Power Outage

On the thermodynamics of history.

By Lewis H. Lapham

Sun and clouds, 1965. Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Because civilization is not natural, sustaining it entails a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, without which it would necessarily decline or even collapse.

—William Ophuls

Signs of civilizational “decline or even collapse” show up in every morning’s headline, every evening’s newscast: mass killings in big cities and suburban shopping malls; children gunned down in elementary and high school classrooms. America’s democracy is divided resentfully against itself across the frontiers of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. Vicious slander streams through the hydra-headed portals of the internet, goading quorums of non-law-abiding citizens to hate instead of help, love, or talk to one another.

Reports of turmoil in society come in concert with news of worldwide environmental and geopolitical catastrophe: ­Covid-19 claiming one million American lives, six million elsewhere in the world. Rising sea levels on the coasts of California and Japan; the sperm whale under threat of extinction in the Atlantic, the giant sea bass in the Pacific; Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat on the list of endangered species with the California redwood and the Texas poppy mallow. Climate change burns the Amazon rainforest, melts the Arctic ice. Chinese gunboats encircle Taiwan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine annihilates city, citizen, and town, unlimbering the weapons of mutually assured nuclear destruction.

The uncivil behavior of both man and nature mounts the makers of America’s elite opinion on the pulpits of the media to promote a fear of the future with top-of-the-hour terror alerts—war, disease, flood, and famine fast approaching at all points of everybody’s compass. The keepers of the nation’s conscience meanwhile tour the think-tank and Sunday-talk-show circuits to tell sad stories of the death of kings, mourn the perishing from the earth of the ideals set forth in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, lament the absence of Teddy Roosevelt’s snow-white teeth. The self-pitying cries of Old Testament alarm convert the signs of American decline into foretellings of the end of the world. The doomsday news attracts advertisers, yet we are confronted not with the Beast of the Apocalypse but with severe power outages imposed by the laws of thermodynamics and entropy on the worlds of mind and spirit created and re-created by mortal men.

At the start there’s always energy.

—Suzan-Lori Parks, 2006

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change forms. Life on Earth springs from the light and heat of the sun. For all intents and purposes the massive radiance of the star is immortal. It cannot be deplatformed, at least not for another five billion years. What it can and does do is to be gainfully employed or uselessly squandered, which is the second law of thermodynamics—­the tendency of entropy to increase as energy changes forms. The sun’s energy makes its way on Earth through a never-ending series of transformations. Matter into mind, mind into matter, acorn into oak tree, oak tree into log, log into fire, fire into smoke and ashes.

As was understood two thousand years ago by the Roman poet Lucretius, the laws of thermodynamics are the nature of things. Everything that exists—animal, vegetable, and mineral, man and woman, church and state, fish and fowl, mammal and microbe, cruise missile and paper hat—is composed of “atoms tiny and readily / Moving.” As are we all, spinning around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, rotating on Earth’s axis at 1,000 miles per hour. The elementary particles of matter—“the seeds of things”—Lucretius knew to be eternal and indestructible, ceaselessly colliding and combining in an inexhaustible variety of life-forms. So also the atomic fairy dust was understood by Leonardo da Vinci to be the “marvelous power” of energy that is “born in violence and dies in liberty,” named by Nikola Tesla as “ever moving, like a soul animates” the inert void of the universe with the vast turmoil of creation and destruction that is the making and remaking of cabbages and kings, of customs, laws, and coastlines, of dance moves, barbarians, and pizza toppings.

Over time and endlessly repeated use and misuse, the abundant energy of the sun becomes so widely dispersed and idly wasted that it depreciates in value and force. The result is the dwindling into entropy, a term the dictionaries define as chaos, randomness, and disorder—i.e., the sets of circumstance in which America finds itself adrift and palely loitering a year prior to the 2024 presidential election and the likelihood of a choice between two entropic candidates.


By way of a best-guess answer to the question “How can such things be?,” this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly borrows from a book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail, by the political theorist William Ophuls. Published in 2012, but eleven years later more readily understood as a canary in the mine, the book supplies the issue with its accounting for the price charged by nature for the use of its facilities and resources, lists the thermodynamic tolls and fees paid for the self-glorifying assumption that mankind’s wonder-working technologies subjugate nature, develop it into a colossal cash machine.

Ophuls belongs to the school of theorists who find in the life spans of civilizations and human beings similar patterns of ignition, combustion, and exhaustion. A youthful age of vigor, virtue, and military conquest (i.e., a heavy concentration of moral, intellectual, and physical energy) moves through the ages of affluence and intellect before subsiding into an age of decadence. The fourteenth-century Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun puts the proposition as simply as it can be put: The first generation retains the “desert qualities” of toughness and savagery, its members “brave and rapacious,” fierce in their religious belief, accustomed to privation and to “sharing their glory with one another.” The second generation, softened by prosperity and luxury, allows its conquering energies to atrophy. Wealth accumulates, men decay, and the will to act gives way to the wish to be cared for. The third generation sinks into narcissism, cynicism, and stagnation, its moral ideal a distant and sentimental memory, its politics increasingly corrupt, the administration of its laws increasingly unjust, and an ever-expanding distance between the have-nots and the haves. Worship of celebrity replaces reverence for divinity. What is moral is what makes a profit; what makes a profit is moral.

Bugaku dancers, detail of a Japanese handscroll, seventeenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seymour Fund, 1957.

Ibn Khaldun pegs the three acts of a civilization’s life at 120 years. Other historians post other numbers for other civilizations: Polybius allows 35 years for the glory that was Themistoclean Athens, Edward Gibbon grants 200 years to the grandeur that was imperial Rome. Some historians divide a civilization’s life into five acts instead of three, add complicating factors of geography, geopolitics, and the turning of fortune’s wheel. The authorities differ on the placings of milestones, but they agree that the road to ruin is the misuse of energy, its changing into forms that make no return of energy—instead of seed into plant, plant into oxygen, the change is to toxic waste of fuel and intellect; the locking down of productive energy in pyramids of sterile debt ($200,000,000 apartments on Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row), dysfunctional bureaucracy (the Pentagon’s lost wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq), and Donald Trump’s signature men’s colognes, Empire and Success. The result is the immoderate greatness to which Gibbon attributes the decline and fall of Rome:

Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.

Ophuls borrows from Gibbon both title and thesis of his essay and finds the stupendous fabric of America’s twenty-first-century immoderate greatness collapsing under the weight of entropy and fear. It is thermodynamically too costly to maintain, bureaucratically too big not to fail. Its diminished energies are its own worst enemy directed to the work of its destruction.


This issue of the Quarterly borrows from Ophuls because I share his way of thinking and know him as my first cousin. Ophuls was born in 1934, a year before my own arrival, and we are therefore old enough to have seen at least two changes of the civilizational guard over the course of our nine decades on the pilgrim road to who knows where. Before we were schoolboys in San Francisco in the 1940s, we were onstage for what Ibn Khaldun would have recognized as a first act in the life of a civilization: the emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal from the ashes of the Great Depression. After December 7, 1941, and beyond the age of six, we were participant in the willingness to lend a hand, collecting for the war effort scraps of rubber, tin, and bacon grease; as children we were accustomed to ration books and the shortages of sugar, shoes, meat, and fuel. From the roof of our grammar school we could see in San Francisco Bay the Navy aircraft carriers and Marine Corps troop ships departing for Guadalcanal and the Philippine Sea; educated in an atmosphere of courageous, wisecracking liberty, we were free to imagine ourselves on the side of righteous victory. As was our grandfather Roger D. Lapham, elected mayor of the city in 1943 and in the habit of bringing with him on political campaigns his two eldest grandchildren, introducing them in union halls and waterfront bars to what he called “democracy in the raw.” In April 1945, in his role as mayor, he welcomed the delegates who came to deliberate the chartering of the United Nations in the San Francisco Opera House. He insisted that cousin Ophuls and myself attend the plenary sessions, and memorize the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. In 1945 the words meant what they said; they were in tune with the trend and temper of the times. In 2023 they ring hollow, a fond and fading memory of a world that has come and gone.

Both Members of This Club, by George Bellows, 1909. National Gallery of Art, Chester Dale Collection.

My trust in Ophuls follows from our bearing shared witness to the rise and fall of an American dream of empire, watching the American democracy in the 1980s sell the vigor and virtue of its industrial manufacturing and well-rewarded labor to a globalized plutocracy, devolving further around the turn of the twenty-first century into a form of government that Aristotle in the fourth century bc likened to that of the prosperous fool, a ruling and possessing class of men so lost in the dream of riches that “they therefore imagine there is nothing money cannot buy.”

The twentieth-century American philosopher Lewis Mumford touches on the latter point in a passage borrowed from his book Technics and Civilization, published in 1934:

The habit of producing goods whether they are needed or not, of utilizing inventions whether they are useful or not, of applying power whether it is effective or not, pervades almost every department of our present civilization.

The manufacturing of goods to no purpose other than the making of money pro­duces the stupendous fabric of immoderate greatness characterized by Edith Wharton as the product of “a frivolous society” acquiring “dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.” Wharton is speaking of America’s late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age; she could as easily be describing our own early-twenty-first-century Gilded Age, its frivolity guaranteed by the machines that manufacture what we see on television and glance at on our phones, the ones with which we do our shopping and shape our politics. Mumford expresses a similar thought when he says that “our civilization is now weighted in favor of the use of mechanical instruments, because the opportunities for commercial production and for the exercise of power lie there: while all the direct human reactions or the personal arts which require a minimum of mechanical paraphernalia are treated as negligible.”

To treat the powers of the human mind as negligible is a mistake from whose bourne no traveler or civilization returns. Among the first of its many meanings, energy is nature creating and re-creating itself in the mind of man, nature looking back on itself, combining and recombining in the freedom of thought with the play of the imagination. Which in turn makes possible the discovery of “more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, / than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Machines don’t possess the same wayward curiosity. They can extend, complicate, and multiply the known knowns; they don’t stumble across the unknown unknowns.

Albert Einstein remarked on the distinction when asked to explain what prompted Max Planck in 1900 to come upon quantum theory. Einstein could find “no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles,” only “intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience.” He backs up his best guess with a variation on the general theory of relativity:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience and thus to overcome it.

The American poet and essayist Annie Dillard makes the same point in her 1975 essay “Innocence in the Galápagos,” when she says that “man has more freedom than other live things; anti-entropically, he batters a bigger dent in the given, damming the rivers, planting the plains, drawing in his mind’s eye dotted lines between the stars.” So also David Wengrow and the late David Graeber in their life-giving book, The Dawn of Everything, published in 2021: “There are, certainly, tendencies in history…but the only ‘laws’ are those we make up ourselves.”


Substitute the power of money and machines for the greater powers of the human mind and sooner rather than later it comes to pass that instead of the people owning the money, the money owns the people. The same fatal misuse of energy was embraced by Midas, mighty king in Greek and Roman legend, who wished that everything he touched be turned to gold. The wish was granted by Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy, and for one bright new Reaganesque morning in antiquity the king rejoiced in changing sticks and stones and sunflowers into precious heavy metal. But then so did the bread and wine turn to gold when he held them in his wonder-working hands. Unable to live on the produce of his vanity and greed, Midas begged Dionysus for deliverance. The god took pity on the prosperous fool, restored him to his senses.

Not being as observant, our own mighty kings of war and finance haven’t been so fortunate. A paralyzed Asia Minor afternoon in the eighth century bc was time enough for Midas to spot the design flaw in the IPO, the one identified by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 as the substitution of “callous cash payment” for every other form of human worth, value, meaning, and endeavor. It’s been 175 years since Marx and Engels posted the handwriting on a wall, but our self-pitying bourgeois statesmen in Washington and Wall Street have yet to receive the message. Despite the fact that for at least 50 of those 175 years it has been apparent that the finite resources of the planet cannot accommodate the huckster-capitalist promise of infinite economic growth.

Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat.

—John Morley, 1872

Technology is a use of energy, not a source of energy. Nor is capitalism a law of nature or a gift of God. Like all things made by mortals (the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Roman Colosseum, the heads on Mount Rushmore), capitalism is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end foreshadowed by the resource wars (for bread and oil and water) these days being waged across seven continents and five oceans. The guardians at the gates of our American consumer paradise sense the approach of something terrible on the near and far horizon. By way of a defense against their own fear and trembling, they hold up a holy cross of new and more marvelous machines, among them ­ChatGPT, born last November in a manger in San Francisco, willing and able to relieve us of the need to lift anything heavier than an eyebrow.

My guess is that the guardians at the gate are looking in the wrong direction. I take the cue not from a biblical prophet or a pagan oracle but from the first law of thermodynamics and the eminent British American physicist Freeman Dyson, who in the late 1940s joined J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, to research quantum theory and pursue the possibility of deep-space travel. Asked to address the law of entropy and its implication of the universe as frozen as Midas in the prison of his golden wish, Dyson answers that the first law plucks out the flies from the ointment of the second. The energy reserve contained in the sun gives “strong support to an optimistic view of the potentialities of life”:

The world of physics and astronomy is inexhaustible. No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory. 

What Dyson says about the future can be as fairly said about the past; the further we go into it, the more marvelous it becomes, generative and inexhaustible, a huge and expanding landscape of human energy and hope that makes possible the revolt against what G.K. Chesterton called “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about”—these days on the White House lawn, poolside in Palo Alto, on a Swiss alp at Davos.

History is a record of events (of kings crowned and queens decapitated), but it’s more usefully understood as a vast storehouse of human consciousness that is the making of ourselves as once and future human beings. On mankind’s travels across the frontiers of the millennia, we save from the death of families and the wreck of empires what we find useful, beautiful, or true. The stories carved on the old walls, printed in the old books, are the stuff of which man’s humanity to man is made. Navigational light flashing across the gulf of time—as words in ink and paint on silk, sculpture in marble and chapters of law, bills of lading and writs of execution, in five-act plays and three-part songs—tells us who and where we are.

We confront the choice between a future fit for human beings and a future made by and for machines. For the finding of a phoenix in our ashes we have as our most abundant resource the limitless expanse of human ignorance, which rouses out the will to know, kindles the signal fires of the imagination. So sayeth Graeber and Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything: “The course of human history may be less set in stone, and more full of playful possibilities, than we tend to assume.” Where else does one live if not in a house of straw made with the shaping and reshaping of a once-upon-a-time? What is it possible to change if not the past living in the present, the present living in the past? And how else do we do so if not with the gift of metaphor and the energy of mind?

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