Globalization Meets Entropy…and We Lose

It seems like just a few short years ago that the theoretical economists and the insatiable capitalists were head-over-heels in love with globalization. And why not? As a continuation of old-style colonialism wealthy nations go anywhere on the planet to find the cheapest resources with the least amount of pesky environmental or labor regulations and pocket enormous profits when they sell them to consumers. But then came the pandemic — and with all the “unforeseen consequences” globalization has now run head long into entropy.

Entropy, which is the Third Law of Thermodynamics, is defined as “a scientific concept, as well as a measurable physical property that is most commonly associated with a state of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty.” In more understandable terms, it basically says the universe and all its systems move toward chaos, not organization. Additionally, the more complex a system, the more energy it takes to maintain order and the more likely it is to break down.

This is an easy concept to understand in our current societal systems — they are extremely complex, take enormous amounts of energy to maintain, and thanks to their complexity are increasingly likely to break down. A simple example would be our transportation systems — it’s easy to walk down a path. When you convert the path into a multi-lane highway and fill it with thousands of vehicles, maintaining “order,” as in preventing accidents, gets a lot harder and much, much more expensive.

Apparently in the dream world of theoretical economics those expounding the wonders of globalization thought they could somehow escape the consequences of one of the primary laws of the universe. Only now, as we are seeing on an increasing basis every day, they were wrong.

The operation of a “globalized” system of production, consumption, and pollution has, to put it mildly, a lot of moving parts — which means more things can go wrong that will ultimately affect the entire system.

In our current state of affairs, the pandemic has thrown much of the “globalized” system into chaos. The reason COVID-19 is called a “pandemic” is because it affects the entire planet. Hence, when the workers at the factory that produces microchips for virtually all of our electronics are sick, quarantined, or die, the supply of vitally essential parts is disrupted and any process relying on those chips — such as the production of automobiles — cannot function.

Likewise, when something as elementary as dock workers are impaired by the pandemic’s extremely broad impacts, container ships cannot be loaded, sail across the oceans, or be unloaded at their destinations. This is not theoretical, this is happening daily across the globe.

None of the “supply chain” problems are going away any time soon — nor is entropy. What should — and may — go away is the fantasy of a smooth-running, extremely profitable, horrifically polluting concept of globalization as the path to a sustainable future.

As for the alternatives, they’re already being developed and implemented as the fragility of globalization and its increasingly significant downsides becomes more undeniable with every passing day. Self-sustainability is making a comeback as evidenced in the burgeoning local food production movement. Likewise local power production, especially from renewable resources like solar, is growing, providing both energy security and environmental benefits.

The choice is ours — we can continue on the failing path as globalization meets entropy as we burn through our resources for quick profits and choke on our own exhaust. Or we can reject globalization’s model of consumption and pollution, increase localization, and give generations yet to come a chance at a livable, sustainable, future.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.