Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

74. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process

Note: This post is the seventy-fourth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

This week's post covers the work of economist Nicholas Georgecsu-Roegen. Geoergescu is best known for his book, 'The Entropy Law and the Economic Process' but I don't really recommend reading that book as I found it long, dense and filled with large sections where I wondered what point the author was trying to make. A better bet is this online essay on energy and economic myths provides an online source that covers many of his core points.

The primary point that Georgescu-Roegen emphasizes is that the second law of thermodynamics means that the energy in the universe is constantly moving from a more 'ordered' or concentrated state (in which we can make it do useful work for us) to a less ordered, more dispersed state (which is useless to us). Imagine a glass of hot water poured into a glass of cold water – eventually all the water converges to a standard temperature.

It is the more concentrated or 'low entropy' components of the world that have allowed us to build our current highly complex civilization. But the low entropy source we are relying on primarily is the mineral / terrestrial sources such as coal, gas and oil. Georgescu emphasizes that we must begin transitioning from these sources to a more sustainable future in which we rely on energy from the sun in order to power our civilization.

The message of switching from non-renewable to renewable fuels is familiar to us now (as a child in school, I recall watching a film with the bad red-hatted non-renewable fossil fuels pitted against the happy, good, blue-hatted renewable fuels such as hydro and nuclear (I grew up in Ontario)) but was controversial when Georgescu-Roegen started writing about it in the 60's and 70's.

Considering he was writing in the 70's, Georgescu-Roegen does make some telling points regarding our current trajectory,

"From the viewpoint of the extreme long run, the terrestrial free energy is far scarcer than that received from the sun. The point exposes the foolishness of the victory cry that we can finally obtain protein from fossil fuels! Sane reason tells us to move in the opposite direction, to convert vegetable stuff into hydrocarbon fuel"

(as indeed we currently are trying to do, replacing oil with biofuels. Of course whether there is enough low entropy available from crops to make running automobiles feasible on a large scale remains to be seen)

"a great stride in technological progress cannot materialize unless the corresponding innovation is followed by a great mineralogical expansion. Even a substantial increase in the efficiency of the use of gasoline as fuel would pale in comparison with a manifold increase of the known, rich oil fields."

(witness the U.S. spending billions or trillions of dollars to free up the oil in Iraq for global consumption.)

".... If progress were indeed exponential, then the input i per unit of output would follow in time the law i = i0(1 + r)-t and would constantly approach zero. Production would ultimately become incorporeal and the earth a new Garden of Eden."

(Compare the incorporeal nature of the economic explosion of the internet to previous, very corporeal, revolutions driven by coal and railroads or oil and cars.)

Georgescu-Roegen's work comes back to a central theme we have encountered many times in this series, the conflict between a worldview with no limits and one which does have binding limits. It's no surprise that most of Georgescu-Roegen's arguments are directed at economists since economists are the keepers of the commercial syndrome's, 'more is better, no limits' ideology.

In this case, despite making some good points as noted above, I didn't find Georgescu-Roegen's arguments particularly relevant to current decision making. I agree that human civilization is not immune from the force of the second law of thermodynamics, but what would interest me more is a more pragmatic assessment of what risks we face due to our rising consumption of low entropy sources of energy, as opposed to simply making the abstract argument that we will run out of low entropy sources of energy at some (potentially very distant) point in the future.

Georgescu-Roegen felt that we could make the necessary changes to subsist solely using the energy from the sun if we had the desire and organizational capacity to do so, but we was skeptical that we would take this path,

"Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to ... comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence. Let other species -- the amoebas, for example -- which have no spiritual ambitions inherit an earth still bathed in plenty of sunshine."

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