processes.
Systems help to stall the process of entropy by circulating energy flows before they dissipate. The more efficiently this is done the more stable the system. Efficiency in this sense is the way in which a system taps available energetic resource, how effectively a system circulates energy before dissipation, and the ratio of waste to energy consumed over time. All systems are bound together by a constant throughput of energy. Without these required energetic inputs systems will break down into the most stable configurations available. It is in this light that we begin to see how entropy, complexity and emergence are woven together.
Energy bonds together the constituent elements of a system into a process of relational development that orders a systems overall behaviour. Likewise, changes to the way energy flows through a system will produce new patterns of organization. More specifically, the greater the density of energetic feedback in a system the more complex its organization and intense its environmental influence becomes. “New configurations emerge quite suddenly as once independent entities are drawn into new and more ordered patterns, held together by an increasing throughput of free energy.” (14) New systems create new sources of energy and thus new differentials and gradients along which further complexity can develop.
Systems emerge through processes of positive feedback; the amplification of an effect by its own influence on the process which gives rise to it. A clear example of this is seen in the formation of a star. The gravitational pull from slightly denser clusters of hydrogen draw surrounding atoms into concentrated areas. The gravity created by this increasing mass causes more atoms to coalesce until the density of atoms is so great that nuclear fusion ignites. If the positive feedback is not checked the star will continue to accrete mass until it either goes nova or collapses into a black hole.
However, the star will stabilize into a durable system capable of regulating the energy flows if it forms a negative feedback loop by which the function of the system counterbalances itself in such a way as reduces change. In the case of a star, the heat and pressure caused by the gravitational compression of hydrogen causes its mass to expand. However, the expansion of the star into the vacuum of space causes its surface area to cool and compress thereby increasing heat and pressure. In a sense, stable stars respire, heating and cooling, expanding and compressing in space. The elements of complex systems are bound together by the energy flows from which they are constituted and changes to the way energy flows through systems can lead to reconfiguration, dissolution and novel emergences.
Earth’s ecosystems are its primary way of storing and circulating energetic capacity. Energetic flows bind organisms into the dynamic co-evolutionary relationships we call ecologies, or the complex adaptive systems that self-organize through the mutually reinforcing interactions between their constituent species. In other words, the presence of life reshapes and changes the conditions in which it arose, forcing it to continually adapt to its own presence. In a sense, evolution is the dynamic continuity of an organism transforming and mutating in the changing currents of energy over the course of billions of years.
Organisms greatly increase available energy by excreting metabolic waste (such as when anaerobic organisms oxygenated the biosphere), as energy dense packets for predation, or simply by decomposing. By increasing available energy in their surroundings they fuel the emergence of new forms of complexity. “Ecosystems converge in the way they handle energy” suggesting that “ecosystems and organisms organize similarly under energy flow” and the “expansion of the complex system is thermodynamically mandated.” (15) These complex adaptive systems are predicated upon the way energy flows through their biotic communities.
Due to the logic of selection through adaptive cycles, they tend to expand in complexity over time as the individual elements of the system compete and cooperate for better access to resources. The more effective a species is at harnessing available energy the more it shapes environmental and evolutionary dynamics in its surroundings. This in turn creates selective pressure amongst other organisms to adapt to these changing patterns resulting in co-evolutionary feedback. All organisms are “ecosystem engineers” to some degree or another, altering the flows of energy within ecosystems to meet their needs and shaping broader environmental pressures and relationships. (16)
For example, when beaver dams gather silt until they burst, flooding the lands downstream to create fertile meadows. In these regards, organisms are also niche constructors to varying degrees of intensity, shaping their environments as a form of “ecological inheritance.” (17) Selection is understood as a reciprocal process in which the creation of developmental ecologies selects for developmental plasticity. Persistent environmental alterations have downstream effects on the organisation of energy and matter in the environment, and therefore the evolutionary dynamics experienced by a host of organisms.
In other words, the organism, and the others that it impacts, become dependent upon constructing behaviours and engineered environments for survival. In these regards, humans can be understood as ecosystem engineers and niche constructors without parallel on Earth. However, humanity’s unique evolutionary dynamics lead us to create what might be termed “cognitive-developmental niches” or the, “problem solving resource and scaffold for individual development and lifetime learning.” (18) Through understanding the co-evolutionary feedback created between human cognition and the environments it is possible begin to design more sustainable and healthier processes.
Systems, cosmic, ecological, cognitive and social, all function through the dynamic feedback between matter and energy, something that we measure as information. When the growth of a complex systems begins to reach its energetic limits, it must either find a dynamic equilibrium between negative and positive feedback, intensify, or collapse. Understanding the dynamics of energetic feedback are key to designing effective solutions. The greatest transformations in the history of our societies are marked by the intensity with which humans have extracted and put energy to use. From hunting to farming, slavery to steam; like all organisms, human beings are shaped by the way in which they harness energy from their environments.
The greater the density of energetic flows, the more complex the human systems that emerge. Indeed, our history and “our relationship to the ecosystems we and our ancestors have inhabited is marked by scalar leaps in extractive capacity.” (19) Undeniably, the two most intensive reconfigurations and emergent dynamics yet experienced by the human species are the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Indeed, the magnitude of transformation that we face finds its closest parallel in these events. The human species must begin to reorganise the way in which energy is produced, stored and dissipated through their socio-technical ecosystems.
If such a reorganisation can be accomplished it will lead to a transformation of human developmental environments in what might thought of as kind of “eco” revolution, a move towards a more symbiotic integration with the energy-matter flows of the planet. Such a transformation can only be accomplished by observing the ecological dynamics of our environments and designing our institutions around them. In this way, we can design interventions that create feedback within diverse ecologies of humans, non-humans, technologies and institutions. In other words, we need to learn how to manage both growth and stability through feedback across a multitude of scales ranging from individuals to planetary ecology.
This means assessing the energetic and material flows that are available to our communities and their broader ecosystems in terms of efficient, sustainable use and distribution. Ecologies are the way in which the energetic capacity of the planet is organised and circulated through organic life. Their health and stability are the fundamental scaffolding upon which our societies are built. The idea of ecology is fundamentally one of relational and developmental systems. It has done much to breakdown our clockwork, factory inspired models and metaphors with their linear production processes.
It allows us to understand ourselves as caught up in complex predicaments, as opposed to merely complicated problems. Industrial societies have made this reality abundantly clear through the incomprehensibly vast changes they have wrought in their environments. Should humanity succeed, it will still be centuries before we will have ameliorated the damage to our global ecosystems. However, in creating stable feedback between environments, communities, institutions and technologies as part of an interdependent system, we can begin the process of such a recovery. It is through redesigning our developmental environments for dynamic equilibrium that the next system will coevolve with the planet.
12) P. W. Atkins, The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), xii.
13) “That’s the beauty of the system with the four fundamental forces chucked in, 1) gravity (for matter to coalesce), 2) electromagnetism (for light to be transmitted), 3) strong nuclear (for a nucleus to form from protons and neutrons, which then form atoms because electrons are needed to balance the charge) and 4) weak nuclear (which results in radioactive decay and various other interactions which lead to the chemical order we see today).” Personal correspondence from Dr. Vincent Hare
14) Christian, p. 45
15) Schneider and Sagan, p. 152
16) Alan Hastings, James E. Byers, Jeffrey A. Crooks, Kim Cuddington, Clive G. Jones, John G. Lambrinos, Theresa S. Talley, and William G. Wilson ‘Ecosystem Engineering in Space and Time.’ Ecology Letters 10, no. 2 (2007): 153-64.
17) Kevin N. Laland and Michael J. O’Brien. ‘Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology.’ Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 17, no. 4 (2010): 303-22.
18) Karola Stotz, ‘Human Nature and Cognitive-developmental Niche Construction.’ Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 9, no. 4 (2010): 483
19) Shryock, Andrew, Daniel Lord Smail, and Timothy K. Earle, eds. (Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 247.
Part 1 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada can be found here. Part 3 will follow soon. Check TheAutomaticEarth.com.
Alexander Aston is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is on the board of directors with the Centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He has prior degrees in philosophy and history. His work lays at the intersection of Cognitive Archaeology, Deep History and Natural Philosophy, examining the relationship between ecology, material culture and social cognition. Alexander grew up between Zimbabwe, Greece and the United States. He has worked as a stone mason, community organiser and collaborative artist focused on issues of sustainability, alternative education and economic justice for nearly two decades. He has helped to establish community collectives, free schools, participatory art projects, sustainability and education programs in several international projects.