I’m writing this on my first day back at work after a fortnight of rest and truly revitalising food for the soul, and I know that I am immensely privileged in a whole array of personal, and societal ways that I will never ignore or take for granted, just to be able to have that time for renewal and re-energising at all. I return to the job, the vocation, that I love so much, with refreshed eyes and perspective on a world that is quite frankly crumbling in terrifying ways, in front of our eyes. Human waste pumped into the sea at my front door, breaching laws unenforced and ignored in a so-called law-abiding country. Fuel price banditry unconstrained by a so-called regulator; ignored by a so-called government on holiday; pardoned in advance by a so-called leadership election for a new Prime Minister in a so-called democracy in which 99% of enfranchised citizens cannot vote on who it should be.
I have a verbal earworm burrowing itself into my consciousness more and more loudly. One word, that describes almost everything I see, hear, and feel about our public realm, our shared experiences, and institutions. The word is “entropy”. Every time I hear the word ‘energy’ in relation to the acute cause of our current crisis, I am almost obsessively, compulsively, driven to redefine it as an Entropy Crisis.
entropy /ˈɛntrəpi/ noun:
- a thermodynamic quantity representing the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work, often interpreted as the degree of disorder or randomness in the system. “The second law of thermodynamics says that entropy always increases with time”
- a lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder. “a marketplace where entropy reigns supreme”
I am not a physicist, by any stretch. I can’t pretend to have a well-worked-through, evidenced ‘social policy’ theorem for how the second law of thermodynamics applies to the public realm, to social policy and the vast architecture of checks, balances, poachers & gamekeepers, policies, and practices that underpin our public realm. But as far as I have understood the idea of entropy in natural sciences, it resonates with what I see happening to the whole of our society too. The creation of new, ordered structures (for whatever purpose they are created) requires energy, both to create and then to maintain them. As that originating energy dissipates, entropy sets in – “a lack of order or predictability”, a “gradual decline into disorder” – and the process of entropy has its own force, its own impetus, driving towards collapse. Unless new energy is invested in reconstruction, renewal, or re-creation, to counter the inevitability of entropy, all healthy, flourishing, functional structures once created will tend towards disorder and collapse over time.
When did you last see a positive burst of collective or political energy invested in the structures and institutions on which we depend? If we could measure, on some equivalent heat-or-light measurement scale, the positive political and societal energy, the hope, and effort, that went into creating the NHS, or the public housing system (for example) have we ever measured as highly on that measurement scale as we did when they were first created? When, in your lifetime, did you see enthusiastic tidal waves of political energy invested into active public creativity, into genuinely new visions and hopes and systems, rather than our collective energy being invested into [barely] ‘managed’ decline – decline not only of public investment, but of hope, of expectation?
This isn’t *just* about public services and spending either. I referred to there being checks and balances, poachers, and gamekeepers – and they all seem to be locked into entropy too. There was a time, in my own living memory, when blatant abuse of standards of decency in public life (e.g. lying to parliament, or human sewage pumped into our water by companies whose CEOs take home mega-bonuses while repeatedly breaking the laws that allows their ‘business’ to operate in the first place) would at least have been hammered through our courts for their wrong-doing; punished by way of losing their jobs, or being banned by regulators; or find their positions simply untenable when faced with the public glare of independent, curious, dogged factual journalism. All power corrupts (or at least tends towards corruption if unscrutinised), and all power must be checked with the risk of being visible enough to be caught out if abused. But the positive, purposeful, ethical energy invested in those professions and institutions, in the vital purpose of holding power to scrutiny and account, have themselves dissipated into entropy.
And entropy has beset the system of electoral democracy itself (in England) too. I am as poleaxed to learn that the main party of ‘opposition’ at this extraordinary point in our shared lifetimes *promises* to follow the exact same economic model as the party already in power, as I am to face yet another Prime Minister appointed by a vote in which I have no vote, 100 years after my grandmother (as so many others) fought for my equal and inalienable right to vote on who governs us.
I know this is a bleak picture. I know you know things are bleak too. This isn’t intended to be just a rant or a Crie de Coeur though (although some of it inevitably is). My sense that we need to understand the process, risks and inevitability of entropy is about coming to terms with the true nature of what we face, and why investing our precious time and effort in winnable tweaks and policy word games just won’t do – they aren’t worth our time or effort. It is about my gut feeling of the yin and yang of energy and entropy, greed, extraction, negligence, and compromise, and how to invest our efforts in countering it. I’m not trying to be a gung-ho hippy about simply mustering our hopes and dreams as some vague spiritual ‘positivity’ to counter despair either. I feel clear-eyed about my sense that what this situation demands are the white-hot energetic drive for new creation, renewal, and reinvention in almost every system, structure, and tired assumption of our society.
When a building is reduced to rubble, do you set about rebuilding it exactly as it was before, from the same shattered bricks and powdered concrete, or do you invest energy, money and excitement in rebuilding something new and better in the same place, but with better materials, more accessible and functional designs, learning every lesson you can about what led the previous one to collapse (and centring those for whom it never worked in the first place)?
We must stop indulging in milk-water, middle-of-the-road compromises. There is no positive energy in such tactics and strategies, they are the unwitting tools of decline, and they will certainly not be up to the task of countering the rampant entropy at work in our world today. £400 knocked off a bill that has been hiked by £4000 is nothing – in fact it’s worse than nothing, because it pretends to do something to counter an entropic force far beyond its scale. Affordable fines for profiteering water companies to punish them for shitting all over the the planet we live on, and in, isn’t taking corrective action it’s costing our destruction into their sociopathic business model and legitimising it. If a crumbling building starts collapsing over your head you need a swift escape route or a very robust shelter in the basement, not an umbrella and a packet of plasters. Any politician, of any party, currently trying to sell you plasters and umbrellas, and telling you to wait until the dust settles for anything better (let alone expecting you to be grateful to them for spending money on umbrellas and plasters), is an entropic force, not a creative one.
The true scandal of our state of unmanaged entropy is that “The State” – and the power politicians have at their fingertips for overseeing it – has proved itself to be, throughout history, one of the biggest creative, energetic forces known to human society. To govern by collective mandate, with the power to write and then enforce the law, is a far greater power and force than the faux-Darwinian ‘market forces’ to which they have surrendered. Money itself is only valid and reliable for doing any kind of business because nation states endorse (and control) it. Companies are only possible at all, as legal abstractions, because states legislate for them to be able to exist. To watch those who occupy truly powerful roles (in politics, the Bank of England, public regulators, and the media) suborn themselves to the primacy of paltry, faulty, amoral market forces, and the ‘inevitability’ of a cost-of-living crisis, when their true potential epoch-shaping power is so much greater, is terrifying and pathetic in equal measure. We need people with the courage to wield power boldly, and unashamedly, for the public good, to tame corporate power and greed because it is killing people, to create a society fit for a new century, rather than presiding weakly and ineffectually, over the entropic collapse of the previous one.
I don’t know who that party, person or movement is right now…. although I suspect its ideas, leaders (plural) and creative energy will be found among our youngest citizens of today. But I know where I’ve decided to devote my energy in our charitable efforts to change the world from here on out – and that’s in the white heat of new creative collective energy. Plasters and umbrellas aren’t safe, let alone good enough for our children.
Kathy Evans is the chief executive of Children England. For further contact, please email