The thermodynamics of inequality and social collapse

art: “the fall of nineveh” john martin, 1828

The stress felt by world civilization due to the COVID pandemic is a dress rehearsal of a much greater test—increasing instability brought by climate change.

In fact, the science behind climate change isn’t the urgent puzzle—the physicist Arrhenius connected global warming and carbon dioxide one-hundred twenty years ago.  The deeper question is this: Why, in spite of knowing the apocalyptic implications, has humanity burnt so much fossil fuels in the last century?  

The answer is related to an ancient addiction of humanity: social inequality. Maintaining  hierarchies consumes energy.  When environmentalists blame growth, consumerism, or lack of government regulations for the planet’s wearing, they really mean social inequality: an elite that seeks comfort and security at the cost of environmental destruction and the degradation of other human beings. Or, more concisely: the elite increases the predictability of their life at the expense of others and the environment.

Order and predictability are costly. For example, both physics and information theory have shown that the gain of information, which in information-theoretic terms is the decrease of uncertainty, burns energy [1]. A way to decrease uncertainty is to increase order.  For example,  biologists have described organisms as machines that increase order and process information at the expense of energy [2]. However, only a fraction of the energy consumed goes to useful order, and the rest is dissipated into random, chaotic motions.  This process is not dissimilar to how engines only spend a fraction of the energy on useful work, while the rest is dissipated into heat, sound, and turbulence.  This conversion of fuel into disorder follows from the second law of thermodynamics.  Our highly unequal civilization is an extremely inefficient engine that consumes fossil fuels and land to create the predictable, richer and healthier world of the elite. Yet, at the same time, the machine of inequality leads to a more disordered planet through global warming, and land and water degradation.

The fact that today’s civilization is so unequal, energetically costly, and destabilizing to the environment is no accident. It follows from the connection between inequality, ecological disorder and extreme energy consumption.  Much of societal breakdowns can be traced to a mixture of environmental stress and social disorder.  Archeologists have pieced together how hierarchical civilizations, such as those of the Mayans or Babylonians, declined as they consumed forests and degraded land.  Monoculture fueled the slaves, soldiers and peasants that built the palaces, stockpiled grain, and manned the armies. This ecosystem in turn made life secure and predictable for an elite, guaranteeing food, shelter and pleasures to emperors, priests, scribes and bureaucrats through violent and unsustainable means. However, this machine grows fragile due to the social and environmental stress behind inequality. Then at some point, environmental changes, such as climate change and land salinization, exacerbates breakdown.

The same  fragile machine of inequality powers the modern world.  A quick glance at the energy needs of “cheap goods” shows how truly costly the engine is.  In fact, economists argue  many goods are artificially cheap, since the costs incurred on the environment and the people are unaccounted. For example, markets ship food across continents in order to exploit cheap fuel, cheap labor and low regulations in the developing world. The costs of these transactions in terms of environmental stress and exploited labor remain unaccounted for. In fact, due to global warming and the social disorder caused by inequality, humankind is in its most precarious state since the end of the Pleistocene. 

The  environmental disorder caused by inequality and the second law can be understood as a loss of predictability. As unequal societies perturb the regular ecological cycles that replenish land, animal populations, and sequester carbon, the future becomes much harder to forecast, and therefore planning becomes an illusion. This ecological uncertainty then feeds into society, driving social disorder as organizations and governments become unable to use prediction to solve problems, spiking disease, unemployment, and food prices.   

Inequality as social disorder can be better understood when considering its degradation of human beings. In fact, after a certain material threshold, it is not deprivation that stresses and kills human beings, but low social status. The profound feelings of shame and humiliation caused by a society of winners and losers make people sick and violent.  For example, disrespect and humiliation are the most consistent excuses given by murderers. Violence here, then becomes a means to honor when deprived of it from other sources, such as wealth or a job. Those in the bottom are driven into madness, suicide or killed by heart disease [3]. It is this mass of disordered and hostile human beings — of  strangers to each other that are separated into favelas, inner-city neighborhoods, and gated communities,  that make inequality so volatile.

What can be done about this social disorder? Archeology and history shows that social disorder often leads to violent collapse. The extremely unequal Roman Empire desintegrated as environmental degradation, slave insurrections, and civil war consumed it.   More recently,  the recent Syrian Civil War that annihilated institutions and killed and displaced millions,  can be traced to a potent mix of sectarian tensions and bad harvests caused by climate change [4]. The fate of our world-civlization could follow a similar track as inequality and climate change brings a violent end. 

Yet,  archeology also shows that in the face of impending collapse, societies can choose social revolution and therefore avoid a death crisis. For example, although the abandonment of the great Mayan cities around 900 AD is often interpreted as a violent apocalypse caused by climate change and environmental degradation, it may be a testament of a popular revolt against the elite,  where workers and peasants  refused to toil anymore in fields and construction sites, and instead dispersed into the surrounding jungle, building more egalitarian societies [5]. In fact, archeological evidence supports this thesis, in fact, archeological evidence supports this thesis, where more decentralized and less stratified societies replaced the great city-states, without any cataclysmic dip in population [6]. Today the Mayas still exist in Mexico and Guatemala, remembering their ancient language and some of their egalitarian traditions. 

The Mayan example shows that social revolution may be an alternative to an impending ecological and social doom. Although the Sun replenishes the planet — pumping energy and order into the ecological cycles, world civilization leaks disorder at a faster rate than regeneration, leading us dangerously towards perdition.  To stall the apocalypse, we require  a social revolution that brings ecological and social synchronicity to humanity. 

How would this social revolution look like? Perhaps we need to learn from societies that managed to stay socially and ecologically coherent. We know that the egalitarian !Kung in Subsaharan Africa build social cohesion through gift giving: although food that individuals collect is their private property, gift giving drives wealth redistribution, while disincentivizing accumulation [7]. Before Mayans had built their great hierarchical cities where an elite hoarded technological knowledge, they maintained in the jungle for 1500 years a complex and sustainable civilization  of millions, using interconnected and specialized villages of skilled workers [8].  A modern social revolution would be a sustainable world of distributed knowledge, power and wealth, where elite hoarding of material and information would be disincentivized.  

In conclusion, we need to heed the warning once penned by Karl Marx, since our increasingly unstable environment forces us to choose between ‘a revolutionary constitution of society at large or the common ruin of the contending classes.’”

1.  Parrondo, J. M., Horowitz, J. M., & Sagawa, T. (2015). Thermodynamics of information. Nature physics, 11(2), 131-139.

2.  Marzen, S. E., & DeDeo, S. (2017). The evolution of lossy compression. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 14(130), 20170166.

3.  Wilkinson, R. G. (2006). The impact of inequality. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 73(2), 711-732.

4.  Malm, A. (2017). Revolution in a warming world: Lessons from the Russian to the Syrian revolutions. Socialist register, 53.

5.  Graeber, D. (2008). On Cosmpolitanism and (Vernacular) Democratic Creativity: Or, There Never Was a West. Anthropology and the New Cosmopolitanism: Rooted, Feminist and Vernacular Perspectives, 45.

6.  Aimers, J. J. (2007). What Maya collapse? Terminal classic variation in the Maya lowlands. Journal of archaeological research, 15(4), 329-377.

7.  Woodburn, J. (1982). Egalitarian societies. Man, 431-451.

8.  Scarborough, V. L., & Burnside, W. R. (2010). Complexity and sustainability: Perspectives from the ancient Maya and the modern Balinese. American Antiquity, 327-363.