Societies should be thought ecologically; and indeed, thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Deleuze and Guattari, and Timothy Morton think about societies in precisely these terms. This is neither a metaphor nor an analogy. We have an unfortunate tendency to immediately associate ecology with the study of natural ecosystems such as Amazonian rain forests. In that context, we think about various relations between organisms and physical features of their environment, how one organism depends on another, how they render each other possible, which organisms dominate the ecosystem, the cycles of feedback between the various organisms, and so on. We think about how worms, insects, microbes, and rotting fauna and creatures make the soil possible within which trees and plants grow. We think about how these trees, in their turn, provide food for a variety of animals. How those animals provide food for other animals. We think about the different niches these various beings construct and how they intersect and diverge from one another. We think about how energy passes through these assemblages, undergoing a variety of transformations beginning with the sun as the first source of energy, and going through a variety of different cycles.
There is no reason this form of analysis should be restricted to assemblages of nonhuman organic beings such as coral reefs. The difference between a city and a coral reef is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In a city there are various niches through which people carve out lives and devise strategies for living. There are relations of dependency between various organisms ranging from the way in which people depend on one another, to the existence of institutions, governments, businesses, corporations, and so on. There are hierarchies between different “species” where some are more dominant, some are more influential, than others. There are feedback loops between these various organisms, where various beings depend on others and where people and institutions become constrained by the various interactions and feedback relations that organize the assemblage. Above all, there are flows of energy that undergo continuous transformation, beginning with the sun, then plants and animals, then the various ways in which these are converted into calories for people. And there are, of course, all of the energies these assemblages produce through natural sources like goal, oil, natural gas, thermal springs, sunlight, and so on.
Perhaps the first step in thinking the world and societies ecologically lies in thinking entropically. We tend to first think entropy in terms of decay, heat death, and disintegration. But entropy is also a measure of order in an assemblage. A high entropy system is one that has a very low degree of order. It is like a cloud of gas particles in Brownian motion. Given the position of one particle in the system, we can’t make inferences about the position of any other particles in the system because there’s a high probability that the other particles will appear anywhere in the system. By contrast, a low entropy system is a highly ordered system. It is a system in which there is a low probability that particles will be located anywhere in the system. Thus, given the position of one element in such a system, we can make reliable inferences to the position of other elements because there’s a low probability of them being located anywhere. We can say that elements in such a system more or less possess “addresses”. It is for this reason that we can call low entity systems– that is, highly organized systems –”improbabilities”. If the term “improbability” is valuable, then this is because it reminds us never to take order for granted. Order is always something to be explained. Ongoing order or order that sustains itself across time is even moreso something to be explained.
Why is the concept of entropy so important to thinking ecologically? It is important because it reminds us that order never comes for free. Order always requires work, energy. No work, no order. No energy, no order. Take the wondrous example of a Briggs-Rauscher reaction or chemical clock:
In the clip above, we see a solution undergoing continuous changes to the left and the measurement of electrochemical reactions on the computer screen on the right. A solution is heated on a hotplate and stirred to produce a vortex. After a few moments it begins to oscillate between transparency and shades of blue and orange at regular intervals. This is all the more remarkable when we consider that as the solution changes colors all of the molecules that compose it are simultaneously undergoing a chemical reaction and then simultaneously switching to another reaction. Not only does energy flow through this system, but information flows across all the molecules, coordinating their activities with one another. We here have a highly ordered or low entropy assemblage. But this order doesn’t come for free. It only takes place through the energy that passes through it as a result of the stirring and the heat plate. Absent that, the order doesn’t emerge or take place. The order of this system is not a static thing like a fixed geometrical structure, but is a dynamic order that sustains itself through flows of energy passing through it.
The case is no different in social assemblages. A society is a low entropy, highly ordered, system of ecological relations between elements. We all know this. A society isn’t a crowd, but is an entity that has structure, organization to it. Yet our concepts for explaining this are so crude. We talk about power, interpellations, social forces, ideologies, etc. But really we’re just proposing what Hegel called “formal grounds“. “Why do things fall? Because of gravity. What is gravity? The tendency for things to fall.” We feel is if we’ve explained something because we’ve used different words (“gravity”, “things falling”), when we’ve only repeated what we wished to explain. “Why is society organized as it is? Because of power. What is power? The constellation of forces that organize society.”
We scarcely have a concept of work or energy in our social and political theory. Oh, to be sure we have a concept of labor, but while labor is part of the answer as to why social ecologies have the organization they do, it is only part. What we don’t have is a generalized theory of the energy and operations that go into maintaining order and organization. Minimally, for a society to maintain itself, energy must flow through it in both the form of calories and various forms of energy used to run technologies and allow for operations. These flows of energy are both enabling and constraining. They are enabling because they allow us to engage in various operations or activities. It is this energy that allows operations or activities to take place. They are constraining because we are dependent on them. In the absence of the energy that sustains our bodies, that allows us to link with other people, that allows lights, cars, and trains to run, that allows for communications, everything falls apart. We need only look at what happened to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Cut off from flows of energy in the form of calories and these forms of energy that power technologies, the entire order disintegrated.
Not only does the activity of our bodies, our technologies, our social relations between people, and so on rely on energy and constant energetic interactions to take place, but all things are in a constant state of entropic decay or disintegration. Everything is buffeted and haunted by decay: our bodies, relations between people, buildings, roads, power lines, satellites, computers, cars, cow pastures, etc. Staving off this decay requires operations, work. And work requires energy. People must talk, and talk constantly, for various activist groups, governments, neighborhoods, corporations, and so on to continue existing. There must be paths of communication between people. Roads must be maintained so that food and resources can be distributed. Fields must be taken care of so that they continue to yield crops. Contingencies perpetually befall cities, neighborhoods, relationships. A tornado here, an earthquake there, a forest fire there, a hurricane here, a drought there. Things must be rebuilt. Energy again.
Believe me, when I talk about order I am not using it as either a positive or negative terms. Racial and gender inequalities are orders, but few of us would say that they are good orders. As theorists such as David Harvey argue, economic inequality is geographically distributed. Just go to Chicago. The north side is characterized by wealth and a high degree of racial homogeneity, while the south side is characterized by poverty. This is an order. Why is this order here? How does it come to exist? Above all, how does it sustain itself across time? Why doesn’t it fall apart or disintegrate into Brownian motion? While absolute entropy would be unbearable– imagine driving on highways where we could make no inferences about the probable actions of other drivers –order is not in and of itself a positive thing.
There are roughly four broad interrelated ways in which social order or states of low entropy maintain themselves. The first, as I’ve argued, is energy. Our forms of life are dependent on flows of energy. To the same degree that energy enables us to do things, it also constrains us. We are dependent on this or that source of energy to feed ourselves and our families, to heat our house, to run our cars. We become locked in webs of dependencies. We might think the social order in which we exist is ridiculous, unjust, terrible, and oppressive, but nonetheless we must be plugged in to continue. There’s a reason that social revolutions often only take place in the wake of catastrophes such as crippling famines (the French Revolution) or the great economic turmoil (the Russian Revolution). Conduits of energy are cut off and there’s little left to do than to seek another form of order or organization. It’s not simply flows of energy into our bodies, however. Our bodies also have energetic limits. There are limits to our ability to concentrate and cognize. There are limits to how much physical labor we can do before we need rest. Certain forms of life, therefore, do not favor development in other ways. We become locked into a particular way of life simply because we don’t have any energy to do other things. We’re worn down, exhausted at the end of the day. We have to choose between things like family and friends and working for social transformation and the pursuit of other opportunities.
Another way in which societies maintain their order is through the construction of paths that regulate movement of elements of a social ecology from one place to another. Paths are extremely complex things. Sometimes paths will be simple things like the layout of roads and public transportation. In Chicago it’s difficult to get from the south side to center city unless you have a car because of how the bus and train systems are laid out. It’s extremely time consuming to travel from the one location to another. This has the effect of localizing people in a particular geographical region of the city. But there are also paths created by the social networks into which we are embedded. The paths open for George W. Bush born to George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush born to a poor family in Appalachia are quite different. There are paths created by having college degrees, by being a journeyman in a field like shipbuilding, by knowing the lingo of a particular community, by having the right accent and dialect. While paths include passages along the surface of the earth, there are many paths structured by semiotic entities as well.
Yet another way in which societies maintain their order is through feedback mechanisms. Feedback comes in two forms: negative and positive feedback. A negative feedback relation is an interaction between two or more entities that maintains a state or movement along a particular trajectory. The thermostat is a classic example. You set your thermostat at a particular temperature, and your heat runs until the room reaches that temperature. When the temperature drops it then kicks back on. By contrast, positive feedback occurs when a system runs out of control, no longer maintaining homeostasis. We see this, for example, with the warming of the planet. The more the planet warms, the worse it gets because as ice caps melt the planet absorbs even more heat and is unable to reflect heat from the sun back into space. The system runs out of control. Negative feedback maintains social order in all sorts of ways. If social change is so difficult, then this is because those that challenge social orders encounter all sorts of regulatory feedback from other people, government, business, etc. pushing them back into established ways of doing things. If it is so often difficult to change your life, then it is because family and friends pull you back in, demanding that you do things as you did before and continue to live where you have up until that point. Again, life often just locks you in.
Then, of course, there is the favorite social and political theorists in the humanities: the semiosphere or incorporeal machines. Beliefs, norms, ideologies, religions, things that we see in the media, laws, etc., all structure our dispositions to act in a variety of ways. While incorporeal machines are absolutely real and contribute to the continuation of particular social orders in all sorts of ways, I believe that we significantly overestimate the role that they play. As Latour likes to say, what’s a stop sign when compared to the efficacy of a speed bump? Our social world maintains its order far more through speed bumps than through signifiers and ideologies. This is not to say that signifiers and ideologies don’t play a significant role, only that they play a limited role in accounting for why a social order maintains the organization it does. For example, a child of a fundamentalist family might very well continue to tow the fundamentalist line in politics and religion not because she believes it, but because abandoning it would mean abandoning her social and family attachments or relations. In a circumstance such as this, debunking the religious belief in the manner of Hitchens or Dawkins misses the point: it wasn’t here about the belief but the community. In this instance you might be more successful in forming an alternative community for such people. The problem with Hitchens and Dawkins is that they have, to paraphrase Zizek, a belief in belief.
So what is the advantage of thinking society and politics ecologically? In the first place, we expand our toolbox for activist interventions. Rather than seeing social relations as purely arising from beliefs and ideologies such that we see our activism largely as a matter of debunking ideologies and persuading, rather than seeing political engagement solely as a matter of enacting new laws, we can instead begin to look at feedback relations, paths, energetic requirements that lock people into forms of life and begin to devise strategies to create alternatives. It’s not that we abandon critiques of ideology and the working for the enactment of new laws, but that we recognize that social order is, as Althusser said, overdetermined. In Rice I learned of one such form of activism that’s arisen out of the OWS movement. People have begun to buy up the debt of other people and immediately forgive it. Their hope is that these people who have had their debt forgiven will also invest in the debt of others, doing the same thing. But this is not all. Debt is one of those paths that structure a person’s life, locking them into a field of energetic relations that force them to engage in certain forms of labor and life because they have little option to do otherwise. To forgive a person their debt is to sever or deconstruct a particular path that has organized their life. This allows them to move along different vectors at the level of both life and belief. Such a practice is premised on an ecological understanding of how lives are organized and ordered. Not a debunking, not a critique, not a diagnosis of power, nor a persuasion. No, a simple deconstruction– in a very literal sense –of certain paths ordering social relations in a particular way. What other strategies might we be missing because we work on the premise that society is primarily structured by ideologies, beliefs, signifiers, texts, norms, and narratives?
On the other hand, an ecological understand of social order forecloses the nature/society dichotomy, for in its emphasis on the energetics required for social relations to be maintained, it also discloses the manner in which social ecologies open on to a natural world beyond the human: the sun, the oceans, weather, animals, plants, bacteria, soil conditions, etc. It calls for us to attend to the sources of energy that flow through social orders, and to recognize the outputs produced as a result of the consumption of these flows of energy. In this way, the social world is flattened and seen to be a part of the natural order… A part that might very well destroy both that order and the very ground upon which it relies.