Erwin Schrödinger is best known for his cat, suspended in a state of being both dead and alive. Less well known is ‘Schrödinger’s paradox’, which describes the apparent contradiction between life and the second law of thermodynamics. The second law rules that the entropy – usually glossed as the measure of disorder – of an isolated system must always increase with time. Whatever we do, entropy goes up (as Allen Ginsberg reputedly said, ‘You can’t break even’). This suggests a compelling hypothesis for the end of the world: the universe will reach maximum entropy and thereafter be a dark place of spent heat where nothing happens. Yet life seems to defy physics. Our bodies produce and maintain an internal order. Ageing cells are succeeded by perfect copies, wounds heal, muscles build with use, synapses form and strengthen as we learn and remember. For eighty years or so, a body is a haven from the thermodynamic void.
In What Is Life?, based on a series of public lectures given at Trinity College, Dublin in 1943, Schrödinger accounted for the paradox. The increase of entropy, he said, is a demand made of isolated systems, and living beings are not isolated. For one thing, we eat; we ingest and subsume chunks of our environment. A non-isolated system is permitted to decrease its local entropy as long as there are larger offsets elsewhere. The balance sheet comes out right in the end because of the excretion of higher-entropy waste products – warm shit, steaming piss, moist breath – and our eventual putrefaction.
Food can fuel bodily order because it is a low-entropy source of energy, meaning it provides a budget – both energetic and entropic – for bodily processes. It owes this property to nuclear fusion reactions in the core of the sun, which maintains a temperature imbalance with respect to the earth that allows it to supply the planet with a stream of high-energy, low-entropy photons. These photons are incident on plants, algae and cyanobacteria, whose cells synthesise the basic units of organic matter on which the rest of the food chain depends. We are all solar-powered (or nuclear-powered, if you prefer), and, crucially, stars persist long enough to provide not only the entropy gradients needed for life, but the timescales required for the evolution of interesting versions of it.
Life is energetically expensive. Even if you lie completely still, the cost of living is around 1500 kilocalories per day – the amount of energy it would take to heat eighty litres of water from tap temperature to that of a scalding bath. Most is spent on homeostasis, the processes by which our bodies stay more or less exactly as they are. Homeostasis is sometimes used as a way of defining life itself: living beings can maintain steady internal states despite changeable external conditions. One of the earliest formulations was physiologist Claude Bernard’s description, in the 1850s, of a ‘milieu intérieur’: ‘All of the vital mechanisms, however varied they may be, have always one goal, to maintain the uniformity of the conditions of life in the internal environment . . . The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life.’
Our bodies can only maintain homeostasis within reasonable bounds, however. Acute challenges lead to disease and death; chronic pressures wear us down. There is a Silicon Valley trend for toying with those limits. Intermittent fasting and icy showers are supposed to induce ‘positive stress’, allowing tech bros to spend more hours processing code. For everyone else, there’s just old-fashioned negative stress, both psychological and biological. Poverty is a major cause. Persistent food insecurity in children leads to a sustained stress response that pushes the body to extreme homeostatic responses, including prolonged and abnormally high levels of cortisol and continuous inflammation. The result is more frequent and prolonged childhood illness. That’s in addition to the direct effects of hunger and undernutrition: stunting, fatigue, poor working memory. These effects continue into adolescence, and are associated with a higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts. Food insecurity in adults increases the risk of hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Long-term exposure to low temperatures strains the body’s equilibrium. More people die in the winter months because of respiratory virus epidemics, increased air pollution and cold weather, but studies correcting for these factors show that one in five excess winter deaths in the UK is attributable to low temperatures at home.
While the energy required to keep a body running remains unchanged, the price of doing so is higher than ever. Even before the instability caused by Putin’s war, gas markets were failing to meet post-lockdown energy demands. Reserves depleted during the cold winter of 2020-21 haven’t been replaced. The UK only imports a fraction of its gas from Russia (5 per cent, compared with 41 per cent for the rest of Europe), but that makes little difference when prices hike on the global market. Natural gas now costs twenty times what it did at the lowest point of the pandemic, and a third more than it did in January. The UK government has responded by lifting the energy price cap by 54 per cent, protecting companies from taking the hit despite the fact that the Big Six – British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE – have made £7 billion in profit over the last five years. With the new cap in place, household fuel bills will rise by £700 over the course of the year, but it won’t stop there. Another increase has already been announced for six months’ time.
Fuel prices have pushed inflation to a thirty-year high, driving up the cost of a calorie of food. This is the second energy crisis. Apples are up by 25 per cent, margarine by 31 per cent, milk by 7 per cent. Food is more expensive and people have less to spend. Food bank users are turning down rice and pasta because of the cost of boiling a pan of water. Worse is to come. Ammonium nitrate fertiliser has risen from £280 to £1000 a tonne in the last year, reflecting the increased cost of the energy required to produce it. Crop yields will suffer, and food prices will continue to rise.
This is the forecast: disposable incomes are set to fall by 2.2 per cent, the steepest decline since records began in 1956. Universal credit, cut by £20 a week in October, will rise by just 3.1 per cent, while inflation could soon exceed 8 per cent. Households will be around £1100 worse off over the coming year. (The average annual spend on groceries is more than £1300 per person, so those living on the poverty line will effectively have their food budget wiped out.) An additional 1.3 million people, including half a million children, will be tipped into absolute poverty as their household incomes sink below 60 per cent of the 2011 median. Like every other we’re-all-in-this-together scenario, the reality is nothing of the sort. A poorer person must spend a greater share of their income on basic necessities such as food and fuel: that’s what it means to be poor. One can scrimp here and there, but the energy needs of the body set a hard lower limit.
These grim predictions arrive in the midst of existing deprivation. A report by the Food Foundation in 2017 found that, compared to the rest of the EU, the UK had the highest proportion of children living in a ‘severely food insecure household’. One in six parents surveyed by the Social Mobility Foundation said that their child or children had to eat less than they would like, skip meals or sometimes go a whole day without eating. Between January and July 2020, nearly 2500 children were admitted to hospital with malnutrition, twice as many as the year before. School meals need to make up for this deficit.
‘What do the majority of educated people know about poverty?’ Orwell asks in Down and Out in Paris and London. He complains that the editor of François Villon’s Le Testament felt it necessary to add a footnote explaining the line ‘Et pain ne voyent qu’aux fenestres.’ Responding to criticism of his Spring Statement, Rishi Sunak pointed to ‘external factors outside the country’ – dwindling gas reserves, the war in Ukraine – as though that justifies his decision to make the poorest pay most. He stumbled when a BBC presenter asked him what he spends on a loaf of bread: ‘We all have different breads in my house,’ he said. So far, so Marie Antoinette. It’s easy, and may not be wrong, to assume that Sunak is punishing those who have fewest options. But I also wonder whether he understands what money means for most people. In a recent publicity stunt, he posed with a supermarket employee’s car in an attempt to look normal, then tried to pay for a can of Coke by waving his credit card in front of a barcode scanner.
There is a precedent for the government shafting working-class people after a pandemic. After the Black Death nearly halved the population of England, the demand for labour grew so great that it threatened to give the peasants meaningful bargaining power. In response, Edward III set a cap on earnings to protect the nobility. His successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, or whoever was really in charge, went further, introducing a poll tax to pay for the ongoing skirmishes with France. In 1381, a tax collector went to Fobbing in Essex to demand a silver groat from each inhabitant, and was chased away by an angry crowd. Their resistance provoked the broader revolt against serfdom.
Speaking to Sky News, and trying as usual to show us that he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, Keir Starmer said: ‘People don’t want a revolution. They do want to know “How am I going to pay my energy bill?”’ He proposed a one-off tax on the profits of gas and oil companies, as Macron is doing in France. That would be a start, but given the scale of the crisis, why isn’t he talking about renationalisation? Revolutionary measures are what we need. Food and fuel shortages aren’t a blip; ‘external factors’ are here to stay. We need to end our reliance on fossil fuels, ensure our homes are properly insulated and fix the broken link between work and pay. Does it need stating that people shouldn’t be asked to work for wages that leave them hungry and cold?
Fobbing is ten miles from my hometown of Southend-on-Sea, the UK’s newest city, where a third of children live in poverty, excess winter deaths are double the national average and half of all residents struggle to buy food, clothes and other necessities. It is one of many places where people watch the news with the knowledge that the cost of living is becoming untenable. Suicide rates are on the rise across Essex. A footbridge over a dual carriageway in Southend has become a hotspot in recent years. Fuel prices rose on April Fool’s Day. The day before, the bridge was closed for good.