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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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The Role of Energy in Production

The Role of Energy in Production

Chapter 13 from my forthcoming book Rebuilding Economics from the Top Down

Human society is energy blind. Like a fish in water, it takes for granted the existence of that without which it could not survive.

This is Chapter 13 from my forthcoming book Rebuilding Economics from the Top Down, which will be published by the Budapest Centre for Long-Term Sustainability and the Pallas Athéné Domus Meriti Foundation. I am serialising the book chapters here. A watermarked PDF of the manuscript is available to supporters.

Like so many other aspects of our blindness to the true nature of our society, the failure to comprehend the vital role that energy plays in enabling human civilisation to exist can be traced back to economists. But for once, the culprit is not a Neoclassical economist, but the person that most economists of all persuasions acknowledge as “the father of economics”, Adam Smith.

Smith’s mistake occurred in the very first sentence of The Wealth of Nations:

THE annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes… (Smith 1776, p. 10)

The error is obvious when you compare this opening to the remarkably similar—in all but one respect—opening sentence to Richard Cantillon’s An Essay on Economic Theory, which was published 21 years before Smith’s second magnum opus:

Land is the source or matter from which all wealth is drawn; man’s labor provides the form for its production, and wealth in itself is nothing but the food, conveniences, and pleasures of life. (Cantillon 1755, p. 21)

The critical difference between the two is Smith’s substitution of the word “labour” for “land”. By seeing labour, rather than land, as the source of the material wealth of civilisation, Smith set economics on a course that put it in conflict with the fundamental laws that govern the Universe: the “Laws of Thermodynamics”.

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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXVII–Despite Warnings We Have Continued Business-As-Usual and Doubled-Down On Our Avoidance Behaviours

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXVII

Rome, Italy (1984). Photo by author.

Despite Warnings We Have Continued Business-As-Usual and Doubled-Down On Our Avoidance Behaviours

The following is my comment on The Honest Sorcerer’s latest piece that highlights the impossibility of bypassing thermodynamic laws (especially Entropy) in our quest for the Holy Grail of a sustainable civilisation; in this instance via a ‘circular’ economy.

While what you argue appears self-evident for the increasingly unlikely prospects of the ‘green/clean’ utopian future a lot of ‘futurists’ predict will unfold as the seemingly endless stream of technological ‘breakthroughs’ come to fruition, it seems that the vast majority of people who even show some awareness of our predicament will ignore/deny/rationalise away the evidence (universal thermodynamic laws or not) in order to cling to their dreams of infinite growth and ‘progress’ upon a finite planet. I even find the argument about physical, material limits is denied by many/most of these people.

This notion that limits are meaningless appears to have got its legs from economists and business ‘leaders’ who have argued that technological progress and human ingenuity trump material limits, particularly due to the idea of infinite substitutability and recycling. History has apparently demonstrated again and again that humans adapt their technology and resource use by finding alternative and/or new sources for their material wants.

What this approach does, however, is not only focus upon a relatively small slice of human pre/history where the leveraging of a number of catalysts to technological change have occurred (especially the creation of debt-/credit-based fiat currency and hydrocarbon use that both allow the pulling of finite resources from the future into the present), but cherry picks behaviours and events.

The processes that contribute to the recurrent collapse of complex societies are minimised/ignored, with a lot of rationalising that ‘this time is different’. We can recycle. We can elect ‘wise’ leaders’. We can work together. We can avoid past mistakes. We can mine passing asteroids. We can innovate. We can migrate to other planets. We can overcome limits. We can adapt. We can slow/control/halt the growth imperative. We can find a means of creating limitless ‘clean’ energy. We can do anything we imagine and set our minds to.

And while these assertions can make us feel better by avoiding the anxieties that arise when we frame things from a perspective where these ‘hopes’ are viewed as magical thinking that avoids reality, they are leading us to pursue the ‘business-as-usual’ scenario (of the 13 possible) painted by the original Limits to Growth study. A scenario where human ecological overshoot and the consequential collapse of population and industrial society were imminent during our current century.

The Limits to Growth researchers proposed that it was possible to avoid this scenario and achieve a sustainable lifestyle but required significant changes be made as soon as possible. In the intervening years, however, our species seems to have ignored the warnings and ‘motored’ ahead with ‘business-as-usual’. And rather than heed the signals our planet and its other species have been sending us (and increasingly so over the past handful of decades), we’ve doubled down on our avoidance behaviours — especially the stories we share about all this and how everything will be alright…somehow but mostly because of human ingenuity and technology, those god-like qualities we storytelling apes possess.

The Arrow of Time

The Arrow of Time

Photo by Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash

The circular economy and an endless recycling of materials is an absurd proposal, and not only from a technical perspective; the very idea of a “sustainable” high tech society is in a direct conflict with the laws of physics. 

After reviewing the technical reasons behind energy & resource cannibalism, as well as their combined effect on our prosperity, now I invite you to put on an even wider angle lens. Without further ado, let me introduce the subject matter of today’s post: entropy‘Wait, entro-what?! What does this mumbo-jumbo has to do with our dreams of a green economy centered around the endless recycling of products?’ Let me explain.

In general entropy is a measure of disorder or randomness. A sophisticated object like a computer chip, or a living organism like a flowering plant, has very low entropy (or minimal chaos) to it, while the same microchip left to disintegrate in the bottom of a landfill, or that plant thrown out to the compost heap, on the other hand, displays an increasingly higher and higher level of entropy.

The same is true for energy. Enriched uranium and petroleum are both sources of concentrated, high density energy, unlike diluted, lukewarm waste heat emanating from an engine, or dissipated through a cooling tower. You see, by using energy we are not destroying it, we simply harness its capacity to work. We take a concentrated low entropy energy source, utilize it to our purpose, and let it dissipate as heat. In this process energy becomes ever more diluted and dispersed, and thus its entropy increases. The more of our high grade energy has been transformed into waste heat in a system, the higher the level of entropy rises.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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