Chapter III.  The Energy of Environmental and Economic Sustainability

“What comes out of the factory door is private property. What comes out of the factory smokestack is the public’s problem.”
– unattributed

Perhaps Al Gore more than anyone else exposed the fallacy that economics and the environment are opposing choices. In his film An Inconvenient Truth, he showed a campaign poster metaphorically depicting a judicial scale balancing gold bars against the Earth. The idea that a balance must be struck between the economy and the environment stems largely from the stereotype that environmentalism has an agenda of no growth, as opposed to an agenda of sustainability and public health. Economic sustainability depends upon environmental sustainability, and yet most analyses of either system are flawed by overlooking--or downright denying--the second law of thermodynamics. They neglect to completely account for the 2nd law facts that 1) energy is ultimately dissipated, 2) order in one system comes at the expense of another (the surrounding) system, 3) systems not receiving energy move to disorder, and 4) the net effect overall (universe) is a move toward disorder. Before going further, it is imperative to examine what is meant by a “system” in these cases. In so doing, one quickly reveals the true cause of many polarizations within and between economics and environmental issues: “winner-take-all” political systems that select a winning system at the expense of a losing one.

A system, including an economic system, is just an isolated part of reality, be it abstract or material, set aside for study, use, or maintenance of its mechanisms. Once the definition of the system is made, the net of all of the inputs and outputs are evaluated from the perspective of that system, usually neglecting the impacts to the surroundings or on another system. Ecosystems in ecological study are defined in terms of energy inputs, usually solar energy:  transformed, transferred, hoarded and shared by entities within the system. The biomass in sum represents the collective energy stored in the system. Economic systems are defined in terms of “work” inputs, not necessarily the physical energy definition of work, but represented by money:  transformed, transferred, hoarded and shared by entities within the system. The money in sum represents the assumed collective wealth stored in the system. The collective wealth is based either on commodity or fiat.

Environmental systems and the economics that depend on them are entwined by the laws of energy. The boundaries of systems are especially vulnerable to assumptions. When the order in one economic or environmental system comes at the expense of disorder in another, related political issues arise and become polarizing. We hear contentious discourse and debates framed, rightly or wrongly, as a choice being made between conflicting economic and environmental objectives, particularly apparent when the issue at hand is about environmental preservationism. But more often, apparent environmental-versus-economic conflicts have a more deeply rooted social underpinning. One system is going to get the “order” while the other the “disorder.” The protests of the system receiving the disorder are best exemplified by the NIMBY syndrome, and by the relatively recent concept of environmental racism. Racist or not, ordered versus disordered environmental systems have always been apparent economically. Metaphorically we allude to the “other side of the tracks.” An example to visualize the metaphor environmentally, “one side” has streets lined with flowerbeds while the “other side” has streets lined with trash. Extending the metaphor thermodynamically, it takes work to maintain the flower beds and a place to receive the trash. Consistent with the 2nd law, one system gains order at the expense of the other’s disorder. The environmental contention becomes socially apparent when the energy that maintains the “one side” comes from the gardener and the trash collector who live on the “other side.”

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