Civilization may need to “forget the flame” to reduce CO2 emissions.
Just as a living organism continually needs food to maintain itself, an economy consumes energy to do work and keep things going. That consumption comes with the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, though. So, how can we use energy to keep the economy alive without burning out the planet in the process?
In a paper in PLOS ONE, University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences Tim Garrett, with mathematician Matheus Grasselli of McMaster University and economist Stephen Keen of University College London, report that current world energy consumption is tied to unchangeable past economic production. And the way out of an ever-increasing rate of carbon emissions may not necessarily be ever-increasing energy efficiency—in fact it may be the opposite.
“How do we achieve a steady-state economy where economic production exists, but does not continually increase our size and add to our energy demands?” Garrett says. “Can we survive only by repairing decay, simultaneously switching existing fossil infrastructure to a non-fossil appetite? Can we forget the flame?”
Garrett is an atmospheric scientist. But he recognizes that atmospheric phenomena, including rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change, are tied to human economic activity. “Since we model the earth system as a physical system,” he says, “I wondered whether we could model economic systems in a similar way.”
He’s not alone in thinking of economic systems in terms of physical laws. There’s a field of study, in fact, called thermoeconomics. Just as thermodynamics describe how heat and entropy (disorder) flow through physical systems, thermoeconomics explores how matter, energy, entropy and information flow through human systems.
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