Chapter II, Section B. Why the crisis?

The first law of thermodynamics is fundamental to the sciences and easy to state, thus it is repeated throughout the entire science curriculum, K-12 through college: energy is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. A cynical mnemonic plays off the first logical alternate of the first half of the statement, “You can’t get something for nothing.” But if neither is it destroyed, what is the problem? Can’t we just take some of the energy preserved all around us and convert it into a form we need? It’s the second law that says no. The second law of thermodynamics is equally as fundamental as the first, but, unfortunately, is not so easy to state, and thus is too often overlooked in the science curriculum. In his book The Hydrogen Economy, Jeremy Rifkin wrote perhaps the best statement of the second law in words: “ can only be changed in one direction; that is, from usable to unusable, from available to unavailable, or from ordered to disordered.” He adds, “Everything in the universe, according to the second law, began as available concentrated energy and is being transformed over time to unavailable, dispersed energy.” The cynical 2nd law mnemonic follow-up says, “You can’t even break even.”

We can’t even break even then. If Cheney is right and money is energy, then why do our economic models through history assume we can? The second law of thermodynamics puts us on our continuous quest to find energy in a usable “concentrated” form, both the quest of our economy to attain energy resources, and the quest of our bodies to find food. The two are not unrelated. The “concentrated” energy used to grow, water, fertilize, harvest, process, transport, refrigerate, and market food is staggering. Richard Manning elucidated that the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs is needed just to turn the soil every year in Iowa. Another significant quantity of energy, plus the hydrocarbon resource itself as an ingredient, is required to make ammonia to fertilize that soil. Our bodies can continue to grow--upward or outward--only so long as “concentrated” energy in the form of food can be found. Likewise, our economic systems can continue to grow only so long as “concentrated” energy can be found in an energy resource. Once that concentrated energy is found–and our economic models assume it always will be found–the rest of the economy can move forward, just as our bodies can continue to function. Ironically the discovery of concentrated energy resources enables our economy to deny the 2nd law of thermodynamics with an erroneous assumption of continuous or at least cyclical growth. In violation of the 2nd law, there is an assumption in our economic models that energy is always available.

But growth is not the only consumer of energy. The second law also dictates that systems undergo irreversible change, from order to disorder. Thus some energy must be used to restore order. All of our systems—our infrastructures—are continuously changing and require maintenance. More easily stated, our economy must continue to consume energy, at whatever the going rate, just to maintain itself, let alone grow. Thus the debt continues to pile up. In a living system, including both our own bodies and an entire ecosystem, energy is also continuously consumed just to maintain itself, let alone grow. The energy of our economy is currently based on combustion, while the energy of living things is based on respiration, not radically dissimilar processes, both extracting energy and producing CO2 from a carbon-based fuel. Thus CO2 is an excellent measure of the cumulative energy spent. The living world strikes a balance by drawing energy from the sun to recycle the CO2, but our economy on the whole does not. In fact our current economics depends on the ability of the natural world to recycle our CO2 in order to maintain the environment we take for granted. Both the build-up of extra CO2 in our environment, and the debt in our banks, measure our economy’s cumulative spent energy used to maintain itself through history.

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