Saturday, January 16, 2010

Caribbean, part 1

Up here in the real world, entropy rips through everything at such a lightening quick pace that we hardly ever notice. But there are parts of the world where entropy cannot be relegated to an abstract, high school physics classroom learning objective. These are places where energy is expensive and therefore entropy moves slowly—and so do the people. It’s not a coincidence. In the Caribbean you can see the effect this abstract physics lesson has on human culture, government, and especially individual personalities.

It takes a lot of applied energy to slow down a runaway anything. To slow down these two north New Jersians to Caribbean speed, it took three flights, (two Red Stripes and a calamari sandwich on homemade wheat bread at Ray’s on Trellis Bay), one ferry ride, one decidedly un-slow taxi ride over the mountainous roads of Virgin Gorda. But once we were on the balcony of our room, looking out over the placid, moonlit Nail Bay with the yellow lights of Tortolla in the distance, the slowness began to penetrate.

The entire island chain, from the Yucatan Peninsula to the mouth of the Orinoco, is a case study of physical entropy (see the Precepts). The neat, compact, highly-structured energy bundled in magma became unleashed from the earth’s crust and spewed out of the Atlantic Ocean, forming messy, sprawling, disorganized bundles of rock completely devoid of energy, which had been totally spent in the creation of the islands. The Caribbean’s physical entropy was finished (the first phase, anyway, since entropy will eventually whittle away the remaining rock until there is nothing left). But the Caribbean’s effect on human social entropy was just beginning.

First, a bit of telling history by way of James A. Michener’s Caribbean:

These two good men, one a governor who kept his stealing within reason, the other the scion of a splendid family and himself destined to become a colonial governor, had identified the fundamental reasons why Spanish lands in the New World would fail, during the next four hundred years, to achieve any simple, responsible system of governance, democratic or not, in which good men would rule without stealing and alienating the riches of their countries.

A fatal tradition had already been codified during the rule of Diego Ledesma in Cartagena: provide reasonably good government for the time being, steal as much as decency and the envy of others will allow, and then, because your own position is tenuous, place every relative in the richest possible position so that he, too, can accumulate a fortune. This will mean that even if you are dragged home in disgrace, the members of your family will be left in positions of power, and after a few years they can ease their way back into Spain laden with wealth and titles, to become the new viceroys and governors or to marry into the families who do, and thus find new opportunities to steal new fortunes (96).

In this chapter of his historical fiction, Michener describes how Spanish cultural norms affected Spain’s governance of its Caribbean colonies. It describes a people drunk on abundance. In the 1500s, the fruits of the New World—gold, silver, copper, sugar—were the social equivalent of the bundles of magma that formed the place: packed with inordinate amounts of social energy waiting to be released. Hordes of people came over to be the ones to release that energy for their own benefit. It is no wonder these people thought of this place as an Eden, a childlike candyland. The result was that the people who came over were not civilization-builders, not “carpenters and weavers and shipbuilders and… men of middle age who knew how to run things like shops and bakeries and ironmongeries, men who could do things” (67). Instead, over came the do-nothing sons of aristocrats who thought they would “collect buckets of gold from the streams, and go home rich” (67). The fact that these rich lands were inhabited by practically defenseless natives that could be easily slaughtered or cheaply bought must have made them even more drunk on their good fortunes. When the slave ships brought in free labor, they existed in a kind of delusional Heaven: huge amount of energy output, with very little (of their own) energy input.

The New World was these Spaniard’s Mr. Fusion, their free lunch, a thing that Entropy Law teaches is as illusory and unreal as Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Unsustainable to the core. Eventually entropy was going to catch up with them, but the Spanish governors did not realize this until it was too late.

Greed is not an exclusively Spanish trait. But Michener goes on to postulate why Spanish culture was less entropically suited to rule what they called the “Spanish Lake” than other nationalities:

It was a system that provided swings of the pendulum so wide that men became dizzy, and a form of government that wasted the tremendous resources of the New World. With far fewer natural riches, both France and England, would establish more lasting forms of good governance than Spain with its superior holdings ever did. …both France and England would not start their occupancy until the 1620s and 1630s, another half-century later. But the seeds of Spain’s deficiencies had already been sown (96).

Because England and France had less energy--less terrestrial stock--they could not afford social structures that burned it needlessly. Their cultures that took root in the New World tended toward sustainability, conservation and the slowing of entropy (at least compared to the Spanish, certainly not the natives).

In the next entry I will write some thoughts about how social entropy plays out today on the one island we visited (unsurprisingly, ice cream is involved), and hopefully post some pictures.