AAfter analyzing the technical reasons behind energy and resource cannibalism, as well as their combined effect on our prosperity, I now invite you to use an even wider-angle lens. Without further ado, let me introduce the subject of today’s post: entropy. ‘Wait, intro-what?! What does this nonsense have to do with our dreams of a green economy centered on endless recycling of products?’ Let me explain.
In general, entropy is a measure of disorder or randomness. A sophisticated object like a computer chip, or a living organism like a flowering plant, has very low entropy (or minimal chaos), while the same microchip left to disintegrate at the bottom of a landfill, or that discarded plant Outside the compost pile, on the other hand, presents an increasingly higher level of entropy.
The same applies to energy. Enriched uranium and petroleum are high-density, concentrated energy sources, unlike the warm, dilute waste heat that emanates from an engine or is dissipated through a cooling tower. See, when using energy we are not destroying it, we are simply taking advantage of its work capacity. We take a concentrated source of low entropy energy, use it for our purpose, and let it dissipate as heat. In this process, energy becomes increasingly diluted and dispersed and, thus, its entropy increases. The more high-quality energy that is transformed into waste heat in a system, the higher the level of entropy.
It goes without saying that things tend to fall apart, rust, and rot over time. In other words: entropy slowly increases with each passing day, even without our “help”. In fact, it is only the increase in entropy that gives time its direction. This observation is so universal that it has earned its own place in physics and is called the second law of thermodynamics. (Here’s a really good video explaining the concept.)
So what about new life, or in this case, manufacturing? Shouldn’t these processes decrease entropy by creating a highly structured and well-organized system, like a beautiful pine tree or a beautiful, shiny solar panel? In fact, both processes convert highly random and disorganized matter into a recognizable organism or object. However, they do this by harnessing a constant flow of low-entropy, high-density energy, helping them achieve their goals. Like sunlight converting CO2 and water into sugars, or the heat from burning coal melting iron (1).
But here’s the problem: reducing entropy, or getting rid of chaos and replacing it with order, comes with creation a lot more entropy and disorder in another place. Mining, a topic I covered last week, serves as a perfect example here. To make a gold ring weighing 5 grams, the mine that produces the precious metal has to dig up and transport 5,000,000 grams (or 5 tons!) of ore to the surface. (For reference: Imagine a pile of rocks the size of a pickup truck.) Then, these rocks must be crushed into a fine powder and mixed with a similar amount of water and harsh chemicals to leach out all 5 grams of gold. . So, to get that little piece of low-entropy material on your finger, the industry had to produce and leave behind a garden pool-sized waste full of toxic chemicals, finely ground rocks, and muddy water… Without mention the plumes of diesel smoke and CO2 mixed into the atmosphere during the process, or the energy required to deliver that gold to a smelter, melting it and shaping it into a ring.
The same applies to uranium mining and enrichment, the manufacture of solar panels or oil drilling. All technologies, whether extractive or manufacturing in nature, increase entropy on a scale many orders of magnitude larger than the product they represent. In fact, as rich resources become depleted over time, we are forced to exploit lower and lower quality ores and reservoirs, leaving behind ever greater entropy for the same quantity of products produced.
Therefore, although we can argue that this or that technology increases entropy to a greater or lesser extent, will this really matter in the end, when, as a result of these activities, freshwater reservoirs become depleted or contaminated, or the air and soil become polluted beyond tolerance? ?
OAll fossil fuel bodies and deposits took an immense amount of time, energy and raw materials to form, which can only be understood on a truly geological timescale. It took the destruction of continents and the death of many living organisms to have what we have today, something that could only be characterized as the greatest single bonanza in the history of a planet.
The concept of entropy also explains why we have so few high-quality resources and it is so uneconomical to produce raw materials. Things tend to get more diluted, dispersed and well-mixed over time – thanks to plate tectonics and the weathering of rocks – ultimately all due to the relentless increase in entropy. Therefore, although there is an immense amount of uranium on Earth, most of it was already dissolved in seawater or was already finely dispersed in the Earth’s crust.
Why then don’t we filter the necessary raw materials from sea water? Well, if we embark on this fool’s errand, it would take filtering through a billion water molecules to find 3 uranium atoms. Good luck with that. (And while we’re doing that, we’d also need to figure out where we would get the energy to do it and whether electricity generated in a nuclear reactor could provide a sensible return.)
Once you understand the concept of entropy, the increasing chaos of a system, and the role technology plays in it, both climate change and resource depletion take on new meaning. It is the concept of entropy that unifies everything we do on this planet: we exhaust all low-entropy, high-value resources and turn them into high-entropy (well-diluted) pollution and wasted heat. That is all. Coal reserves decrease, CO2 reserves increase. Levels of rare metals and other ores have declined and toxic waste has increased.
Increasing entropy is not something we can choose to avoid. All that technology does is transform low-entropy materials and energy into high-entropy waste, on a scale of magnitude greater than what the final product represents. This is why it is impossible to get rid of what economists call ‘externalities” — a direct physical consequence of the use of technology.