Chapter III, Section A.  The entropy in economic and environmental reasoning

Our economic and environmental sustainability models are commonly flawed by a lack of understanding, awareness, incorporation, or even acknowledgment of the reality of entropy. This is not surprising because the concept of entropy embodies the second law of thermodynamics, of all the laws of physics, perhaps the hardest to understand. As a phenomenon, entropy can be defined as the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move to a state of disorder, the disorder specifically defined as a state of inert uniformity. The inertness is due to a lack of energy available to do work. In a closed system not exchanging energy with its surroundings (or at least another system) the lack of available energy itself is due to the uniformity of temperature. Temperature itself is the measure of the internal energy within the system, but that energy cannot be tapped without a contrast in temperature. In the thermodynamic sense, entropy is a measure of the disorder or randomness in a system, AND a corresponding measure of the amount of unavailable energy.  A change in a system results in a change in entropy, a quantification of the natural phenomenon of ordering versus disordering, AND energy becoming available versus unavailable.  In the strictest sense, a change in entropy happens.

The entropy, S, of a system changes by delta-S whenever the system changes irreversibly.  Any change in a system results in a change in the surrounding system, thus both the system and its surroundings have a change in entropy.  The net change in entropy between  the system and its surrounding--the universal change in entropy--always increases and never decreases. 

The entropy phenomenon itself is where the conceptualization and understanding lie, and where its omission leads to fallacious reasoning. Rifkin best puts the concept of entropy into words: “Entropy is the measure of the extent to which available energy in any subsystem of the universe is transformed into an unavailable form.” (Rifkin; p. 46) Part of the problem incorporating entropy into our reasoning is in understanding that the second law of thermodynamics is really two statements, the first readily understood and at least somewhat incorporated into our economic and environmental models, and the second somewhat vague, even among seasoned scientists, and too commonly neglected.

The first statement of the second law of thermodynamics is an energy statement, that not all energy from a resource can be converted into useful work, and thus although “energy is neither created nor destroyed” as “it just changes form”–the basic statement of the first law–some useful energy is lost in the conversion, quite literally dissipated. As Rifkin puts it, “Energy can only be transformed in one direction, from usable to unusable, from available to unavailable.” Thus a resource of energy must always be found. To be clear, the entropy of an open system, one that can receive energy from its surroundings, can be reduced and energy made available, but it takes an energy input from another system to do this, and the net for the universe is to move toward unavailable energy. This concept is the easier 2nd law statement to understand, lending itself right away to concepts of efficiency, i.e. the work produced versus the total energy spent, and people have at least an intuitive sense that we constantly need energy resources.

The other statement of the second law is a disorder statement, not so easy to understand, and for many, even hard to accept philosophically: there is a corresponding universal tendency of systems to move toward disorder unless a source of energy is available to maintain or create order. As Rifkin puts it, “Energy can only be transformed in one direction, from ordered to disordered.” To be clear, the entropy of an open system, one that can receive energy from its surroundings, can be reduced and moved toward order, but it takes an energy input from another system to do this, and the net for the universe is to move toward disorder. This concept is the harder of the 2nd law statements to understand, that energy is required to maintain order, comes from another system, and that other system MUST become more disordered than the order generated in the receiving system. People have an intuitive sense that things move to disorder, a familiarity with Murphy’s law that what can go wrong will go wrong, but generally not the sense that somewhere, something MUST "go wrong."

It is important to note that both the energy and disorder statements of the second law are described in terms of a system, its surroundings, and the universe which is the sum of the two. The result of changing entropy within systems is that the entropy of the universe, the net, is always increasing and never decreases. The two statements are related, together comprising the complete concept of entropy, and can be proven mathematically to be identical. Thus entropy is both a measure of the amount of energy made unavailable, and a measure of the disorder in a system, related concepts in that disorder is readily quantifiable in terms of energy.

Neither economists nor environmentalists consistently understand, or even fully accept this duality in the phenomenon of entropy. What is usually neglected in their reasoning is the disorder, created somewhere else as a consequence of their “solution” to a problem. The physical reality that entropy happens, that in terms of its measure, the net change in entropy is always toward unavailable energy and disorder, is overlooked because the “solution” applies to the system receiving order, neglecting the consequences to the surroundings. The system receiving order is receiving energy, and its boundaries are the limits of what is being studied or “solved.” The common fatal flaws in both economic and environmental reasoning are hidden in the erroneous assumption, realized or not, that this influx of energy that maintains the system is perpetual, and that the influx comes with no consequences.

The disregard of entropy can be recognized in economic and environmental fallacies. Often the disregard is intentional, a refusal to admit entropy’s reality, because to do so would expose a fatal flaw in the conceptual system being politically promoted. In economics, the fatal flaw is the starting assumption that growth is unlimited, or at least that current levels of wealth are immutable, even in the face of entropy’s constant tug toward disorder and decay. In environmentalism, the fatal flaw is a denial that life itself obtains its order from energy, energy derived from its surrounding ecosystem, leaving the surroundings in some way more disordered.

The second law is perhaps a scientific statement of a form of “original sin.” Life itself MUST create disorder in its surroundings in order to exist. Thus, ironically, as critical as the surrounding ecosystem is to our own life support, ultimately a choice is made between promoting human life versus disrupting the surrounding ecosystem. This is the root of the fallacies we’ll discuss next, not only the neglect of the unavailable energy and disorder left elsewhere, but even if realized, an assumption that it means there’s no choice. As we’ll later see, the absolution of this “original sin” is the fact that the surrounding ecosystem is receiving energy from its surrounding solar system, and thus can be moved toward order.

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