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Thermodynamics and the Downward Spiral of Industrialized Society

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Lindsey Wedewer

Take a moment with me to delve into a discussion about thermodynamics and the ways in which the second law in particular relates to the sustainability of our civilization. First of all, allow me guide you through a quick crash course of the second law to get you up to speed.

The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy or disorder within a closed system undergoing change must always increase as time passes. This law is not always readily observable due to the fact that it is possible to increase the order in a small part of a system without any immediate counter-effects in that particular part. This can be misleading in cases in which you are viewing only a portion of the system at any given time. However, this boost in order within a small subsection of the system will have the effect of creating disorder in another, potentially distant subsection of the system, thereby adhering to the concept that entropy must increase with time within the system as a whole.
In the context of sustainability, this implies that we can never completely reuse materials and that environmental impacts are unavoidable when it comes to many of the fundamental processes we employ for powering our civilization. As Michael Huesemann explains in his 2003 article titled The limits of technological solutions to sustainable development, “all industrial and economic activities have unavoidable negative environmental consequences.”

The generation of energy from fossil fuels is an example which clearly illustrates this. In having access to oil for the production of gasoline, for example, civilization is observing increased order, and yet this increase is not system-wide. It does not include the air which as a result of using gasoline becomes polluted, any of the natural landscapes affected by the oil drilling, or the depletion of the resource itself. Order in these areas of the system is decreasing as a result of the increased order that a fuel such as gasoline provides us with.

Examples of this phenomenon also include seemingly benign cases of renewable energy sources, such as solar power. Diverting even small amounts of solar energy from the natural environment in order to fulfill our own economic needs for structure results in less energy available to maintain what Huesemann refers to as "highly ordered dissipative structures in nature." This is problematic due to the numerous roles solar energy plays on our planet, from heating the surface to powering the photosynthesis of plants, which are the foundation of all food chains.

The primary goal of industrialized economies is to grow, and this is an inherently unsustainable ambition. Even increasing eco-efficiency will not compensate for the damage we are inflicting to the environment through population growth and excessive consumption. Although it has been shown that environmental impacts will decrease initially as "green" technologies are emerging and growing, this will only hold up for as long as this growth can occur faster than the parallel growth of the economy. At the point wherein economical progress overtakes the progress in eco-efficiencies, environmental degradation will become a mainstay as long as economic growth is the main objective. Therefore, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, it is possible in the short-term to have both economic growth and environmental protection, but never will they endure as long-term mutual outcomes. As Huesemann puts it, “current efforts at improving industrial eco-efficiency without addressing overconsumption and overpopulation are nothing more than putting off a socially and economically disruptive day of reckoning.”

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