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Thoughts on entropy, energy and economics

September 18, 2011

This is one of many blogs in which I try to work out my picture of economics and its implications for our futures. These attempts will sometimes be sketchy and may take wrong turnings and need clarifications; this is because the subject is vast and complex. I want, as far as possible, to paint some big pictures, and to clear some things up. And I don’t mind going wrong in public on this. There is no consensus on these subjects and the finest minds take diametrically opposed positions and make mistakes. This makes the field fascinating, of course: fair intellectual game for everyone. But the topics on which we deliberate and speculate are not a game. The futures of our children and, perhaps, of humanity in the long-term depend on us working out how we are to live once we come to conclusions on these subjects on which we can agree or even, which is certainly harder, while we work out conclusions on which we can agree.

I hold with those, such as Georgescu Roegen and Eric Beinhocker, who argue that objects which we value are generally those of low entropy. I think this stems from the earliest technology, when fire was used to smelt and forge metal, to the most high-tech objects in modern industry which require great subindustries themselves in order to come into being.

It seems to me that at each stage in this technological process, we have learnt things that have allowed us to harness new sorts of energy to create objects of lower entropy, and these objects we value. Simply, having value is a necessary condition for having economic value – as I have written elsewhere – and it is these low entropy objects that typically drive the capitalist, industrialist global economies. I’m talking about things like cars, CD players, trainers, medicines, toys, exotic foods, computers, iPhones – the usual consumer stuff.  Of course, entropy always wins in the end – you cannot decrease it somewhere in the system without increasing it somewhere else and, indeed, overall. So entropy in some larger system increases, if you succeed in creating a low entropy object out of more high entropy ones.

Entire research careers can go into defining and researching exactly what we mean by ‘the system’ here, and debate as to how open or closed the earth and its atmosphere are as a system continue. Some will say that even if it is low entropy objects that create value and even if entropy must be increased in and around earth for this to happen, that is not the significant factor because there is still a steady stream of low entropy energy pouring into the system in the form of energy from the sun. This will suffice to give us, the argument goes, enough energy of the right type to carry on with all the technological development we could ever need. This may be possible – but no-one can yet do the calculations with any meaningful precision. However, there are good theoretical reasons to believe this may not work – see below.

Herman Daly, in his seminal Beyond Growth, builds on the work of Roegen and offers a diagram which tries to capture all the energy inflows and outflows of the planet.

The main ‘in-flows’ are: geothermal energy from when the planet was formed; radioactive energy stored in elements – also from when the planet was formed; solar energy captured by plants and now in fossil fuels; the solar radiation still flowing into the planet and the energy stored in living things.

These stores of energy (including geothermal and fossil fuels) are either fixed or they are increasing, but only linearly. This means that energy is either already captured and stored or that the energy that is still being added to the system – the sun’s energy – pours onto earth at a constant rate. Now, one contrasts this with the rate of consumption of fuels and energy, which seems to be compound and – however big those fixed resources and however much the sun’s energy flows in to earth – the compound consumption will always trump it in the end. Basically exponential decrease always overtakes linear increase at some point.

Now the further argument goes that capitalism requires compound economic growth just to sustain itself. This is the insight of Marx, is beautifully explained by David Harvey, and is the thinking behind the constant worry in the media that ‘GDP must grow otherwise we risk collapse’.  And the link between this economic growth which capitalism requires and the growth in consumption of resources just seems to be a matter of fact. Tim Jackson, among others, calls this coupling and points out that, to date, no-one has succeeded in decoupling economic growth from consumption of natural resources.

We are getting toward the heart of the problem. For if societies do, indeed, require compound economic growth to be sustained, and if such growth requires compound consumption of resources – as it appears to – then, at some stage, we will run out of resources, no matter how much sunlight we have.

Now, the current way out of this is to be positive about ‘sustainability’, but here is where I think the entropy arguments kick in. Because, as we saw above, it is precisely the high-entropy objects that drive the economic growth we need. If we stop high-tech engineering and scientific progress in general on the grounds that such processes require too much energy, then the economic system breaks down. We need to keep creating such low entropy objects to drive our economics and yet it is precisely the production of such objects that requires an increasing input of energy. I do not believe there can be a virtuous circle here: I do not believe we can ever create objects which are truly 100% sustainable in a closed system and  allow us the sort of economic growth that capitalism requires. I am not suggesting we become Marxists – that discussion requires many another blog altogether! – but I think the contradictions between necessary economic growth, low entropy objects and sustainability are too fierce to be reconcilable.

But it is worse than that,  for how could we really stop such high-tech, energy hungry progress in order to manage our resources. This is what we do, as a species. We explore, we take stuff from nature, we change it, we mould it, we break it apart to make new things. We use those things to dominate and subdue our world. How can we step back from making fire, building bridges, steam engines, motor cars, computers? We create low entropy objects for our cultures, our industries, our well-being. To stop doing this would be to stop doing the very things that distinguish us from other animals. The sustainable vision requires us to live in complete harmony with nature, but things that live in harmony with nature are (almost by definition) destroyed when the vicissitudes of nature turn bad for them. Marx has no answer to this either. A Marxist system still requires domination of nature by humans and their creations – and that is energy and entropy hungry.

So we come to an impasse: Either we do as we have always done and attempt to dominate nature so that we are not at its mercy but run out of resources in attempting to do so; or we attempt to stop this sort of dominion, risk economic collapse and have to seek new terms for everything we do as human beings. There is no middle ground here.

This is one reason I cannot commit fully to the sustainability cause, moral and decent as it is. It just seems theoretically deeply flawed to me.

Those who typically gather on the other side of the fence – the big industrialists, the capitalists, the techno-futurists – who dream of mining the moon and other planets at least seem, to me, to be on logically safer ground. I am uneasy about this because the values of some in these camps are not always my own. But there is a recognition here that this is what humans do – and that there is really no other way to be human, to sustain human life: we move in, we exploit, we build, create and destroy, and move on.

Now there is a great deal more to say on this and issues to examine, at least:

1. The hope of discovering new sorts of energy – such as nuclear fusion – which would give us such vast resources as to postpone beyond the forseeable future any real risk of economic collapse;

2. The concern that even ‘mining the moon and other planets’ is just a ‘short term solution’  in the sense that if we do not get a grip of compound consumption we will forever need to seek further territories to exploit.

3. An examination of  ‘free energy’ as a source of energy which can assuage worries about entropy.

4. An examination of alternative economics, e.g. feminist economics, in which such things as childcare are remunerated in such a way as to invert standard economic values and still allow for sustainable societies.

5. The harnessing of sunlight more efficiently by genetically modified organisms – along the lines suggested by Craig Venter.

But this blog is already too long and these can wait till another time.

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One Comment
  1. Of course the whole edifice of your argument absolutely depends on only one view of “how to be fully human.” You are seeming to suggest that the only way people can realize a truly human existence is to endlessly consume larger numbers of low entropy goods. I will grant you that for all of recorded history this appears to have been the case, but let’s all remember that a large portion of human history was not recorded.

    I refuse to accept that this is the only workable model for human existence. I am talking about about an effective end to western civilization. We can no longer practically depend on continued expansion to deal with the problems of capitalism. Perhaps it is time for us to set aside that 19th century economic model for something a bit more sophisticated?

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