Years ago, I was introduced to former Baltimore County Police Chief Cornelius Behan by my friend Alan Walden. He said, "Chief, I want you to meet Ron Smith, a man who believes in the law of entropy." After shaking hands with the top cop, I said in reflexive defense mode, "I also believe in the law of gravity."
Conservatives are at least instinctively aware that things deteriorate, that life is a difficult proposition with no happy ending and that the arrow of time cannot be reversed. Entropy is the subject of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and can be summarized in any number of ways, all of them insufficient because the intellect cannot satisfactorily formulate what is clear inwardly from observation: that given time, all things rot.
The First Law of Thermodynamics is that of the conservation of energy. If, for example, one burns a chunk of coal, the energy released by the combustion doesn't disappear from the cosmos; it remains in dissipated form and thus, in a sense, is conserved.
The Second Law tells us that though what the First Law says is true in theory, and that all dynamic processes can theoretically be reversed, the reality is dramatically opposite the theory: that natural processes in their entirety are irreversible. Energy, while being conserved, inexorably moves from usable to unusable. The heat given off by the burning coal can no longer be utilized once that process is complete. Another easy way to view the entropic process is to glance at pictures of you taken over a number of years. That's right, we don't get younger or more beautiful or more energetic as time passes.
Which brings me to what prompted the above: a column this week in this newspaper about the proposals to actually shrink some of our big cities by bulldozing abandoned neighborhoods. It's an idea that springs from desperation by officials in the dilapidated city of Flint, Mich. But, as Gregory Rodriguez observed, the Obama administration is considering supporting this kind of planned destruction for other deteriorating metropolises, perhaps including Baltimore.
The columnist allows that the idea makes some sense, but says he is opposed to it because, "Obliterating whole blocks and neighborhoods is just another way of giving up past and future ..."
Civilization is based upon constant growth, but history shows time and again that growth has its limits. There comes a point where density of population and the ever-increasing costs of complexity become unsustainable. Populations melt away, as they did when Mayan civilization collapsed. A series of classical writers from Polybius onward have told of old cities and their deterioration and depopulation. I have read that in the Fifth Century of our era, while all its Imperial palaces were still inhabitable, Rome had the population of a village.
The point to all this is to say that the idea of acknowledging that things can never be the way they once were is entirely defensible. In fact, it is invariably true. Would the planned destruction of abandoned neighborhoods be, as Mr. Rodriguez says, against society's best interests, or would it be recognition of things as they are? Can the wasteland areas of cities like Flint, Philadelphia, Detroit, Memphis and our own Baltimore actually be revitalized? The people have voted with their feet, so to speak, fueling an internal migration now decades long that has drastically redistributed the population of the United States.
It's hard to believe this process can be reversed, any more than the heat and smoke from burning coal can be turned back into the lump it had been.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is