Reflections on the Motive Power of Life

In 1824, Sadi Carnot published a paper, titled Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, which is considered the seminal work on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If the First Law spoke of Work, Energy and their transformation, the Second Law spoke of the constraints to that transformation.

There are several statements for the second law, which can all be summarized simply as the impossibility to create an engine that works with 100% efficiency. No matter how perfect the design and material are, only some amount of energy received as input will be converted into work, the rest gets wasted in the process; discarded to a heat sink. Thus, in real world the resulting action will always be lesser than the energy supplied for it, irrespective of the process. And, I want to discuss how universal this law is, but first let’s take a detour.

Successful individuals have always been the subject of keen scrutiny and research. Mankind has invested a lot of effort and resources to understand its greatest achievers and categorize their attributes. The curiosity is the facade to a widespread desire of formulating genius and mastery. A hope that exists despite the collective and historically proven lesson that rules may never fail but they have to be broken for reaching greatness.

There’s one aspect to greatness that stands out, primarily because it is almost always perceived as a fault by us lesser mortals. In an act of self-righteousness we blame the super achievers for a severe lack of balance, questioning their sanity, butting it (with a heart full of self-defeating malice) against our own ability to handle every aspect of our lives with equal attention and poise. But, is this balance responsible for our mediocre life? Let’s see.

The lack of balance in successful people is the direct result of an ability to focus on the task at hand to an extent that everything else drowns out, becomes indistinct chatter. This ability, in turn, comes from the complete disregard for the result. Let me explain. When we set out to do something, we meet failure more often. Success always seems like an elusive dream, within sight but never reachable. Being hard-wired to seek immediate results, every such disappointment comes with a strong urge to give up and follow the beaten path, embrace the mediocracy. Obviously, it is difficult to pursue your dreams with a mind busy seeking social approval and progress. This tendency to fixate on the result, never lets us obsess about our work, giving us a balanced perspective, but a common life. But then, how do the Greats resist the urge to seek gains? Are we the ones prioritizing it incorrectly? And here comes the Second Law to the rescue.

In life, just like in any other thermodynamic system, input exceeds the resulting output. You cannot expect all your effort to turn into fruitful gains, because a large chunk of it, inevitably, gets wasted. Since every action results in a definite loss of your faculty and resources, what you achieve in life is always less than what you invest to get it. So, if the sole motive behind your endeavour is success, or tangible gains, you might as well not take any action at all. Sitting and metabolizing should be your best bet, the path of least dissipation. Unless you discover a non-tangible gain which balances your loss. Unless you realize the joy of doing, the pleasure of finding simple and elegant solutions to complex problems, the revelry of manufacturing immaculate assemblies and precise fits, the beauty of designing intuitive and organic processes, the sheer exhilaration of using graphite to turn a blank piece of paper into an idea which ends up changing the world. Unless the only thing you care about is the task at hand (and not the success you might achieve if you happen to complete it).

A Compulsory Choice

Joel Pett made this cartoon for the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.
Joel Pett made this cartoon for the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009.

Head a hearty conversation with Anchal on the most cliched topic of our time: Sustainable Development. Posting the summarized conclusion here:

  1. We are trashing the environment and exhausting our limited resources. Our choices and lifestyle need drastic changes because they are continuously tipping the world towards the point of no return. Acting “Green” is not going to help any more.
  2. We are an irrational species by nature and hence the knowledge of the fact stated above is not enough to motivate corrective action. We already know it’s not all hunky-dory.
  3. The two most significant factors which influence our behaviour are: Money & Comfort. As long as the right choices are not cheap and/or easy, we will not change.
  4. Making the right choices appears to capture the entire picture, but it doesn’t. We should not forget that we can only choose from the options we are given.
  5. And this is where the people in power come into the picture, because they not only possess the ability to, but also actively manipulate the world around us to influence the available options.
  6. Globally the actual entities in power are not the governments or the policy makers, but the corporations. They are the puppeteers who run the puppet show called Governance.
  7. That said, even the big corporations are actually “people”, and hence are driven by their instinct to reap immediate profits even at the cost of long term loss. They, exactly like us, are driven by money & comfort.
  8. Two conditions which can change the current situation are: a) We achieve revolutionary technological breakthroughs which replace our limited resources with cleaner, cheaper and more abundant options, & b) Unsustainable practices and methodologies become economically unviable.
  9. The second condition is more or less inevitable; The scarcer our resources become the costlier they will get. But it can be artificially created right now by making policies which monetarily reward sustainable practices and punish unsustainable ones. Do note that this will in turn foster the first condition. The research money automatically flows towards ideas which help the companies cut cost.
  10. Policy changes will stop companies from externalizing the true cost of stuff, thus making business-as-usual uneconomical. And hence this is difficult [and almost impossible] to achieve as the corporations control the policy makers.

In an ideal world, the second condition can be brought about by making the people aware and then using the power of the masses to pressurize governments into enforcing laws which make being unsustainable ridiculously costly. But in our real world, neither us nor the corporations would take any significant steps towards a sustainable future until the situation becomes so grim that taking corrective action becomes not a choice but a compulsion.

The world will never cease to be. But, we can either mend our ways and bear the uncomfort of change to prevent greater loss and irreversible changes to not just our ways of living but also to the planet we call our home. Or else we can wait for the inevitable to forcefully change our ways and put us into greater discomfort. Live long and prosper!