Wednesday, August 26, 2009

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

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, 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, 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!


Danby said...

Another factor that results in many people waiting for an apocalyptic end is the fact that "we have it coming".

One of the results of our economic subjugation of the planet is that, of necessity, billions live in poverty to support our lifestyles. Even those who reject that statement outright still feel the guilt, albeit in an unfocused way.

Hence we have wars to liberate oppressed populations in the East and clandestine wars in Latin America.

The psychological fact is that our society deserves to descend into a violent orgy of self-destruction and horrible poverty. That's where the fear and fatalism come from.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

Good luck on your move.

Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin


hardvark said...

"The problem here is that very few people want to deal with that reality."

I had this episode recently at work where I talked to a co-worked about the future implications of our impact on ecosystems. Maybe I should add at this point that my work mainly deals of making models of ecosystem dynamics, so you can expect the other guy to now something about how nature works, even though he works in a slightly different field than I do. Anyway, we kept on talking for a while and I was under the impression that I got my point across since he kept on agreeing and giving reasonable responses that showed some sort of insight and understanding. But then after a short break he started talking about the new position he got offered and how he sees his career going on for the next decades and that hopefully everything turns out fine.

Your next to the last paragraph gives the impression that you think people are either ignorant or delusional. Here I would also offer the possibility that a lot of us are not able to comprehend the implications of collective actions, due to the "the world is always getting better" mantra ubiquitously being repeated by almost everybody and thereby taking its toll on the scope of scenarios our brains are able to accept and deal with. After working in science for now ten years, with the supposedly "smart people", I have come to the conclusion that our image of how intelligent we really are needs a major revision.

hardhead said...

Your remarks about our failure to connect entropy to our use of energy are, of course, right on the mark, particularly with respect to future sources of energy. In a nutshell, we're going to have to relearn how to live on current income, however meager (in relation to our desires) that may be.

I'd be extremely interested to see you explore in more depth the implications of the Second Law for the ways in which we choose to set up and run our economies. I know that a few economists (regarded as "on the fringe" by the mainstream) and others have, for generations now, drawn attention to the matter, but I'm convinced that very few people are aware of just how radical and profound those implications are. If we hope to build ways of life that will work for more than a few or more than a few generations, we're going to have to face the economic facts too.

disillusioned said...


well informed post, with my usual niggle... The plateau analogy is great and even more applicable then may be seen at first. And here I'm thinking about zero point energy.

ZPE sounds as if it's packing not much of a punch; after all, it's nearly zero. Is it? It turns out that the "level" of ZPE is more like the plateau. Which for boulders was 4,500 miles from the centre of the Earth - similarly ZPE is also high, being somewhere in the region of 10^81 joules per cubic metre. But as you point out, that's pretty useless - if there is no other ground state (=if there is nothing "lower" to fall to) :(

But not all is lost. The zero ground state may NOT be a static value, like the static height of a plateau; right now it looks like vacuum energy is similar to a sea or atmosphere - there are dynamics and pressure gradients at space's foam scale. A device able to mimic a wind-turbine, but accessing foam-level space rather then wind - may be able to pick up some tiny part of energy. How do we build such a device - and how tiny is tiny? These are the unknowns.

Remember, there are people who claim to have done this. Are they frauds? How well would they be welcomed in our economic structure?

Lake said...

Good article, and the use of the idea of photosyntheses over millions of years paints an interesting picture of how boulders might have been rolled uphill, but not scientifically accurate.
The plants which died and fell to the ocean floor to be converted into oil did so over a relatively short period of geologic time.
The transfer of energy required to convert the dead organisms to oil was accomplished by a "cooking" process deep within the earth - i.e. using the earth's internal heat to cause a chemical reaction to convert hydrocarbons in the plant material to oil.
It is true that the origin of the hydrocarbons was via photosynthesis.
We aren't actually releasing sunlight back, directly, we are releasing the earth's internal heat back when we burn fossil fuels.

Cognitive Dissident said...

I agree that entropy is the ugly duckling of the modern world; however the key point in this thoughtprovoking essay is that we are unable to psychologically admit the fact that, as JMG states, "the prosperity we’ve enjoyed for the last three centuries was bought at our grandchildren’s expense".

This is a huge issue, but it has occurred to me that at least part of the problem is the economic concept of "net present value" by which value (or cost) in the far future is worth very little in present day terms (NB: not a precise definition!). How can we value what only our grandchildren (or not yet born descendents) will actually use or appreciate?

Unless we can get our heads around this and come up with some sort of solution, surely there will be an ugly coming to terms at some point in the future.

I'm going to resist commenting on the whole zero point energy thing as it disrupts the comments, but to be honest we have to at least admit the possibility that beings from other planets/dimensions/etc are visiting Earth and that they do (most likely) have technology which could clear up all these problems. The issue, of course, which is related to the above issue, is that they are unlikely to give it to us while our level of consciousness is still stuck in the same short term selfish groove.

ariel55 said...

Dear JMG, Regarding your move, I applaud your "voting with your feet", AND THANK YOU FOR CONTINUING HERE. My fear is that if we can't get our heads around this, we will "crack up" personally, politically and socially. Coming events will blindside our distorted equilibrium.

John Michael Greer said...

Dan, of course that's a factor. There's only so long you can paste "Live Simply That Others Might Simply Live" bumper stickers on your SUV -- and yes, I've seen this -- before the hypocrisy starts to wear badly.

Edde, I read Rifkin's book quite a while back, and recall having some sharp disagreements with it. I probably ought to revisit it -- thanks for the reminder!

Hardvark, I don't think its so much a matter of ignorance or delusion as what the existentialists call "bad faith." We know that what we're doing is a very bad idea, but the advantages to ignoring that fact are so immense and tangible that most of us deliberately close our eyes to the implications of our own actions.

Hardhead, I plan on doing something of that sort in the next few posts.

Disillusioned, nobody's yet demonstrated a working ZPE device in a public setting that precludes fraud. Until that changes, you might as well claim that the energy crisis can be solved by putting unicorns on treadmills.

Lake, I'll have to check my textbooks, but iirc the time frame for laying down an oil-bearing stratum of any size isn't all that short. Still, you're certainly right that the Earth's internal heat has a lot to do with the concentration process that makes fossil fuels so hugely valuable.

Dissident, please don't drag in imaginary extraterrestrials -- that's right up there with unicorns on treadmills. (On the off chance you're interested, I've written a book on the UFO phenomenon, somewhat unimaginatively titled The UFO Phenomenon, which surveys the last 60 years of funny things in the sky in some detail.) This claim that extraterrestrials could save us if we were better people, in particular, is simply a religious claim in science-fiction drag.

John Michael Greer said...

An aside for those interested in the Cultural Conservers project:

One of the people who donated to the CCF -- many thanks to all who've done so! -- asked for more details about where the money is going. That's fair, and I should have included that in the post. The immediate needs are the filing fee to incorporate the foundation as a nonprofit (US$170), and the filing fee needed to register it as a tax-exempt organization (US$300). After that, there's a website to build and get hosted, a PO box to rent, and all the other minor impedimenta of getting a nonprofit up and running, but I'll tackle those when I get there.

Odysseus said...

This is one of your best! I'm forwarding the link all around. Keep up the good fight!

Weaseldog said...

But not all is lost. The zero ground state may NOT be a static value, like the static height of a plateau; right now it looks like vacuum energy is similar to a sea or atmosphere - there are dynamics and pressure gradients at space's foam scale.

This sounds suspiciously like previous efforts to get free energy from brownian motion.

I guess the disproven ideas just get promoted to new realms with every generation.

Hardvark, I've had similar experiences with folks. I've laid out a complete line of reasoning and math, to smart folks that can understand it, only to have them in the end, dismiss the conclusion because they don't like it. they accept that it's factually correct and logical, but emotionally, they reject it.

"A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest." - Paul Simon

Archmage said...

I've sent the suscribe mail already, waiting for the first mails to arrive at my account so we can begin to talk about the New Monks.

Dan Treecraft said...

As an addendum to my last comment, here is the link - should anyone care - for the essay at The Oil Drum, whose correct title is: "Can the Wealthy Have a Separate Peace?"


There were some fascinating speculations and some impressively sound perspectives offered by many of the commenting posters. For me, the whole doomsday scenario was framed into a muddier perspective - which actually forced me to reconsider my own obsessive focus on the "right things to do" in anticipation of a global energy denouement. As one poster there observed: "It isn't just a straight game of chess/checkers; dice are involved".

As we enter the era of the "Great Churning", there will be no strategies that guarantee success. LUCK and it's sidekick, Timing will have huge effect. No new ideas from me.

Armando said...

Another instant classic. These essays are the fundaments for a higher level of consciousness.
My hat to JMG. Spread the word.

Mark said...

Awsome post, as usual. Thank You.
You elude to a statment of Schumacher's that,(I hope I get it right), "We treat fossile fuels like income, when infact it is capital". Well, the trust fund is almost gone.

Coy Ote said...

An interesting article and the comments section as well. I am old enough to have utilized most of my potential energy! ;-)

I also become more and more aware of the fact that our limited capacity to solve great long term problems (or to deal with major predicaments) is due in part to the reality that we are only conscious during about 75 rotations of the earth "around" the sun.

So much to solve, so little time...

John Michael Greer said...

Odysseus, thank you!

Weaseldog, exactly. There's some sort of law of conservation of nonsense; in my research into the odd corners of the history of ideas, I've noticed time and again that it's impossible to keep a bad idea down. The hot new cutting edge ideas of the present are usually rehashes of the delusions of an earlier generation.

Archmage, cool. Talk to you there.

Dan, I enjoyed that discussion as well -- The Oil Drum is among the sites I read daily. I particularly liked the way several people kept pointing out that elite groups who tried to sequester themselves in armed compounds would simply have their throats cut by their own security guards, who would be much better prepared for a world in decline than today's privileged classes are.

Armando, thank you!

Mark, exactly. As usual, Schumacher got it right.

Coy Ote, true enough. We just have to deal with what we can.

Jim said...

I have been an avid follower of the Arch Druid for over a year and very much enjoy and largely agree with the viewpoint expressed.

However as an old retired engineer (and having spent the early part of my career in the nuclear industry) I would like to advance some quibbles with two technical statements in the article:

1. The "long chain" carbon molecules in oil are really only better energy sources for transportation and that is because they provide higher energy density PER UNIT VOLUME AT ATMOSPHERIC PRESSURE. Methane is a better fuel both from the standpoint of energy per pound and CO2e emissions.

2. I left the nuclear industry in 1979 largely because I felt that the waste product issue was unresolvable. I think it still is unresolvable and it is irresponsible to leave future generations a legacy of literally millions of tons of hazardous material scattered all over the planet. The bio-system health issues on top of the potential weaponization of this material is a moral issue of the first magnitude.
Yet. On an EROI basis it is probably the best fuel source available today. The construction cost of nuclear plants, like the construction cost (cost in energy, materials, anything) of automobiles ends up being a small fraction of the energy lifetime of a power plant or a car.

I offer the above as helpful suggestions not as criticism. In the large you are exactly right. These are, as I said earlier, quibbles.

npeters said...

I had high hopes that JMG would at last have me understanding entropy but alas I am obviously too much of a girl and an ill-educated one to boot. I so want to understand because I believe all that JMG and the very clever guys at Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin are saying. Anyway, can anyone tell me how this entropy thing relates in terms of the very clever Mr Blees energy solutions proposed in Prescription for the Planet or does he not understand entropy too.

Theo said...

Of course people of White/European racial or ethnic descent are more advanced than other racial/ethnic groups. To deny that fact is to deny the last few centuries of human history. Did it ever occur to any of you that Whites have a right to exploit the energy of oil because they were the ones which first discovered how to utilize it? If Whites/Europeans would have never discovered the energy potential of oil the other groups on Earth may never have done so and the stuff would've forever remained underground, and humankind would never have advanced as far as it has.

Quoting various "cultural anthropologists" like Gould or Boas is a big mistake - most of their bogus non-scientific "cultural" views have all been disproved now because of physical/scientific anthropology which uses actual science like genetics and so on.

JimK said...

Eeek, you may have pushed me over the edge, back to my school books from 30 years ago. There is a kind of analogy between potential energy (boulders up on a hill vs boulders down on the plains) and entropy (thermal reservoirs with a large temperature difference vs. reservoirs at the same temperature) but they are different beasts. One danger of confusing (or merely appearing to confuse) them, is that folks might then feel justified in inferring that much of the rest of what you say is also confused. Anyway, there is a decent analogy between energy and entropy - you can probably defuse the "confused" criticism merely by being more explicit about it being an analogy.

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, thanks for the technical help! I was thinking in terms of unit volumes where petroleum is concerned, yes. As for nukes, well, if they're as good an energy source as they're supposed to be, why does energy produced by them cost so much? Price is a tolerably good surrogate for EROEI, and nuclear power has been failing that test for decades -- it's only economically feasible at all with huge government subsidies.

Npeters, I'm not familiar with Blees -- I'll look him up.

Theo, yes, I figured this week's post would get the racists' knickers in a twist. By your logic, in the year 1000 the "white race" was the most backward race on the planet, and Africa was a beacon of culture and civilization. The fact that people in a few European countries happened to have figured out a way to give themselves temporary (and self-defeating) prosperity at the expense of their own grandchildren, which is what the last 300 years of industrialism are about, does not exactly support any claim for their alleged innate superiority.

Jim, well, of course it's an analogy; you're doubtless right that I should have labeled it as such.

John Bray said...

JMG: "By your logic, in the year 1000 the "white race" was the most backward race on the planet, and Africa was a beacon of culture and civilization."

Whilst not wishing to be seen as defending his comments, where I live nowadays (see here) was ruled back then by what we would nowadays consider to be Africans. And it seems that they were more cultured and civilised than the white folk at the time.

And we are still using the irrigation channels today that were installed by these "inferior" mortals.

Prior to that, the Visigoths ran the show - a fine Aryan example of innate superiority no doubt :o)

Theo: "Whites have a right to exploit the energy of oil ....." So the swarthy types don't have a stockpile of dollars then? Who is doing the exploiting?

Danby said...

Theo is a troll. Do not feed the trolls.

Entropy is simple, although it's not often explained simply. Any time you use energy, that is any time you move an object or substance from a state of high potential energy to a state of low potential energy, some of the energy is lost, usually as heat. Always. The percentage of the theoretical energy that is actually used to do work is referred to as the efficiency. If 40% of the energy is lost, the system is 60% efficient.

Automobiles are typically 35-40% efficient. This means that 60-65% of the energy in the gasoline is lost as heat.

That's it, entropy in a nutshell. Of course, there are implications to entropy that bother some. Like the fact that given enough time, everything in our universe will become undifferentiated lost energy. But we all knew that life ain't nohow permanent, as Pogo said.

JimK said...

The first law of thermodynamics is the conservation of energy. The second ls that entropy is non-decreasing. Most of your examples are really about the first law, also stated sometimes as "There's no free lunch". I think most of the present real stupidity is that folks just don't understand the first law. E.g. the hydrogen economy.

The second law really comes into play when folks want to extract energy from waste heat or some such thing. It's a subtler business. Unfortunately most discussion doesn't touch that kind of subtlety!

Kevin said...

Once you notice, it's pretty mind-boggling how assiduously the talking heads on our propaganda outlets avoid addressing what in fact is happening, and the physical principles involved. The news is all about the allegedly ongoing economic "recovery."

That's an interesting article Dan posted from the Oil Drum. I'm not in the least surprised this is what billionaires are doing, it's what I would have expected. I guess their fad of building personal nuclear submarines has gotten a bit passe. Whether their stratagem of assembling family fortresses will work in the long run I can't say, but I don't think it's very ethical. Seems to me they'd be wiser to invest in sustainable communities where all members share a stake in their common interests. Malthusianism has its limits.

JMG, I can't tell whether my initial post to the cultural conservers group went awry or just hasn't been moderated yet. I ran into some kerfuffle there. I'm afraid it's ostentatiously long, but it would be nice to know whether it's out in the ether somewhere.

I wish you well in your new abode.

Mark said...

JMG, I must say, thank you for the work you're doing. I've only been studying these topics for a year now and as you can imagine it gets a little lonely at first when you can't discuss this with other people. This certainly helped me, just by the imagery you used alone.

I attempted to explain our predicament to my brother the other night and it sent him into fury when i mentioned peak oil and its implications to our society. He told me that I don't know how much oil there is so peak oil is a belief i hold. The conversation turned from non-personal, to highly personal in a matter of seconds. It wasn't a friendly response and I had an interesting time speaking about it. Lest, entropy really don't get no respect!

The current mythology of our society is quite toxic (and intoxicating!). To say the least, I am learning first hand why dissensus matters, and how knowing that helps one immensely!

John Michael Greer said...

John, that was my point. In 1000 AD Africa was prosperous and powerful -- Timbuktu was one of the world's great centers of scholarship -- while Europe was a chaotic mess ruled by primitive warlords. By 3000 AD the same thing may be true again.

Danby, Theo expressed his point of view in a relatively civil fashion. if he goes beyond that -- well, you know the rules here!

Jim, I stand corrected.

Kevin, I'll check into it. The list moderator's a volunteer, and so there are going to be delays.

Mark, it's precisely the way that discussions about peak oil so often leave facts behind and plunge into heated emotions that's one of the most fascinating things about it. This subject touches some very deep and troubled passions in many people nowadays.

Karel said...

I`m sorry, Jim, but if it`s still impossible to close nuclear energy cycle, it seems to me that exact pricing is impossible as well - we simply don`t know, "how much is" final repository, you have to watch and ward this facility for thousands of years to come etc.

Theo, do you think that - by inventing gunpowder earlier than any other race - Chinese acquire right to conquer all the world? By the way, I live in Europe, where present-day people represent in fact the seventh consecutive culture of "white race" inhabiting this territory in last eight thousand years (fourth different neolitical cultures, then Celts, Teutons and finally Slavonians). Please, can you tell me which one of them represents "true white" cultural advancement? ;-)

Here is translation of last JMG post into Czech (with original link) - as a curiosity:

Kevin said...

Thanks. If it seems after a day or so to have vanished, I'll try reposting. Fortunately I saved a backup.

Re your remarks about the hypocrisy of certain bumper stickers: I like to take long walks in the hills above Berkeley, which as you probably is full of eco-greenies. It's also chock full of SUVs. We have a long way to go before walking our talk.

I think the emotional character of the discussion Mark had with his brother, and of many similar discussions, is a dead giveaway. It shows that people aren't thinking rationally, and feel threatened when certain discomfiting facts are brought to their attention. I'd like to be able to say I thought the consequences of this will be positive, but that doesn't seem at all likely.

team10tim said...

Hey hey Mr. The Archdruid sir,

I had an idea and I wanted some feedback on it. I finally started graduate school for economics and I was musing about Adam Smith's invisible hand, not the hand every already knows about, the other hand.

Adam Smith basically said that businesses and individuals pursuing their own economic interests unintentionally create a global good almost as if they were guided by an invisible hand. Paraphrasing, here is the exact quote. That's the right hand, the good hand, the white hand if it can be accepted that something can be white and invisible.

So here is my theory of the invisible black hand: Businesses and politicians pursuing their own political self interests unintentionally create a global bad* almost as if they were guided by an invisible hand.

Thanks in advance,

team10tim said...

* in my original theory I had used the word stupidity instead of the word bad. As I was thinking of a brilliant quote adaption by GreenEngineer at the time. The quote is "Any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice." which is a permutation of Arthur C. Clarke's "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". The problem with the word stupidity is that there is not presently a robust theory of stupidity, which I freely admit sounds stupid. But it is an important distinction as most of the stupid decisions made in the world of politics are made by highly intelligent people. A good example is the trial of Galileo where Galileo's accurate understanding of the movement of celestial bodies was condemned as heresy by a literate and well versed, seasoned and vetted, intelligent and motivated group of qualifiers for logical inconsistency with the established order and conventional wisdom of the time. So, stupidity in the sense that I would like to use it can not be defined as the opposite of intelligence which leaves me without an operable definition of stupidity in spite of the fact that everyone knows what I mean when using the word. I think that this is a linguistic nuance where dumb, stupid, and ignorant are technically accurate antonyms of smart, intelligent or educated they fail to account for well reasoned decisions made on faulty assumptions, lacking a broader vision, or willfully obtuse of important considerations. Foolish and unwise are much more accurate terms except that they fail to capture the deliberation and emotional punch that is required. A foolish, unwise, or ignorant person typically didn't think a situation through because they lack the capacity that wold make them smart, intelligent, or wise. The word I believe that I am looking for means very intelligent and deliberately unwise, sadly I don't know what that word is.

team10tim said...

Continued from previous post due to length limits

Definition of terms with examples:

For a business: Economic interests are those products, innovations or actions that result in a better, cheaper, or otherwise more competitive product whereas a business's political interest shall be defined as any legislative action, policy, or public perception that gives a business a competitive advantage without materially effecting their product line or operating model.

To give an example that TOD (I posted this over at The Oil Drum earlier today) readers will be familiar with: It is in the biofuel producer's economic interest to produce a better (carbon neutral product, carbon negative product, higher EROEI product, more scalable product, or a product that doesn't compete for agricultural lands), cheaper, or more competitive product whereas the biofuel producer's political interests lay in changes to legislation, policy, and public perception such as quotas on ethanol imports from Brazil, subsidies to corn and soy production, blending mandates, and the public perception that biodiesel and ethanol are green alternatives even when they are produced with unsustainable, carbon positive, or negative EROEI methods.

For a politician the definitions are a bit simpler: Political self interest is anything that advances the politician's carrier even at the expense of their constituency whereas the politician's representative interests is anything that promotes the interests of their constituency even at the possible expense of their political carrier.

I don't think an example even needs to be given to explain this but here is the central one: Politicians represent a populous that is broadly in favor of campaign finance reform which the constituency believes would benefit the populous by giving them representatives that are more representative. However, the politicians in charge of enacting campaign finance reform realize that enacting the desired reform would deprive them of their corporate sponsors and hurt their chances of reelection. This results in a situation where the politician's political self interest is in direct conflict with the interests of their constituency.

Karel said...

team10tim, maybe your "stupidity" concept is a little bit similar to that one (in German) - isn`t it?

Fachidiot m(f):
inf person who can think of nothing but his/her subject, philosophy/chemistry etc.

(Context: "Fachidiot" is qualified, experienced etc., but can`t see beyond some - usually narrow - horizon.)

hardhead said...

team10tim -

Please correct me if I'm wrong (as I might very well be), but my sense of your basic argument (achieved or not, as the case may be, after some struggle) is that businesses ought to stay out of politics.


Danby said...

I think the point is that often times, acting in one's competitive best interest is contrary to one's purpose and long-term best interest.

For an example, even though the purpose of, say Pacific Power is to provide low-cost electricity to it's customers and it's in everybody's best interest, including the stockholders, to reduce the use of coal in electricity generation, it's a competitive advantage to PP to fight for laws and regulations that discourage wind power farms and encourage the burning of coal for power generation. They have a $4 billion minehead generation facility they have to pay off.

Another example, the auto makers would have survived much better had they spent less of their capital parlaying exotic financial instruments generated by their credit divisions into obscene profit margins and instead invested in actually engineering cars people would want. The Hummer division of GM has NEVER made a profit, despite the massive investment made. It was all about buzz and hype and never about the long-term interest of the company.

hardhead said...

Danby & team10tim -

Not to be obtuse, but I need to be enlightened as to the differences between one's "competitive" best interest, "long-term" best interest, and purpose. How - and more importantly, why - would those interests and purposes conflict? And in the case that they do conflict, how is one to judge which to pursue?

Just curious ...

Danby said...

I'll try another example.

Let's say you're a lieutenant in the navy. You serve aboard a ship and your country is at war. Your personal ambition is to rise in rank to captain, but there's a limited number of opportunities. You have a rival who has the same aspiration.

Your long-term goal is to survive the war, with your country the victor. Your short-term or competitive goal is to outshine your rival so that you may obtain the next promotion.

To achieve your long-term goal, the best course of action is to serve to the best of your abilities and help your rival in whatever he undertakes, as every sailor doing his best is the most certain way to carry your nation to victory and also to deliver everyone on the ship through the war alive.

To achieve your short-term goal, the best course of action is to do your best at your own duties and to refuse to help your rival, to spread rumors in order to undermine his effectiveness, and to sow insubordination among his subordinates.

If you are like the lieutenant on my son's ship, you sabotage the work of your rival, see to it that (in this instance) the repairs made by his crew are undone, and physically interfere with the accomplishment of the ship's mission.

This is how the long-term interest and the short-term interest of a person can be in conflict. In the case at instance, the fellow wound up not even serving his short-term instance because of the testimony of enlisted men at his court martial, but he was trying to serve those interests, rather than his long-term ones.

Tom Wayburn said...

Hi John,

I am that retired engineer, professor, jazz musician, and all-around trouble maker whose website Dematerialism and Energy you had the goodness to say a few kind words about and a few words that were not so kind. I like this paper very much. It amounts to a primer for the much more technical and much less readable writing that I have done.

Rather than tell you about them, why don't I give you a couple of URLs for papers that develop the ideas you have put forward so clearly? and However, begin with . Now that I have read this paper, I would be a little surprised if you didn't embrace dematerialism once you simply troubled yourself to find out what it is.

Best regards,
Tom Wayburn, Houston, Texas

bigjake said...

'Boulders Rolling Downhill'--a phrase which has stuck with me since last week, John.

And apropos of your 'entropy' theme, I've recently come across an op-ed piece by a 'renewables' enthusiast who advocates, it appears, 'rolling the boulders uphill' by using 'pumped storage' to provide electricity when the wind doesn't blow.

Now, perhaps I'm being foolish, but it seems to me that if you extract X amount of potential energy from the wind, or from tides, etc, and transmit it as eleectricity, you have two separate choices: use that electricity now (ie, feed it into the grid) or convert it back into potential energy by 'pumping water uphill/compressing air/whatever'.

So, it would seem to me that every increment of electricity you use to do the 'work' of 'pumping/compressing/whatever' is then unavailable for immediate grid use.

I am not sure how this equates to a feasible alternative to fossil/nuclear generation. In essence, such a scheme recognizes the intermittency of wind generation, but attempts to rectify the situation by utilizing precisely that electricity that is generated when the wind IS blowing.

This would seem to make wind generation even less efficient: assuming that you dedicate 50% of your average generation to 'pumped storage', your average overall annual generation will then be only 50% of an already low value. Worse, I imagine that the conversion of electricity back to potential energy will not be anywhere near 100% efficient, and that if you expend 1GW of electricity on 'storage', you'll get back a bit less when you use that 'stored potential energy'.

Anyone care to comment? The idea of 'pumped storage' sounds rather like it robs one saint to pay another....

hardhead said...

Danby -

Ah, so what's at issue now appears to be conflicts between long-term and short-term interests or goals, which are clearly in conflict in your naval example. But that still doesn't indicate how or why one would choose goals that so obviously conflict, nor does it indicate how to determine which is to be given higher priority, which is what I'm really trying to find out.

RudolfC said...

bigjake, don't worry about pumped storage. It's just a way of getting around the fact that those pesky customers don't always want the exact amount of electricity you can deliver. The choice isn't between delivering X amount of energy to a customer or to pumped storage; if the customer only wants some smaller amount Y, you either have to throttle back production or store the surplus somewhere. So you make X, deliver Y, and store X-Y. Then, some time later, when you can still generate X but the customer wants some larger amount Z, you can supplement X with the X-Y you saved earlier (less losses, of course - this is a post about entropy, after all!). This has been done profitably for quite some time now where geography has been appropriate to the task.

Gary Paul Gilbert said...

I recommend Avital Ronell's book Stupidity.


The Google search preview is worth checking for a sample.


The French bĂȘtise has more the sense of deliberately intending something dumb.

Gary Paul Gilbert