Entropy, order, and economy

Posted Tuesday, October 22, 2013 in Sustainable Maine

Entropy, order, and economy

by Paul Kando

One of the fundamental laws of physics, the law of entropy, states that the capacity of energy to do work diminishes. Everything in the universe trends from order toward disorder. A desk, an office, a workshop, kitchen or garage never “gets organized”. You must make order, using energy, doing work, and if you don’t exert more energy to maintain order, things “get disorganized”.

Life is ordered. Using solar energy, plants organize simple molecules like water and CO2 into complex ones, forming sugars for building their own bodies. Animals, in turn, build their bodies from the plants they eat. Living things function in ordered ways – if not, they are ill. And when they die, they decompose back into their original simple component molecules, from which -- using new, low entropy solar energy -- life can be organized anew. 

You burn oil in your furnace at several hundred degrees to heat your house to 70ºF, only to see it cool down to match a frosty outdoors. The heat energy is still there – at 30ºF or 25ºF or 5º – but you cannot recycle it (or the oil already burned) into energy useable to heat your house. You must purchase new, low entropy energy, – oil that will burn at a several hundred degree flame temperature, electricity to run a heat-pump compressor. This new energy will also degrade, again and again, in its ability to heat your house.

Because of the law of entropy a perpetual motion machine – one that never runs out of energy – is a physical impossibility. Yet, based on conventional economic theories, our economic system assumes an infinite supply of energy and raw materials; limitless production, growth and consumption; and boundless sinks for disposing wastes. No wonder we have an economic crisis, and an economy that does not serve everyone adequately! This is a finite world.

Imagine the fossil fuel era as a steep peak rising from a flat, horizontal time-line. To the left, the pre-industrial world used muscle power and burned wood and dung for energy. It featured slavery, serfdom and exploitation of the majority by a leisure class, with the status quo supported by myths designed to keep everyone “in their place”.

Seminal historic events converged in 1776, about where the peak begins its rise. James Watt’s improved steam engine was first deployed commercially, jump-starting an industrial economy. Adam Smith published his “The Wealth of Nations”, reiterating his idea of “the invisible hand of the market” as the best allocator of resources.  The American Declaration of Independence postulated, for the first time in history, equality and the “pursuit of happiness” as basic human rights governments are obligated to safeguard. Alas, critical information was missing: the fundamental laws of physics – the law of preservation of energy and matter and the law of entropy – would not be put in words, for the first time, by Rudolf Clausius until 1850, and the concept of “entropy” not until 1865. Thus the capitalist economic system has its roots in a 75 to 90 year period of ignorance of key facts about how the world actually works, making it possible to create an illusory economic order that looks very much like a perpetual motion machine.

To the right of the fossil fuels peak -- itself less than three centuries long -- lies the future of mankind. If there are affordable fossil fuels left, their continued use threatens the very existence of civilization. The alternative could be a new economy, built on lessons distilled from these centuries of capitalism (including its communist and fascist variants) and on the use of renewable energy. A salient feature of this new economy would be due respect for the Law of Entropy, a natural law that governs energy and everything material on Earth.

The 24 decades since 1776 have much to teach us. As Nobel laureate Columbia University economist Joe Stiglitz remarked, “the hand of the market is invisible because it isn’t there”. An economic system based on perpetual growth, no matter how dominant, is bound to fail, simply because the law of entropy precludes the possibility of a perpetual motion machine. Symptoms of systemically ignoring the laws of nature are everywhere and too numerous to mention. Plainly our economic system is able to serve fewer and fewer people even as it plays havoc with the planet and its resources.

Still, catastrophe for Earth and all its occupants – a destroyed climate with not even a peaceful opportunity to return to the slavery of a muscle-powered past – is not inevitable. We have fundamentally bright energy and economic prospects for the future, provided we learn from mankind’s collective mistakes and finally resolve to realize the vision of the Declaration of Independence, on ice, but for lip service, for all these decades by an increasingly undemocratic and exploitative “consumer economy”. Will it be consumers or citizens? “More and more” and endless growth (of which the natural form is cancer) or the pursuit of happiness?

In any event, there is no way to get around the law of entropy. Real wealth is composed of matter and energy. Matter can, and should be, recycled. Energy cannot be. Supplied by the sun, it is the key resource that a viable economy, modeled on nature, must manage. The rest is detail.  

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