There’s an episode of the Simpsons where Lisa, who has a lot of free time due to a teachers’ strike, builds a perpetual motion machine. Homer is upset, and yells “Lisa, get in here! In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”
Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.
Last night I had a nice long political debate with a friend of mine. Let’s call him “Sean,” because, well, that’s his name. (I think it’s unfortunate and somewhat dangerous that talking about politics with friends and family is increasingly considered impolite. I don’t know how we expect democracy to work otherwise.) Our conversation jumped around a lot, but the argument basically came down to Sean’s belief that the status quo was more or less great and that concerns about converging environmental crises were overblown or entirely made up. I, uh, maintained a different viewpoint.
I love debate, and one of the things I enjoy doing is getting a good understanding of why people think what they do. As a result, Sean and my conversation got more and more fundamental, as I searched for things we could agree on. Eventually, I said, “ok, well I know that we can at least agree that the Earth has limits.” Sean did not agree. “Um, ok,” I continued, “well, let’s make it more specific then. We can agree that energy cannot be created….” But again, Sean did not agree.
That’s when we changed the subject. The first two laws of thermodynamics state, in essence, that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, and that you can’t get something for nothing. Somehow, there are now at least a handful of people in Canada and throughout the western world who think (actually, feel might be a better word) that that’s not true. As James Howard Kunstler points out in The Long Emergency, some of our culture’s most basic assumptions have become misaligned with the realities and limitations of the physical world. For example, energy policy is based on the assumption that energy is “generated” (created), and can continue to be created in increasing quantities in perpetuity. Similarly, much of our economic activity is based on the assumption that it’s reasonable to get something (like, money) for nothing (see speculativebubble.com).
Sean’s not a dumb guy. He’s no Homer. In fact, that’s the crazy part — he’s come to his conclusions in a rational way by observing the world around him. Problem is, the world he and I have grown up in is currently in the process of throwing all the wood on the fire, so of course we’re lacking perspective. (Except, of course, that instead of wood we’re using oil, which, well, doesn’t grow on trees.)
Brownie points will go to the first MP willing to stand in Parliament and say, “Mr. Speaker, be it resolved that this House will obey the laws of thermodynamics.”