Entropy and Self Organization: An Open System Approach to the Origins of Homeland Security Threats

pdfThomas Kirwan Dobson


Homeland security is a relatively new concept.1 There is currently not a single definition

of homeland security agreed upon by academics and practitioners at the federal, state, and

local levels.2 However, homeland security is operationally defined by the practices of the

Department of Homeland Security and state and local governments.3 Furthermore, while

the meaning of homeland security may be understood differently by various actors, for

the most part there is a growing awareness that the actions taken at different levels of

government are related and that together they form a homeland security enterprise.4 This

awareness of an emerging overall enterprise for dealing with homeland security helps to

bring coherence and coordination to homeland security strategy and practice because the

different parts of the homeland security enterprise can better understand how what they

do interrelates with the activities of the other parts of the enterprise.

Currently, there is not a similar unified approach to the understanding of

homeland security threats. The threats are divided into major categories, such as

terrorism, threats to critical infrastructure, threats related to climate change, and the

threat of economic instability, but there is no overall concept to unify them as there is with

the homeland security enterprise. This matters because the homeland security enterprise

and homeland security threats are also interrelated. What the homeland security

enterprise does affects the threats, and the threats affect the enterprise. This means that

our understanding of causes of homeland security threats has a direct impact on our

ability to cope with them. This leads to this question: Is there a unifying concept out there

that can bring coherence to our understanding of homeland security threats that can in

turn bring more coherence to the activities of the homeland security enterprise?


As mentioned earlier, homeland security threats are diverse; however, one thing

that they all have in common is that are all forms of disorder. Disorder, understood as the

thermodynamic concept of entropy, has been extensively studied. The second law of

thermodynamics or entropy law states that when work is done on a system, entropy or

disorder always increases.5 This implies that all systems should quickly disintegrate into

disorder, which is clearly not the case, as evidenced by complex organisms that maintain

themselves far from equilibrium for long periods of time. This contradiction is resolved

by revisiting assumptions. The entropy law was first formulated assuming a closed

system, but almost all systems in nature are actually open. Ilya Prigogine, a physical

chemist, reformulated the entropy law, assuming an open system that allows for the

importation of matter and energy. Prigogine observed that flows of matter and energy can

give rise localized self-organization as the system dissipates energy, and for this reason

named the systems dissipative systems.6 The entropy law still holds, however, and that

means that total entropy still increases. This means that the self-organization in the

dissipative system comes at the expense of increased disorder outside the system.7

Another way of looking at it is that the self-organizing part of the dissipative system

transfers its disorder to its surroundings, increasing disorder there. Due to its ability to

reconcile the entropy law with the existence of complex systems in the world, the idea of

a dissipative system is a foundational concept for several approaches to understanding

complex systems, such as general system theory, living system theory, and social entropy

theory.8 This raises an interesting question: Can the idea of dissipative systems be used to

understand homeland security threats in terms of the entropy, or disorder, that arises as a

byproduct of processes of self-organization occurring in the world?

Another characteristic of dissipative systems, self-organized criticality9 also has a

major impact on systems related to homeland security. Self-organized criticality refers to

a tendency of some systems to naturally self-organize into a critical state far from

equilibrium at which any change can result in cascading chain reactions of different

sizes.10 Examples of events that result from self-organized criticality include landslides,

earthquakes, disease pandemics, financial meltdowns, forest fires, and breakdowns of

various kinds of critical infrastructure.11

Other ideas from thermodynamics that can be meta-theoretically applied to

homeland security is the idea from social entropy theory and living system theory that

money can be used as a maker for entropy transfers in social and economic systems.12

Another is the idea of free energy from thermodynamics applied to social systems as

social free energy. Social free energy is amount of energy beyond the amount needed to

maintain the structure of a social system.13 This makes social free energy the amount of

energy available to deal with threats to that structure or, in other words, a rough measure

of overall resilience. Since flows of money correspond to flows of entropy, the financial

statistics of an organization describe entropy flows occurring within it and its overall

entropy balance. Borrowing represents importing the means to reverse entropy, or

disorder, in the present, and therefore the accumulation of debt represents an obligation

to repay the means of reversing entropy in the future. In other words, accumulating debt

represents future importations of entropy.

Systems ideas from social entropy theory, living system theory, and general

system theory provide a means for relating the concept of dissipative systems to

homeland security threats that are occurring in the real world. Ideas from these

approaches to complex systems were synthesized to show how flows of matter, energy,

and information (and objects made from these components) can result in transfers of

entropy among the environmental, social, and economic aspects of a living social system

and its external environment. These entropy transfers can occur incidentally as a result of

passive or voluntary exchanges of matter, energy, and information, or by means of

strategically directed, even violent transfers of entropy.

To illustrate how the homeland security threats facing U.S. can be modeled as a

dissipative system, we have to say how self-organization in one place is leading to

disorder in another. Threats to homeland security can come from anywhere in the world.

This means that in order to understand the origins of these homeland security threats, we

first have to describe the main currents of self-organization occurring in the world and

then causally relate them to real-world homeland security threats.

The main dynamics of self-organization in the world today covered in this paper,

population growth, advance of technology, and economic growth, are interrelated and

mutually causal with each other.14 The process of globalization is related to these megatrends.

Globalization is modeled as a positive feedback loop composed of globalization

leading to the perception of the benefits of globalism, which leads to global and regional

institution building, resulting in more globalization. Globalization is related to the

megatrends because it is a main driver of economic growth.

The mega-trends give rise to homeland security threats through causal linkages.

For example, population growth leads to more resource use,15 which, in the case of

increasing use of fossil fuels, leads to greenhouse gas buildup and ultimately the threat of

the effects of climate change.16 At the same time, increased resource use also leads to

environmental degradation, which, through complex social processes, has resulted in the

development of radical environmentalism and the threat of eco-terrorism.17 Similar

causal linkages are explained and illustrated in a diagram called a trend map, which

shows how the processes of self-organization gives rise to other homeland security

threats, such as the threat of identity based conflict and terrorism, pandemic, weapons of

mass destruction, nuclear, chemical or biological attack, cyber-attack, threats from

international organized crime, economic instability, supply-chain attacks, civil conflict,

or asymmetrical attacks. To see the diagram and a full explanation of all these causal

linkages, please read the full thesis.

A conclusion of the thesis is that homeland security threats can be understood in

terms of the dynamics of a dissipative system. Also, the thesis illustrates that there are

multiple, mutually reinforcing causal relationships among factors arising from the

megatrends that give rise to homeland security threats. This makes the relationship

between the self-organization occurring in the world and the resulting homeland security

threats complex, and the overall system, a complex system. This unified understanding of

the origin and underlying causes of homeland security threats can be useful when

formulating homeland security strategy and tactics.

The thesis has documented how social, economic, and environmental processes

affect the origins of homeland security threats. Many of these processes are well outside

the jurisdiction of the homeland security enterprise. This implies that we may need to

evaluate current thinking about the relationship between homeland security threats and

the homeland security enterprise.


1 Christopher Bellavita and Ellen Gordon, “Changing Homeland Security: Teaching the Core,” Homeland Security Affairs II, no. 1 (2006): 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Department of Homeland Security, “Homeland Security Enterprise,” last modified December 12,2014, accessed January 28, 2015, http://www.dhs.gov/homeland-security-enterprise

4 Ibid.

5 Rudolf Clausius, The Mechanical Theory of Heat—With its Applications to the Steam Engine and to Physical Properties of Bodies (London: John van Voorst, 1867), 365

6 Ilya Prigogine, Gregoire Micolis, and Agnes Babloyantz, “Thermodynamics of Evolution,” Physics Today 25, no. 11 (1972): 24.

7 Ibid.

8 Kenneth D. Bailey, Social Entropy Theory (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990), 81; Kenneth D. Bailey, “Living Systems Theory and Social Entropy Theory,” Systems Research and Behavioral Science (2006): 299; Ludwig von Bertalanffy, “The Theory of Open Systems in Physics and Biology,” Science, New Series 111, no. 2872 (1950): 26.

9 Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld, “Self-organized Criticality,” Physical Review (1988): 364–373.

10 Per Bak and Kim Sneppen, “Punctutated Equilibrium and Criticality in a Simple Model of Evolution,” Physical Review Letters 71, no. 24 (1993): 4083.

11 Donald L. Turcotte, “Self-organized Criticality,” Reports on Progress in Physics (1999): 1416–1417.

12 Gale Alden Swanson, Kenneth D. Bailey, and James Grier Miller. “Money: A Living Systems Theory Perspective,” Systems Research and Behavioral Sceince 14, no. 1 (1997): 45–65.

13 Josip Stephanic, Jr., “Describing Social Systems Using Social Free Energy and Social  Entropy,” Kybernetes 34, no. 5/6 (2005): 862.

14 Bailey, Social Entropy Theory, 99–100.

15 United Nations Fund for Population Activities, “Linking Popululation, Poverty, and Development,” accessed October 28, 2013, http://www.unfpa.org/pds/trends.htm, 1–2.

16 Lori M. Hunter, Population and Environment: A Complex Relationship (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2012), accessed November 17, 2013, http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB5045/index1.html, 3.

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