Entropy Gets No Respect

The relation between modern industrial society and the scientific ideas that supposedly guide it is more complex than a casual glance will necessarily reveal. The ideology a society believes that it embraces and the assumptions about the world that actually underlie its actions and institutions are not uncommonly at odds with one another. It often takes the most strenuous sort of willed inattention to fail to notice the gap, but efforts toward that end can count on the support of public opinion as well as the more tangible backing provided by economic interests.

Consider the clash between the Christian and liberal values allegedly embraced by the great powers of 19th century Europe and the ruthless political and economic exploitation imposed by these same powers on the subject peoples of their huge colonial empires. The result was a rush to find some justification for European empires other than the obvious one, which was simply that Europeans wanted the wealth and power they could get by exploiting the rest of the planet. As Stephen Jay Gould chronicled in his engaging The Mismeasure of Man, generations of scientists thus spent their careers trying to argue that the “white race,” that imaginary and variously defined beast, was biologically superior to the other “races” on the planet.

These efforts fell afoul of a minor detail of anthropology. It so happens that people of European descent fall toward the middle range of a great many biological indices; people of African descent tend toward one end of most of these indices, and people of East Asian descent tend toward the other. Thus it proved impossible to argue, say, that Britons were superior to Africans without providing evidence that Chinese were superior to Britons, and claims that Britons were superior to Chinese ended up just as effectively proving that Africans were superior to Britons. Still, these efforts continued right up into the first half of the 20th century, because the alternative was to admit that European domination of the planet was a straightforward act of piracy backed by nothing more edifying than a temporary advantage in military technology.

The industrial nations of the early 21st century are in a very similar predicament – or, more precisely, in two very similar predicaments. On the one hand, the relationship between the industrial nations and their Third World client states is very little more equitable than that between the British, say, and the quarter or so of the Earth’s land surface that was occupied by British troops and exploited by British economic interests in the 19th century. Claims of racial superiority having fallen out of fashion, the industrial nations nowadays justify their position by claiming that their political and economic institutions are superior, and the rest of the world’s nations can share exactly the same lifestyles of abundance if they only adopt these.

Today’s industrial societies treat this claim as a self-evident truth. Of course the colonial powers of the 19th century treated the claim of European racial superiority as a self-evident truth, too, and the two claims are equally bogus. The abundance enjoyed by the world’s industrial nations just now, after all, is the result of the fact that those same industrial nations use the great majority of the world’s fossil fuel production. Given that the current industrial nations have burnt around half the planet’s fossil fuel resources themselves, leaving the remaining half to fuel themselves and the rest of the world in the future, dangling the carrot of industrial prosperity in the faces of Third World countries at this point in the historical process is dishonest at best.

Of course it does seem to be true that representative governments and corporate-capitalist economies are more efficient than the competition at turning abundant fossil fuels into suburban lifestyles. This does not make representative governments and corporate-capitalist economies the cause of the prosperity of today’s industrial nations, any more than the skin color of people from Europe was the cause of Europe’s ascendancy during its age of empire. Still, just as the unmentionable realities behind European imperialism made it inevitable that there would be attempts to justify it via bad science, the equally awkward realities behind the ascendancy of today’s industrial powers provide the push behind well-meaning attempts to package the industrial world’s institutions for export to the Third World.

The same sort of logic, on an even deeper level, governs the relationship between the nations of the modern industrial world and the foundation of those nations’ present prosperity – the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves themselves. The hard reality is that the minority of us who happened to have been born in a few powerful countries squandered half a billion years of stored photosynthesis to give ourselves a brief period of spectacular economic abundance, and by doing so, foreclosed the chance that anybody else would enjoy that same abundance in the future. Fossil fuels are not renewable resources in any time frame accessible to our species. Every barrel and ton and cubic foot of fossil fuel we use now is subtracted from the total available to our descendants; despite an orgy of handwaving, no other resource can provide anything approaching the glut of cheap abundant energy on which our lifestyles of relative privilege depend.

Yet this point of view is at least as unmentionable in polite society just now as were the gritty realities of European colonialism in its time, or the equally gritty facts underlying the ascendancy of the world’s industrial nations over the Third World today. The strenuous efforts to find a racial basis for European supremacy a century ago, and the equally vigorous efforts to hold up contemporary Western institutions as the key to prosperity and peace in the Third World today, thus have precise equivalents in the enthusiasm with which every imaginable alternative energy resource gets treated by government officials and media pundits throughout the industrial world.

None of these resources can actually provide the cheap abundant energy needed to maintain the kind of society we have today. I know that this is a controversial statement just now. Still, it’s worth noting that every alternative energy resource that’s actually been brought into production has turned out, at best, to provide a modest increment to existing energy supplies, and that only if you don’t keep track of the energy subsidy the new resource gets from fossil fuels. Of course technologies that haven’t been put into production look more promising, and the further they are from implementation, the more impressive they look; hype, often geared to the very practical goal of selling shares in IPOs, is at least as abundant in the energy field as anywhere else.

And this, dear reader, is where the gap between our society’s official respect for science and its real attitudes toward the world shows up with remarkable clarity.

Once again, the role of the B-movie heavy in this drama is played by the second law of thermodynamics, better known as the law of entropy. As mentioned in a previous post, this is the gold standard of physics, the law you can’t break without, as Sir Arthur Eddington put it, collapsing in deepest humiliation. Everybody in the industrial world with the least smattering of a scientific education knows about it, or at least was introduced to it, and yet next to nobody wants to talk about how it affects the emerging energy crisis of our time.

The crucial implication of the law of entropy, for our purposes, is that it’s not energy as such, but a difference in energy potential, that allows work to be done. Imagine two smooth round boulders of equal weight, one of them sitting on a flat plateau and the other sitting on the slope of a steep hill. If the two are at the same distance from the center of the Earth, gravitation gives them exactly the same amount of potential energy. Still, if you give the one on the plateau a push, you aren’t likely to do anything but strain your muscles, while if you give an equal push to the one on the slope, you may send it rolling down the hill, squashing everything in its path.

The difference is that every part of the plateau has the same energy potential due to gravity, while every part of the slope does not have the same potential, and the boulder rolling down the slope can cash in some of the difference in potential to keep itself moving. The greater the difference in potential, the greater the payoff in terms of energy released. Notice, though, what happens when the boulder on the slope finally lurches to a stop at the bottom of the valley below: it stops, and another push won’t get it going again. It still has a lot of potential energy in that position – it has, in theory, 4500 miles to fall until it reaches the center of the earth – but there’s nowhere it can go to release any of that energy. Without a difference in potential, how much energy you’ve got is a meaningless statistic. (This is, incidentally, why the quest for zero point energy is an exercise in absurdity; by definition, zero point energy is at the lowest possible potential state, and therefore cannot be made to do any work at all.)

The same rule applies to every energy resource: there has to be a difference in potential that allows energy to be released, and the bigger the difference, the bigger the benefit. With petroleum, the difference is in chemical energy. Those long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms have a lot of energy to release when they come apart and combine with highly reactive oxygen instead; the short chains that form natural gas have less, and the carbon in coal has less still, though it’s still a lot by the standards of other energy sources. All the extraordinary things our species has done with fossil fuels over the last three hundred years are functions, in effect, of the difference in chemical potential energy between a barrel of oil and a cloud of smoke.

Why are these reflections as welcome in the collective conversation of our time as a slug in a fresh green salad? Because they point up the profoundly shortsighted nature of the decisions that made the world in which all of us now live. The immense potential energy locked up in fossil fuels was put there by millions of years of photosynthesis. It’s as though, to return to our metaphor, living things down through the ages rolled boulders uphill and perched them high above the valley floor. After a half billion years or so, our species came along, and figured out how to roll those boulders downhill. As long as there are still plenty of boulders in place, we can continue using them, but when the rate at which we want to send boulders rolling downhill outstrips the boulder supply, it’s a waste of breath to insist that we can get the same results by bouncing pebbles across the valley floor.

This is basically what the more enthusiastic proponents of alternative energy are saying. By the time sunlight gets to us, after traversing 93 million miles of empty space, it’s simply not that concentrated an energy source; that’s why it took the Earth’s photosynthetic organisms so many millions of years to build up the energy reserves we now squander so freely. Wind and hydroelectric power are both secondhand sunlight, the product of natural cycles driven by the sun; the same is true of every kind of biofuel, of course. Nuclear energy is the one nonsolar energy resource we’ve got, but it has severe problems and limitations of its own, not least the fact that the fossil fuel inputs needed to build, run, and decommission a nuclear reactor are so vast that there’s a real question whether nuclear power is a net energy source at all. (Of course the further a nuclear technology is from actual implementation, the better it looks, and the ones that are still vaporware look best of all.)

Does this mean alternative energy is a waste of time? Of course not. Modest as the energy outputs from alternative sources are, they’re what we’ll have to work with when the fossil fuel is gone. What it means, rather, is that the particular kind of civilization we’ve built in the last three centuries will not survive the end of cheap abundant fossil fuels. A society that is used to getting things done by rolling huge boulders down steep slopes is going to have to learn to make do on the much less lavish results of bouncing pebbles across the flat.

The problem here is that very few people want to deal with that reality. The great majority will make themselves believe in zero point energy and evil space lizards and any other absurdity you care to name, rather than gulp and take a deep breath and admit that the prosperity we’ve enjoyed for the last three centuries was bought at our grandchildren’s expense. I sometimes suspect that one of the reasons so many people like to imagine an apocalyptic end to the industrial age is that sudden extinction is easier to contemplate than the experience of slowly waking up to the full extent of our own collective stupidity.

And that, dear reader, is why entropy has become the Rodney Dangerfield of the contemporary energy debate. It may be the gold standard of physics, but in the collective conversation about our future, it don’t get no respect.


I’m pleased to report that both the new projects mentioned in last week’s post are moving ahead. Readers who are following “Star’s Reach,” my online blog-novel about the world after peak oil, will want to know that a new episode has been posted at http://starsreach.blogspot.com.

The Cultural Conservers Foundation is also moving forward. Those interested in participating in a more focused discussion of the subject are invited to join me on a newly founded email list, cultural_conservers@yahoogroups.com. The list is moderated, and the same rules apply there as here – no spam, no flaming, no trolls, etc. The fast way to join is to send an email to cultural_conservers-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, with “subscribe” as the subject line.

The process of starting a nonprofit also takes a certain amount of cash; I’m putting my own money into it, but would welcome help with the startup costs. We were originally planning on using PayPal for donations, but PayPal policies make it impossible for a nonprofit to use their services until after tax exempt status has been obtained. Those interested in donating to help with startup costs may contact me offlist at info (at) aoda (dot) com. Many thanks in advance for your help!