Ideas that add up #144

There is, fortunately, no law of increasing material entropy, as there is in the corresponding case of energy, as it is quite possible to concentrate diffuse materials if energy inputs are allowed. …

. … In regard to the energy system there is, unfortunately, no escape from the grim Second Law of Thermodynamics; and if there were no energy inputs into the earth, any evolutionary or developmental process would be impossible. The large energy inputs which we have obtained from fossil fuels are strictly temporary.

Kenneth Boulding, The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth

Reading around the topic of steady-state economics you continually get reminded that you are supposed to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Each time I have to look it up, then remember again that I do know it, only not by that name. The Law says there’s no such thing as 100% efficiency when energy transitions from one form to another, eg from heat to motion. Something always leaks from the local system into the surrounding environment, so if you reverse the process, eg from motion back to heat, you end up with less heat than you began with. This appears to outrank Newton, relativity and quantum mechanics in the scale of scientific certainties. It explains why there are no perpetual motion machines and no free lunches. It’s important from the steady-state perspective because the standard, growthist model of neoclassical (if that’s the right nomenclature) economics imagines the human economy as a sort perpetual motion machine suspended in space, churning out free lunches into the indefinite future.

A corollary of the Second Law is that entropy is always on the increase. Everything, everything, is always on its way there, slipping down the incline from a one-time state of ultimate heat and order (that “singularity” that kicked things off?) towards the universal fate of infinite, cold disorder. The physical matter we see around us is energy interrupted mid-descent, temporarily locked into structure – molecules, rocks, life-forms – before resuming that inexorable decay. The more “work” we put into the system, ie the more we expend energy on shuffling materials around and crafting new structures, the faster we descend the entropy slope. 

Some religion or school of philosophy is bound to have got there thousands of years ahead of me, but I’m wondering now, if civilization cares about maintaining a tolerable way of life for generations to come, shouldn’t our motto be: “Don’t just do something, sit there”?

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