Chapter V. By the Sweat of your Brow: The Enthalpy and Entropy Professions

As we have seen, the first and second laws of thermodynamics provide an energy model for the flux of currency through our economic system. Equivalent to energy, currency by the first law is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form, but by the second law, it does permanently dissipate. For any system, energy must be continuously sourced to maintain order, thus the Federal Reserve continually dumps more currency into the economic system. Unfortunately this currency is not tied to an energy equivalent. Instead the energy driving the whole system is traded within. The assumption that energy resources are nothing but commodities bought and sold in an economy of unlimited growth is nothing short of an assumption of perpetual motion. Thus the Federal Reserve is nothing short of a perpetual motion machine. Within that system lie the workers that produce economic output. The first and second laws provide another metaphor for the economy, specifically an analogy of economic output to the output of energy released from a fuel.

If we compare total economic production to the output of a chemical reaction, the two forms of energy release from a reaction, enthalpy and entropy, correspond to the two forms of economic production, profitable and not profitable. A fuel is chemical potential energy, and its release has both ordered and disordered manifestations accommodated by the surroundings. Likewise, total economic production releases both ordered and disordered manifestations accommodated by society. Though not considered in GDP, our current measure of economic productivity, total economic production includes waste production. The first form of energy released from a chemical reaction is enthalpy, the sum of heat and work from the reaction. Heat and work are what is desired from a reaction. By analogy, the enthalpy form of economic production is the sum of all things possibly profitable, derived from the “fuel” of the economy. Heat and work are forms of equivalent energies, but they are not of equal value to the system. Some of the heat may even be a waste, i.e. a liability, a debit. Though it may be hard for students from Wisconsin to conceptualize, there is such a thing as waste heat. Likewise, not all forms of even profitable economic output are rewarded by currency of equal value. By and large though, enthalpy is profitable. The second form of energy released from a chemical reaction is entropy, the energetic sum of the disorder generated in the reaction, a sum of things possibly requiring re-ordering in the system from the reaction having been run. By analogy, the entropy form of economic production is the sum of all things possibly requiring maintenance in the society or environment from the economy having been run. By and large, entropy is not profitable, but must be accounted for in order for the reaction to run, the economy to complete.

Professions in our economy divide on these lines as well, the enthalpy professions focused on profit, and the entropy professions focused on the maintenance of our society. Our current economic system rewards the enthalpy professions. The enthalpy professions make something of value, i.e. something needed by a large percentage of the population within the economy, but they also consume the resources available in the society, including, or even especially, human resources. Profit is also possible from the entropy professions, those professions that maintain the society, but by and large, entropy professions are most notable for the McSalary: no matter the time, training or experience of the entropic worker, a salary that is fixed within a few percent of other entropic workers: no commission, no profit, and thus no incentive other than personal dedication. Does the Ph.D. down at the water treatment plant ever stand to make as much as Bill Gates? Though it could be argued that Bill Gates produced “something of value” and thus deserves reward, his defecations create just as much disorder as anyone else's, disorder remediated by the entropic professional with every bit as much creativity and intellectual prowess. To satisfy a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the entropy professions must be completed before any enthalpy profession can get started. Due to their unprofitable but necessary nature, the entropy professions tend to fall into the government or service sector of the economy. A complete energy economy needs to more fairly place an economic reward on the entropy professions, those that maintain the environment, the society, its health, and its human resources.

All of our work creates order. What do millions of Americans, and billions of people worldwide, do for a living? They create order from disorder, everything from making an automobile from steel parts, trimming trees and planting flower gardens, fighting and healing disease, making a computer microchip from some silicon and solder, growing and preparing food, putting ink to paper for designs and reports, and educating human brains that are somewhat intellectually disordered when young. Unfortunately even the profit is fleeting: the value we place on existing order rapidly depreciates. The Intel 8088 chip of 1979, used in the first IBM PC of 1981, represented some of the highest human achievement and accumulation of both intellectual and manufactured order to date, but by today’s standards, is worthless. The current economy is predicated on growth and consumption, making entropic waste the chief economic output.

Enter the entropy professions. Entropy professions lean more toward maintaining existing order, or create an order that is largely taken for granted. In the current economic structure, typical characteristics of entropy work can be identified:
1) Entropy work is paid for through taxes, or through costs to other businesses brought on by regulation, related litigation, or the need for risk management, paid as apportioned risk in insurance premiums. Thus commonly the work itself may feel thankless, or is viewed as burdensome to the “greater” economic bottom line, an expense and not an asset. As is often the case for such entropic concerns, the expense of environmental pro-action may even be viewed as an unnecessary luxury.
2) The McSalary: Entropy workers’ incomes are relatively the same and fixed to keep the expense of the work low. The income is commonly dissociated from a profit motive. For example, education is rarely profitable, without taxes, when the school must draw across all levels of ability and family income. Entropy work typically produces or maintains that which is assumed, and in the case of education, the product, an assumed supply of educated human resources, is not bought or sold, just tapped.

The desire of the technocrats for political control in the 1930’s was understandable. Entropy professionals are acutely aware of the crises facing society at large, quite often staring death in the face. They may also be the only ones who see what must be done. In 1956, a leading technocrat, M.K. Hubbert, against the wishes of his employer, Shell Oil, published his prediction that the peak in U.S. oil production would occur between 1965 and 1970. Peak U.S. production did occur in 1971. Hubbert later predicted global oil production would peak between 1995 and 2000. Though the jury is still deliberating whether this has occurred, or when it will occur, the ramifications are dire. Meanwhile the population at large floats along with its current celebrity gossip preoccupation. Political control is in the hands of the moneyed interests, thus the first step toward actually doing what must be done is to convince someone with money, but usually without a clue, not only what must be done, but that a profit can be made doing so, even if that profit is only a reduction in legal liability. The time is spent “project managing” while skill sets fade and the work is delegated. An alternative is to convince a Washington bureaucrat to fund your research project, a futility for certain disciplines in certain political climates, e.g. environmental science, especially when the whole of the science is assailed and obfuscated as a conspiracy, “challenged” by real colluders with infinite sums of cash. A cynical view holds that America is not interested in science, only the capitalization of science. America does have a long history of importing foreign science talent. Except for the teaching component, the university does not cover a professor’s salary, thus to extract the funding from Washington, the professor spends his time writing research grants all day and “project managing,” perpetuating a system where the actual research and teaching is conducted by graduate students and immigrant labor for slightly more than a teenager makes on minimum wage. Along with tuition increases at the rate of credit card interest, endowments from alumni, grants from the private sector, but admittedly an ever decreasing amount of tax support, even a Wall Street banker could turn a lucrative profit without sinking the ship, and yet in their infinite wisdom, university administrations think they can close their geology department and still maintain their university accreditation, all while paying their football coach over a half million dollars per year for losing seasons. Bottom line, the control is in the money, and the work toward doing what must be done cannot get started without capital. An industrialist once stated that the beauty of capitalism was the ability it granted for a business to generate the capital needed to begin production. If that capital is not being made available, the capitalists are not doing their job. Today, like the 1930’s of Hubbert’s time, the profits are sent to financial wizards who view the whole capital machination as a casino game played with OPM, other people’s money. At least Bill Gates produced something along with his defecations. What have these clowns produced? Psychology has proven (hypothesis tested) that the population divides between hypocrisy, those with power who have a sense of entitlement along with a willingness to be hypocritical, versus hypercrisy, those who don’t feel personally entitled to their power, forgo power, and are harder on themselves than on others. The phenomenon perpetuates social inequality. Today the entropy professionals would settle for the ability to control their own lives and careers.

Entropy work should be viewed as an energy resource and rewarded accordingly. But if we introduce the energy value of maintenance into a complete energy economy, how do we pay for it? For environmental maintenance in particular, how do we pay for the ecological services, what we now largely take for granted, what is still mostly provided by the natural world free of charge? If billed to completely treat emissions and waste, “energy” would be billing us in one form or another, both coming and going, and the price of even basic resources such as food and water would skyrocket. Those resources may be a part of our economy that needs value re-assessment, but the second law will always put us in debt. To acknowledge the source of our debt–energy–is to at least take the first steps in restructuring our economy to deal with it. We already have a Federal Reserve that quantifies a steadily increasing debt. What’s wrong with tagging that debt to its energy source, energy in both its enthalpy and entropy forms? The bill for the true value of food, water, and clean air is increasing.

If food, water, and air resources are considered a human right, shouldn’t access to a minimum energy, so directly tied to maintaining those resources, be considered a human right as well? Energy is increasingly viewed as a public right. Writing in the Albany Times Union, Ed Ludwig, a US District Court judge in Philadelphia, dared to suggest making oil a public utility, though he acknowledged the political chances of this are “non-existent.” He made his case, however, by using the definition of a public utility as " ‘a business that provides an everyday necessity to the public at large’ - such as water, electricity, natural gas, telephone service, transportation, cable TV and other essentials.” Given our corporatism, the merger of corporate and state power that Mussolini once equated with fascism, it is more than unlikely oil will ever be made public, even with the change in administration. Oil has made more people more money than any commodity in history. Ipso facto energy is very definitely “an everyday necessity to the public at large.”

Corporations attempting to “go green” are discovering that there is money to be saved by cutting consumption and thus saving resources, a realization of the “low hanging fruit.” Conservation, though, is still generally anathema to a consumer-based economy at large. The “higher hanging fruit” is usually associated with the green initiatives that benefit the society and its economy at large, but at cost to the individual economic entity. Ironically, in an economy driven by consumption, the pursuit of the “low hanging fruit” typically benefits the economic entity at the expense of the greater economy elsewhere–have an e-meeting rather than flying, saving money and emissions, and an airline loses business–whereas typically the “higher hanging fruit” costs an economic entity while benefiting society at large. Other than positive public relations generated from being good corporate citizens, less incentive exists for a corporation to pursue those aspects of going green that have a dis-incentive in terms of cost. If a company or individual must always respond to its bottom line, “doing the right thing” will only go so far.

Incentives for “doing the right thing” lie at the heart of cap-and-trade programs, tax incentives, and other rewards for being responsible. But there is only so much to be gained from restructuring society’s areas of profit and loss. We must acknowledge the source of our debt–energy–and tackle it economically head on. If we based our currency on a unit of energy and limited the Federal Reserve’s infusion of cash into the economy to the total energy resources made available to the economy–both from domestic and imported supplies, both from fossil fuels and alternatives–the source of our debts would become readily apparent, particularly in our trade deficit. To address energy realistically, something we seem to refuse to do, we must admit to the finite nature of fossil fuel resources, as well as admit to the limitations of the continuously sourced [renewable] energies, particularly in the face of expanding human population.

Only the energy from controlled nuclear fusion can possibly keep pace with population into the future. It is a mathematical certainty. And yet, while we talk of a new Manhattan Project or Apollo Project to solve the energy crisis once and for all, in FY 2008 we pulled our funding from ITER, the international consortium for nuclear fusion research. International because the dream is global.

The key for enabling us, the individual consumer, to be able to pay for the increased cost of the entropy in our economy and environment is to have our own work rewarded in terms of its energy contribution, not just in Joules of output, but in the value of the order we create, a value stemming from human capital. Imagine the cumulative energy invested into a high school graduate, our society’s minimum educational requirement for our human capital. We are the ones that make our economy balance. We are the ones that maintain order. As workers we will never match the debt of our energy consumption. Human output in the form of physical work pales in comparison, as a popular physics experiment demonstrates. When students ride an exercise bike hooked to a generator powering 25 Watt, then 50 Watt, then 75 Watt light-bulbs for two minutes, the exertion is a surprise to them. The comparison of their reasonable human output in kilowatt-hrs to a typical monthly electric bill shows that we would need 320 humans on exercise bikes to supply each typical American household’s electric consumption. So where is the value in human work? Our work is in our capacity to perceive order, and then to create that order using whatever resources are available to us, including energy and human capital. Though we are learning that abstract thought is not unique to humans, including the ability to make tools and modify our habitat, it is our exceptional ability to do so that gives us our dominion on the planet, our exceptional ability to reconstruct what is in our minds. We can perceive the abstract concepts of energy and the second law of thermodynamics. We can also dream of unlimited clean energy.

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