The Bush Administration is battling Islamic jihadists abroad, liberal insurgents at home, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics everywhere. It may beat the first two, but it will never be able to declare, “mission accomplished” over the forces of entropy. This does not bode well for America. Let me explain.
The historian Arnold Toynbee made the persuasive case that great civilizations proceed in something akin to the human life cycle: that is, they advance from youthful vitality, through middle-aged maturity, to aged senescence.
Young civilizations, like young people, are characterized by vitality, exuberance, and an abundance of strength. They may act rashly, but they are quick to repair their mistakes and adjust nimbly to challenges.
As a civilization matures it loses some of its flexibility as established patterns become deeply ingrained. Still, middle-aged societies retain a resilience that allows them to weather internal environmental dangers (e.g., ecological disasters) and surmount external existential challenges (e.g., hostile forces).
As a society ages, however, it begins to lose its ability to meet challenges efficiently and effectively. For example, the bureaucratic mechanisms that respond to natural disasters, or those that are charged with national defense, become less and less effectual. Concomitantly, aged societies often face a multiplicity of threats just when their administrative mechanisms and defense systems have atrophied noticeably. Thus, they face a series of greater and greater challenges, but are less and less capable of meeting them.
The Bush Administration’s response to Katrina and the war in Iraq have to be considered in this context. As nation security expert Stephen Flynn observes in is new book, The Edge of Disaster, America’s response to the devastation of New Orleans in 2005 pales in comparison to its response to a catastrophe of a similar scale nearly a century ago, the earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906. As Flynn notes the problems following Katrina weren’t logistical, they were political and bureaucratic.
A similar sclerosis has afflicted America’s efforts in Iraq. Poor intelligence, a dysfunctional national security decision-making process, Congress’ abdication of oversight, and a myriad of other institutional malfunctions have virtually doomed America’s mission in Iraq from the start. There is more at fault here than just Bush’s bad judgment. Breakdowns have occurred across many levels; corporate corruption, a poorly equipped military, and a compliant media that failed to challenge the rationales for war have all contributed to the mess in Iraq.
There is much tragedy in here. The performance of the U.S. Coast Guard was one of the few bright spots in America’s response to Katrina. Despite being pushed to its limit, the Coast Guard managed to help save thousands without losing a single Guard member. Nevertheless, the Guard manages to scrape by with ships and equipment that are anything but state of the art. Similarly, American troops in Iraq are facing an almost impossible situation – they are effectively trying to stop civil war in Iraq from becoming a region-wide conflagration – but have been shortchanged by an administration that believed it could wage war and do nation building on the cheap. To say that U.S. troops in Iraq have “fought like lions, but have been led by donkeys” -- a verdict ascribed to certain incompetent generals in WWI -- would not be entirely unfair.
The decline and fall of a great empire is always a tragedy. Even if the Roman Empire was built on the institution of slavery it also brought order, stability, and the rule of law to the far-flung corners of the globe. The barbarian hordes that sacked Rome made no comparable contribution to mankind. If their 21st century counterparts – the Islamic fundamentalists that would take the Arab world back to the 12th century – ever succeeded in toppling the United States it would surely mark the beginning of a new dark age, just as the fall of Rome signaled an age of barbarism for the West.
Ironically, the reasons for Rome’s decline and fall were largely internal. In particular, Rome failed to make the transition from slave power to a more efficient form of energy: namely, hydraulic power. The slave revolts, not surprisingly, became a critical factor in Rome’s undoing. Great powers, as many historians have noted, have risen by embracing a particular energy source -- for the Dutch, wind and waterpower; for the British, coal; for the United States, oil – and fallen when they failed to embrace the newer and more efficient sources of energy their rivals adopted.
Energy, of course, is an ordered form of matter. Conversely, pollution (the inevitable byproduct of burning energy) is a disordered form of matter. That is, pollution is matter (minus available energy). Concomitantly, burning energy at ever increasing rates poses an inescapable dilemma: it increases the state of disorder or entropy in the environment. This fact places insurmountable limits on growth. For example, an organism that kept growing in size would quickly drown in its own waste products, as it could no longer consume enough energy to fuel the process of discharging spent energy.
What does all this have to do with the United States? The developed world is essentially asphyxiating the planet by burning the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. But global warming is just one form of blowback flowing from our consumption of fossil fuels. Petroleum products, too, finance terrorism, and Islamic resentment against the America is fueled by the belief that West’s success depends on exploiting Arab oil. One can debate the merits of this argument, but it is clear that America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil has many hidden costs.
Consuming energy at a voracious pace leads to entropy (and hence disorder) in the environment, but it also puts wear and tear on the organism or system that is burning the energy. Just think how fast an ordinary car would burn out if it was kept going at maximum speed 24/7 on a NASCAR racetrack. Simply put, high-energy rates flowing through a system lead to brittleness. This is a predicament that America’s infrastructure – it’s highways, rail system, and power grid system – is faced with. To put it bluntly, America’s basic infrastructure system is wearing out quickly, leaving the nation highly vulnerable the next time the system is stressed (through acts of terrorism or natural disasters).
In a nutshell, America’s insatiable appetite for petroleum – and concomitantly its failure to develop the alternative fuels of the future – poses a double threat: 1). It creates disorder that results in various forms of blowback and 2). Profligate and inefficient energy usage makes our nation’s infrastructure more brittle. To address America’s energy woes the Bush Administration invaded Iraq, a country with the second largest proven reserves in the world. A successful invasion might have bought the U.S. some time, but the self-defeating campaign in Iraq now seems emblematic of the vicious cycle America is in.
As the anthropologist Jared Diamond notes in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, military disasters on the periphery of empire usually mask ecological factors that are the true cause of imperial doom. I’m not sure if the former oil executives that permeate the White House know what they are up against, but they sure aren’t going to lead America to victory over the forces of entropy.