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From Usable to Entropic

Entropy By Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard Viking, $10.95

By Laurence S. Grafstein

IN 260 PAGES OF TEXT, Washington lawyer Jeremy Rifkin wants to crush conventional wisdom, rip away the illusions veiling our perceptions of the world, and revolutionize our daily lives. He feels he has hit upon one of those great ideas that change our very existence, powerful in its simplicity and attractive in its incisiveness. In fact, he is so confident that the second law of thermodynamics--the law of entropy--governs our being that his attempt to put forth a new world view assumes the form of a preachy polemic. Whether or not we want to believe in an "entropic" perspective is irrelevant; Rifkin makes us think he's doing us a favor by letting us in on the secret that unlocks the mysteries of the universe. Entropy adopts an "I told you so" tone before the fact.

Maybe Rifkin, the author of several thought-provoking books like The North Will Rise Again, is right. Maybe the entropy law does determine our fate contrary to our "Newtonian," or progress-oriented inclinations. In essence, the entropy law states that all energy flows inexorably from the orderly to the disorderly and from the usable to the unusable. Thus, when we expend energy under the guise of progress, we are in fact accelerating destructiveness. Presumably, Rifkin awoke early one morning and saw that this second law of thermodynamics could be applied to absolutely everything, and proceeded--with the assistance of disciple Ted Howard--to enshrine his thoughts in a reasonably priced hardcover. Descartes watched a fly crawl across his ceiling, and invented mathematics; Newton got bruised by a wayward apple and theorized gravity; only history will tell us how it all came to Rifkin.

NO ONE CAN QUIBBLE with the value of having people think up revolutionary world views and test them on the public. But in Entropy, no matter how alluring the thesis, Rifkin does not persuade. Rifkin employs puerile rhetorical techniques like the word "just" ("That just doesn't true," "This just isn't the case," "That just doesn't hold up," "This just isn't so," to name a few). He capitalizes phrases like "Big Questions." He uses italics. He will do anything to help you believe.

Perhaps more impressive is the diverse roster of physicists and philosophers both contemporary and ancient figures whom Rifkin draws upon to prove his point. Still, his argument flows from the sublime to the ridiculous in an annoying cycle. His style is entropic; how else can you describe someone who in one breath quotes Einstein and in the next produces a remarkably declarative and pithy sentence like "Wrong!" to refute Newton?

Rifkin's treatment of history best illustrates the deficiencies of a book to which any reader alienated by modern society would gravitate to as an answer to his problems. In one tidy half-page paragraph, Rifkin summarizes the historical theories of Toynbee, Spengler, Ortega y Gasset and Marx, allocating each scholar one sentence in this day of scarce resources. His next paragraphy begins:

No need to quibble. Let's just say that all of these gentlemen have identified part of the historical jigsaw puzzle.

In one gereralization, then, Rifkin explains away any theory of history different from his own--Marx never incorporated entropy into historical materialism.

Much of what Rifkin puts forward in Entropy has a chillingly familiar ring. In his effort to make a grand, holistic leap to an integrated world view--"Here is the point where science joins metaphysics and ethics"--Rifkin has sacrificed a good measure of substance. But when he stops taking on great thinkers in three-page chapters and starts focusing on specifics, Entropy begins to suck you in, and the simple appeal of the entropy world view penetrates the rhetoric. Essentially, the moral equivalent of war in an entropic world view is peace. Warfare, and its preparation, are the most highly entropic (read: destructive) form of human activity; and our aggressive drive to extract all possible unrenewable resources to feed the mechanical (read: growth-oriented) society. Until society comes to grip with the energy crisis and moves into a new phase ("The solar age") we will not progress, but will instead hasten graver crises and our descent into hell, which Rifkin calls "high-entropy."

ACCORDING TO RIFKIN, we should throw off the burdensome pre-occupatino of growth and cast aside notions of economic and technical progress. This strikes a responsive chord with anyone following the present election campaign. But the author is guilty of a personal bias himself. Entropy is clearly pitched at the industrialized Northeast and Trilateral Commission types. Rifkin says frugality no longer exists in our "high-entropy society"; he contends that leisure has o verrun the work ethic; and in our mechanical, materialist value system, we have forsaken the pursuit of spiritual consciousness:

Only the entropy paradigm provides a scythe that is both sharp enough to cut through the tangled debris of this death-bound culture and broad enough to clear a path for the dawn of a new age.

The author's fervor recalls Ronald Reagan's recent pronouncements, and Rifkin completely ignores the reaction to this decadence, this high-entropy--the resurgence of a moral majority and the advent of a strong right in American politics. Reagan's followers seem to prescribe the "low-entropy society Rifkin craves.

Much of the problem with Entropy is trying to discern anything new in the theory. Certainly the idea that progress in history does not exist has been around for a while--Henry Kissinger '50, for example, wrote an undergraduate thesis on the subject. As a genuine social democrat and a favorite of the left, Rifkin backs himself into a corner with his entropic world view. Why should we accept his weltanschaung instead of Plato's? What do we have to gain by accepting Rifkin's view when, as he says, progress is impossible? The author's blend of cold reality and passionate rhetoric does not sway us. Instead, he leaves us hanging, frustrated by unfulfilled expectations. Although Entropy tries to respond to our daily malaise with a forceful theory, it leaves us even more despondent.

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