03 February 2010

Entropic Footprints and Personalities

Some people seem to assist entropy more than others.

Chaos abounds in the systems of our world, both natural and man-made. We know that entropy can be construed as a measure of the "disorder" within a given "closed" system. In thermodynamics it is a a physical fact. But is it reasonable to say that some individuals (or groups) "assist" in the growth of entropy within our effectively closed system(s). And, if so, should they be held to account (or just taxed) for this.

This may seem like a far-fetched notion but, until recently, we would all have scoffed at the idea of a personal "carbon footprint". What about one's "entropic footprint"? Of course this would be impossible to measure accurately but that should not prevent us from widening the concept of an individual's "detrimental impact" on a given system to cover as many other harmful aspects as possible.

Some immediate physical aspects of an "entropic footprint" should be readily measurable. The fact that we have found ways to measure a carbon footprint demonstrates this. We have taken an evidence-based principle - that man's modern activities lead to an increased release of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing an increase in global temperature - and developed from it a measurement of an individual's contribution to this phenomenon. How, though, do I measure say my "mercury footprint"? How my "hexavalent chromium" footprint? And do these "footprints" attach to me directly or to the original producer of the substance, or a bit of both in some complex ratio?

What about those who lead chaotic, shambolic lives? "Chaotic" in this sense is often loosely used but it may be more accurate than it first appears. We all know individuals who can't seem to get organised. They are often late; always losing their keys; their homes are disordered or even run-down; they fail to take notes of important events; they lose vital paperwork. But how often do we think about how that "chaotic" lifestyle feeds into the lives of others? There is, of course, a direct impact on those they live with. Perhaps the partner is conscious of the problem but struggles to keep up with its growth. He worries about it and has difficulty organising his own life under the circumstances. There is also a direct impact on those they work with - the repercussions may be "shallower" (at least at first) but also much broader in this context.

Their is a psychological "cost" to living or working within the sphere of influence of such behaviour. It could be argued that this "cost" has a progressive, "entropic" quality. The effect is increasingly wearing. In some situations the effect is so intense, and grows so quickly, that the system of family or work cannot hold together for long. In others is takes much more time, as the less "entropic" try repeatedly to mitigate the negative impacts of their "chaotic" family-member(s) or colleague(s). Some can feel trapped but manage to escape the dysfunctional system, others never do. Psychological effects are physical - does anyone have the right to affect your brain chemistry? Your sleeping patterns? Your rate of ageing?

Disorder within socio-economic systems will tend to grow, despite the best efforts of some individuals and groups to rein this in. But the lack of willingness to try, as an individual, to mitigate the effects of "social entropy", through reasonable efficiency but also (importantly) through empathy, could be fairly seen as costly behaviour. Who currently pays this cost?

So what of the total "entropic footprint" for an individual? Perhaps more fairly called an "entropic-rate footprint". We can't measure such a thing at present, and the very nature of entropy means that we probably never could have an accurate measure. But if we accept, as we now apparently do, that individual detrimental impacts on a system can be measured and taxed, then we must accept that there are a myriad measures exist and a myriad ways to measure them.

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